Douglas County Highpoint Trip Report

Thunder Butte (9,836 ft)

Date: August 20, 2008
Authors: SueAnn Miller and Frank Price

This trailless route is easier to spot on your ascent, because the Hayman fire burned away most of the canopy but we send advice to do this one soon. Various thorny berry bushes are thriving in the full sun and will soon grow into a thick and scratchy barrier across several hundred feet of the upper slopes of the route below the summit ridge. Berries were abundant on the steeper slopes but we did not take our usual indulgent snacks, preferring to let birds and gravity distribute seeds locally.

Six years after the fire, the area has been washed cleaner than imagination might expect. Woodpeckers are leaving drill patterns in the blacked bark of ponderosas. Trees that thrive after the heat of fire are returning: clumps of Aspens are already head-high, and little lodgepole pines were often at the base of a burned trunk. Occasional small spruce seedlings on the lower ridge may be restoration plantings. Grasses and bearberry are recovering the lower ridge.

Many of the landmarks mentioned in Mitchler and Covill's guidebook were destroyed or rearranged during the forest fire event. The fence mentioned in the guidebook is gone and the faint road is now sporadic traces across which a series of logs were placed after the fire. A pile of rocks near the power line might be the cairn shown on the guidebook map but it does not look like a cairn now and it is in sight of the power line (as drawn) so it is not the cairn needed higher on the ridge to assist in returning to your vehicle.

As we gained the summit ridge, we saw the Oxyoke forest fire that had started a few miles downwind to the northeast. That sight took something out of the joy of making this summit and we did not dwell to search for a register.

Other trip reports mention the challenge of the return and it is still a challenge despite more open views. Staying on the ridgeline worked well on the way up but the descent route was less clear. The suggestion to stay right of the pancake granite outcrops is clear on the way up but coming down, there seem to be many such features along the ridge. You do not want to drop into Shrewsbury Gulch but you also do not want to go too far right descending the shoulder ridge.

On the way down we saw two very small cairns placed on large boulders in a green area spared by the fire. The guidebook mentions one cairn in this area, so we interpreted these as warnings not to drop left yet. Neither cairn gave directional cues that we learned as scouts. We should have fixed them but were unsure of our route. The second "cairn" was near a wide cleft in high rocks but we stayed high and passed to the right of these rocks for about the length of a city block. We were just catching our error when a mule deer pronked away from our conversation. We backtracked to the second cairn where the cleft made it easy to get back on the left of the ridge. Recognizing landmarks we had noted on the way up and occasionally our own footprints in the sand reassured us about our course.

This was never our favorite vegetation zone in Colorado and the day was hot. We will not be doing a repeat but it was interesting studying the biological recovery after the fire.