Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Engineer Mountain Circumnavigation Via Trail

Essence: Circle around Durango's favorite mountain on a sequence of pleasant dirt trails. Miles fly by effortlessly. Take your pick of seasons: hike mid-summer for exuberant wildflowers or in late September when the aspen are putting on their colorful show, the forest floor glows, plants have gone to seed, and the sky is clear all day. Hike clockwise to take advantage of views, sun angle on trees, and a reasonable uphill grade.
Travel: From the US 160/550 intersection in Durango drive 28.5 miles north on US 550. At the apex of the hairpin at the bottom of Coal Bank Pass (south side), turn left. 2WD vehicles with good clearance should be able to negotiate the potholes on the dirt road as far as the standard Cascade Creek Trailhead parking in 0.7 mile just before the road crosses the Cascade Flume. Walk 0.8 mile up the road to the Red Gate. 4WD vehicles may proceed to the Red Gate Trailhead, 1.5 miles from the highway. The road is rough after the flume parking. Allow 45 minutes from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 17.0 miles; 3,600 feet of climbing from the Red Gate Trailhead.
Time: 7:00 to 9:00
Difficulty: Trail; navigation easy; no exposure
Map: Engineer Mountain, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: September 28, 2016
Quote: I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order. John Burroughs, 1837-1921
Three quarters of the route around Engineer Mountain may be seen from Graysill Mountain located west of the Cascade Creek drainage.

Route: From the Red Gate Trailhead at 9,120 feet, walk northwest up the Cascade Creek Trail. Bear northeast on the Engine Creek Trail to the junction with the Engineer Mountain Trail. Turn east and contour under the southern slopes of Jura Knob. The trail turns south. Pass Creek Trail, the blue-line route, comes in from Coal Bank Pass on the east and Engineer Mountain lies west. Descend six miles to the Engineer Mountain Guard Station and go northwest on the Cascade Creek Trail back to the incoming road. Turn right and walk 0.2 mile to close the loop at the trailhead.
Pass Creek Trail to Engineer Mountain Guard Station segment hike: For this alternative, it is 2.5 miles from Coal Bank Pass with 1,200 feet of gain to the Engineer Mountain Trail. Descend six miles to your shuttle vehicle at the Engineer Mountain Guard Station. For the car drop, take a left off US 550 one mile above the Cascade turn at mile marker 52.2 and proceed 0.2 mile to the trailhead. [2021 Note: the Pass Creek Trail is now called simply the Pass Trail.]

Walk through the Red Gate portal. Cascade Creek Trail #510 utilizes an old roadbed to the first creek crossing and then narrows to a single track.

This loop would be untenable in early summer runoff. However, if your quest is the Cascade Creek waterfalls, visit in June. At that time there are little secret stashes of elusive fairy slipper orchids hidden in the forest and shiny red columbine in sunny patches. Please see the Cascade Creek post for information on the elevated wooden flume.

Pass through a large meadow with a view of Graysill Mountain.

In 2.6 miles, cross Engine Creek on a footbridge. In early summer this double cascade is a thundering torrent. Engine Creek Trail #657 is just another 0.1 mile hence at the beginning of an open meadow. Watch for the sign tacked to a spruce tree and turn right.

Initiate a gentle climb through a fir forest, watching for wildlife. The idyllic trail stays northwest of the Engine Creek gorge most of the way to the junction with the Engineer Mountain Trail. Pass through interludes of meadows framed by Colorado blue spruce and aspen. Peak autumn color typically occurs the third week of September. The forest floor has its own particular beauty: yellow myrtle blueberry, red geranium leaves, and opaque, white snowberries. (THW, photo)

Cross a side stream at 4.0 miles. The trail steepens briefly on some switchbacks around 5.2 miles. Openings in the forest become more prevalent. The northern prominence is Jura Knob. Be sure to turn around occasionally for a dynamic view of Engineer's fierce, north face escarpment. Rock hop across a substantial tributary creek with an elongated waterfall series.

The crossing of Engine Creek proper occurs as the treadway emerges into an open expanse just below treeline with a view of Jura Knob. The junction with the Engineer Mountain Trail is about 0.3 mile off. Meanwhile, the footpath swings slightly west. (THW, photo)

At 6.3 miles, 11,500 feet, come to a major junction where four tracks join. Our upcoming Engine Creek Trail ends here. Make a hard right turn to the east on the Engineer Mountain Trail. (Northbound, the Engineer Mountain Trail tracks along the west face of Jura Knob and meets the Colorado Trail in 1.4 miles.)

Also at this intersection is the White Creek Trail. It contours southwest under Peak 12,703' to connect with the Colorado Trail in 2.9 miles. This beautiful link trail is favored by mountain bikers.

Walking due east on the Engineer Mountain Trail, look down on the Engine Creek Trail. First snow is here to stay on the shaded north face of the eponymous mountain.

This image was taken from the highpoint of our hike, 11,800 feet, at 7.6 miles. It looks back on Jura Knob, elevation 12,614 feet. This route would be a very long way around to Jura but you could climb it from here handily.

Lest we forget this is a two season hike, here's a snap of a pointillistic field of flowers in the Jura region.

Momentarily above treeline, there is a grandiose, exhilarating openness and unmatched view of Grayrock Peak, 12,504', and Graysill Mountain.

With the exception of small undulations the second segment of this loop is an easy-going downhill flow. For now our view is captivated by the spell-binding, commanding fulcrum of this circuit. A rock glacier blankets the entire northern base of the mountain, a sure sign of exfoliating tumult. 

At 8.2 miles, the Engineer Mountain Trail passes the junction with the Deer Creek and Coal Creek Trails. See the Jura Knob post for an explanation of these two routes. Stay straight on the Engineer Mountain Trail. Going south, the thin but well-trodden path takes aim at the low saddle between Engineer Mountain and Point 11,916', unofficially called the Engineer Plateau. (THW, photo)

At 9.1 miles, the Pass Creek Trail comes in from the east and terminates at the Engineer Mountain Trail at 11,680 feet. This is the 2.5 mile blue-line route on the map above. The segment hike from Coal Bank Pass to the Engineer Mountain Guard Station is a local's favorite but does require a shuttle. This juncture is the launch point for the Engineer Mountain, 12,968', climb. Here is the one place on the circuit solitude will likely be broken. Mid-summer, a walk up the Pass Creek Trail to look at the outrageous flowers in Engineer Meadows is a popular half-day outing. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

The West Needle Mountains come into view as we top the plateau and head down the other side. The Trinities are on the far left. The Twilights are east of the Animas River.

Engineer Mountain was sculpted by a 2,000 foot wall of ice sliding south during the Pleistocene. The trail skirts under the southeast columnar granitic wall.

The delightfully smooth dirt track plunges into a heavy spruce forest. The trail comes alongside the eastern edge of the drop with numerous overviews beginning at 10.9 miles. Back in the aspen zone, in autumn this trail segment is the highlight of the hike. US 550 wends beneath Potato Hill (a.k.a. Spud Mountain), and Mountain View Crest is the flat-topped plateau on the right. (THW, photo)

At elevation 10,700 feet, walk through a span of limestone. Grouse favor this biozone. Descend through open glades, one of which holds a pond glazed with flaxen leaves and lit by an autumnal fire. (THW, photo)

Take a last look back at Engineer Mountain. (THW, photo)

Coloradans are intimately familiar with the fleeting combination of brilliant aspen and deep, forest green conifer. The Animas River canyon is image-center. To its right is Electra Lake and then Cascade Village beside the highway.
(THW, photo)

The trail makes one long switchback to the north before sorting itself out and proceeding correctly south and west. If your timing is right, the trail is obscured by yellow leaves.

Reach the junction with the Cascade Creek Trail #510 at 15.0 miles, elevation 9,080 feet. For those doing the full loop, two miles remain. In the very center of this image is a sign post. Turn right onto a grassy 50 foot cutoff before hitting the main trail going west.

In the image below, a car is parked at the Engineer Mountain Guard Station trailhead. This is the end of the 8.5 mile section hike.

The very old and well-established Cascade Creek Trail is occasionally used by mountain bikers. It is marked with posts and weathered tree blazes. Psych yourself up for another couple hundred feet of climbing.

At the end of a very long loop, tunnels of glowing afternoon light are sustaining. If you get lucky and hit the Cascade Creek Trail at a specific hour in the late afternoon on a certain day of the year, it will look just like this.

The trail rejoins the road at 16.8 miles. Sometime in the summer of 2016 the helpful sign designating this segment of the Cascade Creek Trail disappeared. Turn right and walk 0.2 mile to the Red Gate Trailhead. If you are parked at the flume, it should be a simple matter to cut down to the road earlier and save some mileage. The picturesque, private log cabins scattered in the woods have 99-year leases managed by San Juan National Forest.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Little Giant Peak, 13,416', and King Solomon Mountain, 13,220', Silverton's Mining Country

Essence: Loop hike links historic mining trails and old wagon roads, goes under two abandoned aerial tramways, and passes by shuttered mines. Take the Silver Lake Trail through Arrastra Basin and the hand cable route up the headwall. Summit Little Giant Peak, swing around the head of Little Giant Basin, and traverse the long and lofty ridge while cresting the three prominences of King Solomon Mountain. Descend a difficult ridge or backtrack to a trail through Little Giant Basin.
Travel: From Durango drive 47 miles to Silverton on U.S. Route 550. Turn northeast and proceed up Greene Street, the main drag, to the north end of town. Zero-out your trip meter as you make a soft right onto San Juan CR 2. At 2.0 miles, turn right on San Juan CR 21 just before the Mayflower Gold Mill. Cross the Animas River on a bridge and head up into Arrastra Basin. At 2.8 miles, stay left where CR 55 branches right. Park at 3.2 miles where the road from Little Giant Basin comes in on the left at 10,160 feet. 2WD vehicles with sturdy tires should reach this point but don't attempt to go further up Arrastra. Allow 1:20 from Durango. If your destination is Silver Lake, in a 4WD vehicle, park before the final switchback to the Mayflower Mine at 10,600 feet.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.6 miles; 3,900 feet of climbing
Time: 5:30 to 7:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation somewhat challenging; Class 2+ with mild exposure
Map: Howardsville, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: September 16, 2016
And when the throng of eager men--
Men of heroic mold and true--
Wrought mines that silver might be had
They builded better than they knew--
These men now gone.
Unknown poet, Silverton Standard, 1903

Hikers nearing Pt. 13,045' first climbed Little Giant Peak, image-right, and then traversed the alpine ridge of King Solomon Mountain.

Route: From the parking pullout at 10,160 feet, walk south up the road into Arrastra Gulch. The track does a major switchback and then transitions to the Silver Lake Trail at Mayflower Mine. Scale the headwall via the hand cable route. Shortly before Silver Lake, locate an historic trail up the west slope of Little Giant Peak. From the crest, go east, swing around the head of Little Giant Basin and, off-trail, climb King Solomon Mountain. Continue over the next two prominences before taking the northwest ridge back to the road emerging from Little Giant Basin. Those who wish to avoid a steep, scrabbly descent from King Solomon may return to Dives Basin Pass and take the blue-line trail into Little Giant Basin.

The warmup in Arrastra Gulch is a walk through Silverton's earliest mining history. In 1870, the Little Giant gold vein was found below the Arrastra headwall, shown. This resulted in the first profitable hardrock mine in the Silverton area. The ore was relayed by aerial tramway and pulverized in an arrastra, a circular pit with a stone floor. Flat stones were connected to a center capstan. A draft animal provided power at the end of a long beam dragging the stones and crushing the ore. Water and mercury were added which amalgamated with the gold as it was freed.

The hand cable route is left of the Arrastra Creek spillover, image-center.

Steel Mayflower Tramway towers were protected by snow slide splitters designed to dissipate the force of avalanches. Men rode the tram to work as did women employed in the kitchen and commissary. Even stealthy children hitched rides, though this practice was forbidden by management.

The road makes a major switchback at 0.5 mile, 10,600 feet. Park here if you are simply doing an out-and-back to Silver Lake.

The road ends at the Mayflower Mine, 11,140 feet, 1.4 miles into the hike. In 1929, a five-story boarding house was built adjacent to the mine. Photos as recent as 1991 show a collection of buildings at the site but now only a rusty assortment of debris remain and the mine portal has been sealed with cement. Extracted ore was sent via tram to the Mayflower Gold Mill located north of the Animas River on CR 2.

The mill operated from 1930 to 1991, the longest running mill in the history of the San Juan Mountains. The mill produced 1,940,100 ounces of gold; 30,000,000 ounces of silver; and 1,000,000 tons of combined base metals. In 2,000, the mill was designated a National Historic Landmark. It is owned by the San Juan County Historical Society and is open for self-guided tours in the summer.

In the image below, hikers are transitioning onto the Silver Lake Trail. The footpath follows an old wagon road and thus has a generous platform in spite of its location on a sliding scree slope.

The path makes four sharp switchbacks up the final 400 feet to the base of the upper cliff where the hand cable route ensues. The abandoned track has washed away and hikers must scale a rock outcrop. Two choices are presented. The low route, shown, has a few exposed steps.

The high route is up against the wall. Stone holds are good but an old steel cable is anchored if you want to use it, pictured. Both routes join and enter a center chute along with the cable. It is a short, enjoyable scramble to the top of the headwall.

Below, hikers are standing at the top of the cable route at 2.0 miles, 11,800 feet. West is Hazelton Mountain on the divide between Arrastra Basin and Blair Gulch. (THW, photo)

Now in Arrastra Basin proper, you will connect with the old trail again. It rises gradually to Silver Lake, 12,186 feet, following Arrastra Creek. It is a short and worthy diversion to Silver Lake to scout around in the remains of the Silver Lake Mill and stamp banks, Iowa Mill boilers and steam engines, and Royal Tiger Mine. On my last visit in 2005, I came across a fascinating array of every day artifacts strewn amongst ore cars, the boiler building, machine shop, and boarding house.

In 1876 prospectors began looking to the more isolated areas around Arrastra Gulch and made the dangerous ascent into the glacially carved "Silver Lake Basin." In 1890, mule trains packed in thousands of board feet of lumber, tons of hardware and machinery, and basic living necessities. They assembled the largest surface plant and mill in the county, processing 300 tons of ore each day. By 1900, 300 men were living and working at the Silver Lake Mine.  (THW, photo)

Before leaving the Silver Lake Trail and making for Little Giant Peak, visually locate the subtle old mining path doing a rising traverse to the north. It is essential to find this assist up the steep, west-facing hillside. At about 2.5 miles, 12,160 feet, head east a short distance and then go north on a minor bench. Here, you will find the trail which does a switchback up a patch of grey rock, shown just left of image-center.

The thin platform maintains a steady, pleasant grade. Watch for switchbacks. At 13,000 feet, there is a  prospect. Hazard! Boards are strewn about with nails sticking straight up. This bench is a good place to pause and view the ghost town at Silver Lake. From the lake, it is possible to follow a mining track to the pack trail that goes over "Deer Park Pass," image-center. South of the pass is Pt. 13,409', and north is Kendall Peak. (THW, photo)

Gain Little Giant's north ridge, at 13,120 feet. The route stays on the west side of the colorful, lumpy ridge comprised of San Juan volcanics. Quartz crystals are plentiful and so are historic pipes. The image below looks back on hikers regaining the north ridge just prior to summiting. (THW, photo)

Crest Little Giant at 3.5 miles after 3,250 feet of vertical. The view is remarkable because the peak sits at the apex of three basins: Arrastra is west; Little Giant is north; and Dives is southeast. The north face is precipitous. This image looks south with Highland Mary Lakes on the Continental Divide platform and Rio Grande Pyramid and the Grenadier Range on the horizon. (THW, photo)

Looking east from the summit, King Solomon Mountain straddles the divide between Little Giant Basin flowing down to the left and Cunningham Creek. Dives Basin is off to the right and the pass is between the peaks, shown in front of my hiking partner. Unmistakable Half Peak is closer than it looks.

There are two ways to descend the mountain. For the standard route, locate a social trail just to the south side of the east ridge. Or, stay on the spine and scramble down the pinched, somewhat exposed ridge, pictured. Both routes meet at a divot at 13,160 feet where a second choice is presented. Again, the standard route skirts the ridgeline on its south. The knife ridge depicted in purple on my map, is Class 2+ on good, "Skip to My Lou" rock as one seasoned friend described. (THW, photo)

At 13,000 feet, 3.9 miles, the social trail makes a sharp left on the Dives Basin Trail which bears north to the Little Giant-King Solomon saddle, " Dives Basin Pass," shown, at 12,940 feet, 4.0 miles. Be watchful; I have spotted a fox and golden eagle in this area.

Note: Hikers who wish to avoid the not-so-pleasurable segment of King Solomon's northwest ridge should return to this pass and get on the excellent pack trail that descends into Little Giant Basin and joins the road, the blue-line route on my map. Frankly, the most common and easiest route up both Little Giant and King Solomon is to drive into the basin and park at 11,440 feet.  I have been down this trail several times and mid-summer, the wildflowers are exuberant and glorious. Mining began in Little Giant Basin in 1879. While walking down the road, you will pass the Big Giant Mill and tram station and the remains of the Contention Tramway.

This image was shot from the initial start up King Solomon Mountain. It looks back on Dives Basin Trail and Pass, and the alternative east ridge descent from Little Giant Peak

Leave the Little Giant Basin trail and scramble up the solid rock staircase on the southwest ridge of King Solomon.

Give up about 40 feet and ascend again on the beautiful and playful wildcat path to the south hump of the summit ridge at 4.2 miles, just shy of 13,220 feet.

King Solomon Mountain has three prominences; the 0.1 mile-long summit ridge is the collective highpoint. It has two knobs separated by a narrow ridge. It is hard to say which rise is taller but the summit register is located on the north hump, shown. Pt. 13,185' is left of the hikers.

This image looks back on the south knob from the official summit. It is knife-like between the humps but the rock is good. If your goal is to simply crest King Solomon Mountain, this is your turn-around. If you are a ridge purist and want to visit two more unranked prominences, keep going. (THW, photo)

The mile-long unobstructed ridge connecting the three crests is one of the finest in the San Juan Mountains. Walking sky high on a mix of tundra and stone is blissful. Reach the broad eminence of Pt. 13,185' at at 4.7 miles. From here we have seen mountain goats high on the east slope of Pt. 13,045', image-right. (THW, photo)

Cunningham Gulch is the significant drainage to the east. The Old Hundred Boarding House clings remarkably to the precipitous west slope of Galena Mountain.

From Pt. 13,045', the ridge steps down nicely to 12,800 feet where it goes over an outcrop, shown. The Animas River valley is abruptly below.

The ridge stops being fun but it is not dangerous. The next 850 feet of descent is tedious and requires patience. Rock is sharp and loose and sections are at the angle of repose giving way under foot. This image shows the contact between the talus and treeline on the northwest ridge.

At 11,950 feet, tundra resumes. Stay on the softly rounded ridge, bearing northwest. You are home free now.

This route has its virtues and stands of aspen adorn the well-spaced, pleasant conifer forest.

At 11,000 feet we intentionally leaned left/west to connect with the Little Giant Basin Road at 6.5 miles. However, you could stay on the ridge to 10,600 feet as indicated on the map above. Note that this is the last opportunity to meet up with the road which is the only direct shot to your vehicle. We crossed under the Contention Tramway just before reaching the road. (THW, photo)