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Curecanti National Recreation Area and Blue Mesa Lake On Rattlesnake Mesa - Colorado

by John Peyton

On my vacation to Colorado, I camped one night in the Curecanti National Recreation Area (a long-winded name). Its the upper end of Black Canyon (Gunnison National Monument) which has been dammed to form Blue Mesa Lake. I arrived there in the evening and decided to go for a walk along the lake after setting up the tent.

That section of the lake is called Cebolla Basin, which has a kind of spur going off it called the "Bay of Chickens". No, I'm not making it up, it's on the map. On the shore of the upper end of the bay, and extending partway up the mountain, is a large group of naturally occurring standing stones. Apparently the softer material eroded away from around them but I don't know how they formed there in the first place.

The mesa that I camped at was at the base of an irresistible attraction, Rattlesnake Mesa. I had to get to the top of it. Just before dawn the next morning I got up and started the climb. The slope was never steeper than forty-five degrees so it wasn't all that hard - it just took a while. And since the elevation was around 8000 feet above sea level I needed to take frequent oxygen breaks. I'm accustomed to the thick, cut-it-with-a-knife, southern atmosphere. Eventually I reached the top. The last ten to twenty feet of the mesa was formed of vertical rocks. But they were broken up enough to easily climb though. The sun had been up for an hour and the view was incredible at the top. I could see the mesas and mountains for miles up and down the lake, and part of the San Juan Mountains rose in the south, some 50 miles away, with quite a lot of snow on them. It wasn't exactly the top, as the ground rose to the north. So naturally, I headed in that direction. From the road, the ground near the top looked like a smooth, inviting lawn.

In fact, and without exception, it was full of rocks sticking up from the ground with sparse vegetation. And in most places the ground was covered with scrub sage. All the sage bushes in south and west Colorado are identical - like snowflakes, ranging from knee-high to waist-high. That, along with the rocks, makes for rough walking. All along I was keeping a casual eye out for snakes, just as I would while walking anywhere in the country. But as I was walking further up the mountain, I realized that it was getting warm and the sun nearly at midmorning. It also dawned on me that the sagebrush I was walking through had gotten pretty tall and thick, with a lot of grass growing up between. I don't have a particular fear of snakes, but I have an aversion to close company with them. And especially getting bitten by them when I'm as least an hour's walk From the nearest human. Well, situations like that are more effective than a whole pot-full of coffee. I started taking great care in where I stepped and tried to head toward a place where ground cover wasn't as thick. My lower legs itched and I was wishing I had some knee-high leather boots. I got out of it ok, but it seemed to take forever. I made a mental note to "not do this again."

Later on, I came to an old jeep road which led down into the canyon where I was camped. I didn't see a single snake but there were plenty other sorts of wildlife. Lots of ground squirrels and signs of deer. I don't know where the deer go during the day though, there are hardly any trees in the area. And grasshoppers. A whole world of 'em. The kind that make a loud noise when they fly, their wings rubbing together. Speaking of deer, I found the skeleton of one on the mesatop. It had been there for some time. I now know exactly what is meant by "bleached bones". They were absolutely white - the ones that weren't missing. Coyotes, I expect. I heard a pack of them howling the night before. It was actually a comforting sound. When I lived out in the country in Mississippi, I often heard them at night. They hadn't become common in the area until about 1980, but I soon became accustomed to hearing them at night, and occasionally seeing one during the day.

Anyway, by the time I got back to camp it was nearly noon, and I was no worse for wear except for some blisters. It seemed like I had been gone only half as long. Well worth it though. That morning was one of the truly high points of the trip. Another such time has to be when I drove to the top of Mt. Evans, about 40 miles or so west of Denver. There is no charge to drive to the top (about 14,000 feet), and there is no gift shop there, though it looked like that was being corrected. It doesn't seem to get very much traffic, though. It was great. There is a small lake in a basin formed by the very peaks of the mountain and there was some snow still about. I got to run around in it and throw some snowballs. Not something you often get to do in August. I got there in the morning while the sky was still clear. I'll bet I could see for 100 miles in some directions. The sky was a bright, deep blue, which made a perfect contrast to the snow-covered peaks. Too bad I wasn't using color film at the time. I got some good pictures though, maybe will have them here soon.

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