Saturday, September 17, 2022

Blackhead Peak, 12,500', South San Juan Mountains

Essence: Pagosa Springs locals praise Blackhead Peak in tones of reverence and joy. They tell of glorious swaths of tundra rising gently and culminating on a broad summit with far-reaching views of the South San Juan Mountains. In the forest, an indispensable social trail weaves through complex terrain and escarpments. The footpath is not engineered or maintained and gets the job done somewhat abruptly--it is steep. The trail functions until you don't need it anymore and then it disappears. The hike is within the San Juan National Forest. The ridgeline between Blackhead Peak and Nipple Mountain is on the western boundary of the South San Juan Wilderness.
Travel: Nipple Mountain and Blackhead Peak are distinct eminences on the ridgeline east of Pagosa Springs. Just east of the San Juan River bridge on US 160, turn south on Hwy 84, signed Chama, New Mexico. In 0.2 mile turn east on CR 302, Mill Creek Road, and measure distance from there. In 0.3 mile pavement ends. The gravel road is wide, graded, and maintained. Cross over a cattle guard at 4.0 miles. At 6.1 miles, turn right onto signed Nipple Mountain Road (FSR 665). Cross a cattle guard and the road narrows a bit. Stay on the main road at 8.3 miles where Echo Canyon Road #029 turns off to the right. At 9.1 miles, FSR 665 and "24" split. Take the left branch, staying on FSR 665. Stay on the main road when FSR 735 branches to the right at 12.3 miles. Good clearance and tires are necessary when the road gets rockier at about 14.4 miles. At 14.6 miles, the track does a switchback to the left followed by another to the right. Parking for the Little Blanco, Quartz Lake Trailhead is on the right at 15.6 miles. For Blackhead Peak, park in a large, unsigned lot on the right at 16.3 miles. The road continues but is blocked just beyond the lot. It took us 50 minutes from the intersection of Hwy 84 and CR 302 in my Subaru. Dispersed camping along this road is used by hunters in autumn.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 6.0 miles; 2,400 feet. Add 0.2 and 160 feet for the spur to the base of Nipple Mountain.
Total Time: 4:00 to 5:30
Difficulty: Primarily trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; one short Class 2+ scramble; no exposure.
Map: Blackhead Peak, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Date Hiked: September 17, 2022
Three primary essentials of genius
An eye that can see nature
A heart that can feel nature
And a boldness that dares follow it
. Taliesin
The forces of time and erosion have chiseled Blackhead Peak on three sides leaving a perpendicular escarpment. The north ridge functions as a heaven-sent ramp to the summit as seen from the base of the Nipple Mountain spire. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: Walk easterly on the closed road for 1.2 miles. Leave the road and ascend east on a trail to the Nipple Mountain and Blackhead Peak saddle. Hike south on the north ridge to the summit. Return as you came. The spur to the base of the Nipple Mountain spire is optional.  

Walk east out of the parking lot, elevation 10,120 feet. The track is signed "No Motor Vehicles" and a dirt mound blocks further moto access. The peaceful, nearly flat road is surrounded by lush meadows, a mixed conifer forest, and aspen stands. This stretch would be especially lovely in autumn. On our hike a drifting wave cloud unfurled across the face of the sky. (THW, photo)
We were delighted to spot two camouflaged horned lizards, "horny toads," on the roadbed basking in afternoon warmth. (THW, photo)
The road is a good orientation platform. Below, from the left is unnumbered Point 12,260', Nipple Mountain, Saddle 11,820', and Blackhead Peak. The amphitheater created by the three peaks embraces the headwaters of the Rito Blanco. At ground level, by mid-September most of the wildflowers had gone to seed. However, showy goldeneye and pearly everlasting were abundant. The conifers have been ravaged by bark beetles. Some large trees remain and most of the trees less than four inches in diameter.
It is helpful to keep count of the four drainages you'll be crossing before turning off the road onto the trail. The first at 0.6 mile was just a trickle running across the road in September. But the track and bridge were completely obliterated by a north fork of the Rito Blanco at 0.9 mile.

The image below shows the location of the fourth creek crossing at 1.15 miles.
Twenty paces further on at 1.2 miles, watch for a cairn or two and a path going softly uphill on the left heading due east at elevation 10,380 feet. In keeping with the ephemeral nature of cairns they may not be present when you hike. The turnoff is subtle and you'll need to keep a steady eye on the trail. But we found it reassuringly clear, more so than we anticipated. The footpath is absolutely necessary to get through complicated country troubled with cliffs. The trail escorts the hiker all the way to the north ridge of Blackhead Peak. It climbs almost 1,500 feet in just over a mile. That's steep but not ridiculous.
The forested portion of the hike is lengthy and the standing dead exacted an emotional toll. We took heart in the healthy spruce bordering clearings further enlivened by carmine-colored fireweed. Blackhead Peak can be seen frequently from the glades.
The trail showcases a castle composed of volcanic breccia. All the peaks in the area are volcanic. Most of the rock was exploded out of calderas somewhere in the vicinity. Because the eruptions were so violent, lots of preexisting rock fractured and that rubble became incorporated in the massive deposits of welded debris--volcanic breccia. 
(THW, photo) 
Alight on a small interior ridge and then emerge onto a grassy slope at 10,960 feet. The lower cascade of a delicate and long-drop waterfall is visible from this vantage point.
The trail skirts the 300-foot cliffband that precipitates the waterfall. At 11,140 feet, step off the trail to the right for the best view of the falls. (THW, photo)
The grade moderates at 11,260 feet and angles southeast toward the saddle. As you progress through large, open meadows make every effort to stay on the trail. Your only indication of its existence is likely to be trampled grass. Alongside the toe of a rock glacier I tried to imagine the immense stature of the mountain before weathering and erosion whittled away at Blackhead Peak.

The final bench is by contrast peaceful, even comforting, tucked under the near vertical west wall of Blackhead's north ridge.

At 11,720 feet the trail hooks north and makes for the saddle. We saw another group of hikers on the mountain and they led the way on the somewhat elusive trail. (THW, photo)

Gain the ridge 20 feet above the 11,820-foot saddle at 2.4 miles. Right then and there we were so enthralled with the Nipple Mountain spire we agreed to climb to its base on our return. (THW, photo)

The route to Blackhead turns south. Immediately, there are two forceful gendarmes. Ridge purists may be able to negotiate the outcrops but we stayed on the trail and bypassed them on the west. The path is a little slick and thin as it crosses a steep slope. 
Upon gaining the divide the trail disappears, lost in the tundra, and the glory begins. The north ridge ascent is pure ecstasy. This image looks back on Point 12,260', the Nipple spire, and the Little Blanco Trail crossing in front of Point 12,375'. (THW, photo)
Simply stroll up the green ramp to the minor cliffband at about 12,000 feet. Considering this ridge is essentially holding the mountain down, it's not terribly wide. Yet there is a top-of-the-world feeling of expansiveness for the hiker. 
(THW, photo)

The 20 foot, Class 2+ scramble is the one and only chance to get hands on stone. Holds are good, the rock is stable--it's a blast. 
There is more than one route up the wall.

We have not spent much time exploring the South San Juan Mountains so an unknown and enticing world unfolded as we climbed the broad backslope. (THW, photo)
The upper mountain is a study in contrast. The tundra is rounded and mellow. But wander over toward the west edge and you will see thrusting standing towers and forceful blocks of extrusive, igneous volcanics. The powerful union of stone and thin air! (THW, photo)

 Sweeps of tundra and a pleasant grade invite free-range exploration.
I regret not taking a spin around the perimeter of the expansive plateau to the east with its threshold of tabletop and precipice. (THW, photo)
Crest the roomy big top at 3.0 miles. The peak register held random scraps and a notebook. With a rise of 800 feet, we took in the beckoning surround. To the northeast is Summit Peak, 13,300', the highpoint in Archuleta County and the tallest peak in the South San Juan Mountains, image-right. 
The broken southwest ridge extends to descriptively named Squaretop Mountain and Katie's Peak.
Descending hikers highlight the astounding relief between the unseen Rio Blanco and the Continental Divide. 
(THW, photo)
Base of Nipple Mountain Spire
The hike to Blackhead Peak is an out-and-back so simply retrace your steps to the trailhead. For those who love the thrill and power of standing stones, the spur to the base of the unranked spire adds just 0.2 mile roundtrip and 160 feet from Saddle 11,820'.

The south ridge pitch is just a walk-up with no obstacles. The base of the pillar is littered with shattered rock; this is not a safe place to settle in for a picnic. 
We explored the east side to see if by some miracle a scramble opened. Previously, some friends did a short-pitch technical climb. They said it was, "Cool sitting on top and seeing everything around Pagosa." Our mutual reverential exchange with stone had to be satisfied with a pat and a kiss. (THW, photo)
The ridge north of the Nipple is exposed and skittish. We'll return for further exploration from the Quartz Lake Trail.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Red Mountain No. 3, 12,890', To Corkscrew Pass, From US 550

Essence: This hike is a study in the color red: vermilion, sinopia, scarlet, and crimson. Red Mountains No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 are the variegated, color-saturated rock piles seen from US 550 east of Red Mountain Pass. We intended to climb all three but got weathered out after making the traverse from No. 3 to Corkscrew Pass at the base of No. 1. This post will position fit hikers to complete the three-peak tour in one long day. The Reds are a compact cluster but once off the old mining tracks, rock is rough underfoot and vertical accumulates quickly in rolling terrain. There are steep pitches on slick hardscrabble surfaces. Land ownership and management is a mix of public and private. Permission is granted for non-motorized travel on roads crossing private land. Public lands are managed by the San Juan and Uncompahgre national forests and the Bureau of Land Management.  
Travel: Two roads leave US 550 on the east side just south of mile marker 80, less than a quarter mile south of Red Mountain Pass. Turn east on the lower road, unsigned FSR 825, and measure distance from there. The road splits immediately; go right. Decent clearance and 4WD are recommended for the steep, rubbly road. At 0.7 mile, the road cranks to the right and becomes San Juan CR 14. Park in a minor pullout on the left side of the track, just before a locked gate. Do not block the gate.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.0 miles; 3,500 feet 
Total Time: 5:30 to 7:00
Difficulty: Jeep track, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2 with mild exposure
Map: Ironton, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: September 8, 2022
Note on Geology and Mining: The Red Mountain Mining District is one of the oldest and most famous in the western San Juan Mountains. The towns of Red Mountain and Ironton sprang up within a few miles of each other. The district and town were named for the three brilliant peaks which, in turn, reference the iron ore-infused rocks covering the surface. The mining district is situated in the western margin of the Oligocene Southern Rocky Mountain volcanic field on the edge of the Silverton caldera, approximately eight miles in diameter. Deposits were found in veins and breccia pipes with ore chimneys that extend to depths of 1,000 feet along the ring fractures of the caldera. The high-grade deposits were initially explored and mined from 1874 to 1910 yielding immense production of precious and base metals.
Quote: I want a red to be sonorous, to sound like a bell. If it doesn't turn out that way, I add more reds and other colors until I get it. Pierre-Auguste Renoir
The Red Mountains are untamed--the chromatic field, the tangled masses of broken rock, and the storied mining history. This image was shot from Point 12,440' and takes in the traverse from Red Mountain No. 3 (furthest distant, image-center) to nearby Corkscrew Pass. Red Mountain No. 2 is on the far right.

Route: Hike northeast on a closed road all the way to the summit of "Red 3." Off trail, climb over Point 12,747'. Point 12,596' is the pivot for the spur to Red 2. We continued east to Corkscrew Pass, the launch point for Red 1. We climbed Point 12,440' for fun. Keep in mind there is about 1,200 feet of elevation gain returning to Red 3.

The hike begins on "Red Mtn Three Rd," elevation 11,420 feet. It is signed private property, no motorized vehicles. However, hikers, skiers, and cyclists are welcome. To help protect access, please stay on the track.
A little stream runs along the right side of the road; red rock is already predominant. An edifice with log supports and a gravity chute is one of many relics and adits in this immediate area.
The road splits at 0.3 mile. Take the left branch. Go around a second locked gate at 0.5 mile. "Hikers and skiers welcome" is posted on the gate rail. The road passes through lingering stands of healthy spruce and a short swath of tundra. Once the road abuts the cliff-armored prominence up ahead there's not much flora for the remainder of the hike.
An old pack trail doubling as a singletrack comes up out of Prospect Gulch east of the road at 1.0 mile, 12,120 feet. It might look tempting but it will throw you off course. US 550 is audible and visible 1,000 feet below. Further on, the track works around to the east side of the prominence. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

McMillan Peak is close by to the south identified by its antiquated microwave.
The road makes a hairpin turn to the west. 

The second switchback is tucked immediately under the convoluted, vibrant, and fierce volcanic face. The track is so steep we were glad to be on our feet and not in our Rubicon. On our return we were passed by a commercial Jeep tour taking customers to the top of Red 3. (THW, photo)
We left the track to stand on the volcanic prominence at 1.8 miles, 12,700 feet, for a mind-boggling vista. Never mind for now the ranges to the north, east, and south. The westward viewpoint is so mountainous only long-time locals can unravel the mystery of so many thirteeners in a forever lineup. Keeping to the basins and their parent peaks, image-left is Paradise Basin (South Lookout Peak), the Ice Lake group at skyline (Vermilion Peak), Mill Creek spilling from the Columbine Lake basin (Lookout Peak),  and Porphyry Basin (Three Needles) just coming into the image. (THW, photo)

The track passes by a solar powered communications outpost and then ends on the summit of Red 3. (THW, photo)
The summit platform of Red 3 is most unusual--circular and flat. Either it's an anomaly of nature or it has been worked by mining operations. If this is your final destination the pigments across the red spectrum are reward enough. 
(THW, photo)

To the west, US 550 makes a series of sharp, 10 mph curves north of Red Mountain Pass at the Idarado Mine. The tailings piles, image-center, are at the Barstow Mine. From there, Commodore Gulch is the access for T7 (Peak 13,359') and Spirit Gulch takes the climber to T8 (Peak 13,315'). Black Bear Pass is just off-image on the left serving Trico and Telluride peaks, shown. And that's just a few of the mountains in this sliver.
You may well wonder why unranked Red 2, almost 700 feet below Red 3, deserved name recognition. The peak looks like a real mountain when viewed from Ironton Park. The Brown Mountain to Abrams Mountain traverse takes up the entire right half of this image. On the skyline are Coxcomb, Wetterhorn, and Uncompahgre peaks. 

The orientation photo below was shot in the afternoon under a water-laden sky. Our plan was to head east and climb Red 1 (image-left) and catch Red 2 on our return. Traversing to Red 1 was a more time consuming effort than it appeared. In retrospect, a better plan would have been to go from Red 3 to Red 2, then return for Red 1 on another day and climb it from Corkscrew Pass.
This was our second attempt at tackling the Reds. On August 11, 2013, we made it to adjacent Point 12,747' but fresh mid-summer snow turned us around short of our goal.
There are fragments of use trail on the ridge traverse. The first steep pitch off Red 3 will give you a feel for the nature of the chunky rock and rough footing. The payback is the incredulity generated by manifold red pigmentation. 
(THW, photo)

The slope leads onto a very narrow ridge with a serviceable social trail. The spine falls off significantly on both sides and some hikers will feel a sense of exposure. Drop to 12,620 feet and then climb to Point 12,747' at 2.5 miles. There's a decent shortcut path on the north side of the point but I prefer to stay in my comfort zone on the ridgeline. 
This image looks back on the colormass that is Red 3 from Point 12,747'. On image left are the Three Needles and the magnificent and joyful T10 (Peak 13,477'). (THW, photo)

A hardscrabble trail zigzags down from Point 12,747' giving up almost 300 feet to the saddle at 12,460 feet. This image was shot on Point 12,747' and shows Point 12,596' (2.8 miles), the gateway to Red 2. The roundtrip spur to Red 2 (12,219'), adds about 1.5 miles and 700 feet of vertical. Drop to the 12,060-foot saddle and climb the 159-foot rise. For exquisite photos and a brief description of the hike to Red 2, see

Continuing on to Corkscrew, there's a rather hazardous downpitch on the nearly 700-foot drop to the next saddle. To mitigate the slick, resistant soil avoid the social trail and stay in the bigger rock. This proved useful when we were clawing our way back up. Looking at the image below, our next objective was the dirt track, image-center. To get there, we skirted the rounded knob, shown, on the south.

We passed by remnants of a beautifully decorated Victorian miner's stove.

Bottom out on the low point of the ridge at 11,940 feet, 3.4 mile.

The only obstacle on the ridgecrest is a string of whittled stone castles. We bypassed the arĂȘte on the south and returned to ridge at first opportunity.
At 3.7 miles, we reached the turnaround platform for the spur road that comes off Corkscrew Gulch Road. A couple of OHVs passed us on the track. (THW, photo)
Top out on the road at 12,340 feet and descend to Corkscrew Pass at 12,220 feet. This was our turnaround point. For those climbing Red 1 (12,592'), I was tempted by the east ridge but a friend previously went straight up from the pass with the assist of a fragmentary social trail. Link to Nadar's SummitPost for an eloquent description of Red 1. We returned and did a Red 1 east ridge-south face circuit on July 3, 2023. From the pass the summit is 0.4 mile with about 400 feet of elevation gain. (THW, photo)

On our return we did a fast Class 2+ mini scramble up the irresistible black outcrop south of the spur road.
Point 12,440' was a superior vantage point over the mountains east of the Reds. The image below captures the Corkscrew Gulch Road and the track to Hurricane Pass. Brown Mountain is west of the pass and Hurricane Peak is east.

At skyline in the center of this image are Bonita, Emery, and Proposal peaks. The disturbance below Bonita is the tailings pile for the infamous Gold King Mine. 

Looking further south, a road churns into Velocity Basin. This is the easiest route to Tower Mountain. Velocity Peak (Peak 13,325'), a higher order of difficulty, is climbed from Boulder Gulch in Silverton's backyard. And most perilous of them all, serrated Storm Peak is accessed from the west out of Cement Creek.

We raced rain on our return trip over two substantial prominences and a peak. The Reds were pulsing out prismatic swirls of color. Two frolicking ravens were getting a free lift. Are they laughing at us? All four of us were getting high on the complimentary vibrations of the color red.