Thursday, June 16, 2016

Madden Peak, 11,972', and Parrott Peak, 11,857', Western Approach

Essence: Early-season approach to the western La Platas when snow lingers on the peaks. Minimal effort and fast access to two summits in the southwest corner of the range. Walk up the west ridge of Madden Peak with infinite, wide-open space behind as you ascend into the full glory of the mountains. Only the drive is potentially troublesome.
Travel: In a 4WD with high clearance, zero-out your trip meter at the US 160/550 intersection in Durango. Head west on US 160. Pass Target Tree and go up Mancos Hill, staying in the right lane. As you crest, the highway makes a bend to the right at the Montezuma County line. At 21.6 miles, hang a sharp right at the sign: National Forest Access, Madden Peak Road. The gravel road narrows and turns to dirt as it becomes FSR 316 at 22.6 miles where a track goes off to right. Stay straight and gain elevation quickly. Tall scrub oak in scattered ponderosa gives way to a thick aspen forest. The dirt road has a lot of deep ruts and would be impassible when wet. In other stretches, the surface is rocky. At 28.4 miles, see the radio towers on Caviness Mtn. At 28.5 miles, FSR 353 comes in on left. Continue straight, staying on FSR 316, passing through an open gate. Park here if you don't have 4WD with adequate clearance. The track descends with a view of the west flank of La Platas. The road has deep potholes, often filled with water. At 29.7 miles, pass a trail on the right with a faded sign. Park at 29.9 miles in a circular lot off the right side of the road. FSR 316 does keep going but it gets car-scratching narrow. The parking area is a lovely pastoral spot with aspen and bluebells. Allow one hour from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 5.3 miles; 2,050 feet of climbing
Time: 4:00 to 5:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; no exposure
Maps: Thompson Park; La Plata; Hesperus, Colorado 7.5 Quads, Trails Illustrated No. 144, Durango, Cortez
Date Hiked: June 16, 2016
Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the disheveled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.
W.B. Yeats

From Madden Peak, Lone Cone and Little Cone are on the far horizon. Hesperus Mountain is at the center of this La Plata cluster. 

Route: The stem and loop utilizes abandoned roads for much of the distance. The loop may be done in either direction. This description ascends the west-southwest ridge of Madden, bears south to Parrott, continues down the south ridge and then pivots northwest to close the loop. The blue-dot route is preferable: from Parrott, return to the saddle and descend west to rejoin the track.  

Walk east from the large parking area, elevation 10,220 feet, on a faint trail (image below) for about 100 feet to an abandoned road and turn left. Make a mental note of this location for your return trip. The track holds to the softly rounded west ridge of Madden to treeline. The path climbs steeply through an aspen forest with a few coniferous companions. Glacier lilies, spring beauties, and buttercups, abundant at the edges of snow patches yield to columbine. Ignore the roads that branch off to the right and go downhill.

At 0.6 mile, 10,760 feet, an equally prominent dirt track branches right at a shallow angle going uphill, image-below.  This initiates the loop. If you want to climb Parrott first, take the right-hand two-track until it is below the Parrott-Madden saddle, the blue-dot route. To climb Madden Peak first as we did, continue straight, steeply up, staying on the ridge.

The road soon leads onto a wide-open grassy hillside. Look back on the small town of Mancos, Mesa Verde, and Sleeping Ute. Helmet Peak is visible to the north. Enter a fir-spruce forest at one mile where snow stubbornly hangs on.

At 11,450 feet, emerge from the trees and get a good look at Madden, image-left, and Parrott. The wide track transitions to a social trail that leads onto the ridgetop.

At 1.4 miles, 11,500 feet, a large cairn on the ridge marks the location of the social trail for those doing the loop counterclockwise. When clear of snow, this trail should be easy to see peeling off the side of the ridgecrest.

Because of late spring storms, in June we walked on top of a cornice with characteristic suncups. It led onto broken talus with well seated rock on a gentle slope. This image looks back on the west ridge. (THW, photo)

The dome of the mountain is alpine tundra. While it was too early for a full-on floral display, early bloomers included mountain parsley, alpine clover, alp lily, alpine willow, minuartia, old man of the mountain, moss campion, and sky pilot, pictured. (THW, photo)

Crest Madden Peak at 2.0 miles after just 1,670 feet of climbing. This is the easiest and fastest route to the summit.

The panorama below is a good indicator of the view sweep from Madden Peak. Moving to the right from Helmet Peak on the left, is Lone Cone and Little Cone in the far distance, Star Peak and Gibbs Peak in the near distance, Hesperus Mountain on the western edge of the La Platas, Spiller Peak, the Knife, the Babcock group, Diorite Peak just poking up, Lewis Mountain, Silver Mountain, and Deadwood Mountain. (All of the above peaks are described in Earthline.) Spin to the southwest and see Mesa Verde, Shiprock, Sleeping Ute Mountain, the Abajo Mountains, and the La Sal Mountains. (THW, photo)

Descend the south ridge of Madden Peak heading directly toward Parrott while walking on thin plates of clinking granitic stone. In half a mile reach Saddle 11,557', the upper end of the blue-dot route. From here, it is 300 feet to the summit of Parrott Peak. While on the saddle, locate a social trail that climbs just to the right/west of some minor cliffs. Once past the obstruction the path gets absorbed into talus.

Parrott is more than it appears. There are two false summit rollers on this little mountain. Crest at 2.75 miles.

Parrott Peak is the southernmost prominence on the western massif of the La Plata range. There is something so sweet about this little peak in its all-important position. A long stretch of the Highway 160 roadcut is below. In the north the San Juan Mountains are the thinnest line. The image below shows the return track traversing on Madden's west ridge, reached easily by returning to Saddle 11,557'.

Ridge purists may descend on Parrott's south ridge to the weather/radio station at 3.0 miles.

Pivot and walk northwest in a descending traverse across a tedious talus field.

Upon crossing Starvation Creek, simply drop to the old track, reaching it at about four miles, roughly 11,100 feet. If you are descending from Saddle 11,557', just go west to Starvation Creek pictured below.

Surely something dreadful occurred here during the La Plata mining days to merit this name. But now marsh marigold, the happiest flower of them all, gathers around the creek. As snow recedes, glacier lilies thrive in this location.
(THW, photo)

Locate the prominent old road for a quick descent and clear route back to the start. Looking back renders a perspective on the loop.

Reach an intersection on the wide-open grassy slope at 4.5 miles, 10,950 feet. While we continue downhill, if you do the loop in the opposite direction, you will need to turn right here on this faint approach track. Close the loop at 4.7 miles.

I'm grateful to my hiking companion for figuring out the access road system and the hiking route for this early-season climb.

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