Saturday, July 13, 2019

Baldy Cinco, 13,383', and Peak 13,313', Via Spring Creek Pass, 10,898'

Essence: There are four thirteeners in the Baldy Cinco group; this hike visits the two westernmost summits. Take the Colorado Trail/Continental Divide Trail up to Snow Mesa, an immense span of tundra that goes on and on for miles in all directions. Ascend gently on homogeneous turf to the peaks. The hike is either on or very near the Continental Divide. The Divide is the boundary between the Rio Grand National Forest to the south and Gunnison National Forest on the north. The two peaks are in the La Garita Wilderness.
Travel: There are two high mountain passes on CO 149 between Creede and Lake City. Spring Creek Pass is the more southern of the two. It is at mile marker 55, that's 55 miles north of US 160. Pull into the large paved parking lot on the west side of road. Pit toilet, no water.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.5 miles; 2,900 feet of climbing
Total Time: 5:00 to 6:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation easy; Class 2 with no exposure
Maps: Slumgullion Pass; Baldy Cinco, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quads
Date Hiked: July 13, 2019
Quote: The alpine tundra is a land of contrast and incredible intensity, where the sky is the size of forever and the flowers the size of a millisecond. Ann Zwinger, Land Above the Trees

Perhaps the most sensational of the group, volcanic Peak 13,313' was glacially carved north and west creating a triangular summit zenith.  (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: From Spring Creek Pass hike east on-trail to the west rim of Snow Mesa. Leave the trail and climb northeast to Baldy Cinco. Descend west to the saddle and then mount the east ridge of Peak 13,313'. To return, arc southeast, head the East Fork of Cebolla Creek, and dip south to the trail.

Snow Mesa
Colorado 149 crosses the Continental Divide at Spring Creek Pass, 10,898 feet. Cross the highway and get on the CT/CDT heading east toward San Luis Pass.

The hike has spellbinding vistas throughout. The first is at just 0.6 mile with a straight shot southwest to the Rio Grande Pyramid still snowbound and wide awake in early morning sun. (THW, photo)

A stone boy marks the edge of the woods at 1.1 miles, 11,640 feet. The climax forest was recently and tragically destroyed by beetles. However we did see many young trees taking hold. The forest was very much alive; witness the moose, elk, and deer scat.

Snow was late to recede in the summer of 2019 so flowers were delayed. Still, we identified: elderberry, purple fringe, strawberry, mountain parsley, candytuft, buffaloberry, windflower, pussy toes, cinquefoil, sky pilot, snow buttercup, marsh marigold, phlox, potentilla, alpine avens, old man of the mountain, alpine clover, snowball saxifrage, moss campion, purple-colored smelowskia, alpine forget-me-not, minuartia, alpine bluebell, Parry's primrose, Whipple's penstemon, and rivers of Jacob's ladder in the shady wood. (THW, photo)

The path draws alongside the east fork of Spring Creek running down the center of a basin with a green sponge floor and coarse walls of rock framing Snow Mesa. (THW, photo)

The big chunky talus is extrusive volcanic rock. The trail is within the La Garita Caldera, the world's largest. The caldera was created in a supervolcanic event in the San Juan Volcanic Field. The volcano is extinct; its last eruption was 26 million years ago. It is among the largest known volcanic eruptions in Earth's history. (THW, photo)

Stand on the west rim of Snow Mesa at 2.0 miles, 12,280 feet. Our group is from the Four Corners so we seldom hike this far east. One of the best features of this hike for us was seeing familiar mountains in the San Juans from a new perspective. The fourteeners were easy to locate: Handies, Sunshine, Redcloud, Wetterhorn, Matterhorn, and Uncompahgre Peaks. (THW, photo)

Baldy Cinco
Snow Mesa is reported to be the largest expanse of tundra in the lower 48 states. I have not verified that but the vast tundra platform rolls into distance unseen. The Baldy Cinco group rises up roughly 1,000 feet, edging the flat field on the north.

Swing around and get your bearings. Peak 13,313' is the stunning triangular peak. Baldy Cinco is the somewhat nondescript, broad summit on the right. Why it was given the honor of carrying the name for the four thirteeners, I don't know. We decided to stay on the trail for an ultra flat half mile and then climb the softly rounded south ridge of Baldy Cinco. As we got closer to the mountain we saw a stone boy on the south ridge and took aim.

The mellow climb up the tundra-cloaked slope was a pleasure. In this image four hikers are rising up from Snow Mesa. (THW, photo)

We reached the beautifully crafted stone monument at 4.0 miles, 13,160 feet. While exceptionally tall cairns are typically built to signify trail locations, this one is akin to the towering edifices built by sheepherders to while away the time as they tended their flocks. (THW, photo)

The grade eases while crossing a small fell field. Move over to the east side of the broad ridge to see the drop from the Baldy Cinco arc. In the image below, San Luis Peak is on the skyline to the right of Peak 13,510'. Unranked Point 13,363' is on its north and Peak 13,162' is image-center. The mountains shed into Rough Creek, a tributary of Cebolla Creek, a significant waterway silenced in Blue Mesa Reservoir far to the north. (THW, photo)

Crest the hump-shouldered summit of Baldy Cinco at 4.4 miles. Below, I am trying to sort out familiar peaks seen from the east for a change. (THW, photo)

I have seen winsome alpine forget-me-nots in the Elk Mountains and in the Mount Massive Wilderness but they are rare in the San Juan Mountains. We were delighted to see them flourishing on the south and west slopes of Baldy Cinco. The miniature blossoms match the color of our Colorado sky. Take a whiff; their fragrance will alter your state of consciousness. 

Continental Reservoir is southwest. (THW, photo)

Peak 13,313'
Drop down the gravelly west slopes to the saddle at 12,900 feet. We saw a herd of 50 elk flowing like water in the basin to the north within the La Garita Wilderness. The lead-up to Peak 13,313' is spectacular with a near vertical drop on its north wall. The summit monument is seven feet tall. The drama amongst the Baldy Cincos is concentrated here. Top out on the pointed and rocky crest at 5.3 miles.

On the south slope descent there is a short-lived stable talus field, shown. Once on the grass we made an easy broad arc to head the East Fork of Cebolla Creek thereby avoiding even the shallow climb to trail elevation. (THW, photo)

We were back on the trail and off Snow Mesa by 11 am. We would have liked to climb all four thirteeners but got weathered out. We'll return to finish the Baldy Cinco summits when the forget-me-not sky lingers all day. (THW, photo)

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