Friday, August 8, 2014

White Dome, 13,627', and Peak One, 13,589', Via Beartown

Essence: A playful day of splendor in the quartzite rewards those who endure the long, rugged drive to the TH. A short stretch of trail followed by miles of rock hopping and scrambling.
Travel: From Durango, in a 4WD (low, helpful) with high clearance, drive north on US 550 for 47 miles to Silverton. Turn northeast and proceed to the far end of Greene Street, the main drag. Zero-out your trip meter as you make a soft right onto San Juan CR 2. The pavement ends at 2.0 miles. Turn right onto San Juan CR 3/FS 520 at Cunningham Gulch, 4.1 miles. At 5.8 miles, turn left at the little handmade sign for Stony Pass. Aptly named, this is a steep, narrow, stoney road. In places, there are 1,000 foot drops with only wildflowers standing in as guard rails. Turn right at the 7.3 mile spur, and right again at 7.5 miles. Stay on the main road to Stony Pass, 12,650', at 10.1 miles.  The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) crosses the road at 10.6 miles. There are two tight, steep switchbacks as the road descends into the glacially carved valley that carries the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Enter a mixed aspen/conifer forest and cross Pole Creek at 16.1 miles. This notorious crossing is 80 feet wide and about a foot deep. Do not attempt in early summer or after a big rain. At 16.4 miles, turn right on San Juan CR 3A/FS 506. Cross the Rio at 16.8 miles. This is a 100 foot crossing below the confluence with Pole Creek. The roadbed is dirt with annoyingly deep potholes as it rolls up the broad valley containing Bear Creek. At 19.8 the road degrades; it is steep with big rocks. All but serious 4WD vehicles should park at the primitive campsites at mile 21.1 (Add 2 miles RT to the total below.). At 21.3, cross Bear Creek, staying on FS 506. At walking speed, punch up an incline covered in bowling ball boulders and wallow through deep, muddy patches. Park at 22.1 miles where the CDT crosses the road. A Weminuche Wilderness map and register box marks the spot. Allow 3:00 to 3:30 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.5 miles, 3,100 feet of climbing
Time: 6:30 to 7:30
Difficulty: Primarily off-trail; navigation considerable; moderate exposure between White Dome and Peak One; Class 2+ to White Dome, Class 3 between the two mountains
Maps: Storm King Peak, Colorado 7.5 Quad; Weminuche Wilderness, Trails Illustrated #140
Date Hiked: August 8, 2014
Quote: All the way to Heaven is Heaven. Saint Catherine of Siena, b. 1347

Seen from Peak One, a few seconds of sun is all it takes for quartz crystals to glisten and emblazon White Dome.

Route: White Dome is a worthy side-trip for backpackers on the Colorado Trail (CT) or CDT. Those camping at El Dorado Lake must link up with this route. The peak may be accessed via the SE or SW ridges. The route discussed, the black line, begins where the CDT crosses FS 506, 0.5 mile east of Kite Lake. The blue line shows the route over Hunchback Mountain, an option on the return.

From the TH, 11,800', walk up the gnarly 4WD track almost 0.5 mile to Kite Lake. Just before reaching the lake, 12,100', look for cairns off the right side of the road (N37 42.736 W107 31.414). They mark an unnamed, unsigned path, the "Kite Lake Trail". The well-worn trail is disguised by willows but soon cuts through them and becomes easy to cypher. Reflecting stone, the lake is an unsaturated color but as the trail climbs, it takes on the color of the sky. The lake is the shape of a kite, complete with tail ribbons.

The treadway ascends a hillside where pretty flowers are living amongst quartzite blocks. At 1.0 mile, the trail levels out briefly, affording a view of Hunchback Mountain, 13,136', to the south. This peak would be a great way to finish off the day, as noted at the end of this description.

The trail reaches the Continental Divide at a minor saddle, 12,840', 1.4 miles. White Dome dominates the local landscape, its uniform bedding planes rippling along the mountain's flanks for miles. El Dorado Lake is just 300 feet below the viewpoint. The Elk Creek trench, carrier of the CT, is on the right. The Kite Lake Trail ends here at a T intersection with another unnamed, secondary trail. To reach the CT, one would turn right. Those climbing White Dome, turn left/south. (THW, pan)

Walk 0.5 mile on the trail and then leave it, turning west to gain Pt 12,848'. Drop a few feet to a saddle between this rolling mound and Pt 13,378', seen below, center. White Dome's east ridge presents daunting obstacles. Therefore, the standard route contours south at roughly 12,800' for 0.5 mile to the SE ridge. Walk to the base of the mountain and climb a 20 foot wall of blocks. Welcome to the Quartzite Playground.

Geological Note: Quartzite is a metamorphic rock which was originally quartz sandstone. Sandstone is converted into quartzite through heating and pressure. The quartz grains recrystallize to form an interlocking mosaic of glassy-looking quartz crystals. Pure quartzite is usually white; various shades of pink and red are due to iron oxide.

The quartzite slab contour is pure pleasure. The bedding planes will tend to pull you downhill off the contour. Make a correction now and then.

Cross a stone gully at 2.1 miles and then hop across a quartzite boulder yard. Shimmering Vallecito Lake is well below; The Guardian and Mount Silex hold down the east end of the Grenadier Range. In the near distance, aim for the white toe of White Dome's SE ridge at the vertical midpoint of this image.

Reach the climbing ridge at 2.4 miles, 12,800' (N37 42.151 W107 32.433). Turn northwest and ascend tundra ramps infused with wildflowers. (THW, photo)

A few reassurance cairns mark the way. Regardless, hold this NW direction to the top. In the image below, there is a small cairn at skyline that marks the end of the green ramp. From there, it is Class 2+ climbing on pure white boulders decorated with lichen. Talus size decreases as the roll-off summit approaches.

The summit ridge is surprisingly narrow considering how long it is. The actual high point is a little ambiguous. Reach it at 2.8 miles. For those not traveling on to Peak One, return essentially as you came. (THW, photo)

Peak One is 1.0 mile away, shown center, accessed by White Dome's SW ridge.

Drop 650 feet in 0.4 mile. It is a Class 3 scramble on a very thin rib with moderate exposure. The rock is good, the downclimbing fun, but it is a pick-your-way proposition that cannot be hurried.

This image looks back at the ridge. There may be a way to skirt the whole business on the northwest but I greatly prefer to stay on, or quite near, the top of the spine.

Reach a 3-way ridge split at 13,250 feet. To the NW is Pt 13,453', shown below with Pt 13,414' behind (right). Peak One is off to the left/SSW. Cross over to the horizontal saddle.

Climb the false summit, Pt 13,401'. Rock is not well anchored and it feels like a slip and slide. The slide is a long one so take care. Go directly over the top.

Descend to Saddle 13,240' on better rock. Note, this is the homeward bound saddle. While a quartzite wall looks intimidating, the rest of the summit climb is Class 2+. Stay on, or quite near the ridge.

Peak One has some nice features but it is not terribly distinctive. However, its position affords one of the most rugged views in the San Juans. The next two images convey the middle sweep, the Grenadier Range: The Guardian, Mount Silex, and Storm King Peak.

West of them are five peaks that exhibit geometrical perfection: The Trinities,Vestal Peak's Wham Ridge, and Arrow Peak. Peak Three is on foreground right. The 14ers, Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, and Mount Eolus are visible through a sky wedge left of the photo.

To return, retrace your steps to Saddle 13,240' (N37 41.990 W107 33.182). Drop east and then northeast, happily threading your way via interlaced green patches, aiming for the run-out slab at the base of White Dome, shown below. Tundra and stone are mixed at just the right ratio, making this segment enchanting. Upon reaching White Dome's flank, pick a contour elevation that pleases you. In fact, you could quite easily return to your inbound track. As seen on the map above, we made our way over to the NE feeder stream for Vallecito Lake. From there, we regained the ridge NW of Hunchback at 12,800'. Turn left, pass Pt 12,848' on its east, and finish on the inbound route. (THW, photo)

Hunchback Mountain, 13,136', option: If you have the weather for another peak, it is only 336 feet to the top of Hunchback. From the summit, descend east on a ramp to Hunchback Pass, 12,493'. Turn left on the CDT and walk 1.0 mile back to the TH, an ideal loop.

Parting shot: Vallecito Lake, Grenadiers, Peak One from White Dome's summit. (THW, pan)


  1. Fishing in White Dome Lake is wonderful.

    1. Appreciate your comment. Are you referring to El Dorado Lake, Vallecito or Kite?

    2. The little lake above El Dorado below the saddle of White Dome and Peak 1. El Dorado offers great fishing also , a little more challenging. El has big Rainbows and unnamed White Dome lake is full of beautiful Brookies.

  2. Debra,

    I accidentally stumbled upon your wonderful site while researching hikes in SW CO. This is a tremendous resource, and I absolutely love the eloquent and well detailed illustrations. Among other destinations I’ve utilized your page for, I successfully summited Peak 13,300 at Columbine Lake thanks to your post. What a stellar view. Thank you for the time and effort put into this!

    I had a question. I have aspirations to drive to Kite Lake, and want to hike to El Dorado Lake. I wanted to ask if there was a recommended route to access the lake above El Dorado. It appears to be unnamed, but I’ve seen comments calling it “White Dome Lake”? I presume this can be accomplished as a day hike with a return to the Beartown TH? Just wanted to hear your thoughts/suggestions on this!

    Thank you in advance for sharing your wisdom and time. Peace and blessings to you and yours!

    Andrew Wiseman (Pagosa Springs)

    1. I haven't been to White Dome Lake but it looks very appealing. You should be able to just wander around to the upper lake. See the comments above. I'm happy you got up 13,300'. One of my favorite hikes. Thanks for reading Earthline.