Monday, July 7, 2014

Centennial Peak, 13,062'

Essence: Centennial Peak is an excellent first thirteener, approached from the Sharkstooth Trail on the west side of the range. Mileage is short, elevation gain is moderate, and most of the climb is on-trail. The rugged face of the La Platas is seen from the summit. This half-day hike is suitable for most dogs.  
Travel: In a 4WD vehicle with decent clearance, from the US 550/160 intersection in Durango drive west on US 160 for 27.4 miles to the signal in Mancos. Measure distance from there. Turn north on CO 184 toward Dolores. In 0.3 mile, at the sign for Mancos State Park, turn right on Montezuma CR 42. See the west side of the La Platas from a fresh perspective as you pass by scattered ranches. At 5.5 miles, the road becomes FSR 561, West Mancos Road. Pass the Transfer Campground at 10.3 miles where pavement ends. Stay on FSR 561 at 11.1 miles. Pass the Aspen Guard Station at 11.9 miles. Roll through a mature aspen and ponderosa forest and turn right at mile 12.4 on FSR 350, Spruce Mill Road. It remains smooth and graded until mile 18.8. Turn on the right spur signed for the Twin Lakes, Sharkstooth trailheads, FSR 346. The next 1.5 miles require 4WD and good tires. The track is rocky with potholes. There is dispersed camping along the road with ponds and a terrific view of Hesperus Mountain. The trailhead is 20.3 miles from the US 160 and CO 184 intersection in Mancos. Allow 1.5 hours from Durango. The small parking area holds six to eight vehicles.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 5.5 miles, 2,200 feet of climbing
Total Time: 3:00 to 5:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation easy; mild exposure; Class 2+
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: August 4, 2023
Quote: I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness. Henry David Thoreau

Mount Moss, Lavender Peak, and Hesperus Mountain from the summit of Centennial Peak. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: Hike east on the Sharkstooth Trail to the pass, 11,936 feet. Climb south on an unmaintained trail to the summit.

The Sharkstooth Trail leaves from the east side of the parking lot at elevation 10,900 feet. On a well-established pathway, enter an old growth spruce forest. The trail passes beneath the runout of the Sharkstooth rock glacier. Beside the trail is a massive Colorado blue spruce. The age-old forest duff surface is spongy and soft. The canopy is atwitter with bird songs. In this image, returning hikers gape at streamside brookcress and caraway, head-high purple monkshood, and sprays of osha. 

At 1.0 mile, Hesperus Mountain, colorfully banded, is framed by deep green conifers. Hikers give little notice of switchbacks that lift them to sunny swatches and then glades densely populated with bluebells and corn husk lilies.

In the alpine, reverie continues as the path plows through unimaginably lush gardens of hybridized Indian paintbrush, king's crown, columbine, and phlox. (EJB, photo)

Most hikers will effortlessly cover the 1.8 miles to the Sharkstooth/Centennial Saddle at 11,936 feet, in 45 minutes to an hour. Sizable cairns signal the final passageway to this unmistakable juncture. Here we leave the Sharkstooth Trail which proceeds east to join the Colorado Trail at Taylor Lake near Kennebec Pass. From the pass, Sharkstooth Peak, slithering, shattered, and chaotic, beckons the skilled and daring.

The yellow dots scattered all over the tundra are the cheerful alpine sunflower, Old Man of the Mountain. Warning: there is a generous sprinkling of elegant death camas. One touch of the flower and then your tongue will make you sick. If your dog eats the plant, death will shortly follow.

From the saddle, Centennial Peak is 0.8 mile away with an additional 1,126 feet of climbing. It is straightforward and fun with intermittent stretches of social trail. The image below was shot from Sharkstooth and shows the entire layout to Centennial. Simply walk up the broad ridge staying toward the left/east side. When the ridge becomes narrower, stay on the rib or just west of it. (THW, photo)

Initially, walk up the tundra and then find a use trail that assists with a short, steep, and slippery section.

Clamber up a swath of large talus chunks.

The grade decreases at another expanse of tundra broken by patches of rock sheltering alpine sorrel. Below, hikers proceed to the crest, shown.

The ridge narrows for the final 600 feet and some hikers will be sensitive to the exposure. If anything, it gets more playful. There is a social trail that offers an off-ridge option to the right/west. However, I greatly prefer staying on the rib for the remainder of the summit ascent. There is one exception--the initial obstacle that is more easily surmounted on its west side, shown.

There are a few sections where hands are helpful but it is all Class 2+ walking on stable rock.

The higher you go the more outrageous and intimate your experience becomes. Light bounces off the columnar shafts, towers, and spires of imposing Lavender Peak, only 0.5 mile east of the horizontal bands, pressed down by mighty Hesperus. The contrast is bedazzling.

Reach 13,000 feet and blast up the red path to the summit. Whether or not this is your first thirteener, summit euphoria is guaranteed.

The cliff-framed, rugged face of the La Plata Mountains is seen from the crest where the southern vista is unfathomably wild. This image shows one slice. Jutting from the peak is the ridge that experienced climbers have traversed from Centennial to Lavender Peak. East of Lavender is Mount Moss. If you love a Class 3 scramble, see Mount Moss and the Towers of Lavender, my favorite La Plata Mountain climb.

Historical Note: Banded Mountain was renamed Centennial Peak in celebration of America's bicentennial in 1976. Seen from afar, Centennial has the same horizontal striping as Hesperus Mountain. Both are part of the La Plata Mountain laccolith. The bands are alternating layers of magma and baked sedimentary rock called hornfels.

In July, 2014, by 11:00, thunder was resounding, reducing top time to mere minutes.

We scurried down the ridge back to the saddle.

The author stands beneath a blue hole in an ominous sky. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Back in the safety of the forest, we took a short interpretive trail diversion, strolling by the historic Windy Williams Mill. The mine and boarding house were abandoned after only 130 days because valuable ore was scarce.

To place Centennial more solidly in the landscape puzzle, here is an image taken from the Colorado Trail on Indian Trail Ridge to the east. Starting from the right: Sharkstooth, Hesperus, Centennial, Lavender, Moss, Middle Babcock, East Babcock, and Diorite.


  1. We hiked and climbed Centennial many years ago when our daughter was 11 and our son was 9. It was a thrill today the least. We were very proud of their "We're not stopping till we reach the summit!" attitude. The view from the summit is astounding--especially Lavender and Moss. Last summer we made it to the saddle between Centennial and Sharkstooth, but did not attempt any summits. Hope to do it again someday. I love reading your blog.

  2. Thank you, Lynn. I'm dreaming of summer, too. Centennial is a mountain to repeat time and again. It is often a first 13'er for kids. Now it is time for them to take you to the summit! Debra

  3. I look at your blog every month during the winter and probably 10 times per month in the summer! Centennial was the first mountain I ever climbed when I was in my mid 40s and visiting the area. Now I am in my mid 50s with teen age kids. I've done a few more peaks since moving into the area. What hikes would you recommend for young teens that won't discourage them from loving the sport?

    1. Hi Mark, Thanks for reading so faithfully. My son is now 27 but when he was a teen, these are the hikes he loved most: Centennial, absolute favorite; Point 12,101' (Kennebec Peak) and Cumberland Mountain (do together); Sneffels; Handies from American Basin; Columbine Lake via Standard Trail; Ice Lake Basin; Jura Knob; Cascade Creek Waterfalls; Castle Rock; Perins Peak, Animas City Mountain, and Pautsky Point and Crader Ridge. He adored climbing Engineer when he was ten but I was so terrified watching him on the exposed crux, I can't recommend it! For highly skilled and experienced kid-climbers only.

  4. Wonderful climb so close to home. I can see it from my backyard.

    1. Thanks, Dave. I envy your view. It is mid-June and a friend got stuck on the road to the Sharkstooth TH in deep snow. Give it a couple more weeks. Debra

  5. Thank you for all your detailed La Plata peak descriptions! They've navigated me up Madden, Parrot, Diorite, Silver and Centennial this summer!

    1. You're welcome. Awesome Jess! I've been up all those peaks as well this summer. Someday we are going to run into each other out there! D