Friday, July 12, 2013

Redcloud Peak, 14,034'; Sunshine Peak, 14,001'; Sundog, 13,432', Clockwise Loop

Essence: Climb a pair of unspectacular 14'ers en route to the normally ignored treasure, Sundog. Finishing with this exciting 13'er, one of Colorado's 300 highest peaks, is reason enough to hike the lengthy circuit.
Travel From Durango Via Cinnamon Pass: In a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle, from Durango drive 47 miles to Silverton. Turn northeast and proceed up Greene Street, the main drag, to the north end of town. Zero-out your trip meter as you make a soft right onto San Juan CR 2. The dirt road is good at first but degenerates to a slow, rocky surface. In 11.5 miles, 0.5 mile before reaching the abandoned mining town of Animas Forks, there is a brown sign directing you to go right for Cinnamon Pass. You are now on the Alpine Loop.  At 11.8 miles, stay right. Drive over bedrock outcrops with uneven ledges. At 12.1 miles there is a sign where the roads to Engineer Pass and Cinnamon Pass split. Make a sharp switchback to the right. This initial shelf section has some off-camber bedrock. The track is steep, narrow, and rocky. Reach the pass, elevation 12,640 feet, at 14.3 miles. Negotiate four, super tight, ledgy switchbacks. At 16.1 miles, continue straight at the spur road to American Basin.  Reach the Silver Creek Trailhead, 10,400', at 20.4 miles. Join the crowds tailgate camping in the parking lot or find private and lovely camps just up the road towards the pass. There is an outhouse at the TH but no water. Allow 2:15 to 2:45 from Durango.
Travel Via Lake City: Drive about 2 miles south on Colorado 149 and turn right on County Road 30, the Alpine Loop, toward Lake San Cristobal and Cinnamon Pass. Zero-out your trip meter. Stay right near 11.8 miles. After 12.5 miles the road becomes rougher, and between 13 and 14.5 miles it is a shelf road that hugs the south flank of Sunshine Peak. The Silver Creek Trailhead is just shy of 16 miles with a large parking lot on the right. When it is dry, good-clearance 2WD vehicles should make it to the trailhead. Allow an hour from Lake City.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 10.8 miles, 4,861 feet of vertical
Time: 7:00 to 8:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; mild exposure on Sundog's SSE ridge; Redcloud and Sunshine are Class 2; Sundog, Class 2+.
Map: Redcloud Peak, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Dates Hiked: August 23, 2008; July 12, 2013
Quote: Everything is number. Pythagoras, ca. 569 B.C.E

Although Redcloud, Sunshine, and Sundog are connected by a high ridge, Sundog, the most delightful of the three, is often neglected due to an accident of altitude. It falls shy of the magic round number, 14,000 feet. From Redcloud, Sunshine is center left, Sundog, center right. (THW, photo)

Redcloud Peak, Sunshine Peak, Sundog Route Map: I drew this map freehand without the help of a GPS. It is not exact but pretty close.

Route: Detailed route descriptions of Colorado's 54 peaks above 14,000 feet may be found in the definitive, Colorado's Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, by Gerry Roach. He depicts every possible route up our three peaks, including a scamper up Sundog on the way to Sunshine. Alternatively, consult the deservedly popular website The route described here is a clockwise loop that incorporates two 14'ers on the way to the beguiling Sundog. Navigation and Sundog scrambles argue for a clockwise direction.

From Silver Creek Trailhead 10,400', gently ascend northeast through a mature aspen and conifer forest on a soft, trodden trail busy with people. In 1.75 miles at 11,320', the South Fork of Silver Creek comes in on the right. This is where our three-peak loop meets back up with the main track at the end of the circuit. Emerge from the woods into a sea of senecio. Silver Creek remains on hiker's right while the track bends around the curvacious skirts of Redcloud.

The welcoming path turns east and crosses a tricklet moistening brookcress and bluebells. Looking back, Handies Peak, 14,048', monopolizes the earthline.

The trail curves southeast through the tundra to Pass 13,020'. It will take about 2 hours to cover the first 3.5 miles while gaining 2,620 feet. Redcloud is less than an hour away with 1,014 feet of climbing remaining in the next mile. The trail is less obvious as it switches steeply up the right/northwest side of the ridge. In the image below, hikers approach the pass.

From the north slopes of Redcloud, people on the summit of Handies are visible with the naked eye.

The grade decreases when the trail turns south to take a direct ridge shot at aptly named Redcloud. (THW, photo)

From Redcloud, a panoramic wedge encompases Coxcomb Peak (left); Wetterhorn Peak, 14,015'; Matterhorn Peak; and Uncompahgre Peak, 14,309'.

The next goal is Sunshine, 1.5 miles south. Descend on an excellent trail to Pass 13,500'. Along the way are compelling views of Sundog. Sections of trail between the peaks echo the perfect, tight turns of a skilled slalom skier. At 14,001', Sunshine just makes the cut; it is the lowest of Colorado's 14'ers. (THW, photo)

This image, taken from Sunshine, looks back at Redcloud and the trail between the pair. (THW, photo)

The standard, overwhelmingly popular route for achieving the 14'ers is to turn around at Sunshine, returning as you came. Navigation is obvious. The 12.25 mile walk takes 7 to 8 hours to complete, climbing a total of 4800 feet. This hiker is on Pass 13,500', returning to Redcloud from Sunshine. However, finishing the hike with Sundog instead will make you glad you didn't turn around here.

To reach Sundog from Sunshine, retrace your steps 250 vertical feet to a cairn on the left/west. It marks the junction with an old, rocky trail that switches down the west slopes of Sunshine into the upper reaches of the South Fork Basin. (Do not return to Sunshine-Redcloud Saddle 13,500'; the trail west from there is closed.) Pitch down to the west. At 13,300', leave the trail and continue westward to the broad ridge between Sunshine and Sundog.  If the weather totally degenerates, simply continue to follow the South Fork track all the way back to the confluence with Silver Creek and rejoin the standard trail. (In fact, this is the fastest passage between the Silver Creek Trailhead and Sunshine.) This bailout course is 10 miles with 4,400 feet of climbing.

For Sundog, walk down the ridge to Saddle 13,100', 0.5 mile SE of the summit. It takes about 25 minutes to reach the crest from here. This hiker is on the ridge looking down into the South Fork drainage. (THW, photo)

The initial part of the ridge is steep with three sections of fun scrambling that make you feel like you are climbing a real mountain. Go straight up the secure grey rock, avoiding the blood-red stone. (THW, photo)

Soon the ridge levels out but gets a bit narrow. This image looks back at Sunshine. (THW, photo)

Sundog has several false summits and while the summit block looks sinister, it presents no trouble. This image is taken from the true crest looking 1600 feet down into the South Fork drainage. (THW, photo)

To complete the loop, follow an intermittent social trail down the north ridge, shown. Portions are loose and rocky. (THW, photo)

Skirt a blocky wall on the left/west. (THW, photo looking back)

Enter the forest. At about 11,600', leave the ridge, turning right/east to descend roughly 100 feet to the creek. Things are a little tangled up and messy in the drainage but cross it and find the trail that leads to the confluence of the South Fork and Silver Creek. Cross Silver Creek and go up a short pitch to connect with the main trail. Turn left for a fast walk back to the trailhead.