The Fire Rings of Halfmoon Creek

A few miles outside Leadville, Colorado, lies Halfmoon Creek Road, which, due to a perfect storm of geophysical circumstances that have graciously lent themselves to the modern Rocky Mountain recreational experience, is one of the most car-camping-dense places in Colorado. Such would likely not be the case were it not for the fact that its first five miles, though unpaved, are suitable for passenger car passage. Or, more likely, it’s the flip side of the chicken-and-egg coin: Were it not for the fact that the Halfmoon Creek Road accesses an outdoor enthusiast’s wet dream, in all likelihood, the road would not be maintained as well as it is. At the point where Halfmoon Creek Road becomes passable for only high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles lies one of the most iconic single trailheads in the Western United States. Head south from the parking lot, which has had to be expanded twice in the past couple decades to accommodate the tsunami of visitation, and you find yourself on the main trail to the summit of Mount Elbert, which, at 14,440 feet, is not only the highest peak in Colorado, but the highest in the entire Rocky Mountain chain. Head north, and you find yourself on Mount Massive, at 14,421 feet, the second-highest mountain in Colorado and, therefore, the second-highest in the Rockies. It also boasts more territory above 14,000 feet than any other mountain in the Lower 48. As if all that is not enough, the trail that provides access to the summits of both Elbert and Massive is a contiguous section of the Colorado and Continental Divide trails — a section utilized by both the Leadville 100 foot and mountain bike races. Combine those summits and those world-famous trails with easy access from the heat of the Front Range with the fact the Halfmoon Creek Road, which hovers around 10,500 feet, passes by literally dozens and dozens of perfect campsites — including three official Forest Service campgrounds — and you’ve got a magnet for the huddled masses. On any given summer weekend, you will have trouble finding a place to pitch even a small backpacking tent up Halfmoon Creek Road. Along the road and beside the creek, there will be entire RV villages occupied by four-wheeler devotees, camper-trailer compounds sporting entire tribes of trout-hunters, clusters of tents the size of houses into which are crammed with the vocal spawn of fading lowland farm towns and, of course, entire refugee camps worth of state-of-the-art tents occupied by every variation imaginable on the Fourteener-bagging theme. There are scads of body Nazis, dirtbags, retirees and oxygen-gasping families-of-four on vacation from Ohio. Given the car-camping intensity of Halfmoon Creek Road, which, I should add, has the added benefit of being flat-out beautiful despite its Europe-esque population density during the non-snowy months, it should come as no surprise that it also is home to more fire rings than can be counted. It seems that every spot level enough to hold rock in place has a fire ring. Larger sites usually seemingly inexplicably have multiple rings. Some of the sites have literally dozens. The area from which the accompanying photos were taken sports literally 30 or more. Even acknowledging that some are old and disintegrated, while others are built in inappropriate places, it is still a bonafide head-scratcher why these areas have so many fire rings. Perhaps this is at least partially a reaction to the ever-increasing social isolation of Americans; rather than everyone, even perfect strangers (or perhaps especially perfect strangers) gathering at one central fire ring, individuals or groups obviously prefer to huddle around flames with familiar company. Or, more likely, they are shunning the great communal unknown. I believe there is more to it than that, though. It seems to me that different people prefer different kinds of fire rings. And, why not? We each have our own architectural preferences. Each fire ring is an expression of its builder’s aesthetic taste(s), combined with his or her engineering capabilities, combined with the availability of at-hand construction materials: rocks. With that understanding, my wife, Gay, took the time to photograph most of the fire rings in the aforementioned place that has spread around it more than 30 fire rings. We have interpreted the nature and/or aesthetic leanings of the builders. Thanks to my drinking buddies Allan Cox and Shawn Gordy for adding their observations. And feel free to add you own interpretations of these photos or of fire ring photos you have taken yourself. mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com is the address. M. John Fayhee’s monthly blog, “War Paint,” can be found at mountaingazette.com. His website, mjohnfayhee.com, is now up and running and contains much in the way of Mountain Gazette-related material.   

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