Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Sheep Mountain, 13,292', and Headwaters of the Rio Grande River from Stony Pass

Essence: This hike meanders through one of the most powerful places in the greater Western landscape. On the Continental Divide Trail/Colorado Trail (CDT/CT) walk through the headwaters basin of the Rio Grande River and step across the initial rill of this mighty watercourse. Sheep Mountain may be climbed by any of several tundra approaches. The colorful summit ridge is narrow and entertaining with mild exposure. The hike begins just south of Stony Pass and is within the Rio Grande National Forest. Discussion follows of an attempt up Peak 13,152' (South Canby) and a successful climb up Peak 13,165' southwest of Stony Pass.
Travel: In a 4WD, high clearance vehicle, in Silverton drive to the far end of Greene Street. Start measuring as you make a soft right onto San Juan CR 2. The pavement ends at 2.0 miles. Turn right onto San Juan CR 4 at Cunningham Gulch, 4.1 miles. At 5.8 miles, turn left at the sign for Stony Pass. When the road switchbacks to the north it pinches to a narrow shelf, no pass zone. The road is steep all the way to the pass at 10.1 miles, elevation 12,592 feet. Begin descending and park at 10.7 miles where the CDT/CT meets the road. There is room for one vehicle. Or, drive a short distance further on. Allow one hour from Silverton. Stony Pass Road has seen a significant uptick in popularity recently which exacerbates the driving hazard.
Distance and Elevation Gain: About 6.2 miles for the headwaters tour and Sheep Mountain; roughly 1,700 feet of climbing
Total Time: 3:00 to 5:00 depending on route
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; mild exposure on the Sheep Mountain summit ridge
Maps: Howardsville, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad; Trails Illustrated No. 141, Telluride, Silverton, Ouray, Lake City
Latest Date Hiked: July 31, 2019
Quote: And forever, beyond the mysterious river's farthest shore, the great earth waited in the darkness, and was still. It waited there with the huge, attentive secrecy of night...and its wild, mysterious loveliness was more delicate than magic. Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River 

The Rio Grande River begins as a rivulet from Canby Mountain and grows to a murmuring streamway in the high basin. It flows west of Sheep Mountain (shown), rolls through the Weminuche Wilderness, and presses ever onward for 1,900 miles to the Gulf of Mexico at Brownsville, Texas.

Route: There is much fluidity in the route and the hike works equally well in either direction. For the black-line route, from Stoney Pass Road take the CDT/CT southeast and then north through the headwaters basin to the Continental Divide. Stay on the trail to a tarn and then walk off-trail south to the northwest ridge of Sheep Mountain. Return on open slopes back to the trail. For the most efficient climb, take the blue-line route from Stoney Pass Road to the northwest ridge. Peaks 13,152' and 13,165' are discussed at the end of this post.

Rio Grande River Headwaters Basin
The hike begins where the CDT/CT meets the Stoney Pass Road at 12,360 feet. Follow the lovely trail around the south base of Peak 13,152' with its imposing gray pillars. The fortress is informally named "South Canby."  

Swinging north, the treadway descends as it threads through boulders shed from South Canby. Marmots and picas live amongst the stones. The Rio Grande surges softly through the absurdly gorgeous valley. The various and open routes to the false summit of Sheep Mountain are seen below. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

On both of our visits we left the trail and climbed to a bench at 12,700 feet under the east slopes of South Canby.
(THW, photo)

We used that higher vantage to locate the very first hint of water coalescing into America's second longest river. The head of the river is on the east slope of Canby Mountain at 12,600 feet.

If you simply stay on the established trail you will reach the junction with the spur dropping into Maggie Gulch at 1.5 miles. The CDT/CT switchbacks up a small but notable divide topped by Point 12,843'. Pause and you will hear water running down Maggie Gulch into the Animas River, a major contributor to the Colorado River system. This little strip of land is the demarcation of Western watersheds.

Sheep Mountain
A tarn is suspended in bright green grass at 2.1 miles, 12,820 feet. It is located at the north end of an extensive platform that emanates from Sheep Mountain. (THW, photo)

Walking south on the mountain mesa is intensely mellow. Both times we visited there was hardly a breath of air. There is very little rock on the tundra platform, the whole mass acting as a lookout into the Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juan National Forest. Image-center is Wham Ridge on Vestal Peak and Arrow Peak. (THW, photo)

On a knoll at 12,840 feet a post in a large pile of rocks marks a historic trail. I found no evidence of the trail on my 1955 topo but it is still visible winding from the saddle down into the West Fork of Pole Creek.

We dodged a lingering snowfield on the north slopes of Sheep Mountain on its west side and made our way to the northwest ridge. It was somewhat steep but the footing was good. (THW, photo)

We met up with the ridge at 13,000 feet and began climbing a rock pile with small to medium-sized rubble. We topped out on the rounded false summit at 13,260 feet. The crest is 0.3 mile east, a ways further to travel but not much further to climb. The ridge is ultra wide to start but pinches 0.1 mile from the top. Footing is reasonable, exposure is mild, and chutes drop off dramatically to the north.

Slow down and take some care crossing the narrow and very orange summit ridge.

Sheep Mountain is the highest point on the chipped rock ridge. It is about eight feet wide, falling off to the east and west. Your mileage will vary but if you followed the trail to the tarn you will crest the mountain at 4.1 miles. We hoped to continue out the ridge to bulbous Greenhalgh Mountain but the weather was threatening. Descending east from Sheep looked time-consuming.

A substantial rock glacier flows north from Sheep. Half Peak, 13,841', claims its rightful place at image-center, ranked number 88 in Colorado. Appropriately, the Rio Grande Pyramid is visible to the south, off-image.

Descent to Trailhead
There are multiple routes back to the trailhead. Descending from the rubble dome you will notice a subtle split in the ridge above a shallow ravine. We wanted to spend more time in the watery basin so we headed north staying rather high to start. (THW, photo)

As we neared the floor of the basin we visually located the CDT/CT. In the image below you can see the trail on either side of the marmot town boulders.

Choose your route carefully and you can stay out of the bogs. We crossed the Rio Grande River with one step at 12,140 feet.

Mid-summer, flowers are superb throughout the hike. Columbine grow within the rocks at the beginning of the trail. Watch beside the path for the purple Silverton wallflower (unique to this region). The tundra cover crop, alpine avens, is on the platform south of the tarn. In the high alpine are sky pilot and purple fringe.  Elephant head and masses of queen's crown and king's crown, shown, live in the moist basin. Having walked along the Rio Grande on the US-Mexico border these flowering plants are in sharp contrast with the ancient creosote bush and lechuguilla of the Chihuahuan Desert. (THW, photo)

Canby Mountain, 13,478', is seen from the trailhead. While I have climbed it from the Buffalo Boy Mine in Rocky Gulch, I know of others who initiated the ascent from Stony Pass. (THW, photo)

Shortest Route to Sheep Mountain
Before the Colorado Trail reroute it met the Stony Pass Road at 12,120 feet. Park near there and take the blue-line route east to the northwest ridge. It is approximately three miles roundtrip to the peak with 1,200 feet of elevation gain. 

Peak 13,152' (South Canby) Attempt 
South Canby is not a stroll, it is a climb with exposure and poor rock. This peak shot was taken from across the basin. The north ridge of the mountain is a fractured wall of towers, teeth, and blades. The standard route is on the southeast ridge.

Our intention was to climb South Canby first. Our route is depicted with a red line on the map above. We left the trail at 0.2 mile, 12,400 feet. We made for the fortress wall seen below. The talus was small enough to roll but the slope wasn't scary-steep. At the base of the wall we cut east. (THW, photo)

It was a power grunt (below) to gain the east ridge with a small standing zone at 0.5 mile, 12,920 feet.

Next, we moved back into the mountain going west on a ledge ramp with loose rock.

The route bends north and here we found cairns marking the way for those who can stomach exposed, steep inclines on San Juan explosive volcanic rubble. It was mentally difficult to turn around less than 200 feet from the top but it was a good decision for us. We reminded ourselves that we are not out there to conquer peaks but to observe Nature and discover fun climbs.

Peak 13,165' Via Stony Pass 
This is a climb I would repeat in a heartbeat. Peak 13,165' (shown below, left of Stony Pass) is the high point on the Green Mountain ridge. As depicted with the purple line on the map above, park on Stony Pass and walk southwest up grassy slopes. Find a social trail up the northeast ridge. Rock is unstable near the top, a mere perch. There is no access to Green Mountain from here. This hike is less than one mile roundtrip with about 580 feet of vertical. Allow one hour or less to complete. 


  1. Looking for info about approaching from the Creede side on fr 520, basically the condition of the road. Thanks

    1. See the White Dome post for a description of the road from Stony Pass to the Beartown spur. Pole Creek is seriously hazardous if it is running high. Two years ago, friends drove from the Creede side of FSR 520 in a Toyota Forerunner. It was SLOW but they made it.