Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Durango's Silver Mountain, 12,496'; Deadwood Mountain,12,285'; and Baker Peak, 11,949'

Essence: The La Platas are the "Silver Mountains." A straightforward but somewhat arduous route topped by a peaceful, tundra/talus ridge, culminating at the La Plata's namesake mountain with a view of Durango. An essential climb for those who enjoy assembling a landscape puzzle that solidifies a sense of belonging to Place.
Travel: From the US 160/550 intersection in Durango, travel 11.0 miles west on US 160 to Hesperus. Turn right/north on La Plata Canyon Road, CR 124. Zero-out your trip meter. There is a brown, US Forest Service sign with mileages right after the turn. Just after passing the hamlet of Mayday, the road turns to smooth dirt at 4.6 miles. There are several established campgrounds in this area. The trailhead is at 7.8 miles. Park on the right at placard displays for historic La Plata City. 2WD vehicles should be able to reach the trailhead.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 10.1 miles and 4,440 feet of climbing for Deadwood and Silver, out-and-back; roughly the same mileage and 4,000 feet of gain to loop down Tirbircio Creek; 11 miles and 4,300 feet of gain if Baker Peak is included in the Tirbircio Creek loop.
Time: 6 to 7.5 hours
Difficulty: 4WD road, social trail, off-trail; moderate navigation; Class 2; some exposure on Baker Peak, Class 2+
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: July 15, 2018
Quote: To see the greatness of a mountain, one must keep one's distance; to understand its form, one must move around it; to experience its moods, one must see it at sunrise and sunset, at noon and at midnight, in sun and in rain, in snow and in storm, in summer and in winter and in all the other seasons. He who can see the mountain like this comes near to the life of the mountain, a life that is as intense and varied as that of a human being. Such is the greatness of a mighty mountain. Lama Govinda

Silver Mountain, left, as seen from Durango's Rim on February 20, 2014.

Route: Switchback east up a 4WD road located south of Neptune Creek. At the end of the road, take a social trail up the west ridge of Deadwood Mountain. Off-trail, follow the S-curve ridge to Silver Mountain. Retrace your steps. Climbing Baker Peak is an optional addition. The map below shows only the out-and-back route to Silver Mountain because of private property issues, explained below.

From the parking area, 9,140 feet, wade across the La Plata River. To find the proper place, walk down the road a few paces, bear right, pass a primitive campground, and make for the river. Ford directly across from the 4WD road that punches up the other side. Note: You will be crossing the river boots-off; either barefoot or in sandals so don't attempt this in the spring run-off or after a monsoon.

In July, 2018, 20 yards downstream from the ford was a substantial, stable log. If present, cross it.

Walk up the steep 4WD road. Occasionally it is clear; often trees are strewn across. Frankly, this segment is rather tedious and you will welcome the company of a friend. Or, enjoy the rhapsody of  woodland flowers such as sunny and sprightly heart leaf arnica.

Old mining tracks branch off. Stay on the main road for 1.5 to 2 hours. At 3.3 miles, 11,660 feet, the road splits and there are US Forest Service signs prohibiting further vehicle travel in both directions. The ridgeline social trail begins here and is serviceable all the way to Deadwood's crest. The rounded, wooded ridge is somewhat steep but pleasant.

Rise through the krummholz and bust out into the alpine. The route to the summit is now obvious on broken talus.

Crest Deadwood Mountain at 3.8 miles. Net elevation gain is 3,300 feet thus far so a big chunk of the day's climbing is accomplished. Look southwest to appealing Ohwiler Ridge and directly south to Baldy Peak, 10,868'. It is the shortest mountain in the La Platas but one of the most difficult to achieve because of private property issues. Below, the summit cairn on Deadwood Mountain is image-right. This electrical storm blew up in minutes. (THW, photo)

Silver Mountain is commanding and the next 1.25 miles are pure pleasure, taking 45 minutes to an hour. Below, hikers walk southeast following the ridge.

Stay on the ridge and clamber over a roller to the low point between the peaks at 12,000 feet. There is 700 feet of climbing between the two mountains, 500 feet remaining from the saddle. Alpine flowers delight along the way. Mid-summer, magenta paintbrush are profuse as well as mouse ear chickweed, old man of the mountain, moss campion, deep rooted spring beauty, sky pilot, purple fringe, alpine sage, and even a tiny patch of forget-me-nots. In this early-season image, phlox is having a very good year. Get down and sniff this plant for an explosive whiff of euphoria.

Scrutinize Silver Basin on the east side of the ridge for the local elk herd grazing in the tundra.

The final push up Silver's west ridge is on talus with occasional respite on a use trail. It will take anywhere from 2:40 to 4 hours to reach the crest from the trailhead with 4,000 feet of gain over 5.05 miles. The summit of Silver Mountain is as broad and welcoming as you imagined it to be when seen from town. Durango is clearly visible from the peak. Below, friends are contemplating the West Block of the La Plata Mountains across the canyon. In the center of the horizon is the West Babcock to Spiller ridge, The Knife.

Your gaze is likely to be pulled back to the beautiful S-curve you just walked upon, shown below. Across the valley is the Four Peak Traverse. If your goal is simply to experience Silver's summit, the easiest way home is to go back the way you came. Be psyched for 440 feet of vertical.

These hikers are returning to Deadwood. There is a social trail to the right of this knob.

Friends walk down the road returning to the trailhead in La Plata City.

Private Land Note: As of July, 2018, there is a small piece of road on private land at the base of the Tirbircio Creek trail, just east of the La Plata River. It is posted "No Trespassing". I will describe the loop hike as we have always done it in case this access once again opens. But for now, it is off-limits. Therefore, if you want to climb Baker Peak, lovely, but not ranked, you will have to do it as an out-and-back from Silver Mountain, returning to the trailhead via Deadwood as described above.

It is a somewhat abrupt pitch down Silver's 800 foot north ridge to the treed Silver-Baker saddle at 11,690 feet. This image shows the ridge, saddle, and Baker sitting well below Silver at 11,949'.

Baker Peak, 11,949': From the saddle, it is less than half a mile and 260 feet net, but 310 feet of total gain to Baker. The image below, taken from Deadwood, shows Baker in the foreground with Lewis Mountain behind. From the saddle, things slow down to accommodate careful climbing up to scrabbly Point 11,818', dropping about 50 feet, and then testing holds to the crest as the ridge thins. Once I stayed on Baker's mostly westerly ridge all the way down to the base of the Tirbircio Creek trail near the Gold King Mill, lost to fire in 2003. The ridge has its undulations (adding 100 feet or so to the total), before plunging into the forest where I found myself grabbing trees to stay on my feet. Most will choose to do an out-and-back, returning to the saddle.

The Tirbircio Creek basin is steep at the top but secured with vegetation. Mid-summer flowers are wildly abundant. Pass through a swath of columbine, delphinium, lupine, Grey's angelica, orange sneezeweed, candytuft, and Whipple's penstemon.

Stay on the north side of the creek, dropping over 1,000 feet in 0.5 mile. It is a bit of a talus slog with no hint of a trail. That is, until you are opposite a mine located on the south side of the creek. Once at that level, look carefully for a faint track that goes off to the right into a grove of aspen. The trail transforms into an old mining road fallen into disuse so there are an annoying number of trees to climb over. This is an infinitely better choice than getting sucked into the creek drainage. There are some unusual riparian plants, especially when the side streams are running.

Use the old roadbed to descend another 1,000 feet over 1.5 miles. For years, upon reaching the La Plata River, I simply waded across and busted my way up to the road at The Chimney. However, there is a cabin on the site now so locate a road paralleling the river on the east side and walk 0.3 mile north to Lewis Creek. Ford the creek to reach the Eagle Pass Road and cross the La Plata River on a bridge. (Again, there is a small piece of private land on this road as of July, 2018.)

Back on La Plata Canyon Road, it is 1.6 miles from Lewis Creek to the trailhead. It feels like part of the experience because there are occasional glimpses of the mountain. In the fall, the corridor is a riot of color.

Walkers pass by humble homesteads in La Plata City just before closing the loop. The town was founded in the early 1880's. As the residential and commercial hub of the La Plata mining frontier, it had a peak population of 1,000. Ore deposits were low grade and limited so mining operations were not profitable. By the 1930's, the post office, school, and grocery were boarded up or destroyed and the people moved on. (Courtesy, John Sanders)

Following are some of the flowering plants I have seen on this hike: wild iris, lupine, delphinium, white violet, purple violet, red columbine, white peavine, purple vetch, nine bark, Jacob's ladder, senecio (pakera), heart leaf arnica, false Solomon's seal, valeriana occidentalis, ball-head waterleaf, baneberry, Richardson's geranium, elderberry, thimbleberry, native honeysuckle (twinberry), strawberry, whiplash daisy (fleabane daisy), Brandegee's clover, mountain parsley, kittentails, candytuft, draba, king's crown, bluebells, alpine avens, sky pilot, wall flower, alpine sage, tansy aster, mouse ear chickweed, deep rooted spring beauty, snowball saxifrage, alp lily, American bistort, geyer onion, old man of the mountain, rosy paintbrush, moss campion, and alpine clover. Harebell were having a banner year in 2018. (THW, photo)

1 comment:

  1. Yep, saw an elk herd in that same area in July 2015.