Mellow Mountain Trails, by Suzanne Ward and Nathan Ward

Review by Ed Quillen

Local Guides – July 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

Mellow Mountain Trails – 27 Fun Day Hikes in Salida & Buena Vista
by Suzanne Ward and Nathan Ward
Published in 2008 by Ice Mountain Publishing
ISBN 978-0-9748814-3-0

MY FEELINGS about guidebooks are mixed. On one hand, I’ve used them myself. On the other, there’s a personal joy of discovery that comes from venturing without thinking about how the book said this was a two-hour hike, and here you are well past that, and you haven’t checked off the waterfall that you were supposed to see.

And there’s another problem. I opened this and there was “Castle Gardens,” which sits “just east of Salida,” complete with parking instructions and advice that “It will be hot in the summer, so go in early morning. In spring and summer, watch for flash floods if there is heavy rain in the area. In winter, this is a good, easy hike when there is little snow.”

For years, I have studiously avoided ever mentioning Castle Gardens in anything I write for publication. When I ambled up there with an out-of-town writer friend on a mutual dog-walk last summer, I told him I’d have to kill him if he ever mentioned the place.

And now this. Publicity is the best way to ruin a place. Suzanne Ward, one of the authors, lives around the corner from me, and I felt like running over to her house and shouting “Suzanne, how could you? What were you thinking? How dare you make people aware of Castle Gulch?” I thought I might enlist some help from the publisher of the local newspaper, since his favorite Pass Creek area was also in the book.

But if a guidebook studiously ignored everyone’s favorite spots, it wouldn’t be much of a guidebook, and they do some good as well as harm. This one provides clear explanations of local hazards, ranging from thunderstorms to rattlers, and it covers matters that aren’t always clear, like trail etiquette: “Here is how it is supposed to work: hikers give way to horses, mountain bikers give way to both hikers and horses. In reality, this doesn’t work because bikes move a lot faster than hikers. Please use your common sense and if bikes are moving fast, just step uphill and let them pass…. However, always move off the trail for horses because they can be skittish…”

Good advice, but I wish more mountain bikers would extend the courtesy of letting you know they’re coming. Just about every time Martha and I have been walking downhill on the Starvation Creek Trail (a route listed in this book), mountain bikers came coasting by without warning. The trail is about a foot wide, and they seem to think they’ll get medals for getting around you without giving you a chance to step off the trail. This is dangerous for all parties involved, but this is turning into a rant instead of a book review.

Anyway, the authors are sensible and do not recommend that we pedestrians carry quarterstave for enforcing trail etiquette.

Mellow Mountain Trails focuses on fairly well-known routes, and thus it encourages people to get more use out of good walks like the Salida Trail, Agnes Vaille Falls, and the Barbara Whipple Trail. I’ve walked most of the routes in this book, and the descriptions are accurate (although those “easy” routes do seem to get a little harder every year).

The book lists trails from Poncha Pass to Twin Lakes, from Monarch and Marshall passes on the west to suggestions for Bighorn Sheep Canyon on the east. Each of the 27 listed trails has a brief listing, covering such matters as parking, facilities, and dog suitability, followed by a description with a dose of history and some things to look for. There’s also a hike mileage log, which is good for knowing which fork to take. However, there aren’t mileposts along these trails, pedometers aren’t all that accurate, and few of us hike with odometers. On the other hand, every trail has a decent and useful map.

As for nits to pick, I found a couple. Of Interlaken, it says the resort “was established in 1879 … for tourists who rode the train to Twin Lakes, then took a stage to the resort.” For one thing, the railroad didn’t arrive in the area until 1880, and no railroad ever served Twin Lakes; the closest station was Hayden along the Arkansas River. And then there is this: “drive just over the summit of Poncha Pass and explore northern end of the stunning Sangre de Cristo Valley.” I suspect they meant “San Luis Valley.”

Quibbles aside, this is a good guide to pleasant local walks that are generally near to Salida or Buena Vista, and not extremely demanding of time or energy. Just about everything you need to know is covered, and even if you’ve hiked around here as long as I have, you’ll find something new.