Monday, December 26, 2016

Rock Creek in Canyons of the Ancients

I’d somehow gotten the impression that there was nothing to see in Rock Creek and East Rock Creek trails (in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Colorado). Maybe because adjacent Sand Canyon is dramatic/ exciting with numerous Ancestral Puebloan sites. So I’d never bothered.
Until this unseasonably warm day in December.
The trail begins by heading west over to the canyon mouth filled with cottonwood trees. Lovely trees! Two are perfectly spaced for a hammock. Doesn’t matter that I don’t have my hammock along or that camping isn’t allowed here. My brain is wired to constantly seeks tree-homes. Unfortunately, the trail doesn’t go down for a closer look, but it doesn’t matter I’ve already got that relaxed feeling of safety in knowing the trees are there.
Sandstone walls rise steeply. A long view up the canyon beckons.
Continuing on, there are patches of snow. Some of the snow is round and not really snow but this other thing called graupel. Graupel is ice surrounding a snowflake. I had no idea this type of precipitation even existed until one of the rangers pointed it out the other week. Now I see it everywhere.
Graupel in a strange formation
Near some graupel is a dead mourning cloak butterfly. Mourning cloaks usually emerge from hibernation in late winter, at least they do in Maryland and Georgia where my hiking buddies and I eagerly anticipated the first sighting signaling the change of seasons. Not sure what is normal around here, mourning cloak-wise. Did this one came out early on a warm day and then got caught in the storm?  Like Bumpus’ house sparrows?
What happend to the mourning cloak?
A bit up the canyon, the junipers are larger, with twisting thick trunks. A few well-spaced trees too. The canyon walls look stunning up ahead but instead the trail crosses the wash and circles back rather abruptly. In this part of the Canyons of the Ancients, you gotta stick to the trail. So out come the binoculars and I sit and see what there is to see by staying still.

Do you carry binoculars? If you don’t and are still trapped in the lightweight mentality like I was for so many years, I’m sorry. Maybe give it a try and you’ll see.
Scanning the landscape with binoculars and reading the guide to the area.
The tunnel vision provided by binoculars helps block out unimportant things (like mental chatter.) I focus in on rocks, bushes, cliff-faces and more rocks. No apparent petroglyphs or Ancestral Puebloan rock walls visible here. Wrong exposure? Wrong geological formations? Too far from water?

But there is a rock that looks like a goat! A goat-rock! I haven’t seen a goat-rock since I left Montana. I watch for a while. It doesn’t move. I scan around with my binoculars, then focus back on the goat-rock, just to check. Still not moving.

I learned about goat-rocks while doing mountain goat surveys in Glacier National Park for their citizen science program. Goat-rocks are rocks that look like mountain goats but don’t move and can’t be counted in your survey (because they aren’t really goats.)  But sometimes you can stare at them for a long time and they suddenly start moving around and you realize they are really rock-goats, which are real mountain goats that look like rocks. You get to count those on your survey form which is nice because it’s fun to count things.
An arch near the mouth of the canyon.
Out here in the Four Corners area, there are apparently desert bighorn sheep to be spotted but I haven't seen any and don't know where to look yet and don't think there are any around in this area. For now, at least the rocks provide something to look at.

Continuing down-canyon, scanning the cliffs with binoculars finally reveals a few Ancestral Puebloan sites tucked away. This week, I’ve been reading articles and a book about the Sand Canyon Archeological project. The section on "macrobotanical remains" details the plants and trees used at each site-- so you can find out what what tree species were used as roof timbers (tree-home links being of utmost interst!). The more I learn about the archeological methods that give insights about the everyday lives of these people and how they interacted with people from the other areas around here, the more questions arise and the more I wonder.
Scanning each layer of rock
Maybe feeling at home in a new place is about with having enough questions rattling around in one’s brain about an area to keep it engaging. Guess that process takes time and focused study. And keeping one's eyes open. This hike feels like a step in the right direction.

Trail Information
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument


  1. I hiked a great loop from Sand Canyon over to Rock Creek and out over Thanksgiving. Really enjoyed it.

    1. That's a great route! Really nice how interconnected the trail system is out there.

  2. Graupel! I got hammered by it last September in the Three Sisters Wilderness, but after a while they got bored and did something else and then it was over. My last trip of the year.

    I first saw this stuff on my way to or from junior high school one day - so long ago that no one even says junior high school any more, but it was fascinating. Little tiny soft balls falling out of the sky like a rain of styrofoam pellets.

    Yeah - I'm easily amused. Good on ya for being able to get out into the country.

    1. How could I have missed the existance of graupel for all these years?!? I'd been hoping it was a new thing. Maybe just arose due to climate change. You just dashed my hope for this hypothesis to be true. Can't believe I was so oblivious that I missed it.

      Also, why no songs about graupel? Or ugly holiday sweaters embrodered with grapuel?

      Hopefully I'll make it back to the Three Sisters sometime and see if I can't find it there, maybe coax it out of hiding.