Sunday, June 29, 2014

Indian Trail Ridge Along the Colorado Trail

Essence: Indian Trail Ridge is the great alpine connector, linking the San Juan Mountains with the La Plata Range via the Colorado Trail. The diversity and abundance of wildflowers is as big and bold as the continuous panorama. An out-and-back from Kennebec Pass TH to the Grindstone Trail. Finish with an optional loop through the Boulder Ridge Playground at the southern end of ridge.
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. After passing the hamlet of Mayday, the road turns to smooth dirt at 4.6 miles. There are several established campgrounds in this area. In 8.5 miles the roadbed deteriorates with sharp, sizable rocks. At 12.1 miles the road splits; take the left track, FS 571. High clearance, 4WD is recommended from here. It is 14.2 miles to the Kennebec Pass TH from US 160. Allow 1:00 to 1:30 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.5 miles, 2,620 feet of climbing includes the Boulder Ridge loop
Time: 6:30 to 7:30
Difficulty: Groomed Colorado trail; navigation easy; no exposure; optional off-trail loop has two boulder fields
Maps: La Plata, Colorado 7.5 Quad, or Trails Illustrated No. 144, Durango-Cortez
Dates Hiked: June 11, 2007; June 29, 2014
Quote: Eastward the dawn rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into guess; it was no more than a glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of the memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings


Sky-high Point 12,181', is one of five numbered points between the Kennebec Pass TH and the Grindstone Trail.


Route: A tangle of 4WD roads and trails pin-wheel off from the Kennebec Pass TH at 11,600'. Take a moment to be certain you are heading west on the Colorado Trail toward Taylor Lake. The lake, a popular destination, is a relatively flat 1.2 miles away on a groomed expressway of a trail.

Round the corner and Diorite Peak appears on the left. The southern end of Indian Trail Ridge (ITR) cradles the lake platform.

Just before the lake the trail splits. Turn right, staying on the Colorado Trail. Grindstone Trail, our northern turn-around, is 4.5 miles distant.

Skirt the north side of the lake and begin a 0.6 mile, easy 520 foot climb up to the ridge. The lake recedes while the east massif of the La Platas rises to steal the show.

It is simply done and a great pleasure to leave the trail briefly to experience the high points. The 2,620 feet of elevation gain reflects touching the ridge crests while traveling north, and staying on the trail for the return. Below, hikers cross a neck on their way to Pt 12,338', the loftiest rise of the day.

From Pt 12,338', the Lone Cone to Lizard Head view wedge is a small slice of the horizon's unfettered circle.

The ridge affords a unique perspective on the west massif of the La Plata Mountains. The arc swings from Diorite to Sharkstooth Peak. Banded Hesperus Mountain, 13,232', is the tallest eminence in the range.

Hikers climb the rocky ridge south of Pt 12,181'. Miles slide by in such a hurry on the immaculate Colorado Trail.

The ridge is studded with stone boys, but even without them it would be impossible to get lost on the restricted divide, even if the trail was obliterated by snow.

The flora on this hike was so rich, a friend exclaimed, "Ninety percent of Colorado's wildflower inventory is in bloom." Point 12,078' is where Old Man Of The Mountain lives in absurdly opulent conditions. He keeps house with aromatic phlox; tasty geyer onion and mountain parsley; his feminine companion, rosy paintbrush; and chiming bluebells. Osho must have been standing right here when he wrote, It is simply unbelievable how happy flowers are.

It is just shy of 5.7 miles to the Grindstone Trail. While our hike turns around here, there are options. The Colorado Trail continues north and just keeps on going all the way to Denver. For the Highline Loop, take the Grindstone west to abut the Bear Creek Trail in 4 miles. Turn south to reach the Sharkstooth Trail in another 5.75 miles. Go east on that trail for 3.3 miles back to Taylor Lake. Turn right and walk the 1.2 miles back to the Kennebec Pass TH. That's adding up to more like 21 miles, not a mere 17 as the sign at the lake indicates. The Highline Loop was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1979 because of its extraordinary scenic value.

The Return:
From the ridge, Engineer Mountain dominates the San Juan earthline across the Hermosa Creek rift.

On a portion of the ridge, horizontal slabs of stone are strewn about. Linger amongst a stretch of rocks scattered carelessly like piles of books. The floral arrangement in early summer is arnica mollis.

To be a La Plata devotee, cypher and memorize the names of the mountains marching through the view finder.

These hikers are close to the point where the trail first met the ridge. If you've had enough, simply return to the Kennebec Pass TH as you came for a total of 11.5 miles. If you are game for a frolicsome highlight, by all means, pass through "Boulder Ridge Playground." Leave the trail on the east side of a willow patch, heading for Saddle 12,080' and continue south on the ridge.

Hop along on stepping stones with resistant, crystalline veins.

Cross a swath of boulders and then climb gently for 170 feet to the final roll of the ridge at 12,250'. Pass two towers topping the point. Where the ridge splits, descend the southeast rib.

Enormous boulders teeter totter under foot.

Hikers are almost invisible clambering amongst boulders at the southern terminus of ITR.  Intersect the Sharkstooth Trail at 11,600', turn left/north and walk 0.5 mile, passing Taylor Lake to link back with the morning's incoming trail. Turn right/east and retrace your steps 1.2 miles to the Kennebec Pass TH. (THW, panorama)

In 2014, I walked ITR with a sizable group of friends and we frightened off the fauna. On a solitary trek I witnessed ravens, swallows at speed, tiny tweety birds foraging on snow patches, a curious ermine, marmots, mountain lion tracks in the muddy trail, deer, and large herds of elk in both the Hermosa Creek and Bear Creek drainages.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Hesperus Mountain, 13,232', Southern Approach

Essence: The rarely utilized Echo Basin Route approaches the west ridge of Hesperus from the south. Significant navigational challenges assures a day of solitude. On the mountain, ascend a stair-step progression of cliff-slope formations, staying on the ridge, off-trail, all the way to the summit. Hesperus Mountain is the highpoint in the La Plata range.
Travel: From the US 550/160 intersection in Durango, travel west on US 160 for 24.7 miles to the signed Echo Basin Road and turn right/north. Zero-out your trip meter. Stay on the main road, passing old homesteads and hay meadows. In 2.4 miles continue straight on FS 566 when the road turns to gravel. The road deteriorates at 3.8 miles where winter plowing stops. The track climbs steadily through scrub oak to a cattle guard at 6.4 miles. Directly east is The Hogback. Beyond the guard are literally acres of mule's ears in early summer. At 6.8 miles bear right at the fork, staying on FS 566. Climbing, the road glides through an aspen forest. At 8.0 the road forks again; stay left. At 9.9 miles, go right. High clearance and good tires are necessary on the rocky track. At 11.5 miles bear left onto FS 566G and drive downhill to Echo Creek. You will see Hesperus from the road. Park where large boulders prevent further travel, 11.9 miles. Allow 1:05 to 1:15 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.5 miles, 3,560 feet of vertical
Time: 6:15 to 7:00 hours
Difficulty: Abandoned road, off-trail; navigation challenging; easy Class 3 scrambling with mild exposure
Maps: La Plata; Rampart Hills, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: June 24, 2014
Navajo Prayer:
Mother in the earth
Father in the sky
From where the sun rises
To where the sun sets
To the south and to the north
All in my heart
All in my heart. (Scott Thybony, Burntwater, 1997)

Hesperus Mountain marks the northern boundary of the traditional homeland of the Navajo. It is the Sacred Mountain of the North. 

Hesperus Mountain as seen from Lavender Peak in November, 2007.


Route: Hesperus Mountain must be climbed via its west ridge. I have explored four approaches, one from the south, and three from the north. There is no easy way to summit. All routes present navigational challenges and demanding climbs. If you prefer to use the standard route, please consult Hesperus Mountain: Northern Approaches.

The Echo Basin Route is a gentler approach to the west ridge. However, it is 2.7 miles longer than the shortest northern approach and adds almost a thousand feet of vertical. Irrefutably, the final mile to the peak is one of the finest in the La Plata Mountains. Looking at the track below, the southern approach poses a substantial navigational challenge between the South Fork of the West Mancos River and the west ridge of Hesperus. The rest is simple.

From the parking area at 10,120 feet, cross Echo Creek and walk north on the abandoned road, shown.

The road bends around the base of Jackson Ridge. At the first fork, go left. At the second, bear right. Thimbleberry, columbine, golden banner, elderberry, and orange sneezeweed thrive. Keep a close eye and an intuitive feel on the road for it is disappearing from lack of use. Looking at the topography below, the navigational objective is to thread your way from the river (hidden) up through the woods to the west ridge.

In 1.4 miles, the road ends. Drop 100 feet on a steep use trail to the South Fork of the West Mancos River, 10,120 feet. Cross it on one of several logs.

Clamber 100 feet straight up the slope to intersect the faint Owen Basin Trail. Leave some mark at this location (N37 26.494 W108 06.819) so you can find your way home. Turn right/east and walk about 200 yards. We went a tad too far and ended up in one of many boulder fields.

Hike steeply uphill heading northeast, always northeast. Try to link clearings, staying near the aspens and small drainages. Flowing creeks harbor brookcress and Parry's primrose. When possible, avoid the conifers which cling to steeper slopes.

At about 10,600 feet, there is a cairn in a forest clearing. It is quite probable you will naturally come to this point (N37 26.579 W108 06.614). Continue through the clearing, do some more thrashing as you climb, always aiming northeast.

In 2.35 miles, at 11,200 feet, break free of the forest in a swale. Navigation from here is obvious. Whew! Simply step from one tundra tuft platform to another as you scale 700 feet up the steeply angled green slope.

The pitch is covered in edible valerian, medicinal osha, and the primitive green gentian (monument plant), shown looking down at the swale.

Intersect the west ridge in the neighborhood of Pt 11,891' (N37 26.854 W108 06.141). Most handsome Hesperus becomes your guide. The approach is essentially over with 1,341 feet of vertical remaining in the next mile to the summit.

As you move east, rolling up the ridge on a social trail, the standard route on the north side may be examined. Sharkstooth juts from a massive rock glacier.


Phlox, looking like blinding snow patches, is having an excellent year on the ridge. Its wafting perfume induces alpine euphoria.

Upon reaching 12,300 feet where the real climbing begins, notice a social trail that leaves the ridge and makes for the south side of the mountain. This trail seeks to avoid some of the cliffs on the ridge proper. It baffles me that people use this trail which is a side-hill nuisance most of the way. The surface alternates between sink-up-to-your-ankles in shale, and slippery, resistant soil. The ridge, on the other hand, leads you up the mountain joyously. Begin the climb just to the left of the rock outcrop, shown.

Experience the alternating cliff-slope structure of the mountain while walking up through Mancos Shale to the base of the next cliff band. The climb is characterized by the rock so take a moment to read about the composition of the stone by geologist, John Bregar.

Geological Note:
Hesperus is part of the La Plata Mountain laccolith, which is an intrusion of magma between sedimentary layers, bowing the sediments up, where they get eroded off, and baking the sediments in close contact with the magma to hornfels.  The dark and light layers of rock that are so prevalent on Hesperus and Centennial are alternating layers of magma and baked sediment.  Generally, the dark layers are sediment, and the light layers tend to be the congealed magma or hornfels.  You could call the relatively thin, tabular bodies of magma sills, but really, the whole mass of the La Plata Mountain laccolith is a complicated mess of intrusive and sedimentary rocks.

While the cliff may be skirted on the right, it is a fun Class 3 scramble with secure holds to punch up the short wall.

Hold to the north edge of the ridge, surmounting the rising stone staircase all the way to the crest. The only exposure is adjacent to the precipitous north face of the peak.

Hesperus is the highest eminence in the La Plata Range. The summit is compact but the vista is compelling and commanding. (THW, photo)

Lavender Peak, less than a seemingly impossible mile away to the southeast, is captivating. Centennial, 13,062', is the red banded mountain on the left. Skilled climbers have, in fact, traversed the Centennial-Lavender-Hesperus ridges successfully.

Twirling towards the south, The Knife is held down by the Babcock Bad Boys on the left and Spiller on the right.

Further south is the Four Peak Traverse and Helmet Peak.

In the southwest lies Mesa Verde and Sleeping Ute Mountain. Hesperus clearly predominates and deserves respect as the cardinal point of the North. Navajo land and life is secured within the circle of the sacred mountains (Trebbe Johnson). The eastern cardinal point is Sierra Blanca Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range; in the south it is Mount Taylor in New Mexico; and in the west, Humphreys Peak in the San Francisco Peaks.

In the north is the familiar great swath of the San Juans. For the return, simply down-climb as you came. As you proceed through the woods, following your temporary cairns home, heed the advice of Rene Daumal in Mount Analogue.

When you strike off on your own, leave some trace of your passing which will guide you coming back: one stone set on another, some grass flattened by a blow of your stick. But if you come to an impasse or a dangerous spot, remember that the trail you have left could lead people coming after you into trouble. So go back along your trail and obliterate any traces you have left. This applies to anyone who wishes to leave some mark of his passage in the world. Even without wanting to, you always leave a few traces. Be ready to answer to your fellow men for the trail you leave behind you.

Climbing Hesperus was so deeply satisfying, I will forever carry the mountain in my heart to inform my days.

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. 
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 TH 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 TH.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 10.1 miles and 4,446 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 4,309 feet of gain if Baker is included in the Tirbircio Creek loop.
Time: 6 to 7.5 hours
Difficulty: 4WD road, off-trail, trace of social trail, mining track; moderate navigation; Class 2; some exposure on Baker Peak, Class 2+
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Dates Hiked: Seven times between 8/8/03 and 6/18/14.
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: I believe in climbing all the peaks I see from Durango, assembling a landscape puzzle that solidifies a sense of belonging to Place. What follows is a loop route that affords a full and rich experience of Silver Mountain. The simplest way up Silver is to traipse over Deadwood Mountain, a bonus. Climbing Baker Peak is an optional addition on the return. The map below shows only the out-and-back route to Silver Mountain because of private property issues, explained below. It is downloadable for higher resolution.

From the parking area, 9,040', wade across the La Plata River to the south of Neptune Creek. 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 June, 2014, 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 these sunny and sprightly heart leaf arnicas.

Stay on the forested road for 1.5 to 2 hours, taking a right fork at 3.0 miles. (This is a shortcut; no worries if you miss it.) When a clear view of Ohwiler Ridge is revealed at 3.3 miles, turn left at 11,400' and walk up this northeast spur that leads to the west ridge of Deadwood Mountain.

Upon reaching the west ridge at 3.4 miles, 11,550', leave the spur and walk up an obvious social trail. It soon peters out but just stay on the rounded, wooded ridge. It is somewhat steep but easy, green walking.

Ascend 200 feet, rising through the krumholtz before busting out into the alpine. The route to Deadwood's summit is now obvious on broken talus. Net elevation gain is 3,245 feet so a big chunk of the day's climbing is accomplished.

From Deadwood is a view to the southwest of Ohwiler Ridge and directly south to lowly Baldy Peak, 10,868'. It is the shortest summit in the La Platas but one of the most difficult to achieve because of private property issues. Silver is commanding and the next 1.2 miles are pure pleasure, taking 45 minutes to an hour. Stay on the ridge and clamber over a roller to the low point between the peaks at 12,000'. There is 715 feet of climbing between the two mountains, 496 feet remaining from the saddle. Alpine flowers delight along the way. Mid-summer, the 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 social trail. It will take anywhere from 2:40 to 4 hours to reach the crest from the TH, 3961 feet of gain over 5 miles. Durango can be seen from the high point. Friends are contemplating the western massif 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, seen below. Across the valley to the west is the Four Peak Traverse. The summit of Silver is as broad and welcoming as you imagined it to be when seen from town. 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 455 feet of vertical.

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


Two friends walk down the road returning to the TH in La Plata City.

Private Land Note: As of June, 2014, 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, lovely, but not ranked, you will have to do it as an out-and-back from Silver Mountain, returning to the TH via Deadwood as described above.

It is a somewhat abrupt pitch down Silver's 806 foot north ridge to the treed Silver-Baker saddle at 11,690'. This image shows the ridge, saddle, and Baker sitting well below Silver at 11,949'.

Baker Peak, 11,949' Option: From the saddle, it is less than half a mile and 259' net, but 309' 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 Pt 11,813', 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' 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 June, 2014.)

Back on La Plata Canyon Road, it is 1.6 miles from Lewis Creek to the TH. 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 completing the full circle. 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)


























Flowering plants were plentiful in mid-June, 2014: iris missouriensis, 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.