Friday, July 3, 2015

Houghton Mountain, 13,052', and Tuttle Mountain, 13,203' from Animas Forks

Essence: Begin at the ghost town of Animas Forks. Off-trail on a lovely, east-west running ridge north of California Gulch. Steep in places but accessible, Class 2 walking. Alpine flowers are immediate and abundant. Startling and unique views of the Mount Sneffels cluster, the incomparable Uncompahgre Peak group, the Handies Peak assemblage, and Rio Grande Pyramid.
Travel: In a 4WD vehicle with good clearance and sturdy tires, 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, pass the sign for Cinnamon Pass. Reach the historic mining town of Animas Forks at 12.1 miles and park. Allow 1:45 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 6.7 miles (additional distance for better return alternatives discussed below); 2,800 feet of climbing
Time: 5:00 to 7:00 depending on route
Difficulty: Off-trail, 4WD road; navigation moderate; no exposure
Map: Handies Peak, Colorado 7.5 Quad 
Date Hiked: July 3, 2015
History: The West Fork and North Fork converge in Animas Forks to become the Animas River. The township is located on the Alpine Loop, a 65 mile, challenging 4WD byway that connects Silverton, Lake City, and Ouray. Located at 11,200 feet, Animas Forks was established in 1873. The population peaked at 450 residents. Town had 30 cabins, a boarding house, hotel, general store, post office, and of course, a saloon. Mining profits from gold and silver declined swiftly and by 1920, the hamlet was abandoned. In 2011, Animas Forks was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The BLM owns the townsite; buildings have been stabilized and restored. It is the finest ghost town on the Alpine Loop.

Houghton Mountain and Tuttle Mountain (left of center) viewed from across the Animas River.

Route: Looking at the map below, our group did the black-line route counterclockwise from Animas Forks. It was serviceable, but I recommend a bigger loop on either the blue-dot or red-dot route. These alternatives are discussed below.

From the parking area at Animas Forks, 11,150', walk  a few paces down the road to the Columbus Mine, shown. Turn right and cross the West Fork of the Animas River on a bridge. Houghton Mountain and its southeast ridge are in clear view. Turn up onto the ridge.

For the first mile, the ridge is carpeted with grass and flora. Wildflowers are spectacularly diverse and plentiful in 2015 after a record wet spring.

The ridge is uniformly steep and in just moments, hikers are looking down on Animas Forks. Commanding in the south are Jones Mountain, 13,860', and Niagara Peak, 13,807'. (THW, photo)

California Mountain and Hanson Peak, center, reside between Placer Gulch and California Gulch. (THW, photo)

At 1.1 miles, 12,600 feet, talus and scree overwhelm soil but the climbing remains uncomplicated.

Summit Houghton Mountain, 13,052', at 1.4 miles after 1,900 feet of climbing. Even with clothing adjustments and a snack break, this is just an hour and a half endeavor.

The field of vision from this uniquely placed ridge is spellbinding. For those who are intimately familiar with the San Juan Mountains, it feels like the very center of home. Uncompahgre Peak, 14,308', is the big bruiser right of center in the image below. However, Wetterhorn Peak, 14,015', center, is the more intimidating of the two. Engineer Pass is visible just off image-left.

The ridge walk between Houghton and Tuttle is the hike's premier feature. The plumage of two rock ptarmigans was in the process of molting from winter-white to summer-tan. (THW, photo)

The rib narrows just enough to be fun but there is no sense of exposure.

Give up a total of 500 feet. At 2.5 miles, 12,650 feet, cross a pack trail that goes north and descends to Burrows Creek. This looks like an appealing exit alternative after climbing Tuttle, the blue-dot route on the map above. Total mileage for the stem and loop is 8.4 with about 2,950 feet of climbing. I have not been on this route to confirm. (THW, photo)

Standing between the saddle at 12,650 feet and Tuttle Mountain is Point 13,125', shown above. A snowfield lingered in July. We went around its toe and then climbed a very steep grassy slope to the top at 3.1 miles. (THW, photo)

From Point 13,125', it is a delightful 0.3 mile to Tuttle. The summit can be scaled either via the talus-covered ridge or on the grassy slope to the left.

Crest Tuttle Mountain, 13,203', at 3.4 miles. (THW, photo)

Mount Sneffels, 14,150', is the master of the jaggedity cluster in the west.

Within walking distance are Hurricane Peak, Hurricane Pass, and ice-covered Lake Como.

The descent ridge is downright enchanting.

As indicated on the black-line route, we left the ridge at 12,760 feet and then walked northeast on a faint pack trail. The path sputtered out in half a mile. We did 1.5 miles of side-hilling on occasionally resistant soil before relenting and descending to the road, meeting it at 5.3 miles, 11,700 feet. We exercised this option because we were racing rain. Even so, the storm caught us on our return.

On a clear day, we would have taken the red-dot route. Stay on the ridge until it joins the road at California Pass, 12,960 feet. This last segment of the ridge points south with Poughkeepsie Gulch on the west and California Gulch on the east. Either walk down the road back to Animas Forks, or walk along the West Fork of the Animas River (or spot a shuttle vehicle). This loop is 9.0 miles with 3,300 feet of climbing.

On the California Gulch Road, 0.6 mile west of the trailhead, is the Frisco-Bagley Mill. It was stabilized in 2013 by local residents. 

This is a banner year for wildflowers. Here is a short list of my favorites on this hike: columbine, Coulter's erigeron, northern rock jasmine, alpine avens, snowball saxifrage, death camas (don't touch!), marsh marigold, alp lily, deep rooted spring beauty, moss campion, old man of the mountain, purple fringe, and sky pilot. (How high can you fly?)

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