Travel: The hike begins from the San Sophia Gondola Station at Telluride Ski Resort. Access the station by riding the free gondola either from Telluride or Mountain Village. Free all-day parking is available at the Carhenge parking lot off West Pacific Avenue at the west end of town and in a covered lot in Mountain Village.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 14.5 miles; 5,600 feet of climbing; 7,300 feet of descent
Total Time: 9:30 to 11:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; a short Class 3 wall and moderate exposure on Wasatch Mountain; Class 3+ with serious exposure on the north ridge of La Junta Peak.
Map: Telluride, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: June 18, 2018
Quote: So there I lie on the plateau, under me the central core of fire from which was thrust this grumbling grinding mass of plutonic rock, over me blue air, and between the fire of the rock and the fire of the sun, scree, soil and water, moss, grass, flower and tree, insect, bird and beast, wind, rain and snow—the total mountain. Slowly I have found my way in. Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
A hiker crests the southern prominence of Wasatch Mountain. Mount Sneffels bridges the gap.
(Thomas Holt Ward, photo)
Route: From San Sophia Station, hike south up See Forever Trail to the Wasatch Connection. Descend south to Bear Creek and take the Wasatch Trail southeast to McCarron Junction. Climb south off-trail to Oscar's Peak. Then head north and crest Wasatch Mountain, La Junta Peak, and Ballard's Horn. Double back to the La Junta saddle and drop west to intersect the La Junta Basin Trail. Descend to Bear Creek and return to Telluride. For those parked in Mountain Village, ride the gondola from Telluride Station.
From San Sophia Station, elevation 10,540 feet, utilize a ski area road to gain quick access to the alpine. Walking south, it is tempting to go straight up the ridge at 0.2 mile but hikers are asked to branch right on See Forever Trail. At half a mile, make a sharp left onto a single track, #415. It quickly returns to the ridge. Already the visual field opens to decorated Palmyra Peak and the San Miguel Mountains containing the fourteener Mount Wilson and neighbors.
Cat tracks spin off--hold to the ridge on See Forever Road. Below, hikers approach Gold Hill. Oscar's Peak, the most southern summit on the divide, is image-left.
At 2.45 miles, 12,200 feet, the Wasatch Connection branches left from the road. The trail now gives up 640 of the 1,770 feet just climbed. The track makes big swings highlighting the massive wall across the drainage. Skim by towers composed of disintegrating San Juan Volcanics. We will be in this formation much of the day. Snow lingers long here so don't start your hike too early in the season. (THW, photo)
The connect trail bottoms out and ends at Bear Creek, 4.0 miles, 11,560 feet. Just before the creek is a signed junction. The lower Wasatch Trail branches north, plummets downcanyon and segues into the Bear Creek Trail below the falls. Our hike crosses the creek following the eastward, upper Wasatch Trail. The stream is the headwaters of Bear Creek. It drains Lena Basin and the lake held within the constricted curvature of Palmyra Peak and Silver Mountain, image-right. San Joaquin Ridge is on the left. (THW, photo)
The trail is excellent all the way to the divide, air lifting hikers through a series of basins. Reach a signed junction with the East Fork Bear Creek Trail at 4.8 miles. It heads north-northwest to link with the lower Wasatch Trail. At 12,200 feet, enter "Merry Gold Flat." A gently flowing braided stream courses through tundra bejeweled with happy marigolds.
The upper East Fork basin is wide open and uncluttered. The flowers throughout our journey in 2018 are sparse because southern Colorado was experiencing an exceptional drought.
Top out on the Bear Creek, Bridal Veil divide at 6.3 miles, 13,060 feet. At John McCarron Junction, the Bridal Veil Basin Trail radiates east; the Wasatch Trail comes up from the west; and Blixt Road heads south over Oscar's Pass and down Chapman Gulch into Ophir.
Oscar's Peak, 13,432'
While there are occasional bits of use trail on the divide our route is primarily off-trail until we meet up with the La Junta Basin Trail. The north ridge of Oscar's Peak is a big pile of talus and scree with sky pilot and deep rooted spring beauty tucked into the rock. The climbing experience is similar to the east ridge, the access route for those climbing via Blixt Road. Crest Oscar's Peak at 6.6 miles. For those counting, the east ridge rises just 292 feet from the shared saddle with Point 13,614' (eight feet shy of the 300 required) so Oscar's is not a ranked summit.
However, the view is stellar. East is Bridal Veil Basin, Point 13,614', and Lookout Peak. South, the town of Ophir is tucked beside the banks of the Howard Fork of the San Miguel River. The luminous block of peaks rimming the cavernous space include South Lookout Peak, U S Grant Peak, Fuller Peak, Vermilion Peak, Pilot Knob, San Miguel Peak, and Yellow Mountain.
North is our traveling ridge. Wasatch Mountain has two distinct prominences south of the summit, shown.
Wasatch Mountain, 13,555'
Begin climbing on flat orange plates. The ridge begins constricting but the ascent is simple to the south prominence, approximated as Point 13,420'. The spine narrows on the north side and rock is poised to cut loose, exposure moderate. Be mindful while straddling the ridgetop down to the next saddle. Between here and the middle prominence is a short Class 3 wall, shown. Climb straight up the middle searching out solid holds amongst the fractured stone.
I have seen different sets of elevations attributed to the two prominences on Wasatch Mountain. The middle crest is Point 13,500' using standard approximation. (THW, photo)
Drop 80 feet to the next saddle on brick red ridge rock.
Summit Wasatch Mountain at 7.8 miles after 4,500 feet of climbing. While the bulk of the elevation gain is beneath us, the overall effort is only half accomplished. The highest point on the divide, Wasatch has one of the best views in the southern San Juans. Seen below, the La Junta Basin falls away, Telluride is on the valley floor looking pretty darn insignificant beneath behemoths at skyline: Dallas Peak, Gilpin Peak, Mount Sneffels, Cirque Mountain, Teakettle Mountain, and Petosi Peak. Further afar is Uncompahgre Peak and the Rio Grande Pyramid.
La Junta Peak, 13,472'
From Wasatch drop on the northeast ridge, a big talus pile, and descend east to Lake 12,815', pictured. Note: the La Junta Basin Trail leaves the divide in this saddle south of La Junta Peak. In 2013, I took this footpath down to the Bear Creek Trail and into town. This is a good bailout choice for those who do not wish to contend with the exposed northwest ridge of La Junta Peak.
A social trail skirts the initial outcrop on the right and then kicks very steeply up the rounded southwest ridge of the mountain. At this point in our multi-peak day we were grateful for the assist up the big pile of uniformly small rock.
Crest the large, rounded summit at 8.8 miles. The lookout to peaks above the San Miguel River Valley is downright startling. (THW, photo)
The north ridge of La Junta, shown, looks imposing from the summit and it is. The drop to the saddle with Ballard's Horn presents a high level of exposure and requires wits and skill. There are three large obstacles. If this is not your idea of fun or safety, turn around and exit on the La Junta Basin Trail. Note: there may be a work-around on the west slopes of the mountain. If there is a viable trail I can't vouch for it. Personally, I am not fond of sloughed-off side trails on ultra steep slopes.
The first obstacle is a bulbous outcrop. Bypass it on a decent trail in violet-colored chipped rock on the west side of the mountain. The ground was fairly soft after a rain so it worked comfortably. Return to the ridge.
In the image below the first obstacle is at skyline just left of center. Getting around the second gendarme, also shown, was not memorable. (EJB, photo)
This image looks back at the third and most challenging vertically-faced outcrop ridge-center. Downclimb from the highpoint by hugging a knob on the west. The hand and footholds are friable, the ledge narrow, the exposure vast. Then do a Class 3+ downclimb through a crack on the left, also considerably exposed. I needed a spot. Then move back toward the center and descend to the ridge.
Peak 13,145' and Ballard's Horn
From the saddle, elevation 12,820 feet, a social trail skirts left of minor ridge obstacles. This might be the easiest climb of the day. (THW, photo)
Crest the final peak of the hike at 9.5 miles. The rather small summit is over-shadowed by Ballard's Horn roughly 100 feet downridge to the north. Don't neglect this outstanding feature. (THW, photo)
I shot this next image from Ballard's Horn looking north to Ballard Mountain, elevation 12,804 feet. In 2013, I set out with my partner to follow the "Seven Summits Ridge Trail" from Ballard Mountain to Oscar's Peak. Perhaps that trail existed once upon a time but, if so, it is now highly fragmentary. For a short discussion on climbing Ballard Mountain, see the end of this essay.
From the shared saddle with La Junta Peak plunge west down the green slope to an old wagon road doubling as the La Junta Basin Trail. (Chris Blackshear, photo)
Turn right and follow the big zigzags to the creek draining La Junta Basin. It is essential that you cross to the west side of the creek at 11,700 feet. The trail gets confusing and elusive after the crossing. Search for cairns and it will materialize. Make a point to stay on the west side of a water-bored trench. The overgrown trail goes north to the base of the fins and spires shown. It is possible to walk to the platform between the pillars.
The trail turns east and descends through willows. From this location try to get a bead on where the trail crosses the creek and tracks across the talus field on the other side. Some helpful person recently painted arrows at the creek crossing at 11,280 feet. Watch this slippery crossing. A friend did a face plant in the creek and got a nasty gash. The path heads northeast across a scree field that is obliterating the track. It functions beautifully in spite of its marbly surface. Walk through a corridor of astounding standing towers on either side of the drainage.
The route goes down the right side of a small ravine to a large wooden mining structure in ruins at 10,900 feet. Shortly thereafter is the next challenge. The trail crosses a sharply angled ravine that has collapsed. We were just barely able to cross this hillside unassisted in 2013. It has disintegrated substantially since. Thankfully, a rope is strung across the stretch and anchored to a boulder at midpoint. The maintenance crew has got a fight on their hands to keep this spectacular trail open.
Misting waterfalls course down a sheer wall. A two to three-foot wide shelf trail hangs above the abyss.
At 10,600 feet, miners blasted a road out from the face of the cliff. Walk under the overhanging roof.
The dirt path makes 39 switchbacks down through a peaceful wood. The unrelenting downward plunge is a little tedious. At the confluence of La Junta Basin Creek and Bear Creek the trail becomes tangled. We hunted around and found a log across Bear Creek downstream of the confluence but most of us just waded across. A footpath rises up from the log to the Bear Creek Trail at 13 miles, 9,400 feet.
This popular local's trail is actually a dirt road passing through a prettily fluttering aspen forest. It is a welcome gradual runout after a strenuous hike. When you hit the pavement walk one block north and one block west to the Telluride Station.
Ballard Mountain, 12,804'
We climbed Ballard Mountain in June, 2013. I shot the peak from Baked in Telluride. Ballard's Horn is seen right of Ballard Mountain.
To climb the mountain, walk up Bear Creek Trail about one mile to a narrow left spur. Go down a grassy slope to a double log bridge across a narrow, carved spot in Bear Creek. Bear right at the first fork. Switchbacks are steep and unrelenting all the way to the northwest-facing ridge. At the Deertrail junction, go right and switchback to a rocky bench at 11,000 feet beneath a pinnacle. We looked around here for the trail. Walk straight up the north ridge and eventually climb on a steep and loose trail to the summit couloir. Pick your way up through rotten rock 300 feet to the summit.
Our goal was La Junta Peak and Basin. We followed the ridge south to the cliff at the base of Ballard's Horn at 13,000 feet. We explored the west side of the cliff and didn't like it so we backed up and contoured on a west-side trail that soon disappeared on exposed slopes below the horn. We retreated.