Cross Creek: A valley of wetlands
September 1, 2012
MINTURN – High in the Cross Creek basin, early in the evening, my husband and I were sitting on a carpet of sub-alpine tundra, looking at the slow-moving waters of a Cross Creek pond, when something caught my eye.
Off to the right, it looked like an elk was coming our way along the creek. But this was no elk. A cow moose, leggy and large, a dark chocolate brown, plunged knee-deep into the pond as if it were placed there just for her.
She strode through the water; we held our breath. My heart was pounding. It was one of those close, but please not too close, encounters with a wild, elusive creature re-establishing its presence in the Colorado Rockies.
Of course, my camera was too far away, and so we just watched her pass by. After a moment, she heard our campstove or smelled the pasta cooking, stopped and deliberately looked our way. Then she took a few graceful steps from the water to the spongy marsh on our side of the creek and vanished into the forest beyond.
No more than a minute had passed. But the exhilaration of seeing her, and the questions her presence raised in our minds, lasted for the rest of our trip.
When we set out on this four-day point-to-point backpack trip in the Holy Cross Wilderness, our goal was to hike four miles into the Missouri Lakes Basin, climb Missouri Pass and walk 14 miles down the Cross Creek valley to the trailhead above Minturn.
We had both done versions of this trip decades ago, but our memories were jumbled and dim. I remembered the vast expanses of ponds and marshes that make Cross Creek so lush and beautiful. I had forgotten the miles of steep, rocky trail that alternate with the wetlands as the valley drops from treeline to the Minturn trailhead. In the quad maps, Cross Creek looked like it should be relatively easy walking, but even going downhill it wasn’t always so.
Into the valley
Our route started over in the Homestake Creek valley, reached via U.S. Highway 24 south of Minturn. We found a friend of a friend to be our shuttle driver. He dropped us at the Missouri Lakes trailhead off the Homestake road, and then drove our car back to the Cross Creek trailhead, where we had left his vehicle.
That afternoon, the hike was a repeat of a trip we did last summer, a three-and-a-half-hour climb into the beautiful Missouri Lakes basin. It was a Saturday, and lots of people were out day hiking and backpacking.
We knew there was plenty of solitude in store for us in the coming days, so we celebrated seeing other people enjoying a prime summer weekend in the Colorado high country.
The next morning we climbed the last 500 vertical feet to the Missouri Pass summit and looked over the edge into the upper Cross Creek Valley. There was lots of high country that we left unexplored, including Blodgett Lake perched high in a neighboring basin south of the pass.
Instead, after enjoying the view from the pass and eating lunch, we set off down the trail. We made a 700-foot descent in less than a mile, first dropping to Treasure Vault Lake and then dropping down into the Cross Creek Valley. On the way, we passed through dense marmot habitat and spent a bit too much time watching one mother marmot sunning with her five pups.
We were surprised to also see remnants of hardrock mining from more than a century ago. Prospectors had come up over the more direct Fancy Pass route in a search for gold and silver. They left behind mine adits, tailings piles, rusting machinery, rotting timbers and fallen-in buildings.
We saw evidence of mining over the next five or so miles. There are old cabins, more holes in the ground and tailings piles. The mineralized tailings are still bare of vegetation more than a century after they were abandoned. They poignantly illustrate Colorado’s early history and remain as a blight on the wilderness landscape.
We camped that second night near one of the old cabins, and that’s where we saw the moose. It took us two more days to walk down the valley, and as we traveled, we spotted occasional moose tracks on the trail and in pond sediments. It appeared she was alone.
Cross Creek descends along the western flank of Holy Cross Ridge and Mount of the Holy Cross. Passing directly below the peak, we couldn’t evensee it. But farther downvalley were a series of viewpoints that offered unfolding views of the peak’s northwest face. The cross itself is on the east side, but even without seeing that feature, Holy Cross is an impressive summit.
I have mentioned the Cross Creek wetlands, and these broad, flat marshes are what makes this valley so unique and so appealing. Even in this year of drought, the marshes were brilliantly green with thick stands of sedges, interspersed with open pools and rivulets, holding vast amounts of clean fresh water.
A couple decades ago, Aurora and Colorado Springs sought to extend their water diversions from Homestake Creek into the Cross Creek Valley, a project that would have dried up these vast wetlands. But faced with resistance from Eagle County, the Colorado River District, Trout Unlimited and others, the Front Range cities gave it up.
Today, Cross Creek’s bounteous wetlands are still filled to the brim, and a cow moose is now prospecting for habitat in the valley.
At one point on the trail, as we passed by the giant Reed’s Meadows wetland, we heaved off our packs and sat down on the grass along the creek. Swimming below us in a languid circuit was a 10-inch cutthroat trout. Storm clouds were gathering, but the air was still and warm, the water was cool and clear, and natural beauty was all around us. It was one of life’s best moments, and I hope to remember it for a long time.