Saturday, October 28, 2017

Diorite Peak, 12,761', Via "Columbine Hill"

Essence: Diorite Peak is a skyscraper zenith, yet it is surprisingly welcoming and friendly. Anyone in decent shape can crest this mountain. The summit is accessed from the south so it may be climbed earlier in the summer than most peaks in the La Plata Range. For many locals, climbing Diorite in May is an annual rite of spring. Picturesque mining ruins begin just a mile up the trail.  
Travel: From the US 160/550 intersection in Durango, travel 11.0 miles west on US 160 to Hesperus. Turn right on La Plata Canyon Road, CR 124. Measure from here. 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. A 2WD vehicle with good tires and moderate clearance should suffice. Park at 10.6 miles. The hike goes west up Forest Service Road 798 into Tomahawk Basin. With high clearance, 4WD low, and copious nerve and skill, it is possible to drive up the steep and rocky two-track another 2 miles to 10,950 feet.
Distance and Elevation Gain: For the classic route, 7.6 miles and 3,000 feet of climbing from Trailhead 9,880'
Time: 4:30 to 6:00
Difficulty: 4WD road, social trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2+ with mild exposure 
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: June 30, 2023
Quote: Look at the flowers--for no reason. It is simply unbelievable how happy flowers are. Osho

Dramatic Diorite Peak and route as seen from the east ridge of East Babcock Peak. (THW, photo)

Route: The standard route is an out-and-back, depicted below. It is possible, though considerably more challenging, to turn this hike into a loop, returning through Williams Gulch. This option is the blue dot route, below.

There is room for a couple of vehicles on CR 124, elevation 9,880 feet. Walk west up FSR 798, an abandoned wagon road, into Tomahawk Basin. This image looks back on CR 124 from FSR 798.

Enter an aspen forest occasionally interrupted with talus flows, keeping Basin Creek on the left/southwest. In 0.7 mile, emerge from the woods.

In 1.0 mile, you will reach a juncture with the Tomahawk shortcut trail. For a leisurely ascent, simply stay on the road by bearing right. For a steep and slick alternative, punch up a social trail that cuts west of the tailings pile and Tomahawk stamp mill before rejoining the road, as depicted on the map above. I generally stay on the road going up but take the shortcut on my return. Either way, you can admire at close range the impressive mining ruins.

The Tomahawk Mining Company built the stamp mill in 1904. Exploratory work was done on promising veins in the diorite stock. Recovery of precious metals was poor, at most 0.6 ounce of gold to the ton. Mining operations in Tomahawk basin concluded in 1911. (Courtesy, John Sanders.) Incidentally, word of mouth also reports samples of precious amethyst in the upper basin.

Continue northwest on the road beyond the stamp mill. The track makes a sharp switchback to the right at Little Kate Mine, 1.9 miles. Soon the ridge spanning Mount Moss and Diorite Peak is revealed to the north. Note the low point in the ridge while remaining on the abandoned road as it switchbacks up the south-facing slope.

The road fades and a social trail commences. After the rocky track, the green treadway is a relief, even if the grade steepens. This image shows the start of the trail and the saddle at the top of the ridge you must achieve.

The trail passes close to beautifully crafted stone foundations, while wildflowers grow audaciously in the cracks.

The trail ends at a large mine cavern drilled into the side of the mountain. The next goal is 200 vertical feet away, Saddle 12,360'. Simply climb north up the steep hillside to the minor divot in the ridge. Trekking poles are helpful. You will be stair-stepping up flower platforms on renowned Columbine Hill.

Mid-summer, the sheer numbers of columbine are staggering. These glorious yet gaudy flowers look like a product of the Disney Design Studio. A dazzling assortment of other wildflowers compete with this state champion for all they’re worth. Notable is Brandegee's clover, a study in velvet hot magenta. (THW, photo)

Reach Saddle 12,360', shown below. (A sizable cornice typically lingers in early summer. Gain the saddle just west of the snow field.) Mount Moss is two miles away, directly west. Resist the urge to bridge this dangerous, impassible knife. These hikers are approaching the saddle on the descent.

Diorite Peak, image-left, is less than half a mile from the saddle. (THW, photo)

Turn east and climb on the ridgetop, or just right of the rib on fragments of social trail. These hikers are going down the mountain.

The summit comes into view from a promontory.  Descend to a shallow low point. The final 200 feet of climbing is Class 2+ on solid blocks of rock.

The upper mountain is comprised of the granitic diorite, an intrusive igneous rock dependable underfoot. (THW, photo)

Approach the crest by means of a peninsular stone catwalk, experiencing the thrill of a narrow ridge with only a hint of the expected fright. A columnar cliff on the west face accentuates Diorite Peak's small crown at 3.8 miles. The peak falls off to the east less evenly but just as greatly. On a clear day, the vista of the San Juans is astounding.

In late spring, snow mixed with stony brilliance is visually captivating. Diorite resides as a stand-alone peak smack in the middle of the La Plata Range.  On the West Block the alluring and intimidating Babcock trio are south, Mount Moss is due west. To its north are Lavender Peak, Hesperus Mountain, and Centennial Peak. Across La Plata Canyon is Kennebec Pass; and Cumberland, Lewis, and Silver Mountains.

For the return, the simplest strategy is to walk back on your ascent route. (The Tomahawk shortcut shaves half a mile.) This image shows hikers on top of the ridge promontory southwest of the peak. Saddle 12,360' is off to the right.
(THW, photo)

Williams Gulch Return Route
For those who wish to further their adventure, it is possible to drop down through Williams Gulch. From the peak, retrace your steps for 0.2 mile and contour left around the ridge promontory, seen above. Gain Diorite's southeast ridge, shown below. Descend for 0.2 mile to approximately 12,200 feet, watching for a pleasing way into the basin to the north.

Work down an open slope of flower bouquets and diorite, making an arc that carries you to a rise north of the creek in Williams Gulch. Follow this rise, staying above the creek, to the La Plata Canyon Road.  Do Not get sucked into the Williams Gulch drainage or mistakenly amble to the south side of the stream. This will result in a nasty, nettle infested, willow bashing, trudge of misery. Walk down the main road about 0.5 mile to the trailhead.

2020 Note: The feasibility of downclimbing the north ridge has been questioned. My partner and I probed from Point 12,117', south of Bear Creek Pass on the Sharkstooth Trail. Here's a good look at the ridge from the trail. There are a series of technical obstacles. (THW, photo)

We were stopped by a 50 foot wall not far from Point 12,117'. Bypassing on either side looked unpleasant. But, see T. Horvath's comment below. (THW, photo)


  1. Is it possible to continue this ascent along the ridge line from the peak to the N\NE toward the Colorado trail and Kennebec Pass?

    1. I asked some people who have been climbing in the La Platas for decades and no one has done that particular ridge. Please let me know if you give it a try. Debra

    2. I would not advise traversing that ridge, Ive tried once but without climbing shoes I had to turn around.

    3. I did the N/NE ridge in Aug 2016 - started at Kennebec Pass, west on Highline trail to unnamed lake, then south and then west on trail that goes to pass just north of 12117. IIRC, there were 2 notches along ridge that were pretty straightforward to pass on the east side. A bit of scrambling here and there but nothing really difficult stands out in my memory . . . just the great views.

      Thanks Debra for your blog - really great reference for Durango-area peaks!

    4. I appreciate your comment on the feasibility of climbing the NNE ridge of Diorite. I made a note in the text. Thank you for your contribution to Earthline. Debra

    5. Looking more at your 2nd-to-last picture, I dropped off ridge before first obstacle on yellowish talus/scree, traversed below cliff & notch on grey talus, went up short left-angling rocky gully then up steep grassy slope back up to ridge.

      Just wanted to clarify since I described as "2 notches" but looks like it is really cliffy obstacles with 1 notch.

    6. Thank you for the clarification. But gnarly, dude!

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