Saturday, August 1, 2015

Crown Mountain, 13,569'; North Crown, 13,699'; Niagara Peak, 13,807', from Minnie Gulch

Essence: Ideal, off-trail route summits three peaks, traverses a broad ridge, and loops through a verdant, high alpine basin. "Cuba Ridge" is an immense, herbaceous, flower-infused tundra platform.
Travel: From Durango, 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. On a good dirt road, pass the turnoff to Cunningham Gulch in Howardsville at 4.1 miles. Pass the road into Maggie Gulch at 5.9 miles. Reach Minnie Gulch at 6.5 miles and turn right onto San Juan CR 24. The steep, rocky road climbs switchbacks before suspending itself on a shelf high above the Minnie Gulch gorge. 4WD (low helpful), moderate clearance, beefy tires are necessary. In 7.8 miles, pass the first of many mine ruins and wreckage, some classically picturesque. If you intend to exit via Kitti Mack Mine, drop a vehicle at the intersection with this left fork at 8.1 miles. (Or, drive up the steep, shelf road 1.4 miles to the mine.) Continue up Minnie Gulch. Treeline is at 9 miles. The Minnie Gulch Trailhead is at 9.5 miles. Park here, or make the left hairpin and continue 0.1 mile to the parking platform at the Esmeralda Mine. Allow 1:30 to 1:40 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.0 miles; 3,400 feet of climbing
Time: 6:00 to 7:00
Difficulty: Primarily off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 2+ with mild exposure
Maps: Howardsville; Handies Peak, Colorado 7.5 Quads
Date Hiked: August 1, 2015
Quote: Some people worry that artificial intelligence will make us feel inferior, but then, anybody in his right mind should have an inferiority complex every time he looks at a flower. Alan C. Kay

Route: For the black-line route described here, begin at the Esmeralda Mine and climb east to Cuba Ridge. Turn north, and climb Pt. 13,301', Crown Mountain, North Crown, and Niagara Peak. Drop east to the Niagara-Jones saddle. Walk south in Snare Basin and come up the east side of Cuba Ridge. Descend the steep drainage to the Kitti Mack Mine. Walk down the road to the shuttle vehicle. Alternative routes are discussed at the end of this post.

From the Minnie Gulch TH at 11,520 feet, walk (or drive) up the road to the Esmeralda Mine.

Our original plan was to take the blue-line route up Minnie Gulch, climb Cuba Benchmark, and walk north on Cuba Ridge to the peaks. The forecast was abysmal so we abandoned that idea and gained the ridge by a more direct approach, climbing east from Esmeralda Mine. At the mine, assess your options: rock, green slope, ramp, or drainage. Uncomfortably steep approaches can be avoided. Grind out 1,100 feet in the first 0.6 mile.

 Flowers were best in the drainage.

Favoring a northeast line, the pitch softens at 12,650 feet near a shallow, intriguing gorge. While we swerved north at first opportunity, next time I will continue east to gain the ridge sooner. You may stumble on the faint trail that originates at the Kitti Mack Mine.

Bearing north, roam freely in a state of reverie on the "altiplano." Point 13,301', Crown Mountain, and Niagara Peak surface.

Go over or around Pt. 13,215' and then pass the exit drainage to Kitti Mack Mine at 2.3 miles. In the image below, Pt. 13,301' is on the left. Crown is the red peak at center. What looks like a catwalk to Niagara is actually a comfortably broad divide. Jones Mountain is on the right.

Pt. 13,301' is a walk-up. Reach it at 3.0 miles. The drop off the north ridge presents a small challenge. It looks intimidating but careful route analysis mitigates exposure. Plunge down the broken rock scramble west of the nose.

The image below was taken from the saddle at 13,100 feet, looking back at the minor crux.

Crown Mountain, 13,569', is a half mile north of Pt. 13,301'. Climb its beautiful red cone. It is curious that Crown was gifted such a lovely name since Pt. 13,699', "North Crown" or "Crown's Star," is the legal summit.

It is less than 0.3 mile, a 15 minute stroll to North Crown. The ridge is crimped but the footing is good and there is little sense of exposure.

North Crown bifurcates Niagara Basin. Look down on the ghost town of Eureka. The view of Niagara Peak is almost spooky.

Return to Crown Mountain at 4.0 miles.

Niagara is less than a mile north of Crown. Descend to the low point, about 13,350 feet. The route on the "Boulevard" is obvious. While a trail skirts left of the rise, shown, I preferred to go over the ridgetop.

The rock pile on the summit ridge is the only place on the entire stretch where you must think about where to place your feet. Pass on the left side.

Reach Niagara Peak at 4.84 miles. At 13,807 feet, it just misses the centennial cut. This stand-out mountain is ranked 101 amongst Colorado peaks. Its neighbor, Jones Mountain, 13,860', is ranked 78. It is the conical peak in the image below. Right of Jones is flat-topped Handies Peak, 14,048', number 40. To the left/north, out of view, is Burns Gulch, the more common approach to Niagara.

The storm imminent, we discarded the notion of returning as we came. Snare Basin is a ridge go-around and turned out to be a premiere feature of the hike. It is a sharp descent on the east ridge to the Niagara-Jones saddle at 13,240', dropping over 600 feet in 0.3 mile. Footing can be marginal under dry conditions. On this day, soil was saturated and accommodating.

Snare Basin is east of Cuba Ridge. To regain the ridge, we utilized the green ramp, pictured image-right, south of Pt. 13,301'. It intersects the ridge directly across from the Kitti Mack Mine drainage.

Snare Basin gets grand prize for exquisite beauty. It is a gentle landscape riddled with rivulets connecting tiny ponds. The tundra is lavish with flowers. Stream-side plants give a darker cast to the edges of the runnels. Half Peak and Quarter Peak monopolize.

The thunder storm caught up with us on Cuba Ridge so we took the gully route to Kitti Mack Mine. This is a perfectly serviceable, rapid descent route. It is just 0.8 mile from the ridge at 13,040 feet to the road at 11,520 feet.

Two weeks earlier, we'd gotten weathered out on a similar attempt. The flowers were great. But now they exceeded the flora anywhere on the entire planet.

 By the time we reached Kitti Mack Mine, flower petals covered our boots.

Walk down the pleasant road, passing the Caledonia Mine. In 1.2 miles, reach the junction with Minni Gulch Road at 10,700 feet.

Blue-Line Route Over Cuba Benchmark: This route is 2.6 miles longer than the Esmeralda route described above. However, Minnie Gulch presents a gentle trail option to Cuba Ridge. Please see Half Peak for a description of the route to Cuba Ridge. Once on the ridge, leave the Half Peak route and turn north onto a trail that originates at Kitti Mack Mine. Climbing Cuba Benchmark, 13,019', is optional.

Red-Line Route, Kitti Mack Mine Trail: The trail is 0.9 mile longer than the gully route. From the mine, either punch up a stair-step wall with mild exposure, or find the track that goes just above the lowest mine structure. The trail contours southeast into a beautiful diminutive basin before climbing steeply to the ridge. At 13,000 feet, leave the trail and head north to the ridgetop.


  1. Hey Debra, Just planning this summer trips (sitting here in January). Never done Niagara...Snare Basin looks very pleasant. Got a recommend for this approach (Burns or Minnie)...solo? I actually like Minnie area a lot but need to set a foot on a peak or two to the north east of minnie.

    Always check your site for interesting walks. Keep your head in the clouds. Dave

    1. Hi Dave, Once you stand on Niagara, you'll want to eventually approach it from both directions. Both routes have much to recommend and they may as well be in different universes. The Burns approach is all about the rock and you'll climb three of Colorado's tallest peaks. The Minnie option traverses vast tracks of tundra. Both have tricky segments--wish you weren't going solo. Crown and North Crown are off the radar, but then I've never run into anyone on any of these peaks. Earthline readers would love to hear about your experience. Debra

  2. Sound advice. Have a friend who's done it from I'll hit him up for a duo trek to niagara. Having read both of your descriptions...I think your summation above on differences brought more clarity.