Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Exploratory: Middle Vallecito Creek.

Less than a year ago I got my first taste of Vallecito Creek -- the one that people call the best mile of creeking in Colorado.

I don't have enough experience to verify that claim, but I can unequivocally say that Vallecito is intense, riveting, gratifying paddling.

With that first run out of the way I was able to relax a bit on the second trip a few weeks later, and it was on that day that it occurred to me to wonder what was above the standard put-in.  If one mile was good, wouldn't two be better?

I asked around and got nowhere.  Sure, people had theories based on the character of the existing run, but I couldn't find a single person that had paddled it or even knew of anyone that had.  Once the monsoons shut off and the flows vanished my attention was absorbed by other projects and I sort of forgot about it.

Then this spring I started paddling with Jeff Creamer, whom possesses a rare combination of boundless energy, limitless motivation, months of summer unemployment, and a polymathic understanding of how to translate one-dimensional mapwork into reliable three-dimensional visions.  

Simply put, Jeff had wondered about what lay above years ago, and after significant mapgeeking had already gone to explore it.  Jeff's missions in 2015 were at ~450cfs -- a flow that he now considers medium for this run.  

Last weekend Jeff, Thor Tingey, and I loaded boats and overnight gear into packs and hiked up to see what it looked like at ~700.

Jeff's map and footnotes:

We hiked ~10 miles -- to just above Johnson Creek -- before camping, and then put in there the next morning.  I consider the bridge there ("4th bridge") to be the dividing line between middle and upper.  

Jeff takes over the story from here, with my stills and video from our June '17 trip interspersed.

Middle Vallecito Creek
High Water: 700+ CFS @ Gauge
Medium Water: 450 CFS @ Gauge
Low Water/Min flow: unknown

Shortly after picking up packrafting and moving to Durango in 2013, there was a trip that I started dreaming about completing someday: link a section of the Upper Animas with a stellar alpine crossing of the Grenadier and Needle Mountains and ultimately a descent of Vallecito Creek. Obviously the keystone was the unknown (to me) conditions in Vallecito Creek above the classic class V gorge. This had to be checked out in isolation before expanding the mission, of course. In June 2015 I scouted and paddled this ~15 mile creek section beginning at Sunlight Creek over two separate day missions, and in the two years since it's become increasingly apparent that within the context of the Four Corners region, this is a gem of a backcountry run on its own.

On my initial descent(s), it became clear to me that wood problems were the exception not the rule. Only one section had wood in the upper half, and this 1/4 mi long steep rapid would probably have been a mandatory portage with medium-high flows anyway. Lower down in some of the gorge sections, there are a few logs which are dodgeable at medium flow but too dodgy at high water. Overall, very clean, fun, varied and scenic. As the upper open valley transitions into a tighter, more gorgey valley, the river transitions from cutbanks and discrete large boulder gardens into occasional scraps of bedrock channel and walls on one or both sides of the creek. These bedrock rapids, which began in earnest just below the site of the missing 3rd bridge (and mandatory ferry on the hike up at high water), punctuate an otherwise consistent gradient of about 140 ft/mi. The drops were the absolute highlight of the run at medium water but the majority of them ended up being too much for Mike, Thor and I on our June 2017 high water descent.

In the vicinity of the 2nd bridge, just below the first box canyon (termed Foot-in-Mouth Gorge as a result of my shoe-saving strategy during a long swim), there are at least three significant bedrock drops of 3 to 6 feet that can develop significant holes. The clear gem of the run arrives about a half-mile below the 2nd bridge: a deep box canyon that narrows to 10 feet wide and holds about seven discrete boulder and bedrock drops separated by moving pools, the longest being the 600 foot long IV/V entrance (much of which you can portage). The tragedy is a riverwide sweeper that has so far survived flows over 2000 CFS and is a dangerous limbo duck even at medium flow. I won the limbo lottery once but will avoid this in the future. Below this box (20 minute portage), at high flow the gradient rarely eases for over a mile of continuous III/IV at high water until the 1st bridge is reached. This bridge contains a class IV/V low angle 8 foot drop featuring potent helical rotation within bedrock narrowed to perhaps 5 ft width. The creek below here is more channelized and can contain many fun features at low and medium water but devolves into madness at high flow. Choose your exit carefully, but most of these features have good pools or eddies above them.

If the headwaters of this run contain a boatable amount of water, the classic class V gorge will be above even pro-level flows so the run exits with a 1 to 1.5 mile hike to the trailhead.

There remains one un-paddled (to my knowledge) boulder garden high up just below Roell Creek. It might go as a committing IV+ at minimum flow, but it quickly inflates into a V+ monster that dumps into an extended class V runout if the rest of the upper section has a good amount of water. The only trick remaining is to link together good Upper A and Upper V flows with passable conditions above treeline along the intervening divide. It looks difficult in the best of times but I hope to complete it one of these years!

Above, route architect Jeff Creamer hiking the last ~mile out after a successful exploratory mission.

Finally, some moving pixels to fill in the gaps that the above stills and words cannot.

If there are details that I've omitted please ask in the comments below and I'll amend the above text to include those answers.


  1. great post and video, thanks mike!

  2. Solid! We've been talking about this for years and I haven't managed to find the time between work, family and other paddling adventures. What a gem in our backyard.

  3. Thanks Mike for this amazing report. We have added an link to our blog.