Sunday, June 29, 2014

Indian Trail Ridge Along the Colorado Trail

Essence: Indian Trail Ridge is the great alpine connector, linking the San Juan Mountains with the La Plata Range via the Colorado Trail. The diversity and abundance of wildflowers is as big and bold as the continuous panorama. An out-and-back from Kennebec Pass TH to the Grindstone Trail. Finish with an optional loop through the Boulder Ridge Playground at the southern end of ridge.
Travel: 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; take the left track, FS 571. High clearance, 4WD is recommended from here. It is 14.2 miles to the Kennebec Pass TH from US 160. Allow 1:00 to 1:30 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.5 miles, 2,620 feet of climbing includes the Boulder Ridge loop
Time: 6:30 to 7:30
Difficulty: Groomed Colorado trail; navigation easy; no exposure; optional off-trail loop has two boulder fields
Maps: La Plata, Colorado 7.5 Quad, or Trails Illustrated No. 144, Durango-Cortez
Latest Date Hiked: June 2, 2018
Quote: Eastward the dawn rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into guess; it was no more than a glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of the memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings

Sky-high Point 12,181', is one of five numbered points between the Kennebec Pass Trailhead and the Grindstone Trail.

Route: A tangle of 4WD roads and trails pin-wheel off from the Kennebec Pass TH at 11,600'. Take a moment to be certain you are heading west on the Colorado Trail toward Taylor Lake. The lake, a popular destination, is a relatively flat 1.2 miles away on a groomed expressway of a trail.

Round the corner and Diorite Peak appears on the left. The southern end of Indian Trail Ridge (ITR) cradles the lake platform.

Just before the lake the trail splits. Turn right, staying on the Colorado Trail. Grindstone Trail, our northern turn-around, is 4.5 miles from here.

Skirt the north side of the lake and begin a 0.6 mile, easy 520 foot climb up to the ridge. The lake recedes while the east massif of the La Platas rises to steal the show.

It is simply done and a great pleasure to leave the trail briefly to experience the high points. The 2,620 feet of elevation gain reflects touching the ridge crests while traveling north, and staying on the trail for the return. Below, hikers cross a neck on their way to Pt 12,338', the loftiest rise of the day.

From Pt 12,338', the view from solitary Lone Cone to the Lizard Head spire is a small slice of the horizon's unfettered circle.

The ridge affords a unique perspective on the west massif of the La Plata Mountains. The arc swings from Diorite to Sharkstooth Peak. Banded Hesperus Mountain, 13,232', is the tallest eminence in the range.

Hikers climb the rocky ridge south of Pt 12,181'. Miles slide by in such a hurry on the immaculate Colorado Trail.

The ridge is studded with stone boys, but even without them it would be impossible to get lost on the restricted divide, even if the trail was obliterated by snow.

The flora on this hike was so rich, a friend exclaimed, "Ninety percent of Colorado's wildflower inventory is in bloom." Point 12,078' is where Old Man Of The Mountain lives in absurdly opulent conditions. He keeps house with aromatic phlox; tasty geyer onion and mountain parsley; his feminine companion, rosy paintbrush; and chiming bluebells. Osho must have been standing right here when he wrote, It is simply unbelievable how happy flowers are.

It is just shy of 5.7 miles to the Grindstone Trail. While our hike turns around here, there are options. The Colorado Trail continues north and just keeps on going all the way to Denver. For the Highline Loop, take the Grindstone west to abut the Bear Creek Trail in 4 miles. Turn south to reach the Sharkstooth Trail in another 5.75 miles. Go east on that trail for 3.3 miles back to Taylor Lake. Turn right and walk the 1.2 miles back to the Kennebec Pass TH. That's adding up to more like 21 miles, not a mere 17 as the sign at the lake indicates. The Highline Loop was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1979 because of its extraordinary scenic value.

The Return:
From the ridge, Engineer Mountain dominates the San Juan earthline across the Hermosa Creek rift.

On a portion of the ridge, horizontal slabs of stone are strewn about. Linger amongst a stretch of rocks scattered carelessly like piles of books. The floral arrangement in early summer is arnica mollis.

To be a La Plata devotee, cypher and memorize the names of the mountains marching through the view finder.

These hikers are close to the point where the trail first met the ridge. If you've had enough, simply return to the Kennebec Pass TH as you came for a total of 11.5 miles. If you are game for a frolicsome highlight, by all means, pass through "Boulder Ridge Playground." Leave the trail on the east side of a willow patch, heading for Saddle 12,080' and continue south on the ridge.

Hop along on stepping stones with resistant, crystalline veins.

Cross a swath of boulders and then climb gently for 170 feet to the final roll of the ridge at 12,250'. Pass two towers topping the point. Where the ridge splits, descend the southeast rib.

Enormous boulders teeter totter under foot.

Hikers are almost invisible clambering amongst boulders at the southern terminus of ITR.  Intersect the Sharkstooth Trail at 11,600', turn left/north and walk 0.5 mile, passing Taylor Lake to link back with the morning's incoming trail. Turn right/east and retrace your steps 1.2 miles to the Kennebec Pass TH. (THW, panorama)

In 2014, I walked ITR with a sizable group of friends and we frightened off the fauna. On a solitary trek I witnessed ravens, swallows at speed, tiny tweety birds foraging on snow patches, a curious ermine, marmots, mountain lion tracks in the muddy trail, deer, and large herds of elk in both the Hermosa Creek and Bear Creek drainages.


  1. Hi Debra, I am an art teacher and nature writer. I would like to use your photo of engineer peak in an upcoming lecture about color and also possibly use the photo in an upcoming book. Could I use your photo for these projects? You can see my work at Thank you, John

    1. I am honored. From your TED Talk: "I believe that the process of attention is what makes you fall in love with the world." I am in complete agreement. Debra