Saturday, September 28, 2019

Baker Peak, 11,949', Via Eagle Pass

Essence: Baker Peak is most often climbed by way of Silver Mountain. This off-camber route approaches the neglected summit from the opposite direction, by way of Eagle Pass and Puzzle Pass. On its own terms, this is a delightful hike to a fine little (unranked) mountain on good rock. How far you drive up Lewis Creek Road will determine the length of the hike.
Travel: From the US 160/550 intersection in Durango, travel 11.0 miles west on US 160 to Hesperus. Turn north on La Plata Canyon Road, CR 124, and measure from there. After passing the hamlet of Mayday the road turns to smooth dirt at 4.6 miles. In 8.5 miles the roadbed deteriorates with sharp, sizable rocks. A 2WD vehicle with sturdy tires and moderate clearance may continue to Lewis Creek Road, CR 124A, at 9.4 miles. Turn right and park just before or after the bridge crossing the La Plata River. Vehicles with 4WD, high clearance, and beefy tires may proceed up Lewis Creek Road. The track is steep, rugged, and rocky throughout. Because the road is bound by private land, parking is limited to: the beginning of CR 124A at the La Plata River, the Gold King Mine ruins 1.8 miles up the road where the land owner has granted permission, and the upper parking area at 3.1 miles, elevation 11,300 feet.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Upper Parking: 5.0 miles; 2,000 feet of climbing. Mine ruins: 7.6 miles; 2,840 feet of vertical. Lewis Creek Road Trailhead: 11.2 miles, 3,860 feet of gain
Total Time: 3:30 to 4:30 from upper parking.
Difficulty: 4WD road, off-trail; navigation moderate; Some Class 2+ with mild exposure on the northeast ridge
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: September 28, 2019
Quote: You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of power than you think. The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. John Burroughs, 1908

One of the charms of Baker Peak is that it doesn't make the playbook legal summits enjoy because there isn't quite enough lift from the Silver Mountain saddle. And yet, hikers may visit Eagle Pass and curiously named Puzzle Pass, shown, and then climb an unlikely ridge that turns out to be great fun.

Route: Hike or drive east up Lewis Creek Road shown with the blue line to upper parking on public land. Tag Eagle Pass and climb Point 11,900' or flank them on the west on a gated service road. Leave the track and descend on the ridge southwest to Puzzle Pass. Climb the northeast ridge of Baker Peak.

In July, 2019, we walked up the Lewis Creek Road from the La Plata River and climbed Bald Knob. CR 124A was blocked by debris and a slidepath at the Lewis Creek crossing shortly before the ruins associated with the Gold King Mine, shown. For a description of this road segment, link to Bald Knob

Walking up the road has its share of pleasures, including an early look at fluted Baker Peak.

The road splits at 3.0 miles. Take the left branch which accesses the upper parking lot at 11,300 feet. The road continues on but there is a locked gate in half a mile and no room to turn around. The mileage for this description begins here, 3.1 miles from the La Plata River. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

The road climbs steadily and familiar peaks in the West Block are revealed. Behind me is Burwell Peak (image-left), the ridge running over to Spiller Peak, and East Babcock Peak. (THW, photo)

Climb through the gate intended to stop vehicles (but not people). As indicated on the map above, we stayed on the road as it swung under Eagle Pass. If you have not been to the pass, cut up once past the gate. Then climb easily to Point 11,900', a prominent knoll with a weather station, radio transmitter, and other towers. The lookout is only a few feet shorter than Baker. In this image, hikers are discussing Centennial Peak, the banded mountain between Mount Moss and Diorite Peak. (THW, photo)

Note: Bald Knob and Baker Peak are accessed from different ridges radiating from Point 11,900'. Strong hikers could climb them both on the same day. They each give up a fair amount of elevation on the approach and the summit pitch is comparable. Together with Point 11,900' and Silver Mountain, they are primary contributors to the Lightner Creek watershed. To the right of Bald Knob in the image below is Durango, the Perins Peak cuesta, Barnroof Point and Lake Nighthorse.

To climb Baker Peak, locate the juncture of the service road and the southwest ridge of Point 11,900' at 0.7 mile. The La Plata topo marks this elevation at 11,776 feet. The drop to Puzzle Pass is about 650 feet. To begin, the ridge is rounded and the grade gentle.

Progress slows as the ridge constricts and becomes rock and tree-covered. At about 11,640 feet, look for a game trail (that magically) materializes paralleling the ridgeline about 50 feet off on the east side. Run it out and return to the ridge. The steepest roller is the final 150 feet before the saddle. From here, take a good look at the climbing ridge, image-center.

Puzzle Pass, 1.9 miles, 11,140 feet, is an historic miner's campsite with artifacts scattered throughout the area. Please leave them in place.

The approach over, climb 800 feet up the northeast ridge. Myrtle blueberry covers the spruce forest floor. The incline is somewhat steep but moderated by fragments of social trail on the ridgetop. Trees give way to small talus and grass above 11,400 feet. There is some inconsequential Class 2+. The rock is well seated and the footing good.

Pop up onto the northwest ridge at 2.4 miles. This is a wild and dramatic moment with Silver Mountain appearing in your immediate field of vision. Baker is just a couple of stony bumps away. The tiny summit is composed of a chopped up, fine-grain igneous rock. Gerry and Jennifer Roach signed the peak register on September 17, 2016. I have seen their names on many a quiet peak; they know where to find joy.

This image looks back on our access ridge. Lewis Mountain may be climbed from Eagle Pass though I have always started in Columbus Basin. It may look bulky from here but the entire ridgeline (and that's only half of it) is a delicate thread.

For fun, see if you can find Hesperus Mountain in the image below. Retrace your steps. If you are thinking of exploring further, please note: In 2003, on my first La Plata hike I climbed Silver and then Baker. I stayed on Baker's northwest ridge all the way down to the base of the Tirbircio Creek trail near the Gold King Mill, lost to fire that very summer. The ridge has its undulations, adding 100 feet or so to the total. When we reached treeline we plunged on a west ridge so steep I was grabbing at trees to stay on my feet. I have since learned that there is a strip of private property at the confluence of Tirbircio Creek and the La Plata River so I have not revisited that route.

Silver Mountain is just one mile south of Baker. There is about 900 feet of vertical going over and roughly 350 feet coming back. As I recall, the descent on Baker's south ridge was a little testier than the northeast ridge. Once you reach the saddle at 11,700 feet, the climb is straightforward.

I'd like to thank my friend Will for turning me on to the Puzzle Pass approach to Baker Peak.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

McMillan Peak, 12,804'; Ohio Peak, 12,673', Red Mountain Pass

Essence: The half day ramble up McMillan Peak is suitable for families with older children who like to hike. Walk free-range across immense spans of unfettered tundra. While the effort to summit is moderate, the point of vantage is commanding. Most enthralling is the lineup of peaks west of US 550. Alpine flowers are profuse mid-summer. A longer loop incorporates Ohio Peak. Both summits are located on the divide between the Mineral Creek and Cement Creek watersheds. A string of twelvers begins in the south with Anvil Mountain rising up out of Silverton. The ridge grows in stature and culminates in the north at Red Mountain No. 3 (12,890'). The welcoming western slopes of McMillan are exceptional; the other peaks on the divide are hardscrabble. The hike is contained within the San Juan National Forest.
Travel: The turnoff from US 550 is just south of mile marker 80, less than a quarter mile south of Red Mountain Pass. Turn east on unsigned FSR 825 and start measuring from here. You will need 4WD and decent clearance on this steep but good dirt road. The track heads generally southeast. At 0.7 mile, turn right on San Juan CR 14. There is a sign here for St. Paul Lodge & Hut. Cross Big Horn Gulch at 1.3 miles. Park in the pullout on the left at 1.7 miles. The road continues and reaches its high point at 12,120 feet. Then it descends through Browns Gulch back to US 550. I have not been on this lower section of road.
Distance and Elevation Gain: McMillan Peak loop is 4.2 miles with 1,500 feet of climbing. The out-and-back to the peak is 3.4 miles with 1,200 feet of vertical. The McMillan-Ohio loop is 5.4 miles with 1,750 feet of gain.
Total Time: 3:00 to 4:30 depending on route
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation moderate; no exposure
Maps: Ironton; Silverton, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quads
Latest Date Hiked: October 8, 2019
Quote: Just living is not enough…one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower. Hans Christian Andersen

This image was shot from the broad, south rim of U S Basin. McMillan Peak is easily identified from all over the region by the microwave reflector standing on the summit.

Route: FSR 825/CR 14 is indicated with a red line. There are multiple ways to climb McMillan and Ohio--build your own hike. This description begins from CR 14 in U S Basin. For the blue-line stem and loop, ascend southeast in U S Basin to the ridge and then northeast to the summit of McMillan. Return as you came or extend your exploration by descending along the south rim of the basin over Point 12,596'. For the longer black-line loop, park at the same location and walk south up CR 14 to its highest point. Hike east to the north ridge of Ohio. Climb the peak on a spur and then hike north to McMillan. Descend on open tundra northwest and then west into U S Basin and back to the start.

Blue-Line Stem and Loop to McMillan Peak
From the parking pullout, elevation 11,760 feet, head up into U S Basin. The hike begins at tree limit where healthy spruce stands concede to the alpine. The topo indicates an old trail running up to a mine site at 12,200 feet. Walk up the road a few paces to intersect it. It presents as a stream channel. We just launched from the pullout and intuitively found ourselves on the trail remnant but there is plenty of freedom of movement on the gentle slopes. Favor the south side of the basin to stay clear of willow patches. Cross the stream feeding Big Horn Gulch at half a mile, 11,880 feet.

We gained the ridge in one mile at 12,400 feet, the lowest point in the image below.

A well-trodden social trail flanks Point 12,652' on the west but you may stay right on the ridgeline if you prefer.

McMillan Peak has two rounded prominences on its crest. The climbing is a little steep for the last 200 feet to the secondary summit. Pause here to process the astounding array of thirteeners to the west. In this image alone the span begins with Rolling Mountain on the left, Grizzly Peak, then the peaks ringing the Ice Lake Basin: Fuller Peak, Vermilion Peak, Golden Horn, Pilot Knob, and US Grant; South Lookout Peak, and the peaks surrounding Mill Creek Basin (Columbine Lake): Peak 13,300', and Lookout Peak. Finally, Peak 13,434' is hiding Bridal Peak (formerly T11). Off image to the right are the roads winding up to Porphyry Basin and Black Bear Pass.

The slightly higher summit is a few more paces east. Reach the crest at 1.7 miles after just 1,140 feet of elevation gain. A friend in telecommunications said the microwave repeater was necessary for reflecting signals for long distance phone calls back in the land line days. He speculated that the screen remains in place as a backup system.
(Jana Goldstein, photo)

To the north, the Reds put on their brilliant display.

The eastward drop to Cement Creek is abrupt. This image includes Gladstone and the Gold King Mine (site of the calamitous waste water spill in 2015), the Silverton Mountain Ski Area, and the 4WD track going up to Hurricane Pass. On the horizon at image-center is Handies Peak.

Returning from the peak, a social trail climbs over Point 12,652'.

From the saddle at 2.5 miles the fastest way back to the start is to return through U S Basin. Extend your excursion by heading west on the ridge rimming the basin on the south, image-right. (The saddle is another good launch point for climbing Ohio Peak.)

Go right up the face of Point 12,596', a short, moderately steep climb. There's a little slot in the rock band you can squeeze through.

From this highpoint you will see CR 14 topping out before plunging through Browns Gulch back to the highway. The beautifully symmetrical mountain in the mid-ground below is V6 (Peak 12,442').

Scramble down the little rocky spine (or go around) and run out the ridge to CR 14. The track across the valley is the notorious Black Bear Pass Road. Trico Peak is image-left. The three counties intersecting on its apex are San Juan, Ouray, and San Miguel.

Hit the road and turn right. The road to Porphyry Basin is across the highway. Image-center is Three Needles and on the right is T10, Peak 13,477'.

Black-Line Loop to Ohio Peak and Then McMillan Peak
From the parking pullout in U S Basin walk south on CR 14. It dips at first and then climbs to 12,120 feet. You will be glad at the end of your hike that you got this ascent out of the way on the front end. The scenery is absolutely stunning. This image looks down on Chattanooga Curve and the Mill Creek trench. This is the location of the most difficult and unconventional Slidepath Route to Columbine Lake.

At 1.2 miles, leave the road just as it begins to roll downhill. Head east and climb the little knoll at 12,180 feet to get your bearings and check out your options. Ohio Peak rises forcefully to the east on the other side of Browns Gulch. This route hits the north ridge at the miner's shack, shown.

We considered climbing the south ridge of Point 12,596' and heading to the Ohio saddle from there. But then we noticed a social trail sweeping through the basin just below the 12,200 foot contour. Turns out, this trail was boot packed and marked with very occasional cairns. Cross the Browns Gulch defile at 1.6 miles.

Hold your trajectory and soon the faded trail will reappear as it climbs softly to the ridge right at the cabin and quite near the saddle at 1.9 miles, 12,300 feet. Someone was living here; there is a stove pipe lying on the ground.
(Jana Goldstein, photo)

Ohio peak is a 0.8 mile roundtrip spur with less than 400 feet of vertical. The short wall on the north ridge presents the toughest segment of the loop. There are several braided trails with resistant soil west of the cliff that pitch steeply. Return to the ridge at first opportunity. This image was shot looking back from a ways north of the saddle.

Once back on the ridgeline it is a mellow rocky ascent up and over a false summit to the real thing. Crest Ohio Peak at 2.3 miles after just 980 feet of vertical.

Looking down the divide, Anvil Mountain is the soft red dome. In front of it and hidden from view is Peak 12,296'. Sultan Mountain and Grand Turk preside over Silverton west of town (left of Anvil in this image). To the right of Anvil is Bear Mountain.

McMillan Peak
From Ohio, McMillan is the next and higher prominence 1.7 miles north. Retrace your steps to the saddle.

As you approach the miner's shack examine your route. We found a couple of cairns guiding onto the highest of the sheep trails mounting the hill north of the saddle. Head the defile at the top of Minnesota Gulch. The social trail passes west of two small knolls and then intersects the ridge at the top of U S Basin. Climb McMillan on the blue-line route, cresting the peak at 4.0 miles.

You could certainly return through the basin or on the south rim route described earlier. We were enticed by the rolling tundra country north and west of the peak. From the secondary summit a trail wanders off toward Red Mountain No. 3. It was helpful for a ways but at 12,600 feet we cut away from it and the ridge.

We curved west and then southwest back into the basin, keeping our eye on our vehicle. The only obstacles on the relaxing descent were willow patches. We weaved around and then plowed through them just before crossing Big Horn Gulch creek. The stream on the north side of the bowl was iced. The wetlands might be a little too wet in summer.

This image looks back our sublime descent route.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Dry Gulch Trail, Durango

Essence: The Dry Gulch Trail utilizes an old wagon supply road that once connected Durango with ranches in the greater Lightner Creek watershed. This is a family-friendly, half-day hike. Begin at the Rockridge Trailhead and turn around as you please or upon reaching Dry Fork Road. The tranquil hike through foothills grassland is prized for its supreme view of North Perins Peak and pristine nature adjacent to town. The entire trek is within the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area, managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and is open to the public four months annually: August through November. 
Travel to Rockridge Trailhead: From Main Avenue and 25th Street, go west. Pass Miller Middle School and in two blocks, turn left on Clovis Drive. Go up the hill and enter Rockridge. Drive just under a mile and turn right on Tanglewood Drive. Cross a small bridge and take an immediate left. The parking area is on the right.
Travel to the Dry Fork Road Trailhead: Start measuring from the US 550/160 intersection in Durango. Travel 3.3 miles on US 160 West and turn right on Lightner Creek Road, La Plata County Road 207. At 4.3 miles, turn right onto Dry Fork Road, CR 208, a graded dirt road suitable for all vehicles. Take the right fork at 6.3 miles. The west end of the Dry Gulch Trail is at 6.5 miles with a pull-off on the right.
Distance and Elevation Gain Roundtrip: 8.0 miles; 1,250 feet of climbing
Total Time: 3:00 to 4:30
Difficulty: Trail; navigation easy; no exposure
Map: Durango West, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad, or Apogee Mapping
Winter Closure and Year-Round Restrictions: The Dry Gulch Trail is open for only four months of the year, August 1 through November 30. In the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area public access is prohibited during the closure period to protect wintering big-game and spring-nesting peregrine falcons. No motorized vehicles or mountain bikes. Dogs must be on leash.
Latest Date Hiked: October 1, 2019
Quote: Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed. We need wilderness preserved--as much of it as is still left, and as may kinds--because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. Wallace Stegner

Hikers glance at North Perins Peak while walking through autumn's splendor.

Route: The Dry Gulch Trail is an out-and-back. This description begins at the Rockridge Trailhead and bears northwest but you may begin from the Dry Fork Road. 

Two trails emanate from the Rockridge Trailhead, elevation 6,880 feet. The trail to Perins Peak and North Perins Peak heads west and immediately crosses Dry Gulch. The Dry Gulch Trail bears north and stays on the east side of the drainage. As indicated on the posted sign, mountain bikes and motorized vehicles are prohibited and dogs must remain on leash.

Chet and Eva Thompson settled in Thompson Park in 1870 with 20,000 head of cattle. Their son continued ranching until the late 1960's. The family sold the property to the Colorado Department of Wildlife to keep it undeveloped. Before the land became a wildlife refuge the double-track was open to motorized traffic. In winter, the wide-open hinterland was a training ground for the Durango Nordic team. Now it is stone quiet back in this uninhabited quarter. There are occasional runners and neighborhood dog walkers.

Light-filled grasses imitate the sun-drenched cliff profile of Perins Peak.

When I frequented this pathway at the turn of the millennium it was faint and even nonexistent in places. Because the trail is open to foot traffic only, and so briefly, it still is vulnerable to becoming overgrown and obscured. There were ample opportunities to lose the trail in 2019 after a big winter. Old timers said the luxurious grasses were the tallest they'd ever seen.

The meadowland is framed with aspen and conifer on north-facing slopes. PiƱon-juniper and Gambel oak look south.

Tumbled-down stone block masonry is all that remains of a homestead at 1.5 miles. A natural spring feeds a stock pond. It is filled with cattails now but at one time it was a significant water source. This peaceful setting was once a sanctuary for terminally ill people. They raised their own fruits and vegetables; farming implements remain scattered in the woods.

At 1.7 miles, the trail passes north of the North Perins Peak escarpment, the highpoint of the Perins cuesta. The view of the stone blade where scramblers may perch is sensational. (See the link above for directions.)

The valley tightens and the pathway grinds uphill through an old-growth ponderosa forest. At 2.7 miles there is a cattle pond south of the trail in the vicinity of a stately, dead ponderosa, pictured. Ten paces past the tree the trail splits. Take the right branch and climb in the trees a little further until you reach the highpoint of the hike at 2.8 miles, 7,700 feet.

The old trail (shown on the topo) veers southwest from the pond into an open valley, shown. It would be easy to get erroneously drawn onto this loose end that soon peters out.
The subtle divide is a typical turn-around location. From here all the gathered water runs west into the Dry Fork of Lightner Creek. There are occasional La Plata Mountain vantage points. Below, Silver Mountain rises above the foliage.
Barnroof Point, 8,723', shown, is a few feet higher and due west of North Perins Peak. Descend pleasantly to Dry Fork Road at 4.0 miles, 7,300 feet.

Below, hikers approach the turn-around for this hike. Those who want to put in a long day may turn right on the road and continue 0.6 mile to the Dry Fork Trailhead. The buff Dry Fork Loop trail system is 9.1 miles. The winter closure period is less restrictive: December 1 through April 15.