Sunday, May 27, 2007

Elbow Valley Madness - May 12, 2007

Ok, maybe not *madness*, but this was our last weekend before the infamous gates at Elbow Falls were opened, and the last week we'd be restricted to the trails nearby. We knew we wouldn't be completing Powderface, but we thought we'd hike until at least the junction of Powderface and the Prairie Creek link. Turned out we couldn't of hiked it even if we'd wanted to -- a co-worker was cycling the area the same day and said the upper parts of the trail were still ice covered. So much for that!

(That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it)

The trailhead itself is located at a simple cul-de-sac just off Highway 66 just west of the Elbow Falls Recreation Area turnoff. And as I've found out since, this shot might be the only time you see the cul-de-sac empty. We didn't see many others on this trail this day, which was surprising, considering it was one of the first geniunely nice days of Spring (and we actually needed sunscreen!), and it was relatively free of snow and mud early on. But I'm never going to complain about having a trail to myself!

Very soon after the start of the trail we encountered our first semi-soggy crossing. Here's where the snow actually worked for us, though I'm not sure I'd recommend standing too close to the edge of that snow ledge if the weather stays warm. A few stabs of N's walking sticks confirmed it was stable enough to hold us for our leap across the creek. Getting back over was a little more complicated. A couple more of those ice crystals were gathering near the bottom of the photo - nothing like the ones we saw at Barrier Lake Dam.

The trail follows along this creek for some time (hence the name Powderface Creek Trail, I suppose), which was more pleasant than I would have expected -- usually I don't even notice the creek. The trail itself didn't have a ton of notable qualities or views for the first little while, but was a great trail for a good pace to cover lots of distance quickly. Half an hour or so in, the views became a little more intriguing and the trail turned away from the creek.

The trail inclined just enough to give us a view of the beginning of the actual Powderface Ridge... something we'd leave for another day. Most of the early part of the trail to the Prairie Link junction is similar to this: a mostly straight path through meadows and dry brush. There is not a lot of shade, so if you're going on a warm day, be prepared.

I often find it amusing that after walking for a while with no sign of civilization, out of nowhere pops a full trail map on a post. If you've come this far, shouldn't you have *some* idea of where you're going? This is the junction -- continuing forward takes you further along Powderface Creek which eventually turns into Powderface Ridge. Turning right, or east, is the Prairie Link trail. This trail links up with the Prairie Creek trail (not to be confused with Prairie Mountain trail -- a mix up I've made a few times -- see below).

With a time constraint on this particular day, we'd previously made the decision to turn around at the link.

As is often the case on return trails, we wound up seeing many things on the way back that we'd completely missed on the way out. The thickness of the ice along the creek was one of those things. It just seems amazing the ice could be this thick, and in the sun for most of the day. The water underneath was running fast and there were holes in the ice where the sun had melting through, but for the most part, the i e was thick enough to see several layers where it had frozen over.

We'd made it back to the trailhead a lot faster than we'd thought, so on the way back to the car we decided to pop into the Prairie Creek trail for the first 15 minutes or so. I had this trail mixed up with Prairie Mountain -- an unmaintained trail marked as "Very Strenuous" on my map. Nothing could be further from the truth. This trail also starts out as a pleasant hike before moving uphill for some great views one could never see from the road. Prairie Mountain on the other hand just goes up from the start and never lets up.

It's easy to miss the trailhead for Prairie Creek. It's just beyond the Elbow Falls turnoff/gates, and has no parking area or road signs. Best bet is to park at Elbow Falls or the Beaver Flats lot. Prairie Creek is on the opposite side of the road, right beside a culvert. If you walk along the path on the north side of Highway 66 from either parking area, you'll easily come upon the trailhead. This appears to be a popular hike and it's very rare when passing by that I haven't seen at least one person at the trailhead either starting out or finishing.

The 15 minutes we did of Prairie Creek were very cool. It's a great hike. It's initially flat, and winds through a mossy forest. The creek is alongside the path for some time. The creek actually runs between two rockfaces, so there is a real canyon feel about the trail for the first little while. The rockface on the other side of the creek is large and obvious for most of this early part of the hike, but the rockfaces on the side of the trail seem to come out of nowhere. This particular rockface was around a corner of the path and surprised us a little, being so close to the path. With the closeness of the rock, and the dampness of the area, sound was just a little bit muted -- making this part of the trail seem a little isolated and very unique. The remainder of this trail is much different, so we enjoyed it while it lasted.

Soon after passing the rockface that jutted out, there was a bridge crossing the river, followed by the end of our forest walk. The path turned dustier and rockier and veered uphill. We wandered up for the view, but knew time did not allow this hike on this day. Little did I know I'd be back in less than a week, and finding out where this very cool trail led...

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