Red Table Mountain
It’s a warm June evening. The sun has sunk low enough that its glare no longer washes out the colors of the mountains. While eastbound on Highway 82 you turn the gentle, sweeping left-hand curve at Emma – and then it hits you.Off in the distance, way up the Fryingpan Valley, looms Red Table Mountain. It commands attention even as you drive along the Roaring Fork Valley floor; it screams in red brilliance thanks to the evening light. Its slopes climb steeply to about 11,700 feet, then this massif is scraped flat, like a table. The top ridge runs for an incredible 18 miles.
It’s even more spectacular when you’re on it, offering views of jagged mountains in every direction, including Mount Sopris, Pyramid Peak, Independence Pass and the Holy Cross area. You can gaze into five wilderness areas in Colorado’s central mountains.Access isn’t easy from the Roaring Fork Valley. One route, Forest Road 514, protrudes into the area from the west and is closed at an FAA tower, which helps guide aircraft over the Continental Divide. The boundaries of the 57,000-acre Red Table and Gypsum Creek roadless areas snake around that road.The road climbs relentlessly from its start near the summit of Cottonwood Pass. It winds through hillsides covered with lush, green aspen trees that get short and squat as you gain elevation. Higher up, the trees transition to pine so thick you can barely squeeze through for a walk in the woods.
The mountain is an excellent habitat for an abundance of wildlife ranging from mountain lion and black bear to elk and mule deer, according to an official assessment by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. It’s an osprey nesting site and a range for wild turkey. It’s a potential foraging area for lynx, the wildlife division wrote in a report.Visit on a typical summer weekday and the only sounds you’re likely to hear are a woodpecker doing its best jackhammer imitation, jets flying overhead and the wind whistling through the thick timber.
“Because it lacks any large lakes or 14,000-foot peaks, there has been little recreational tourism in the Red Table/Gypsum Creek Road Area,” noted an assessment by a group called Citizens for Roadless Areas Defense, or C-RAD. “This has allowed it to retain great capability for solitude and challenge.”El Jebel native Noel Crawford said the solitude of today is nothing like it was four decades ago. The only people he would see in the 1960s on Red Table Mountain were longtime ranchers like the Fenders, Granges and Jadwins, who ran cattle up there. If you ran into trouble, Crawford said, you didn’t dare wait for a vehicle to come by to help. That might take days. Other familiar names in the valley, like the Hyrups, operated sawmills on Red Table at one time.
Crawford believes existing roads should remain open in places like Red Table. A lot of the people who work the land – running cattle or logging – aren’t capable of getting back there without a vehicle. He recalled how the closure of roads into areas like Hunter Creek, northeast of Aspen, and East Maroon Creek disappointed some old-timers that used to roam there.While Forest Road 514 onto Red Table Mountain seems to be a sure bet to remain open because access is needed to maintain the FAA tower, other routes appear destined for closure, including many user-created or bandit trails. The U.S. Forest Service has recommended wilderness protection for about 50,000 acres of Red Table terrain, mostly among the steep, red cliffs on the north side of the ridge.
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