Monday, July 7, 2014

Centennial Peak, 13,062'; Sharkstooth Peak, 12,462'

Essence: Centennial Peak is an excellent first 13'er. Mileage is short, elevation gain is moderate, and most of the climb is on-trail. The rugged face of the range is seen from the summit. This half-day hike is also suitable for most dogs. Optional Sharkstooth Peak, notorious for loose, rotten rock, beckons the skilled and daring. Both are approached from the Sharkstooth Trail on the west side of the range.
Travel: From the US 550/160 intersection in Durango, drive west on US 160 for 27.4 miles to the signal in Mancos. Zero-out your trip meter. Turn right/north on CO 184 towards Dolores. In 0.3 mile, at the sign for Mancos State Park, turn right on Montezuma CR 42. In 1.5 miles, the road turns to dirt. See the west side of the La Platas from a fresh perspective as you pass by scattered ranches. At 5.5 miles, the road becomes FS 561, West Mancos Road. Pass the Transfer Campground at 10 miles, roll through a mature aspen and ponderosa forest, and turn right at mile 12.3 on FS 350, Spruce Mill Road. It remains smooth and graded until mile 18.8. Turn on the right spur signed for the Twin Lakes, Sharkstooth TH. The next 1.5 miles require 4WD and good tires. The track is rocky with potholes. There is dispersed camping along the road with ponds and a terrific view of Hesperus Mountain. The Sharkstooth TH is 20.3 miles from the US 160 and CO 184 intersection in Mancos. Allow 1.5 hours from Durango. The small parking area holds 6 vehicles.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 5.5 miles, 2,193 feet of climbing for Centennial; add 0.8 mile roundtrip and 526 feet of vertical for Sharkstooth
Time: 3:00 to 5:00 for Centennial; add 1:00 to 1:15 for Sharkstooth
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation easy; no exposure; Centennial is Class 2, Sharkstooth is Class 3 with moderate exposure and danger of tumbling rock
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: July 7, 2014
Quote: I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness. Henry David Thoreau

Mount Moss, Lavender Peak, and Hesperus Mountain from the summit of Centennial Peak. (THW, photo)

Route: Centennial and Sharkstooth are both climbed via Saddle 11,936'. From there, travel south to Centennial and northeast to Sharkstooth.

The Sharkstooth Trail leaves from the east side of the parking lot at 10,900'. On a well-established pathway, enter an old growth spruce forest. The trail is rocky as it passes beneath the toe of the Sharkstooth rock glacier, then spongy and soft on the age-old forest duff surface. The canopy is atwitter with bird songs. In this image, returning hikers gape at streamside brookcress and caraway, head-high purple monkshood, and sprays of osha. 

At 1.0 mile, Hesperus Mountain, colorful, banded, and massive, is framed by deep green conifers. Hikers give little notice of switchbacks that lift them to sunny swatches and then glades densely populated with bluebells and corn husk lilies.

In the alpine, reverie continues as the path plows through unimaginably lush gardens of hybridized Indian paintbrush, king's crown, columbine, and phlox. (EJB, photo)

Most hikers will effortlessly cover the 1.8 miles to the Sharkstooth/Centennial Saddle at 11,936 feet, in 45 minutes to an hour. Sizable cairns signal the final passageway to this unmistakable juncture. Here we leave the Sharkstooth Trail which proceeds east to join the Colorado Trail at Taylor Lake quite near Kennebec Pass. Since most people will climb only Centennial, the route up Sharkstooth, pictured, will be discussed last.

The yellow dots scattered all over the tundra are the cheerful alpine sunflower, Old Man of the Mountain. Warning: there is a generous sprinkling of elegant death camas. One touch of the flower and then your tongue will make you sick. If your dog eats the plant, death will shortly follow.

From the saddle, Centennial Peak is 0.8 mile away with an additional 1,126 feet of climbing. It is straightforward and fun with intermittent stretches of social trail. The image below was shot from Sharkstooth and shows the entire layout to Centennial. Simply walk up the broad ridge staying toward the left/east side. When the ridge becomes narrower, stay on the rib or just west of it. (THW, photo)

Initially, walk up the tundra and then find a use trail that assists with a short, steep section.

Clamber up a swath of large talus chunks.

The grade decreases at another expanse of tundra broken by patches of rock sheltering alpine sorrel. Below, hikers proceed to the crest, shown.

The ridge narrows for the final 600 feet but there is no sense of exposure. If anything, it gets more playful. There is a social trail that offers an off-ridge option to the right/west. However, I greatly prefer staying on the rib for the remainder of the summit ascent. There is one exception--the initial obstruction that is more easily surmounted on its west side, shown.

There are a few sections where hands are helpful but it is all Class 2+ walking on stable rock.

The higher you go the more outrageous and intimate your experience becomes. Light bounces off the columnar shafts, towers, and spires of imposing Lavender Peak, only 0.5 mile east of the horizontal bands, pressed down by mighty Hesperus. The contrast is bedazzling.

Reach 13,000 feet and blast up the red path to the summit. Whether or not this is your first 13'er, summit euphoria is guaranteed.

The cliff-framed, rugged face of the La Plata Mountains is seen from the crest where the southern vista is unfathomably wild. This image shows one slice. Jutting from the peak is the ridge that experienced climbers have traversed from Centennial to Lavender Peak. East of Lavender is Mount Moss. If you love a Class 3 scramble, see Mount Moss and the Towers of Lavender, my favorite La Plata Mountain climb.

Historical Note: Banded Mountain was renamed Centennial Peak in celebration of America's bicentennial in 1976. Seen from afar, Centennial has the same horizontal striping as Hesperus Mountain. Both are part of the La Plata Mountain laccolith. The bands are alternating layers of magma and baked sedimentary rock called hornfels.

In July, 2014, by 11:00, thunder was resounding, reducing top time to mere minutes.

We scurried down the ridge back to the saddle.

The author stands beneath a blue hole in an ominous sky. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Back in the safety of the forest, we took a short interpretive trail diversion, strolling by the historic Windy Williams Mill. The mine and boarding house were abandoned after only 130 days because valuable ore was scarce.

Sharkstooth Peak Option: Sharkstooth attracts a tiny percentage of the travelers who utilize its namesake trail. It has a nasty reputation for pummeling climbers with tumbling and flying talus. Seen from the west ridge of Hesperus, it is admittedly magnetic.

The peak should be climbed with no more than two or three people.  The slope is at the angle of repose. Holds are utterly rotten; talus is on the move. From Saddle 11,936', it is 0.4 mile, 526 feet up, and takes less than half an hour to scale. Do not climb the ridge directly above the saddle or the tempting one to the northwest. Rather, climb the southwest face, shown.  I employ a combination of gully and interior ribs. The pitch gets steeper halfway up where self arrest becomes problematic. Use constant, cautious concentration.

La Plata's largest rock glacier flows out in waves east and west from the fang and its northwest ridge. (THW, photo)

To place Centennial and Sharkstooth more solidly in the landscape puzzle, here is an image of them, along with their neighbors, taken from the Colorado Trail on Indian Trail Ridge to the east. Starting from the right: Sharkstooth, Hesperus, Centennial, Lavender, Moss, Middle Babcock, East Babcock, and Diorite.


  1. We hiked and climbed Centennial many years ago when our daughter was 11 and our son was 9. It was a thrill today the least. We were very proud of their "We're not stopping till we reach the summit!" attitude. The view from the summit is astounding--especially Lavender and Moss. Last summer we made it to the saddle between Centennial and Sharkstooth, but did not attempt any summits. Hope to do it again someday. I love reading your blog.

  2. Thank you, Lynn. I'm dreaming of summer, too. Centennial is a mountain to repeat time and again. It is often a first 13'er for kids. Now it is time for them to take you to the summit! Debra

  3. I look at your blog every month during the winter and probably 10 times per month in the summer! Centennial was the first mountain I ever climbed when I was in my mid 40s and visiting the area. Now I am in my mid 50s with teen age kids. I've done a few more peaks since moving into the area. What hikes would you recommend for young teens that won't discourage them from loving the sport?

    1. Hi Mark, Thanks for reading so faithfully. My son is now 27 but when he was a teen, these are the hikes he loved most: Centennial, absolute favorite; Point 12,101' (Kennebec Peak) and Cumberland Mountain (do together); Sneffels; Handies from American Basin; Columbine Lake via Standard Trail; Ice Lake Basin; Jura Knob; Cascade Creek Waterfalls; Castle Rock; Perins Peak, Animas City Mountain, and Pautsky Point and Crader Ridge. He adored climbing Engineer when he was ten but I was so terrified watching him on the exposed crux, I can't recommend it! For highly skilled and experienced kid-climbers only.

  4. Wonderful climb so close to home. I can see it from my backyard.

    1. Thanks, Dave. I envy your view. It is mid-June and a friend got stuck on the road to the Sharkstooth TH in deep snow. Give it a couple more weeks. Debra