Ashdown Gorge via the Rattlesnake Trail
I have been SO excited to share this with you all. I go on a lot of amazing hikes and have been to a lot of amazing places, but this hike was absolutely, mind-blowingly spectacular. It most definitely makes my top 10. There was quite a buildup to this hike: Tom had been talking about it for over a year and a half. In fact, I’m nearly certain this was a topic in one of our first conversations. And as I found out, this place deserved every word of praise. Unfortunately however, Tom wasn’t sure he could do the hike with me before it got too cold so he sent me off with our friend Terry.
There are multiple access points into the Ashdown Gorge Wilderness Area of Dixie National Forest but it was decided that we would use a shuttle system starting at the Rattlesnake Trailhead and do a one way hike in order to see as much as possible. The Rattlesnake Trail starts at about 10,500 feet at the boundary line of Cedar Breaks National Monument in spruce and fir forest; shortly after leaving there are a couple of short spurs that lead to overlooks on Cedar Breaks itself. Quickly however you begin descending through aspens, meadows, and more spruce, breaking out into a meadow so large that you get unobstructed 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains and exposed red sandstone formations.
After crossing back into the conifer forest on the west side of the open space, we began another big descent, switchbacking through ponderosa pines down to the clear blue water of Rattlesnake Creek. These huge ponderosa pines all wafted caramel, but Terry and I immediately agreed on our favorite which smelled like a rich butterscotch. We named it Butterscotch. I’m not kidding when I tell you that this tree smelled so good it inspired me to create a recipe for vegan caramel that I used all the next month while making zucchini/apple/pumpkin/carrot breads, muffins, and cookies. Anyhoo, there are even more massive ponderosas walking along the creek, but after we crossed over again and began winding our way around to the gorge, they thinned. Oh, and I should mention that in our habit of getting lost, we did take a few side trips that were unnecessary in terms of getting to our destination, but that brought us to the top of a waterfall – which was undeniably awesome.
The trail climbs a bit out of Rattlesnake Creek, but mostly remains flat as it rounds another mountain. Here, you can see the bowl of Cedar Breaks head-on as well as catch glimpses of the cavernous limestone gorge below. Finally, after a few hours and a few thousand feet of descent we dropped into the Ashdown Creek, right at the mouth of the gorge. The next 4 miles (5, actually since we took a side trip to view a couple waterfalls) of the hike were through the gorge itself, which necessitate over a hundred stream crossings and lots of rock hopping. Because of the lower water levels of autumn Terry was able to get away with selective crossing spots and a combination of waterproof boots and gaiters, but I opted to just plow through the water when needed. I’ve been told that in spring and parts of summer the volume of water will leave you with no choice but to wade since many bottom areas of the gorge will be underwater.
Now – no pun intended – I need to gush a bit about how utterly fantastic and beautiful the gorge is. The eroding honey-colored limestone, the lush evergreens that line the rim and cling to the rock shelves, the swiftly flowing pale blue creek, and the piles of multi-colored stones washed down from the mountains are an exquisite combination, and one with endless variations that make it impossible not to gape. It’s like being in a different world, one in which every turn made reveals incredible sights. I have never hiked at such a slow pace: We spent about 4 hours exploring the 5 miles of the gorge, both Terry and I taking hundreds of pictures.
Ashdown Gorge is really an incredible, even magical place. To be honest, either the gorge portion of the hike or the Rattlesnake Trail would have made my list of best hikes, but together it was sensory overload: Mountains + meadows + big trees + creeks + gorge + waterfalls = AMAZING.