Friday, September 29, 2023

Flattop Mountain, 12,098', and Section Point, 11,940', from Bolam Pass

Essence: There is nothing difficult or even adventuresome about climbing Flattop Mountain. It's "just a walk" approachable by most hikers. And yet, it is a neglected summit. Arrive in solitude at the very Center of the World. The enormity of the mountaintop and south-facing escarpment creates a distinctive form easily recognized throughout the region. Amble at will over the acreage for rotating perspectives on much higher peaks. Flattop Mountain is a circular peninsula extending west from Bolam Pass, nearly encompassed by the Dolores River and Barlow Creek. Make it a two-peak day by moving your vehicle a short distance and taking a leisurely stroll southwest on the Colorado Trail to Section Point. The willow-choked summit negates visual rewards. Both hikes are within the San Juan National Forest.
Travel: FSR 578 is a 26 mile track that requires 4WD low, high clearance, sturdy tires, and plenty of time. It goes from Purgatory Resort on US 550 to CO 145.  
From US 550: Measure distance from the Purgatory turnoff. Drive up the road into the ski area and turn right near the upper parking lots at the small brown building at the start of FSR 578, 0.4 mile. Turn right at 3.2 miles toward the Hermosa Creek Trail. At 3.6 miles go left staying on FSR 578. At 8.7 miles, the spur to a popular mountain bike trail branches left and Bolam Pass is straight ahead, nine miles away. Ford Hermosa Creek at a shallow, distributed, and flat crossing at 10.2 miles. Avoid in high water. The road degenerates and steepens after the Hotel Draw turnoff at 11.1 miles. There are sharp switchbacks and some shelf sections. Pass the mining ghost town Graysill with its chinked log cabin just shy of 17 miles. The Colorado Trail crosses the road at 17.3 miles beside a reflection lake. Head slightly right following FSR 578X. Top out on the pass, a wide spectacular platform, at about 18.1 miles. FSR 149, the road to the trailhead for Section Point is 0.9 mile west of the pass. For Flattop, park in a pullout on the south 1.5 miles west of the pass. It took us 1:15 from Purgatory in a Jeep Rubicon. Your mileage may vary.
From CO 145: The turnoff for FSR 578 is located between Rico and Lizard Head Pass. The sign on the highway reads Barlow Creek Road 578 (and yet it goes to Bolam Pass) and Cayton Campground. Cross the Dolores River and turn right onto 578. It is a good dirt road for the first 2.6 miles where FSR 496 branches right. Grind up the road. While the track is steep and rocky, it doesn't have the big clearance challenges found on the east side and it is shorter. For Flattop, park on the right at 5.9 miles. For the Section Point trailhead, turn right on FSR 149 at 6.5 miles. (Bolam Pass is at 7.4 miles.)
Distance and Elevation Gain: Flattop Mountain, 5.0 miles, 1,150 feet; Section Point, 6.0 miles 1,000 feet
Total Time: 2:30 - 4:00 for each hike.
Difficulty: Flattop, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2; no exposure. Section Point, Colorado Trail, off-trail; navigation easy; Class 2; no exposure
Map: Hermosa Peak, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Date Hiked: September 29, 2023
Quote: Solvitur ambulando, "All things are solved by walking." Saint Augustine
As a twelver, Flattop Mountain is relatively short in stature by Colorado standards. But the sensation realized while roaming over the summit is gleeful, elevated spaciousness. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: The black-line represents the most efficient route to Flattop Mountain. From parking on the Bolam Pass Road, bear northwest off-trail to Point 11,759'. Drop into a saddle and continue climbing northwesterly to the crest. For Section Point, the blue-line route, park at the end of FSR 149 and walk southwest on a two-track to intersect the Colorado Trail. Follow the trail to the north shoulder of Section Point. Pitch south to the summit.

Flattop Mountain, 12,098'
We made our first attempt to summit Flattop in mid-September, 2023. When we rolled over Bolam Pass, shown, weather was closing in. The meadows were completely saturated and the electricity began before 10:00. We turned around on Point 11,759'. Do not attempt this exposed hike if a thunderstorm threatens. 
We returned on a bluebird day in late September. Again from Bolam Pass, to the north are the tempestuous San Miguel Mountains. From the left: El Diente Peak, Mount Wilson, Gladstone Peak, Wilson Peak, Cross Mountain, Lizard Head, Black Face, and San Bernardo Mountain.

Looking northeast, sharing a north to south running divide are: Sheep Mountain, "Lake Point," San Miguel Peak, V10, Grizzly Peak, and "North Point."

In contrast with the savagely ragged peaks, Flattop Mountain (image-left) looks downright humble. But our years-long curiosity had to be answered.
We parked well off Bolam Pass Road at elevation 11,320 feet.

Cross the road and traverse a large meadow framed by healthy spruce. Most of the flowers had gone to seed but bottle and little gentian, rayless senecio, and yarrow were hanging on. Wade through tall grasses bearing northwest. The summit remains out of view until Point 11,759'. Hold your bearing while stringing clearings together and eventually the way will become evident. 

Ascend a slightly steeper pitch onto the southeast ridge of Flattop. Emerge from the trees into another glade.
Pass an intriguing mound of sandstone.
Arrive at an opening with a view of Point 11,759', image-left. We headed over to the ridgetop. (THW, photo)

Mount a short talus field.

Arrive on Point 11,759' at 1.1 miles. The promontory is a wondrous stone knob lookout that will orient you in space and place. While you can plot your route up Flattop, trees will soon obscure your path. Hold the northwest bearing! We walked over an exposed patch of Mancos Shale covered in fresh elk prints to alight on a beautiful little ridge. An informal use trail extends down the broken rock spine and enters the forest only to disappear. 
Give up almost 200 feet descending to the 11,580-foot saddle at 1.4 miles. Climb through deep woods clambering over fallen timber.

The grade moderates, and the spruce, shorter now, space themselves.

We walked up an exceptionally broad golden slope.

The summit is subtle but there is a highpoint at the apex of the voluminous spread at 2.3 miles. The crest is strangely uniform with nary a rock over two inches in diameter. Flattop's 798-foot prominence affords an excellent vantage point overlooking massive peaks that roll on and on, rippling ever outward to Lone Cone on the very western periphery of the San Juan Mountains. Below, Little Cone is image-left and Dolores, Middle, and Dunn peaks are on the right.

Twirling clockwise, next up are the fourteeners in the Wilson group. Walk northward and you'll see CO 145 going over Lizard Head Pass. (THW, photo)

The two hikers gazing toward the Mount Sneffles Wilderness provide scale on the seemingly unending mountaintop.
The summit provides a most excellent perspective on the San Miguel Peak group. The blade in front of V10 is Point 13,113'.

The Rico Mountains are nearby in the southwest. Dolores Mountain is on the east side of the Dolores River valley. On the divide west of the river running north to south are: Elliott Mountain, Sockrider Peak, Calico Peak, Eagle Peak and Anchor Mountain. (THW, photo)
As you stroll down the wide-open slope, get a bead on the ridge leading to Point 11,759'. For those adding Section Point, it is to the right of Hermosa Peak, image-right.

As you re-climb the small rocky ridge, about 60 feet off the top look to your right for an old two-track. It flanks Point 11,759' on the southwest. It's easy to spot. 

The old trail is helpful for awhile but be sure to hold your southeast trajectory through multiple meadows and back to the Bolam Pass Road.

Section Point, 11,940'
We tacked Section Point onto our day because it was a ranked summit off the Bolam Pass Road. The drive is a commitment from Durango adding incentive for a second peak. Besides, the name was intriguing. (It remains a mystery. If you know the origin story, please leave a comment.) When seen from the pass on the Colorado Trail east of Blackhawk Mountain, Section Point (image-center-right) has considerable appeal.
The trailhead, elevation 11,380 feet, is 0.35 mile from the junction of Bolam Pass Road and FSR 149. Further travel is blocked by a berm.

Walk southwest on the abandoned road tracking along the base of the west face of Hermosa Peak. Stands of spruce rise skyward from meadowlands.
Intersect the Colorado Trail at 0.5 mile, remaining on the old road bed. The trail skims along the terminal embankments of Hermosa Peak's rock glaciers.
The path goes gradually downhill giving up 120 feet, the first of several undulations. At the runout zone of the second rock glacier at 1.0 mile, the trees open just enough to catch a quick glimpse of Flattop Mountain and its slide-away southern escarpment.

At 1.85 miles the old road continues straight and the Colorado Trail swings south on a single track. The image below gives a good feel for the crux on the southwest ridge of Hermosa Peak.

For trail hikers this is just a lovely walk on an impeccable pathway. The grade is mellow and the platform is generously dug into the slope below Point 11,866'. At 2.3 miles, Section Point comes into view. I'm enamored with the contrast of gold and deep forest green.

The treadway ascends to the shoulder of Section Point at 2.8 miles, 11,820 feet, image-left. 

Leave the trail and pitch up the north ridge of Section Point.
The ridge graduates and constricts. The south face falls radically off as shown in the initial photo. The Colorado Trail flanks Point 11,752' (image-center) and makes for the pass between "Blackhawk East" and Blackhawk Mountain. Harts Peak is at the near end of what appears to be a flat blade.

We crested the seriously willow-choked and scraggly-treed summit at 3.0 miles. With a prominence of 360 feet this little mountain should have had a good viewpoint. We thrashed around searching but turned away disappointed. (There's a person in that bothersome willow patch.)
We retreated to the trail. If we had more time, we would have skirted the trail and climbed over Point 11,866', image-right, on our return.
If you'd rather not mess with Section Point, at the shoulder walk a few paces north of the trail to a small knoll for an exceptional view of Flattop and some of Colorado's most audacious peaks. 

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Calico Peak, 12,026'; Eagle Peak, 12,113'; Anchor Mountain, 12,327', Rico Mountains

Essence: This is primarily a trail hike with spurs to three ranked summits on the divide between the Dolores and West Dolores rivers. Climb one or all three. Strong hikers could add Johnny Bull and Expectation mountains. Pyramidal Calico is mesmerizing in its brilliance. Two false summits add delight on the ascent to the Eagle Benchmark. Rise on an arced, tundra-clad ridge to Anchor's broad summit for the best views of the trio. In 2022, we explored the north sector of the divide by climbing Elliott Mountain, Sockrider Peak, and Johnny Bull Mountain. Enthralled by this quiet and diverse range, we returned for three more peaks in 2023 and had one of our happiest hikes of the season. Trails are maintained by the Rico Trails Alliance formed in 2017. The Rico Mountains are within the Dolores Ranger District of the San Juan National Forest.
Travel: Dunton Road is a 32 mile thru-road west of CO 145. 
South Entrance: For 2WD vehicles, use the south entrance. From Dolores, drive north 13 miles on CO 145 to mile marker 23.4. Turn left on Dunton Road, FSR 535, and measure from the junction. The road parallels the West Dolores River for 25 miles. Asphalt turns to graded gravel prone to washboard at 13.1 miles. At 19.6 miles, Geyser Spring trailhead parking is on the right. The Navajo Lake Trailhead is on the left at 25.0 miles. The Kilpacker Trailhead is on the left at 27.1 miles. Enter The Meadows and at 28.0 miles, turn south on FSR 417, Eagle Creek Road. 
North Entrance: Vehicles with 4WD may use the north entrance. From Rico, travel north on CO 145 for 7.0 miles and turn left at mile marker 53.9 on FSR 535 (just past Cayton Campground). There is no sign on the highway to alert you. Measure from the junction. Moderate clearance and sturdy tires are required for the rough and rocky road. The track is steep and very narrow. Aspens give a sense of security on the shelf. After the initial switchbacks the road widens slightly. At 4.2 miles, turn south on FSR 471. 
FSR 471: The graded gravel road is signed for the Calico and Fall Creek trails. There is plenty of dispersed camping. Pass trailhead parking for the Calico National Recreation Trail on the left at 0.8 mile (outhouse). Parking for the West Fall Creek Trail is in a generous pullout on the right at 7.1 miles. Dispersed camping is available at the end of the road in another 0.1 mile. No facilities.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 11.5 miles; 3,700 feet
Total Time: 7:00 to 9:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation easy; Class 2; no exposure
Map: Rico, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Date Hiked: September 9, 2023
How marvelous to lie back on the blue air,
as the eagle lies back on the wind,
over the cold peaks,
certain of his wings and his breath!

Antonio Machado
As seen from Anchor Mountain, the divide encompasses Eagle and Calico peaks, Johnny Bull Mountain, Sockrider Peak, and Elliott Mountain, the highpoint in the Rico Mountains west of the Dolores River. The Calico Trail runs along the ridge providing easy access to the string of peaks. Gracing the distant horizon, Lone Cone is the outlier on the far western perimeter of the San Juan Mountains. Dunn, Middle, and Dolores peaks are the isolated triumvirate in the San Miguel Mountains. El Diente Peak and Mount Wilson are indomitable. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: Hike south on the West Fall Creek Trail to the junction with the Calico Trail at the Sockrider--Johnny Bull saddle, elevation 11,740 feet. Bear south on the Lower Calico Trail. The three peaks are simple, short spurs from the trail. 

West Fall Creek Trail 
West Fall Creek Trail No. 640 is a 4.2 mile Forest Service trail that begins a couple of miles north of FSR 417, crosses the road, and ascends south to the junction with the Calico Trail where it ends. The trail is open to hikers, equestrians, and mountain and dirt bikers. While the treadway is engineered with big sweeping turns it is nevertheless steep and technical. We've seen tracks but no bikes. From the parking pullout, elevation 10,440 feet, cross the road and begin paralleling West Fork Fall Creek on the east side.

The old Douglas fir wood harbors a forest floor dense with a rich diversity of flora. We hiked in September and plants were going to seed. They wafted the unmistakable scent of autumn. Little gentian, late season bloomers beside the trail, signified wildflower season was wrapping up. (THW, photo)
Cross the first of three feeder streams of West Fork Fall Creek at 0.35 mile. The pathway is straight and steep in places, gradual and sinuous in others. Blue spruce cast long shadows in sublime autumnal light. (THW, photo)

Above 11,500 feet, a series of glades part the forest to reveal the San Miguel Mountains. (THW, photo)
Gain the Sockrider--Johnny Bull saddle in just under two miles, elevation 11,740 feet. From there, the three peaks on this trek are visible: Anchor Mountain, Calico Peak, and Eagle Peak. The West Fall Creek Trail ends at the junction with Calico Trail No. 208. The 19.2 mile trail begins off FSR 417 and runs south to the Priest Gulch Trailhead. The Upper Calico Trail is north of this junction. The Lower Calico Trail runs south from here to CO 145. The treadway is part of the National Recreation Trail system and is open to dirt bikes. (THW, photo)
Calico Peak, 12,026'
Hike southwest on the Calico Trail giving up almost 200 feet in elevation. The rust and golden hues of frosted flora on the open hillside contrasted with deep green stands of spruce. Our hike was during archery season and on the first day of muzzleloader so we wore blaze orange. We didn't encounter hunters or (surprisingly) hikers. We stopped to speak with four inquisitive dirt bikers and a few bicyclists--a quiet Saturday in the Rico Mountains. Off-trail, we were enveloped in solitude. The trail flanks Johnny Bull, a delightful, not-to-be missed mountain. Strong hikers could make it a four-peak day by ascending Johnny Bull from the saddle and dropping on the south ridge to the Calico Peak spur.
Approach Calico on the north ridge. Leave the trail at the Johnny Bull saddle, 2.6 miles, elevation 11,600 feet. (The Horse Creek Trail heads east from this location but the track is evaporating.) The spur to the peak is 0.8 mile roundtrip with about 450 feet of vertical. If you want to take a pass on Calico Peak just continue on the trail to the Calico--Eagle saddle. Start off in an uncluttered forest with the barest hint of human traffic on the ridgetop. Adits and tailings riddle the landscape. (THW, photo)

The summit is visible upon emergence from the forest. (THW, photo)
Calico looks intimidating from afar but get intimate with the mountain and it is a fun little climb. A social trail plows up through small talus. When the surface got slick we diverted into the rock. (THW, photo)

Arrive on the small stony summit at 3.0 miles. LiDAR, a new and more accurate measurement technology, has elevated the height of Calico to 12,046' with a rise of 323 feet.

The view from this rock encased crest is outstanding. Below, you can see the Calico Trail rising to the Sockrider--Johnny Bull saddle. Elliott Mountain is the high point on the ridge toward the right. Reaching to greater heights is Boskoff Peak to the left of sky-cleaving El Diente, Mount Wilson, and Gladstone Peak.

Our plan was to descend Calico's southwest ridge to the Eagle saddle, shown, but it was so spiky and crunchy it was over our heads. For mere mortals like us, Calico is an out-and-back proposition. We made a quick descent on the approach ridge, returning to the Calico Trail at 3.4 miles. (THW, photo)

Eagle Peak and Benchmark, 12,113'
Continue southwest on the Calico Trail as it bends around the mountain to gain the Calico--Eagle saddle. Descend through deep woods passing the Johnny Bull Trail. This footpath is not a shortcut back to the trailhead. Rather, it dives to the West Dolores River. 

Just past the junction start climbing again. Trail construction and maintenance are impressive. The chipped rock trail is cleaved into a slope laden with material sloughing off Calico. Whomever named the peaks in the Rico Mountains had a wild imagination. Calico's name syncs with the fantastical features and brilliant color palette concentrated on the southwest ridge. We spoke with a local dirt biker who was as charmed as we were with low-angle autumn light and the quiet in his humble (sub-thirteener) home range. 

 Being ridge purists, at 4.0 miles, 11,760 feet, we started up Eagle's gentle northeast ridge.

However, you could stay on the Calico Trail a minimal distance to the junction with the Eagle Peak Trail and let it transport you to the ridgetop.
We found fragments of a faint use trail but regardless, the ridge poses not even a hint of difficulty. The false summits surprise and delight.

Looking back, Calico is a fascinating outlier geologically. It is composed of granite and diorite whereas the Rico Mountains in general are sandstone and mudstone. (THW, photo)

A garland of stone enchants as you close in on the crest.     
Mount the broad summit of Eagle Peak at 4.5 miles. LiDAR has elevated Eagle by three feet to 12,116' with a rise of 424 feet. The Eagle Benchmark was placed in 1957. (THW, photo)
Anchor Mountain is an appealing stroll over tundra to the southeast.
We were curious about the south ridge drop to the Eagle Peak Trail. It was an obstacle-free, mellow descent through thinly forested terrain. Below, the La Plata Mountains are on the horizon. 
We intersected the Eagle Peak Trail at 4.9 miles and ambled northeast on the contour.

Lapis-blue bottle gentian contrasted with the golden hues of autumn. (THW, photo)

Anchor Mountain, 12,327'
We rejoined the Calico Trail at 5.7 miles. While the trail down into Horse Creek is signed at this location we didn't see evidence of the track on the ground. Anchor's summit is a little over a mile from this point.  
The Calico Trail bears southwest conveniently passing right under the west ridge of Anchor.

We talked with three dirt bikers on a one hundred mile ride from Purgatory Resort. Epic! (THW, photo)

This image looks back on Eagle and Calico from the west ridge launch to Anchor. From this vantage point, Calico has color-shifted to ivory. (THW, photo)
Leave the trail at 6.6 miles, 12,000 feet and climb the pleasant, open ridge. Tundra flows southwest in majestic swaths from the summit. The field of vision from the open ridge is incomparable. (THW, photo)
The linear summit ridge culminates on a voluminous crest at 6.9 miles. LiDAR has elevated Anchor to 12,337' with a prominence of 739 feet. The peak register placed in 2019 held the names of a few locals but mostly it was filled with entries of people from all over America. The diversity of visitation was so unusual we were baffled. Anchor is a popular destination.

If you only have time for one of the peaks described here, Anchor has the best vantage point. The boundless view will leave you breathless. Look out over the fourteener big tops, Lizard Head, the phantasmagorical mountains ringing the Ice Lake Basin, and San Miguel and Grizzly peaks. Nearby, the divide extends north to Elliott Mountain. Horse Creek is entrenched below.
I walked out to the next roller. The Rico Mountains extend east of the Dolores River. Blackhawk Mountain is the tallest peak in the range. Harts Peak is image-left, Whitecap Mountain is on the right, and Dolores Mountain is low and out front. (THW, photo)
Strong hikers with plenty of daylight and fair weather could tack on Expectation Mountain, shown. My rough calculation there and back is 1.5 miles with 900 feet of gain. 
Return to West Fall Creek Trailhead
We bailed southwest for the quickest access to the Calico Trail. Save energy for the two pitches back to the West Fall Creek Trail. 
Calico was positively glowing in afternoon light. The peak is so completely crazy and captivating it was hard to look away.

From the head of the West Fall Creek Trail we took a final, affectionate glance at our three peaks. (THW, photo)
Along the pathway downhill backlit daffodil senecio were pulsing electric delight. (THW, photo)