Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Kennebec Pass Trailhead to Sharkstooth Pass via Sharkstooth Trail

Essence: On the beautifully engineered Sharkstooth Trail, traverse high basin country spanning two passes nearly identical in height. Peaceful and easy, this trail of solitude is surrounded by luxuriant, shoulder-high wildflowers and Engleman spruce. Luscious water is everywhere with little waterfalls above and rivulets to hop across. This is a section of the Historic Highline Loop, designated a National Recreation Trail in 1979 because of its extraordinary scenic value.
Travel: In a 4WD vehicle with good clearance, from the US 160/550 intersection in Durango, travel 11.0 miles west on US 160 to Hesperus. Turn right/north on La Plata Canyon Road, CR 124. Zero-out your trip meter. There is a brown, US Forest Service sign with mileages right after the turn. After passing the hamlet of Mayday, the road turns to smooth dirt at 4.6 miles. There are several established campgrounds in this area. In 8.5 miles the roadbed deteriorates with sharp, sizable rocks. At 12.1 miles the road splits. Proceed straight on FSR 571 toward Kennebec Pass. Park in the large parking lot at 14.2 miles.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.4 miles; 2,850 feet of climbing
Time: 5:30 to 7:00
Difficulty: Trail; navigation easy; no exposure
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: August 9, 2016
Quote: As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens. Stephen Graham, The Gentle Art of Tramping

Hikers look over to Sharkstooth Pass from Bear Creek Pass.

Route: From the Kennebec Pass Trailhead walk west on the Colorado Trail to Taylor Lake. Go south on the Sharkstooth Trail and then west to "Bear Creek Pass." Circle the head of Bear Creek Basin. Climb west to Sharkstooth Pass between Centennial Peak and Sharkstooth Peak. Return as you came.

Kennebec Pass Trailhead, elevation 11,600 feet, is located at the head of La Plata Canyon and near the northern terminus of the La Plata Range. The Colorado Trail, having just traversed Indian Trail Ridge, passes through the parking lot on its way to trail's end in Durango. The San Juan Mountains are pictured to the north.

Walk west on the Colorado Trail which holds the contour to Taylor Lake. Mid-summer, corn husk lily, little sunflower, delphinium and osha are tall bloomers. American bistort, rosy paintbrush, and Coulter's erigeron are bountiful. 

At 1.2 miles there is a well-signed junction. Leave the Colorado Trail and take the left branch onto the Sharkstooth Trail. It is just a few steps further to oft-visited Taylor Lake.

Walking south is an ever-evolving vista of the western La Platas. At 2.0 miles, the trail switchbacks and starts uphill while swinging west around the base of the southern terminus of Indian Trail Ridge. The Sharkstooth Trail is part of the Historic Highline Loop system, a testament to the heyday of trail building. Beside our trail is a hand-carved sign, "Warning Unstable Rock."

Diorite Peak, 12,761 feet, is just over a mile southwest.

The remarkable trail maintains a dirt surface as it threads through a substantial talus field, home to pikas. Whipple's penstemon and fireweed grow in the cracks. Bear Creek Pass is tucked in a grassy, flowery hillside.

Surmount the pass at 2.5 miles, elevation 11,920 feet. It is on the divide between La Plata Canyon and Bear Creek Basin. Directly across to the west is our goal, Sharkstooth Pass, a mere 16 feet higher. Looking at the image below, the mountains at skyline, all La Plata peaks, are: Mount Moss, Lavender Peak, Hesperus Mountain, Centennial Peak, and Sharkstooth Peak. To the northwest the La Sal Mountains are visible and so is Lone Cone, the westernmost peak in the San Juan range. Switchback into the basin on an impeccable dirt trail with stones piled up on either side. At the base of the talus passage, the trail turns southwest descending to 11,000 feet. (THW, photo)

In spite of all the markers, it is easy to lose sight of the trail in Bear Creek Basin. When it disappears, scrounge around for it in the foliage. Over-sized blazes grew up with Engelmann spruce. Walk from blaze to blaze or massive cairn.

This basin is lush with water everywhere. Pass left of two tarns at 11,580 feet. The trail has water running on it and occasionally goes through spongy bogs. Cascades tumble over walls. We counted 17 stream crossings in the basin. Thirsty monkshood grow beside brooks.

While moving west, Diorite Peak/Mount Moss ridge is always in view. In this image, arrowleaf senecio is in full flower.

The path takes direct aim at Centennial Peak and initiates an uphill grade at 4.2 miles. It crosses a burbling stream hidden under rock and elegantly cuts through talus run-out zones. (THW, photo)

Bear Creek Trail #622 joins from the right at 4.6 miles, 11,200 feet. For information on how the Bear Creek Trail links with the Highline Loop please see Indian Trail Ridge. We saw an exotic amanita mushroom at this junction. A clear view of the pass opens at 5.2 miles. Plow through another humongous boulder field on carefully laid stones akin to a patio. The treadway switchbacks to get above a minor cliff band. In August, you will find arctic and alpine gentian beside the path.

The headwall climb initiates at 11,450 feet. Switchbacks mitigate the incline through flower heaven, the slope covered in columbine. The route stays south of the drainage rivulet. I can't think of another pass with a trail this smooth and a climb this easy.

Attain Sharkstooth Pass after 6.2 miles and 1,500 feet of vertical. A weathered sign lists the official elevation as 11,936 feet. Passes always reveal a whole new world and Hesperus Mountain dominates the window to the west. Further off are the Abajo Mountains.

Two mountains tempt from the saddle. Centennial Peak is but 0.8 mile away to the south adding 1,126 feet of climbing. The climb is pleasant and straightforward but a rugged contrast with the hike thus far. A shorter add-on is Sharkstooth Peak, shown. It is only 0.4 mile with 526 feet of vertical. However, the mountain is deceiving, even dangerous. Rock is at the angle of repose and large talus tends to get rolling underfoot. Mount the southwest face. Do not attempt to climb directly up the south ridge from the pass. (THW, photo)

Return as you came. Looking east, locate Bear Creek Pass, image-left, an extension of Indian Trail Ridge.

Marmots scamper in the rock piles. Deer forage in the woods. In August, 2007, I saw a herd of elk 100 strong in upper Bear Creek Basin. Regain the pass and the familiar eastern massif of the La Plata Range takes over. In this image Lewis Mountain ridge encircles Columbus Basin.

Beyond Taylor Lake, repeat the pleasurable traverse through the wonderland of flowers. Once back at the trailhead, Cumberland Mountain, 12,388 feet, is a short climb away. Or, walk up the 4WD track to The Notch.

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