Thursday, July 30, 2015

Kendall Peak, 13,451'; Hazelton Mountain, 12,527'; Spencer Basin to Blair Gulch

Essence: String together four high basins and climb three named peaks on a thru-hike from Spencer Basin to Blair Gulch. Hike features old mining roads, ruins, and pack trails. A long, rugged day in Silverton's high country.
Travel: 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 CR 2 which is paved for the first couple of miles. Turn right on CR 21 at 1.9 miles. Go to the bottom of the hill and drop a vehicle by the Animas River bridge. At 4.0 miles (not counting the car drop), turn right on CR 4 at the sign for Cunningham Gulch. At the first fork (Old 100 Mine), stay right. Pass the turnoff for Stoney Pass at 5.7 miles. At 7.5 miles, turn right. The dirt surface is good but the grade is steep--4WD recommended. Park on the left at 8.4 miles. Capable vehicles can proceed another 0.5 mile but you pay for it later; the shuttle at the end of the day is already 45 minutes.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 11 miles, 3,700 feet of climbing
Time: 7:00 to 9:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging, carry the maps; mild exposure on the contour trail in upper Arrastra Basin; grave exposure on Hazelton Mountain
Maps: Howardsville; Silverton, Colorado 7.5 Quads
Date Hiked: July 30, 2015 
Historical Note: Silverton, Colorado, elevation 9,305 feet, was settled in 1874. It became the hub for outlying gold and silver mining camps. Population peaked at 5,000. The 400 buildings included hotels, banks, 29 saloons, and a red light district on Blair Street. In 1882, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad operated a train between Silverton and  Durango. Now a National Historic Landmark District with a population of 630, Silverton thrives largely because of the renowned Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

Two hikers descend into Woodchuck Basin. Hazelton Mountain, shown, is on the divide between Woodchuck and Blair Gulch. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Route: Begin at the Spencer Basin TH in Cunningham Gulch and walk to Blair Gulch. Continue down the road to the confluence of Arrastra Creek and the Animas River. Pass through four high basins, cross four passes, and climb three mountains. The blue-line route is suggested for those who only want to climb Kendall Peak. This option is discussed at the end of the post.

Three principle trails originate in Cunningham Gulch. The trail into Spencer Basin begins as a road on the west side of the gulch. Beginning at 10,800 feet, walk up the road to the stream crossing in 0.1 mile and take a use trail on the right. It rejoins the road at 0.2 mile, having avoided two wades across Mountaineer Creek. The road is hemmed in by black tipped senecio and western chain pod. At 0.5 mile, reach the highest parking area. The road transitions to a trail paralleling high above the creek. Point 13,434', climbed from its north or south ridge, heads the basin.

Reach the lower basin in 1.4 miles. The trail steepens until it flattens in upper Spencer, elevation 12,400 feet, at 2 miles. Locate Pass 12,900', shown, east of Pt 13,409'. Traveling north, cross Mountaineer Creek. Fields of alpine avens, marsh marigolds, and pink bluebells send me into reverie and gratefulness.

Pass 12,900' is a straightforward climb, gained at 2.6 miles. Straddling Spencer Basin and Arrastra Basin, these hikers contemplate Kendall Peak.

From the pass, locate Pass 12,920', the low point between Kendall Peak and Peak 13,409'. This second pass is on the divide between Arrastra Basin and Deer Park. A word of caution. The half mile-long contour trail has deteriorated since I was last there in 2010. It is a little edgy. In four or more places the trail platform is gone. Ball bearings cover resistant soil. There is mild exposure on this traverse.

The image below looks back on friends crossing the contour trail.

Reach Pass 12,920' at 3.1 miles. It is one mile round trip to Kendall Peak. This is the highpoint of the day and the highest pleasure. Don't skip it.

Kendall Peak ridge presents in three segments, all of them just narrow enough to feel like a ridge. The walking is Class 2 and exposure is minimal.

In the image below, friends are utilizing the off-ridge trail while climbing the summit block. But why get off the ridge when you can comfortably and happily stay on it?

A selection of Colorado's highest peaks circle the summit. Nearby to the west is Kendall Mountain, image-left. Woodchuck Basin, which this hike spans, is to the north. Hazelton Mountain, perhaps the most enthralling part of the day's journey is further north, center-right in this image.

As for Kendall Peak's northeast ridge, I have been to Point 13,289' from Silver Lake, shown. While I did not continue to the summit, my hiking partner succeeded.

Looking south, Arrow and Vestal steal the show as is their habit. Return to Pass 12,920' at 4.2 miles. (THW, photo)

Drop east to an old mining track in Arrastra Basin at 12,800 feet. Follow it north to the Iowa Mine at 5.0 miles. Historic artifacts litter the area. Please leave them in place. A grate covers a mine shaft that drops to oblivion. The mine is hung on a hillside 600 feet above the Silver Lake ghost town, elevation 12,186 feet.

Little Giant Peak and King Solomon Mountain preside east of Silver Lake and Arrastra Basin. (THW, photo)

Hold the contour to Pass 12,800' at 5.4 miles. This pass is between Arrastra and Woodchuck basins.

Round Mountain, 12,912', is on the broad ridge heading north from the pass. Walking on the taper to the highpoint is welcoming and only 0.4 mile roundtrip. While Round is not a legal summit, do not ignore this glorious, sensational traipse.

Take the mining track west, dropping off the pass into Woodchuck Basin. The rock is broken and we were lured into staying on the old road too long. Once 200 feet below the pass, just go down green ramps to the drainage at 12,160 feet. Pass 12,520' is image-left; Hazelton Mountain is shown at right.

Climb pitched columbine-covered slopes to the final pass at 12,520 feet, 7.0 miles.

Along the way flower communities take turns vying for attention. Here lousewort and rosy paintbrush take over.

If you are not climbing Hazelton Mountain, take the pack trail down into Blair Gulch. Hazelton is 0.5 mile north on the ridge. Go up and over a small, subsidiary peak.  Drop to the low point at roughly 12,300 feet. Then climb the first ultra steep green chute. Looking at the image below, the correct slot is the most southerly. 

Once on the rock, stay on the short knife edges as close to the east-side towers and chutes as you dare. Drop-offs on the east are vertical but the rock is more solid at the edge. The west slope is too pitched for self-arrest; venture out on it only when necessary. The mountain is covered in loose, small, grey stone. A caveat: some of my friends shrugged off the exposure as mild; for others, it worked the limits of their composure. (THW, photo)

The summit, by contrast, is altogether friendly. Walk to the abrupt north end for a view of the triangular face across the ridge breech. (THW, photo)

Return to the bottom of the green chute and drop 200 feet to the trail in Blair Gulch. Flowers are outrageous, the bluebells head high.

At the head of the deep gorge at 11,600 feet, the trail veers right and encounters a talus slope. Apparently the trail crosses the slope. We soon lost it and so we picked our laborious way almost 400 feet down the talus field.

The Blair Gulch pitch mellows. Follow along the stream to meet up with trail once again at 10,800 feet.  The track goes into the woods and comes to a private home, Dana Lode, at 9.0 miles. The land owners graciously allow the passage of hikers. Go around their green gate. Turn right on "Blair Gulch Road," CR 20A. It is possible to drive to this point for the vehicle drop, thereby avoiding the steep descent. A friend said, "The walk down the road is a bad ending." It does have some great mining relics.

Upon intersecting the road out of Arrastra Basin, turn left and in 0.3 mile arrive at the confluence of Arrastra Creek and the Animas River, elevation 9,500. 

Thank you, Dan, for sharing this route with me.

Blue-Line Route, Deer Park to Kendall Peak: I did this climb in October of 2008. It was 16 degrees at the trailhead and 10 degrees and blowing hard on the snow-covered mountain. From the Deer Park TH at 11,600', locate the pack trail that goes northwest, curving under the west ridge of Pt. 13,399'. Take this trail to Pass 12,920'. Climb the peak. To create a loop, return to 13,100 feet and descend the volcanic west ridge that straddles Kendall Gulch and Deer Park. My notes suggest it is dramatic with exciting drops. Be a purist and go over Pt. 12,730'. Upon reaching Pt. 12,210', plunge south to the road, then east to the trailhead. The loop is about 5 miles with 2,400 feet of vertical. While you are up there, from Pass 12,920', you can climb Pt. 13,409' via the northwest ridge. The south ridge is a delightful knife edge.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Silverton's Bear Mountain, 12,987', Via Point 12,695'

Essence: Approachable, pyramidal mountain with precipitous relief on three sides. Intimate apex with a grandiose vista. Required summit for Silverton aficionados.
Travel: From the US 550/160 intersection in Durango, drive north on US 550. Crest Molas Pass at 41.0 miles, Mile Marker 64. Take the signed left towards Little Molas Lake at 41.4 miles. Drive on a good dirt road, passing an established campground, and park at the Colorado Trail TH at 42.5 miles. Allow 50 minutes from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Black-line route, out-and-back via Pt. 12,695': 12 miles, 3,000 feet of climbing
Blue-line route, return via basin: 12.1 miles, 2800 feet of vertical
Red-line route, via Pt. 13,042': add 2 miles and 950 feet of gain to Bear Mountain
Time: 6:00 to 7:30
Difficulty: Colorado Trail, pack trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 2+; no exposure. Red-line route has exposed scrambling.
Maps: Snowdon Peak; Silverton, Colorado 7.5 Quads
Latest Date Hiked: July 23, 2015
Quote: Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises. Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Bear Mountain is on a north-south ridge straddling the breech between the abrupt peaks above Ice Lake Basin, shown, and Sultan Mountain (vantage point). Point 12, 695' is left of Bear.

Route: From Trailhead 10,890' near Little Molas Lake, hike on the Colorado Trail to the divide, headwaters of Bear Creek. Turn north on a pack trail. Leave the trail at Putnam Basin and climb the southeast slopes of Pt. 12,695'. After summiting Bear Mountain, return as you came or via the basin. The red-line approach is explained at the conclusion of this post. 

The hike begins on a popular segment of the Colorado Trail. The trailhead is a re-supply zone for thru-hikers and Little Molas Lake is its own destination. The parking lot is generous; there is an outhouse but no water. Hit the trail on the west side of the lot and plunge into deep, big-tree woods. Myrtle blueberry, heart leaf arnica, and Jacob's ladder lavishly decorate the forest floor. Climbing gently, step up limestone bands, cross a stream at 0.7 mile, and gain the ridge in 1.3 miles at 11,300 feet. In 1879, the Lime Creek fire burned 26,000 acres of forest with such intensity it has not yet recovered.

Here, the cross-state trail hooks north. Linger for a captivating view of Engineer Mountain and the La Plata Mountains.

The first glimpse of pyramidal Bear Mountain appears. Pt. 12,695', our first quest, is just to its left. The trail maxes out on the ridge at 11,645 feet, 2.0 miles in. It veers left/northwest of West Turkshead Peak (Pt. 12,849'), and begins a gentle, barely noticeable descent. 

Back in the timber, Whipple's penstemon, western valerian, and variegated paintbrush thrive in sunny patches. The track turns west at 3.1 miles and crosses a divide. North Lime Creek surrenders to the south and Bear Creek heads north to its confluence with the South Fork of Mineral Creek.

An aside about the abundance of green. In 2015, our planet is heating up and drying out. Yet, the San Juan Mountains are awash in record moisture. The heavens open daily to saturate the Earth anew in the trembling, true green of the aspen; the tender, blue green of just-born spruce sprigs; and the squint-your-eyes, electric green of the marsh. Altogether lively and luscious, green bears the promise of renewal and longevity.

Cross the divide and watch carefully for the faint Bear Creek Pack Trail at 3.3 miles. This juncture is 0.2 mile before what is indicated on the 7.5 topo. Leave the Colorado Trail and go right/north. The secondary track punches through willows and contours above the marsh. It grabs onto the 11,400 foot contour and hangs onto it all the way to Putnam Creek. Meanwhile, Bear Creek makes a plunging descent.

Stay on the pack trail through dappled woods to Putnam Basin. There are a couple of choices here. At 4.2 miles, we took a left fork (0.1 mile before the creek), as shown on the map above. The trail soon disappeared and so we made our own willowy way around to the other side of the basin. I wouldn't miss this route; we threaded through Telluride conglomerate boulders. An owl stoically watched our progress. We passed a glistening tarn. A stone's throw away, across the Bear Creek drainage is Sultan Mountain, Grand Turk, and Spencer Peak. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Perhaps the easier option is to stay on the pack trail. Cross Putnam Creek at 4.3 miles and look for a tertiary track that branches left/west into the basin. Follow this path until it is no longer useful.

The image below shows the southeast slopes leading to Pt. 12,695'. Pick the gentlest option.

Off-trail now, willows give way to hillside flora. Plant platforms are useful between 11,700 and 12,000 feet where the incline is steepest...and most flowerful. Green gentian spike, osha is frilly, and orange sneezeweed mimics the sun.

At 12,000 feet, a friend looks back on Putnam Basin, conglomerate blocks, and Snowdon Peak through the gap.

Dismiss the notion of contouring around Point 12,695'. You would miss one of the best vantage points of the day. More importantly, the go-around is well-armored with small cliffs. Watch for ptarmigan.

Reach Point 12,695' at 5.4 miles. No, it is not a legal summit but it has a wondrous view of the string of peaks surrounding Ice Lake Basin. Don't miss it.

Descend north to Saddle 12,500' where moss campion is having a banner year. At 12,800 feet, tundra transitions to talus. Everything about this peak, including the final Class 2+ climb, is friendly.

Crest Bear Mountain at 6.0 miles. The tiny zenith feels intimate and wondrous. Tuck into the rocks and bask in the fantastical, yet so real, sweep of the horizon. Silverton, shown, is close enough to hear the train whistle. Lake 11,794' sits in a cirque at the base of Bear's tumble-down north face. Sultan Mountain is two airy miles east as the crow flies.

Now for the return. The simplest option, and probably the fastest, is to go back the way you came, the black-line route. From the saddle, it is a 200 foot climb back to Pt. 12,695'. Alternatively, to make a small loop, return on the blue-line route. From Saddle 12,500', drop into the basin on the left/east. From the summit a sporadic game trail is visible.

Looking at the blue-line route from the peak, when the cliff structure on the east ridge of Pt. 12,695' abates, leave the basin and travel south. Do not drop lower than 11,400 feet.

The initial drop from Saddle 12,500' is steeper than anything on the climb so far. A friend calls it "purgatorial." Loose rock flies down resistant soil. But there are mini platforms to secure footing. Elk beds, tracks, and scat are everywhere.

Upon reaching 11,400 feet, simply contour south to Putnam Creek to link back up with the pack trail. Game trails push through the willows; work with benches. Resist the temptation to drop directly to the trail from the basin. We tried it once and failed to intersect it after losing 300 feet. There is a hunter's camp at Putnam Creek. Look here for the pack trail. It is better defined as it crosses the creek. Close the loop and stay on the path back to the Colorado Trail.

Turn left/east, cross the divide, and retrace your steps to the trailhead. In this image, everything is about to get its afternoon drenching.

Red-Line Route to Bear Mountain Via Pt. 13,042': Follow the black-line route to the Bear Creek pack trail turn-off. Continue on the Colorado Trail for almost two miles, contouring under Pt. 12,764'. You will see an obvious fault break in the Cutler Formation to the north. Refer to the Twin Sisters post for help locating the social trail through this break.

Once the pitch softens, about 12,100 feet, turn right and climb 600 feet to the south ridge of Pt. 13,042'. Turn north to reach the summit. So far, so good.

The mile-long ridge leading east toward Bear has "points of interest," to say the least. My notes from 2008 indicate that we were forced off the ridge on the south side to skirt obstacles.  The sketchy section lasted 0.25 mile. Half of our group bailed into Putnam Basin. They had much more difficulty with cliffs than we had by staying on or near the ridge. If you love a good scramble and are not afraid of exposure, this route may be for you.

The image below was taken of Pt. 13,042' from Pt. 12,695'.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Missionary Ridge: Haflin Creek to Stevens Creek Via Baldy Mountain, 9,874', and More

Essence: A collection of superb, three-season hikes in the low country. In spring, aspen corridors are carpeted with purple larkspur and sunny dandelion. Spears of lupine and wood's rose fill green glades with sublime fragrance. Mid-autumn, walk through tunnels of gold. Views all along the ridge of the La Plata Mountains and Animas River Valley. In June, 2002, the Missionary Ridge Fire claimed 73,000 acres ranging in elevation from 6,500 to 11,400 feet in the Animas, Florida, and Los Pinos river valleys.
Difficulty: Trail; navigation easy (Haflin North Ridge is off-trail; navigation challenging); no exposure
Maps: Durango East, Hermosa, Lemon Reservoir, Rules Hill, Colorado 7.5 Quads; or Latitude 40: Durango, Colorado
Latest Date Hiked: July 13, 2015
Quote: I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. John Muir

A stalwart stand of burned aspen enveloped by life. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Route: There is an elaborate trail system on Missionary Ridge with multiple approaches from both the east and west sides. Scroll down for various hike descriptions.

Haflin Creek Trail #557 to Stevens Creek Trail #728 Via Missionary Ridge Trail #543
Travel:  At US 550 and Trimble Lane (CR 252), zero-out your trip meter and drive east. At 0.9 mile, turn left/north on East Animas Road (CR 250). At 3.6 miles turn right at the Stevens Creek TH. There is room for only one vehicle. Drop a car and head back south on CR 250. The roomy parking lot for the Haflin Creek TH is on the left at 7.5 miles. Alternatively, if you wish to go directly to the Haflin Creek TH from Durango, it is 5.4 miles north from the corner of East Animas Road and Florida Road (CR 240), on the right.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 19.2 miles, 4,440 feet of climbing.
Time: 8:00 to 10:00
Route: This is a grand, all-day tour of Missionary Ridge, depicted on the map above with a black line. While it can be done in either direction, I prefer to climb the steeper Haflin Creek Trail and descend the more gentle Stevens Creek Trail. Haflin is popular with hikers, runners, and mountain bikers. A superb training ground close to town, the grade is steep, gaining almost 3,000 feet in 4.0 miles. It is free of snow relatively early.

From the Haflin Creek Trailhead at 6,640 feet, a well-maintained, red-earth track heads roughly east while switchbacking steeply up an open slope on the north side of deep and rugged Haflin Canyon. All along the way are compelling views of the Animas River Valley and Animas City Mountain.

Plants on the west-facing slope belong to the American West: piñon and juniper, scrub oak, yucca, rice grass, rabbit brush and sage, mountain gold, snake weed, and buckwheat. At 1.2 miles, the grade softens and follows the contour, suspended well above Haflin Creek. Hugging the hillside comfortably, the track crosses two red sandstone creeks, usually dry. The second crossing at 2.0 miles has a horizontal ladder for mountain bikers. The Permian Cutler Formation is so enticing, some regulars will tarry here and then simply head home.

The trail comes alongside Haflin Creek and begins its no-nonsense climb to the ridgetop. The entire drainage basin was burned in 2002. While there is still enough standing dead to warrant being wary on a windy day, most of the scorched forest is on the ground. The once venerable ponderosa pine, spruce-fir, and aspen look like pickup sticks. Trees are frequently cleared from the trail but climbing over fresh deadfall is inevitable. In 2015, chokecherry is having a good year.

Capitalizing on open sky, baby aspen are 10 to 15 feet tall. They provide cover for a diversity of wildflowers. In spring, the fragrance of lupine is energizing.

The route treads the bottom of ascending Haflin Canyon to 9,200 feet before spinning onto a dryer, south-facing slope. It makes one final switchback south and takes aim at the ridge on a rising traverse. Gain the ridge and intersect the Missionary Ridge Trail at 4.0 miles, 9,480 feet, after a climb of 2,840 feet. Needless to say, there are plenty of logs to sit on while contemplating the view of the La Plata Mountains to the west.

An out-and-back on the Haflin Creek Trail takes four to six hours. Most people will turn around here. However, the local highpoint, Baldy Mountain, is only 1.4 miles north. Stevens Creek Trailhead is a whopping 15.2 miles northwest.

For hikers doing the through-hike in the opposite direction, in 2015 the wooden sign for the Haflin Creek Trail disappeared and only the post remains to signify this critical juncture. The image below shows hikers walking north on the ridgecrest near the Haflin junction.

At 4.9 miles, the Missionary Ridge Trail bears left on a faint track marked by a cairn.  For those who wish to summit Baldy Mountain, it is an easy 1.0 mile, round-trip diversion on an old road. Follow it to the easternmost highpoint at 5.4 miles, 9,874 feet. Festooned with communication towers, Baldy is an industrial mountain. Still, there are some nice views between the annoying metallic tangle.

Return to the Missionary Ridge Trail at 5.9 miles. The path is on the west side of the ridge, bearing northeast. Pass the First Fork Trail, an eastern lateral at 7.1 miles, 9,500 feet. For almost two miles, walking is stellar, level and fast. At 10.2 miles, 9,840 feet, the Red Creek Trail goes off to the east. Continuing northeast, there are occasional views of the San Juan Mountains afar and the Stevens Creek Trail in the near distance.

The trail merges with an old fire road at 11.0 miles. In spring, aspen frame the lime green passage.

Reach a signed junction with the Stevens Creek Trail at 11.7 miles, 10,050 feet. Turn left/west. Our route leaves the crest of Missionary Ridge and descends to the Animas River Valley on this westerly ridge.

At 12.0 miles, go left at a fence, leaving the old road and onto a single track. This turn is easy to miss because the road continues while the trail gets faint and even disappears briefly after you pass the fence. In the image below, the Stevens Creek Trail ambles down the ridge, the town of Hermosa is on the valley floor, and the La Plata Mountains rise to almost 13,000 feet.

The trail to Wallace Lake branches right at 14.7 miles. Bear left, staying on the Stevens Creek Trail. At 16.8 miles, at the apex of a switchback that goes on seemingly forever, a mile in each direction, a trail veers right to join the Missionary Ridge Road. While our route stays on the main trail, spotting a shuttle vehicle at the terminus of either of these spurs will shorten the descent considerably. Upon reaching the southern end of the switchback, there remains a 1,200 foot drop over 2.4 miles. At 18.2 miles, go left. Reach the Stevens Creek Trailhead at 19.2 miles, 6,680 feet elevation, after 4,440 feet of climbing.

In the aftermath of the fire, hot enough to burn aspen, wildflowers struggled to regain their rightful place. Thirteen years later, the following spring flowers were in bloom: pussy toes, white violet, purple violet, senecio, golden banner, larkspur, elderberry, lupine, mountain parsley, chokecherry, heart leaf arnica, candytuft, strawberry, bluebell, fleabane daisy, false Solomon's seal, snowberry, current, northern rock jasmine, service berry, buttercup, white peavine, potentilla, osha, evening primrose, scarlet gilia, Indian paintbrush, yellow sweet clover, and deer vetch.

First Fork Trail #727 to Missionary Ridge Trail #543, Out-And-Back
Travel: From the intersection of East Animas Road (CR 250), and Florida Road (CR 240), drive north on CR 240 for 7.3 miles to CR 246. Turn left/north at the sign for Colvig Silver Camps. The excellent dirt road narrows at 8.3 miles. Park here if you do not have good clearance. The remaining 0.7 mile is pocked with deep potholes and ruts; it turns to slimy clay when wet. Open and close the gate at 8.5 miles. Park at the end of the road at 9.0 miles. First Fork shares the parking lot with the Red Creek Trail.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.3 miles, 1,700 feet of climbing.
Time: 2:30 to 4:00
Route: This is the purple-line hike on the map above. Leave the trailhead at 7,840 feet, walking northwest up an abandoned road. In 0.16 mile the track splits. The Red Creek Trail proceeds straight. The First Fork Trail is signed. Go left and immediately cross Red Creek and pass through a gate.  

The trail follows the First Fork drainage all the way to the ridgetop, crossing the brook several times. The Missionary Ridge Fire spared some of this drainage, including stands of the mature aspen. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Pass a few rock outcrops beside the stream. Walking is sweet and pleasant on this path that gradually lifts one to the ridgecrest at 9,520 feet in 3.6 miles. Intersect the ridge 1.5 miles north of Baldy Mountain, 9,874'. Communication towers crowd the eminence. The La Plata Mountains are visible through the standing dead and leafing aspen.

First Fork is often done as a 10.2 mile loop incorporating Missionary Ridge and Red Creek trails. Another option is to spot a vehicle at the Haflin Creek Trailhead and do a stellar 10.7 mile thru hike.

Red Creek Trail #726 to Missionary Ridge Trail #543, Out-And-Back
Travel: The Red Creek Trail originates from the same parking area as First Fork. If the road is too wet to drive, this trail will be too sloppy to hike. The First Fork Trail is a drier option.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.4 miles, 2,100 feet of climbing. The Red Creek Trail-Missionary Ridge-First Fork loop is 10.2 miles.
Time: 2:30 to 4:00
Route: This is the red-line hike on the map above. Leave the trailhead at 7,840 feet and walk northwest up a closed, 4WD road. In 0.16 mile the track splits. The First Fork Trail turns left at a sign. The Red Creek Trail proceeds straight.

Red Creek is a good choice for a hot day. The trail is alongside the creek most of the distance. Hop across the stream at 0.5 mile and then recross over and again. Pockets of the forest were spared by the 2002 fire. Walk in shade or dappled light under giant cottonwood, towering aspen, granddaddy fir, and massive ponderosa. An unexpected feature are the arborglyphs on the oldest aspen. Many date to the 1920's and 30's. Some of the trailside etchings are erotic.

The day we visited, it felt like the Red Creek jungle. It's been a wet year; plants have taken over the trail. We plowed through the drenched foliage. Green gentian are six feet tall. Wood's rose wafted intoxicating perfume, the best smell in the forest.

Butterflies sipped from orange sneezeweed.

The Red Creek Trail is a woodland sensory overload. At 1.8 miles, the valley narrows and the red earth trail threads between red cliffs and verdant hills. Maple and aspen crowd the experience; this would be a brilliant autumn hike.

The pitch kicks up considerably at 3.3 miles. We were in slop to our ankles and may as well have been trying to climb a slip and slide. The view opens to the south. The track makes a few squiggles and gains the ridge at 3.7 miles, elevation 9,840 feet.

The view is not dramatic in this location. To reach the top of the First Fork Trail, turn left/south on the Missionary Ridge Trail. There are excellent vistas of the La Plata Mountains and the San Juan Mountains on the three mile ridge portion.

Haflin North Ridge to Missionary Ridge Trail #543 to Haflin Creek Trail #557
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.0 miles, 3,300 feet of climbing
Time: 4:30 to 5:00
Route: This is the blue-dot climb on the map above. Only people confident in their route-finding and map-reading abilities should attempt this route. Navigation is challenging. Carry the Durango East 7.5 topographical quad. I have climbed several of the off-trail ridges that radiate west from Missionary Ridge. They are typically troubled with cliffs. This route uses the Haflin Creek Trail to get past the initial cliff band.


The Haflin Creek trail levels off and follows the contour at 1.2 miles, elevation 7,630 feet. It passes west of four small, sandstone spill-off drainages. Look for a plausible way to attack the southwest-facing slope to the left of the trail (northeast). There are options; I like just pitching up at about 1.4 miles. The steep ascent is cluttered with deadfall, vegetation, and loose material. Or, you can continue until the trail swings east high above the Haflin drainage at 1.6 miles.  The ridge comes down to meet the trail and the ascent is gentler. After 700 feet of vertical, the climbing eases.

At 8,400 feet, the ridge curves northeast and then zigzags before going due east to intersect the Missionary Ridge Trail. It narrows sufficiently to simplify the route finding--stay on the ridge. The climb is steep in a few places, ridiculously thick with oak brush in others. Wear long pants. For those who enjoy exploring the home front off-trail, this climb is exhilarating. See the Animas River Valley, La Plata Mountains, and the San Juans from a new perspective.

There are a couple of obstacles. Dodge the orange cliff on the north and edge around the crumbly towers on the south side.

Upon reaching Missionary Ridge Trail at 9,750 feet, turn right/south. In half a mile reach the Haflin Creek Trail. Until 2015, there was a wooden sign announcing this essential junction but, alas, it has disappeared. The signpost remains. It is a fast, on-trail, 4.0 miles with a 2,840 foot descent to the trailhead.

Panorama of Missionary Ridge from Animas City Mountain. (THW, photo)