Shaking off the shiver in warm Gateway

Named after a Native American legend, the various types of Indian Paintbrush are some of the earliest blooming flowers of the desert Southwest. Their colors ranges from dark red to nearly white. This year desert wildflowers are expected to be abundant.

Spring finally has arrived in southwest Colorado. At least for this week.

It’s been a torturous April for the outdoors lover. A few days, and sometimes only hours, of mild weather tease the senses only to be replaced by clouds, cold winds and the rain/snow mix so vexing to high-desert travelers in spring.

It’s a wonder there’s not an annual festival devoted to the invention of Gore-Tex and other breathable, waterproof fabrics.

A search for spring ended last weekend in the dry mesas and slickrock canyons around Gateway, where it’s usually spring a couple of weeks earlier than Grand Junction.

But not this year.

The fruit trees are blooming but there’s no sign yet of lilacs, the true precursor of spring. A few wildflowers were seen, but nothing like the rainbow of hues already sprouting across the flats and rocky ledges of lower deserts in Nevada and Utah.

A report from a week ago on the wildflower Web site reported the flowers were out in force in the Las Vegas Valley and around Mesquite, both of which may be three weeks or a month ahead of western Colorado.

This year, though, the higher deserts are lagging as winter refuses to relax its grip.

“It’s been a bit cold at times but today’s lovely,” said the waitress at Gateway Canyons Resort, looking wistfully at the sun streaking across the far cliffs. “I can’t wait to get out.”
Getting out was the idea, and there’s a lot of getting out available where the Dolores River slips its way through western Colorado and across the border into Utah.

“We have a lot of great places to ride, although some of them you can’t get to yet,” said Luke Reece at the Gateway Canyons Adventure Center, part of the world-class Gateway Canyons Resort.

He pointed at the map spread out across the table and specifically to the sinuous curves of the road heading out of the West Creek drainage and up toward the Uncompahgre Plateau and its many abandoned mines. He rattled off a list of names for the same stretch of narrow road.

“This is known as 6.3 Road, Casto Gulch Road, SOB Trail, Sandy Bottom Road and others,” he said with a grin. He put his finger on the map where the road snaked around the edge of the mountain. “But it’s blocked by snow right here, otherwise you could go just
about anywhere up high.

“We had to carry our bikes through the snow to go for a ride.”

There’s enough snow left up high, he noted, to push West Creek into some early runoff conditions, and a look at the creek revealed it high and a little discolored.

Reece is an accomplished outdoorsman and last week he and fellow guide Nick Kroger took Ann Driggers, who writes “The Outdoor Junkie” blog on, on a climb of the 2,000 foot-high Palisade, a monolith of Wingate sandstone towering over the Gateway area.

He added that the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Association and Volunteers for Colorado were hosting a trail-building day on May 1 to forge a mountain bike link between Gateway Canyons and the road in John Brown Canyon.

“It will go around the private land and open a lot more biking,” he said.

My trip wasn’t quite as ambitious. A little two-track mountain biking, some rock-hounding for some of the curious rocks and minerals found in nearly every draw and perhaps some early-season birding for rarely seen migrants passing through on their way farther north.

Reece directed us to several possible routes, including the steep climb up John Brown Canyon and the spider web of ranching and mining roads, the latter dating from the uranium boom of the 1950s. If you take all the right turns, which on some cases is a left turn, you might reach the overlook on Dolores Point and the breath-taking view of the river canyon, the Palisade and the south side of Glade Park and the Uncompahgre Plateau.

We opted for the easier up-and-down ride along 4.1 Road and the Dolores River toward Utah. During the four hours or so of riding, we noted a few early spring flowers, including Indian paintbrush, golden rabbitbrush and the first of the expected wave of the creamy-white and perfumy cliffrose, a desert rat’s true harbinger of spring.

Birds, too, were in rare supply, although we did notice some curious interplay as two very vocal ravens were busy evidently protecting their nest from the attention of a golden eagle.

While riparian areas are noted for being bird magnets during the spring migration, you’ll also find in the ponderosa pine forests around Gateway some of those species that nest either at higher elevations or at more-northerly latitudes.

A quick look last spring (although about two weeks later) turned up, among other species, a Black-throated Gray Warbler and a Grace’s Warbler, the latter fresh from its winter in Nicaragua.

This year, however, it’s little premature to find the warblers and wrens and other species still making their way north.

We headed back to Grand Junction in the fading light and noticed the bright green of fresh leaves emerging from the willows and cottonwoods along the Dolores, as if in immediate response to the bright sun and warm temperatures.

The high desert is catching its breath, lying in wait for summer, with spring but a brief moment between seasons.

“April’s rare capricious loveliness,” wrote poet Julia Dorr more than 100 years ago.

It hasn’t changed.


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