Friday, September 9, 2016

Mount Rhoda, 13,402'; Mountaineer Peak, 13,434'; Whitehead Peak, 13,259'; Continental Divide Trail Loop

Essence: This big loop incorporates two different landscape segments. Climb five prominences on a virtually unobstructed ridge with a little easy scrambling and terrific views. The high altitude tundra portion consumes the rest of the hike while skirting exquisite alpine lakes. Mid-summer, Spencer Basin has the most sublime wildflowers in the region. Autumn color dazzles. Navigation is challenging in two places; map reading skills imperative.
Travel: From Durango, drive 47 miles to Silverton on U.S. Route 550. 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 into Cunningham Gulch at 4.1 miles. The road to the Old Hundred Mine goes left at 4.3 miles; stay right. Pass mining debris and picturesque ruins. At 5.9 miles, stay right as the track to Stony Pass veers left. There is a large camping area with an outhouse at 7.5 miles. At 7.7 miles, the left spur dead ends so stay right. The road crosses Cunningham Creek and begins climbing the west wall making a big switchback. The track deteriorates and steepens. At 8.6 miles the left spur goes down to the Highland Mary Trailhead. Take the right fork and look immediately for a large parking platform on the left at 10,800 feet. 4WD is preferable but 2WD with good clearance and sturdy tires should suffice.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.7 mile loop; 4,100 feet of vertical. The alternative return via Highland Mary Lakes is 10.3 miles. 
Time: 6:30 to 8:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 2 with no exposure; Class 2+ with mild exposure on optional Pt. 13,409'
Maps: Howardsville; Storm King Peak, Colorado 7.5 Quads
Latest Date Hiked: September 9, 2016
Quote: Geometry is one and eternal, a reflection of the mind of God. Johannes Kepler, 1571-1630

The visual splendor of the Grenadier Range rewards hikers as they traverse from Mountaineer Peak to Mount Rhoda.

Route: From the trailhead in Cunningham Gulch, elevation 10,800 feet, bear west on an established trail into Spencer Basin. Gain "Rhoda Ridge" between Mountaineer Peak and Pt. 13,409'. Walk south on the ridge while climbing five prominences spanning Pt. 13,409' and Whitehead Peak. From the Whitehead/Rhoda saddle, walk east to the trail near the highest lake in the Highland Mary chain. Walk southeast to Verde Lakes. Locate trail #674 and go east to intersect the Continental Divide Trail. Travel north-northwest, returning to the Highland Mary Trailhead. Ford Cunningham Creek to close the loop. This is a fabulous loop assuming you find it. The two places that require navigation skills are descending from Rhoda Ridge, and finding trail #674. Many trails on the old topos no longer exist.

The big loop described is the black-line route. The blue-line route is the shorter Highland Mary Lakes option, and the red-dot route is the shortcut from Verde Lake to #674. Click on the map to enlarge.

Three principle trails originate in Cunningham Gulch. The trail into Spencer Basin begins as a road on the west side of the drainage. From the parking area, walk up the road to the stream crossing at 0.1 mile and take a social trail on the right. It rejoins the road at 0.2 mile, having avoided two wades across Mountaineer Creek. The image below shows the road rising from the trailhead and one of the Mountaineer Creek cascades. (THW, photo)

The road is hemmed in by black tipped senecio and western chain pod. The track served mines and evidence is plentiful. Please note that images posted here were gathered from many trips in different seasons over the past 12 years.

At 0.6 mile, reach the highest parking area at 11,240 feet, shown. If you intend to restrict your hike to the Spencer Basin region, park here. The road transitions to a trail paralleling high above the creek. Sugarloaf, 12,754 feet, is image-center.

The landscape rises in a series of benches. The first reprieve is in one mile at 11,600 feet. Elk were bedded down beside the trail in autumn, their lingering scent musky green and sharp. Pt. 13,434' heads the basin. Unofficially named Mountaineer Peak, this hike goes over both summit knobs.

Reach the lower basin in 1.4 miles and cross Mountaineer Creek at 12,040 feet. Walk amongst an exuberant assemblage of hybridized paintbrush. Color combinations are delicate and intricate. Below, capped Mount Rhoda is image-right and its east ridge splays across the basin.

In 1.9 miles at 12,400 feet, come to a platform in the upper basin from which you can see the saddle between Mountaineer Peak and Pt. 13,409'. In autumn, the sense of peacefulness is pervasive. Plants softly sigh after a furious level of summer activity. Below, Mount Rhoda is left, Mountaineer Peak, center, and Point 13,409', right. (THW, photo)

Typically, we've followed the dwindling track as it descends slightly into a marshy catch basin. It works better to stay on the contour until directly east of the saddle. I've approached the saddle from both sides of the ravine. The slope is steep but turf ledges assist. Ideally, when the saddle is free of snow, it is best to top out to the right of the center hump, seen below. That positions you properly for Pt. 13,409'.

At 2.7 miles, reach the saddle at 13,340 feet. There are two legal summits on this hike, Mountaineer Peak and Mount Rhoda. However, the three additional prominences have unique, compelling features. The first is Pt. 13,409'. This optional out-and-back takes just 20 minutes. Go north on a narrow ridge with excellent scrambling rock.

The summit ridge thins to a mild knife on the short traverse to the northern highpoint. (THW, photo)

From the crest, look directly down into Arrastra Basin. Little Giant Peak is east of Silver Lake. Kendall Peak is an extension of this ridge, off image-left. (THW, photo)

The image below was shot looking back from the north end of Pt. 13,409'. Pt. 13,399' tops the west ridge on the right. Return to the saddle, climb the minor knoll and then walk west to this intimate prominence at 3.3 miles. It features a view down into Deer Park which is rimmed on three sides by Rhoda Ridge. Pt. 13,399' is the highpoint along the northern perimeter.

Rhoda Ridge is notable for its simplicity and ease of passage. The Grenadier Range is quite the opposite. I think of the peaks as "mathematical geniuses." But I suppose it is more sensible to embrace the notion that they were created by an earthly force with a proclivity for the geometric golden mean. From the left: the Trinity Peaks, Vestal Peak's Wham Ridge, Arrow Peak, and in the background on the right, Turret Peak and Pigeon Peak.

Walk south on the ridge to Mountaineer Peak. It is an unobstructed, simple, mostly grassy climb to the north knob. The mountain rolls off west into Deer Park. Near vertical cliffs and couloirs define the east edge as you approach the summit.

Pt. 13,434' is a legal summit and the highest point on the divide between Deer Park and Spencer Basin. The companion hike to this loop is the Deer Park circuit which visits seven prominences. The climb begins from Deer Park and rotates clockwise from Pt. 13,399' to Pt. 12,829'. Exit from the southwest end of the ridge to Pt. 12,462' and take the Whitehead Trail back into Deer Park. There are several ways to get started from Deer Park. Once I climbed straight up the gully on the south face of Pt. 13,399'. Another time, I took the pack trail to the Kendall Peak/Pt. 13,409' saddle and then a contour trail across the north face of Pt. 13,409'. I have friends who have climbed from the Kendall Peak saddle up the northwest ridge of Pt. 13,409'.

In autumn, tundra rolls off from Mountaineer Peak in a pleasing, monochromatic tan. Sharpen your focus and color splashes are unnaturally brilliant: lime green, gold, red and orange. (THW, photo)

The south side of Pt. 13,434' is scrabbly to the saddle at 13,100 feet. Mount Rhoda, at 13,402 feet, just makes the 300 foot requirement to be a legal summit. The mountain is distinguished by its flat cap rock, easily identified from Molas Pass.

The 20 foot summit scramble straight up the north end is on excellent rock. You can take it any number of ways. I use the stairstep just west of center, shown. This pitch can be avoided by going around to the west for a walk-up.

Crest Mount Rhoda at 4.5 miles. From this glorious, flat-topped domain scope out the route east to Verde Lakes. In the image below, two of the Highland Mary Lakes are left of center. The small lake where we'll pick up a trail is right of center. Verde Lake is to its right.

The fifth and final ridge prominence is Whitehead Peak, seen here from the summit of Mount Rhoda. Rising only 119 feet from the saddle, it is not a legal summit but there is a unique reason for visiting.

Descend south to Rhoda/Whitehead pass at 13,140 feet. According to the topo, the Deer Park Trail once crossed here but I have searched on both sides of the pass and the trail is no more. Crest Whitehead Peak, 13,259 feet, at 5.0 miles. From this broad, welcoming height the view of the Grenadier Range is spectacular. We are separated only by the Elk Creek trench which carries the Colorado Trail.

Leave the ridge and launch into the second segment of the hike across a continuous flow of universal tundra. The next objective is the highest of the Highland Mary Lakes at 12,620 feet. This lake is located south of Pt. 12,655'. Either return to the Whitehead/Rhoda pass or simply walk down the tundra ramp northeast from Whitehead Peak. Once you are directly east of the saddle hold an east-southeast bearing, staying perpendicular to Rhoda Ridge, as indicated below. It would be easy to get lost because vision is restricted from one dale to the next. In the summer, king's and queen's crown is abundant.

Intersect the trail about 0.8 mile from the ridge. Horse traffic is evident. Turn right and shortly reach the exquisite lakelet. Cross the outlet on the trail at 6.3 miles. In the image below, you can see the trail going up a slope on the other side of the lake.

Soon after the crossing the trail disappears momentarily. It reappears in a depression all the while heading southeast toward Verde Lakes. Distinguish the treadway from endless sheep trails. Verde Lake is image-left. The path passes two landmark boulders and stays west of another Highland Mary Lake at 6.7 miles. Years ago there was a rare Colorado tansy aster growing in this area, plus snowlover, daffodil senecio and Coulter's erigeron.

White Dome glistens appropriately while rosy and sulfur paintbrush thrive in wetlands just west of Verde Lakes.

In 7.1 miles, the trail passes by west Verde Lake on the north. The lake is characterized by stone ledges along the western shoreline. Fishing is good. In autumn, communities of bottle gentian crowd the trail. (THW, photo)

Upon reaching the east lake, the trail curves north and climbs to a minor pass between the Verde and Highland Mary lake basins, just to the left of this image. Our next objective, trail #674, leaves from the head of the lake and climbs to the low point between the two rounded knolls, shown. 

All routes back to the trailhead go up the draw to the north. The tracks diverge after crossing a small stream. If you wish to shave off 2.4 miles, take the blue-line route noted on my map. Simply head north to popular Highland Mary Lakes. Navigation is easy on trampled trail all the way and the hike is spectacular. My favorite part is threading on rock runners between the lakes.

For those doing the big loop, finding #674 is the next navigation challenge. There are a lot of trails with different names in this area, many marked poorly if at all. Note the red-dot route on my map. This route goes east from the aforementioned stream crossing and joins #674. You can take this shortcut route even if the trail is intermittent provided you are good with a map.

For the standard route, from the stream crossing, notice a trail going south toward the shore of east Verde Lake. Follow it around to the head of the lake where there are campfire rings. Scrounge around for #674 here. No cairns mark the route but the trail becomes apparent and carries horse traffic. It goes up the east ridge from the lake. Concentrate to stay on track.

Caution: Do not inadvertently keep going past the lake on the perimeter trail. This is the Whitehead Trail marked on the topo. You will soon be plunging into the wrong world, away from your trailhead.

The image below was taken from trail #674. Mount Rhoda is in the distance. The Highland Mary Trail goes off to the right/north of Verde Lake. (THW, photo)

The shortcut trail joins #674 at 8.1 miles and the well-established track bears east to an overlook at 8.6 miles and turns northeast. The prominent gulch below runs down into Elk Creek. Trail #674 drops roughly a hundred feet to cross the drainage at 8.9 miles, 12,320 feet. Vertical black volcanic walls are on the east side and a talus field on the west.

Marked with posts, the trail climbs gently northeast. We see a stone boy, characteristic of cairns on the Continental Divide Trail, #813. The tracks parallel each other for a time and merge at 9.4 miles, 12,560 feet, the terminus of #674. A golden eagle with a white tail patch probed the ground and we passed a couple of backpackers on the Colorado Trail which shares the route in this area with the CDT. Traveling north, Canby Mountain, 13,478 feet, is image-center.

The Colorado Trail and CDT make a sharp turn to the right toward Stony Pass while our unmarked trail continues straight ahead.

Cruise lazily downhill through the tundra. Two white sheep dogs put up a fuss to divert us from their flocks. I meet them every time I walk through this area. Reach the tipping point at 11.1 miles, 12,050 feet. Sugarloaf is suspended above Spencer Basin and our morning peaks look far away. Plunge down into the sidewall of Cunningham Gulch on a pleasant but steep trail through a rapidly dying forest.

Two junctions await. At 11,380 feet, 11.9 miles, go left toward the Highland Mary Trailhead. The Cunningham Gulch option will take you back on a longer path. Upon reaching the Highland Mary Trail at 12.2 miles, turn right. In another 0.3 mile pass trailhead parking for Highland Mary. Continue down the road and ford Cunningham Creek. Find a shortcut trail on the left that closes the loop.


  1. Hi Debra! Thanks for all your great trip reports. There isn't too much info available for the less-traveled hikes in the San Juans and your reports are always so helpful. I have a question about Mount Rhoda. Is there still an 8-foot cairn on the summit?

    Thanks so much!
    - Katie

  2. Hi Katie, I am delighted you find these little descriptions helpful. My greater mission is to document the American West but if I can be useful while I'm at it, all the better. Alas, the Stone Boy on Rhoda is gone. There's just a little pile of rocks and a peak register. Debra

    1. That was one of the few remaining cairns built by Hayden Survey members (including Franklin Rhoda) in 1874. Would have been neat to see it. Thanks for the info!