Round Trip Distance: 5.5 miles
Elevation: 4840-6775 feet
Cellphone: 3-5 bars
Usage: Hiking -Dogs - No bikes - No OHV
Time: 2 hrs. 20 min.
Trailhead: Mt. Garfield
View Mt Garfield Alt in a larger map
This is my favorite route to take on Mt. Garfield. It is by far the best route to take in the winter when snow and ice makes one particular section of the standard route extremely hazardous. There are fewer people that know about this route. It is slightly longer and involves a little more climbing because there are a couple of ridges that you have to descend and then climb again. I usually see more wildlife on this route. In the past I have seen wild horses, rattlesnakes, whip snakes, bull snakes, deer, great horned owl, grouse, rabbits, pinyon jays and eagles.
I began by heading east along the interstate to the Lemon Squeeze trail. That ended the easy part of the hike. Now the strenuous part begins. Sometimes hiking up Mt. Garfield is like spending 2 hours at the gym on the stair climber. It's funny though, when I used to hike this everyday it got to where it didn't really seem like exercise.
The trail is pretty easy to follow even though there aren't any trail markers. A few spots have a lot of scree and are torn up a bit where other hikers have been boot skiing down the trail.
One of my favorite sections of this part of the trail is where the trail traverses around the big clay hill to the ridge that connects the mid and upper sections of the face of the mountain. The trail isn't as steep here so I usually get rested up pretty good. By the time the trail starts climbing again my legs are usually feeling a lot better. The north slope of the hill holds the snow for a long time in the winter. When it all starts melting the clay clings to your shoes and adds a few unwelcomed pounds. It can be a challenge to stay on the narrow trail.
After hiking around the hill and up the ridge I continued non-stop up to the notch where the trail meets the upper cliff. From this point I turned to my left towards Mt. Garfield and scrambled up the remaining cliff. I almost stepped in the middle of a rattlesnake in this area on a previous hike but I caught myself and it slithered away like a scared little baby. At this point I was on about the same level as the Gearhart mine.
As I walked across the face of the cliff I once again noticed this solemn monument, carved into the sandstone, of a long ago broken heart. I always meant to ask my wifes grandpa if he knew the story behind the tragic event. He used to work in the mine when it was open in the winter months. I always supposed her 'Darling' was one of the miners but maybe not.
The trail meets up with the old mine road at this point. I headed right, to the north, and followed the road as it cut through the cliff. The best way to go from here is to take a faint trail that leaves the road on the left side. I've seen a rattlesnake at this point on a previous hike. If you keep going down the road there are other places you can cut over towards Mt. Garfield but they require a lot more work to get you there.
After getting off the road on this little side trail the route finding gets a little difficult. The idea is to make your way up to the ridge above the mine. I always stick to the rocks through here so the trail never becomes very distinct. There is a visible trail a little further down the hill but this way is much easier. Once you get past this point the trail follows the ridge.
I continued hiking along the ridge above the mine. I could see Mt. Garfield off in the distance. The trail meets up with the road again right above the mine. I crossed the road and took a little side trail rather than continuing to follow the road. You can go that way but you end up following it down the hill and right back up again. This little trail avoids all of that. The trail gets real faint in spots but the object is to cut across along the ridge and meet up with the road again.
Once I got back on the road I followed it up the ridge almost to the end. I made a little short cut that off to the right. Every time I put up a cairn to mark the trail someone destroys it. I'm thinking of putting up cairns along the whole route. Maybe if there are a lot of them people will leave them alone. If you end up where the road ends at the edge of the cliff it isn't any big deal. Just follow the cliff to the right as it descends to a notch that will take you down to the saddle between the ridges.
Here is a picture of a Midget Faded Rattlesnake that I have seen in this area several times. I found it in this exact same spot on 2 different hikes. These snakes reproduce every two or more years. Their gestation period is from 395-425 days. After a litter the female will often remain within 20 feet or so of the den for at least several weeks. This one hung out here for a good 4 weeks. Right where its head is is where I normally put my foot. Usually when I see one of these the little ones hurry off to hide under a rock or in a bush. The bigger ones usually coil up and begin rattling. This snake didn't bother rattling. It just laid there in the way so I went around behind it. All of the older snakes that I have seen turn this tan color and seem to lose all of their markings. I've never had one of these strike at me but I hear their venom is the most toxic of the Western Rattlesnake clade.
Note: I've been around rattlesnakes my entire life and have never been bitten. They usually give plenty of warning before you get too close. I think they must feel the ground vibrating. My suggestion is to take a camera and when you hike try to find a rattlesnake to take a picture of. That always seems to be the hardest time to spot one. If you do see a snake take lots of pictures. Rattlesnakes can strike at most about half the length of their body so if it is a 3 foot long snake it has a strike radius of about 18 inches. Most of the rattlesnakes I see around Grand Junction are less than 24 inches long and they are extremely timid. I see rattlesnakes warming themselves on rocks in the cooler parts of the day and in the shade of bushes when it's hotter out. These snakes have a long hibernation which is why I thought they tended not to get very big.
Once I hiked past the snake and down to the notch that cuts through the ridge I continued up the other side. The more obvious trail at the bottom of the notch takes you down the hill to the standard route. If you want to cut your hike short you can take that route. The trail on the other side of the notch traverses below the cliff and just out of view of the trail below. It goes through a little hidden area that is pretty neat. In less than 100 yards the trail climbs back up on top of the ridge and follows this new higher ridge to the next canyon.
When I reached the spot where the trail heads down into the canyon I could see across to the other side where the trail climbs up to the gap that provides easy access to the back side of Mt. Garfield. I followed the trail as it descended a couple hundred feet lower in elevation. At the bottom I head up toward the saddle where the standard route trail passes. Before reaching the standard route I took a fork in the trail off to the right that seems to disappear behind a large rock. Once around the rock I headed up the slope at about a 45 degree angle to the notch in the cliff. The trail is pretty easy to follow on this slope.
Right before the notch is a spot where I have seen small rattlesnakes in the past. There is also a tree that the trail passes under where I saw a horned owl perched on a previous hike. I was amazed at how big the owl was.
The trail gets hard to follow for most of the rest of the way. The easiest way up the back side is to hike up the crest of the ridge. I was able to easily stay on the trail but I am the one that made the trail through this section so I had all the advantage.
At the top of the ridge I picked my way along the trail to the flagpole at the summit. It's not to hard to find the flagpole from the back side of the mountain. All you have to do is head southwest toward the cliff. When you get almost to the edge you can usually see the flagpole sticking up above the trees.
I have also seen rattlesnakes through this area. I know it sounds like I have seen a lot of rattlesnakes up here but considering that I have hiked this trail many hundreds of times the frequency with which I see them isn't all that great. Besides, they are only out about 7 months each year.
After making a loop around the flagpole I headed back down the back side of the mountain the same way I came. When I was back down in the bottom of the first canyon I changed course and cut up to the standard route at the top of the saddle. I had spotted a herd of wild horses when I was hiking on the way up. They were in the hidden field below the second saddle.
When I got down to the field the horses were still there grazing. Earlier when I had hiked up the Lemon Squeeze trail and was cutting over towards the mine I saw some very fresh horse tracks and dung. I was pretty sure that I would be sending some horses somewhere. Horses and deer have such a musky odor that a lot of times I will smell the horses or deer before I ever see them.
There were 3 mares and a stud colt in the herd along with the stallion. When I was within about 50 feet the stallion started walking towards me as if to warn me away. I've had them follow me before and even threaten to charge. Eventually the stallion will chase the stud colt away from the herd. That might be when the colt is mature enough to mate. If it can it will cut off a mare and take with it. If not it will eventually find a mare that it can cut off from a herd. I have seen two herds pass close by each other and both stallions cut off mares from each others herds which totally changed the makeup of the herd.
After taking pictures of the horses I headed on down the trail. I didn't want to continue down the standard route so I took a trail that cuts over to the Gearhart mine. From there I walked the road behind the mine and connected back up with the Lemon Squeeze trail.
From the top of the Lemon Squeeze trail all I had to do was let gravity do most of the work and try not to crash and burn. It didn't take long to get back to the parking lot. I jogged most of the way down the mountain. I always like doing this hike just for the exercise but today was a bonus because I was able to see some wildlife. From now until winter is the best time to see the horses. Come winter they will spend most of their time in the bottom areas behind Cameo. The deer will start moving in any time now. Once hunting season starts the deer come in around Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Garfield. The snakes will start hibernating any time now and won't be out again until around next May. Rabbits and coyotes are easier to spot in the winter on the trail I took today.
I only went through 20 ounces of water and 20 ounces of Gatorade. If you would like to try a different route on Mt. Garfield and maybe see some wildlife along the way then you are going to have to 'Take a hike'.