South Colony Lakes, Humboldt Peak and a bunch of Colorado 13ers

Dawn on the hike up to South Colony Lakes.

One thing I’ve learned about the mountains is that you must be prepared to change your plans.

Weather is often the main factor. I’ve been chased off a few peaks because of approaching storms. It’s not a hard decision to turn around when the weather is threatening.

Other times, it’s something else. Maybe you’re not feeling it that day. That happened to me last summer in La Plata Peak. Or maybe it’s something as basic as you’re running out of food, low on water, or there’s a gear failure.

But a change in plans doesn’t have to be something that points to failure. There are those days when you have options, and given your desire, energy level or something else, you chose Plan B over Plan A and it works out OK. That’s sort of how it went for me the last time I was in the Sangre de Cristo Range.

Most of the things I listed above were factors in how things played out, but at the end of the day, there was satisfaction earned on a high summit on what turned out to be a fine day in the hills.

THE PLAN

Going back a couple of months, me and my friend Bill had been doing some planning on what would make for a decent mountain adventure. Bill is on his second lap of Colorado’s 14ers, and he’s also trying to knock out the Centennials – the 100 highest mountains in the state.

We originally looked at doing Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak in the San Juan Mountains. I love the San Juans, and these peaks intrigued me. But deep drought and wildfires scuttled that plan. Instead, he came up with a wild plan to climb Kit Carson Peak’s north ridge, then tag Columbia Point and Challenger Point as a bonus. Some stout climbers were recruited for this one. It looked to be one heck of a weekend in the Sangres.

But weather forecasts scared most folks away. So that idea vanished.

One of the guys Bill talked to, a funny and seasoned climber named Mike, circled back, however, and a third plan was hatched: Hike up to South Colony Lakes, then tag the high 13ers at Obstruction Peak, Columbia Point, and another high point on Kit Carson Mountain dubbed “Kitty Kat.” (Kit Carson Mountain being a large massif that includes Kit Carson Peak, Columbia Point, “Kitty Kat” and other high points)

So I signed on for that.

I’d been to South Colony Lakes before on an ill-fated attempt at Crestone Peak and Humboldt Peak. The area is easily one of the most stunning places I’d ever seen. I’m not fixated on 14ers – 13ers are good, too. A return trip here seemed great to me.

OFF WE GO

The drive to Westcliffe took a detour in Florence, one of the more famous prison towns in the country. The federal supermax lockup is there, housing the likes of Djokar Tsarnaev, Terry Nichols and Ted Kaczynski. Real swell guys. But there’s also Florence Brewing, a microbrew with a taproom and some pretty good offerings. We caught it on a good night: The place was packed, a barbecue cook was serving up pulled pork sandwiches, and a trivia match was going on. The three of us obnoxiously bullied our way to a second-place finish, but I made sure everyone knew we were “CHAMPIONS” over and over again. Why not? These folks would never see us again and some fun was needed. Our weakness was guessing the country artists. Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and a bunch of other auto-tuned country crooners all sounded the same to us. Whatever. We took our hard-earned mini-mugs and headed to Westcliffe.

We opted to forgo backpacking and camping in South Colony Lakes. We took a few hours of sleep at a motel and went for an alpine start. The good: We got to sleep in a bed. The bad: We’d be getting up super early (3:15 a.m.) and adding some mileage to the day.

Loading up in Bill’s Jeep, we took off. I hijacked the stereo and gave them a taste of early morning metal, hip-hop and punk. Bill and Mike weren’t amused. But I was, so that made it worth it.

Going up the dirt road leading to the lakes, you have a couple of options. If your vehicle is not four-wheel drive with good clearance, you’ll be banished to the two-wheel drive trailhead. That adds a bunch of miles to your hike. With the right rig, you can crawl your way up to the four-wheel drive trailhead. To get any of the peaks, you’re still in for a hefty day, somewhere between 10 to 14 miles round-trip, depending on where you go.

The guys hiking up the trail with Crestone Needle in the background.

We saw a few people trudging up the rougher part of the road and picked one of them up, an Evergreen resident named Roger. He was going for Humboldt Peak that day. He was a pretty cool dude who’d bagged a good number of peaks in his day.

And that got us all thinking. I’d missed my chance at Humboldt two years earlier. And being a flatlander, I was concerned I’d be slowing Bill and Mike down. As we got out of the car and started up the trail, we all concluded it would be a good idea for me to tag Humboldt with Roger while Bill and Mike chased 13er summits past Bear’s Playground.

This turned out to be a really good decision.

GETTING UP THERE

Lower South Colony Lake, Broken Hand Peak, and Music Mountain in the background.

I found the initial part of the hike OK. We were in the dark, hiking by headlamp, seeing the dawn break just as we got into the basin where South Colony Lakes are located. Dawn here is nothing short of spectacular. Jerry Roach’s Fourteener guidebook is adorned with a sunrise alpenglow shot of Crestone Needle, and seeing it in person for the second time is no less spectacular than what’s seen on the book.

Bill, Mike and Roger kept a good pace, and one that was fine by me until we got to the headwall leading up to the saddle at the base of Humboldt’s ridge. It seems 12,000 feet is my red line, the place where things start to get tough. Blame my flatlander lungs for that. I stopped to eat a little, grab a sip and trudged up the switchbacks to the saddle. By then, Mike and Bill had taken their left turn toward Bear’s Playground and the 13er fest they planned to hold. Roger and I started making our way up the ridge.

If the headwall was my reality check, the ridge was a slap in the face. It was tough sledding for me, and the route was different than what I thought it would be. My understanding was some extensive trail work had been done here, and indeed, I saw evidence of that. Fine work has been done here. But there were plenty of sections where I was boulder-hopping and scrambling, looking up at various, well-placed cairns to keep me going the right direction. I’m usually a little wary of cairns, mostly because some people make a sport of rock-stacking in miscellaneous places that have nothing to do with the route. Thankfully that was not the case on Humboldt.

At the saddle, looking at an unnamed 13,000-foot point.

The ridge is somewhat steep. And the jumbled nature of some sections of the route made it tedious. Then again, all I had to do was stop, take a rest, and look behind me. Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle were there for the viewing, and they are downright jaw-dropping. From time to time, I’d hear climbers on the Needle’s Ellingwood Arete: “On belay!” “Belay on!” That climb is above my pay grade, but it’s cool to see people doing it.

Weather-wise, I couldn’t have asked for a better day. All we had were a few high clouds and a lot of blue sky. It was also curiously warm. Some people were dressed in long-sleeve tech shirts, soft shells or even puffy jackets. Me? Short sleeves all the way. I’d be burning up with anything more on me.

Roger was one patient dude. I told him he could dust me any time he wanted to, and I’m sure he could have. But he stopped to check on me every few minutes, seemingly coaxing me up the mountain. It seemed to take forever to get past Humboldt’s false summit, but once there, it was an easy walk across the remainder of the ridge and one last scramble to the top.

Colony Baldy Mountain, as seen from Humboldt Peak’s west ridge.

Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak, as seen from the side of Humboldt’s false summit.

The final, easy walk to Humboldt’s summit.

I blew a lot of energy getting there. It reminded me of last year’s failure on La Plata Peak, only this time, I was on fresher legs. Good thing, too. Otherwise, I might have pooped out here, too. But it was nice to finally get a Sangre 14er summit after being denied twice two years ago.

Summit view, looking south at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Roger noticed he was about out of water, so I offered him some of mine. He declined, saying instead he’d hustle down the ridge and filter some at the lakes below. And hustle he did. Once he got to the steep part below the false summit, I never saw him again (we did get a note left on Bill’s Jeep saying when he got there, and a thank-you for the company).

As for me, well, getting down the ridge proved as tedious as it was going up.

One of the key things about hiking and climbing mountains is to make sure you don’t blow yourself out getting to the summit. Sure, part of mountain climbing is dealing with fatigue and pushing through it. But if your legs are gone and you’re out of steam when bad weather rolls in, having some gas in the tank is critical. Admittedly, I was on dead legs on the way down. Fortunately, the weather held up nicely. I picked my way down the ridge, then down the headwall and finally to the trail (which went on forever) and the road (which also went on forever) until I saw the blessed bridge that signified the end of the hike.

Mighty Crestone Needle, as seen on the hike down.

Easier trail hiking below treeline.

Despite a really dry winter and spring, there were plenty of opportunities for wildflower peeping.

Even though it was a slog, it wasn’t without its charms. Clouds cast shadows into the valley, which played games on the flanks of the Crestones. Whenever I grew weary of the walk, I stopped to take a look around and marveled. Few places in the Rockies are as dramatic as the skyline of the Crestones and the surrounding, lower peaks of South Colony Lakes. I’d come back here in a heartbeat.

Given my slow progress down the mountain, I half expected Mike and Bill to be waiting on me at the Jeep. Nope. They were still up there, somewhere.

SO WHAT ABOUT THOSE GUYS?

I’d love to give you a detailed description of the peaks and ridges Bill and Mike scaled. But I wasn’t there. What I can tell you, however, is this: The views of the Crestones from Bear’s Playground are ridiculous. The distance they hiked was somewhere around 14 miles. And the total vert was well over a mile.

And yes, they tagged all their target summits. It’s exactly the type of performance you’d expect from guys who’ve finished the 14ers, and also have summits like Rainier, Hood and Pico de Orizaba under their belts. While the plebes like me are tagging walk-ups and popular Class 3 14ers, they’re busy chasing more obscure, less traveled 13ers and making good work out of ambitious projects.

I can’t tell you much more about it, but I can show you because they gave me permission to swipe some of their photos. Have a look.

Bill and Mike on their 13er rampage. (Bill Wood photo)

Looking south toward the Crestones and Humboldt Peak. (Bill Wood photo)

Bear’s Playground view of the Crestones. (Mike Zee photo)

Way above treeline here. This part of the hike was mostly over 13,000 feet for Bill and Mike, with lots of gain and loss. (Mike Zee photo)

Lots of ridge hiking, with Humboldt Peak in the background. (Mike Zee photo)

BACK TO FLORENCE

About 45 minutes after I stumbled back to the trailhead, so did Mike and Bill. We were all worked over pretty good, but decided a return trip to Florence Brewing was needed.

When we arrived, no barbecue guy or trivia night crowd was there. It was a quieter place until we got there. The bartender was good, patient company as we peppered her with questions about the federal supermax prison and any other general nonsense we were blathering about. I guess that’s her job, but I tipped her well nonetheless. We drank brews and ate cheap fast-food burgers that tasted like Michelin-starred cuisine at that moment.

Such is the way of these mountain trips. You get pumped up by a plan. You dread the alpine start alarm clock. You hike in the dark, see a brilliant sunrise and embrace the slog. You feel like quitting, because it’s easier to lounge by the pool than climb a mountain. You revel in the summit views, grind away at the downclimb and spend yourself utterly on a peak’s slopes. You throw down vast quantities of food, get a beer buzz and strike up lengthy, boisterous conversations with people you don’t know and may never see again. You might even make a new friend on the trail.

And then new plans get made.

The Crestones. Couldn’t stop taking pics of them.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the four-wheel-drive trailhead, hike up the road past the gate and over a foot bridge until you reach a trail junction turnoff to your right. Follow easy trail hiking through the woods and past some campsites. You’ll be hiking the trail east of and above South Colony Lakes. From here, you’ll begin hiking up long switchbacks on a headwall leading to a saddle that goes right to Humboldt’s west ridge, or left toward Bear’s Playground. The trail steepens as you gain the ridge, and as you ascend, you’ll end up doing some rock-hopping and light scrambling. The route is well-cairned, and the cairns seem to be accurate. At times, the trail will disappear into jumbled rocks, then reappear when the terrain eases. It will take you up to Humboldt’s false summit, but once you reach that, the ascent is almost done. Past the false summit, the steepness eases with only a few hundred yards of easy hiking left to the summit. Class 2, 11 miles round trip with 4,200 feet of elevation gain. NOTE: If your car/truck does not have four-wheel drive and good clearance, you’ll need to park at the two-wheel drive trailhead. This will add 5.4 miles and another 1,100 feet of elevation gain to your route.

EXTRA CREDIT: There are tons of options. From the Humboldt saddle, go north and explore Bear’s Playground. Spend more time camping in South Colony Lakes and climb Crestone Peak (class 3) or Crestone Needle (class 4). Experienced climbers might also look to climb both peaks and traverse the ridge between them. This is one of Colorado’s four Grand Traverses of the 14ers, and includes high exposure and a class 5 section. Also nearby are Class 3 routes up Broken Hand Peak and Music Mountain. Like I said, tons of options.

Bob Doucette

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An ode to roadtripping in the West

NOTE: The following is an excerpt from the book “Outsider: Tales from the road, the trail and the run.” The book is available here.

I have a personal philosophy when it comes to road trips: They should always begin by getting in your car/truck/rig, and pointing that sucker west. Let me explain…

Not long ago, I was sitting around with a bunch of co-workers as we wished a colleague well during his last days with us. He was leaving to take a job in Pittsburgh, which to me seems like a far-off place in a totally different world from my current home in Tulsa.

Someone asked him if he’d be driving straight through or stopping overnight. He chose the latter, but said the trip can be made in about fifteen or sixteen hours.

That shocked me. So many states away, and it’s just sixteen hours from here?

That’s only two hours longer than my last trip to western Colorado, that big rectangular mass that actually borders my home state.

It got me thinking about the vastness of the West, the wonderful, weird, wide open expanse of what I think is best in America.

A few hours earlier, I was home watching a re-run of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations program. It was one of my favorite episodes, the one where he hangs out with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme in the high desert of California. In addition to the coolest soundtrack of any show on TV, it showed more of what makes the West so alluring to me: Desperate scenes of civilization clinging to life on the shores of the Salton Sea, a dude who painted a mountain (literally painted on the whole mountain) and long stretches of open highway slicing through arid wastelands most people would assume avoid.

Vast, wonderful, weird and wide-open.

Where I live, in my opinion, is sort of the dividing line between east and west. Tulsa is right on the edge of the Ozarks, which I see as being Appalachia lite. Drive a few hours west and you’re in the high plains. At the edge of that, you hit the Rockies.

That’s where things get interesting.

I was born in Illinois and have lived most of my life in Oklahoma, but I grew up in Colorado. Despite this pesky accent I’ve picked up I consider myself a westerner. To this day, I still envision sunsets over the Rockies and associate pines with the high country.

This had an effect on me. I live here in T-town, but feel compelled to return to what in my mind is my homeland. It’s sort of a salmon-spawning-grounds story, but without the whole breeding/dying/getting-eaten-by-bears thing. Money (or a lack thereof) keeps me from going more often. To be honest, I’ve got a serious road trip itch working right now.

My pilgrimages there have often been with friends and family. A couple of times, they’ve been blessedly solo. However it works, the one thing that is true is that I feel a little more free when I go. Sometimes dangerously so, or at least that’s how it seems – on your own, the comforts of home farther and farther away, but the promise of seeing something new and possibly transformative pulling you down the road. Road-tripping is the best form of American escapism there is, and the West is a magnet for dreams of freedom.

And it always has been. Since the founding of the nation, people have looked west to find their destiny or otherwise flee the confines of the lives into which they were born.

That’s one of the most interesting aspects of the West. Free spirits, non-conformists, weirdos and outlaws all looked to the wilderness beyond the Mississippi. The profound impact this has had on the American cultural landscape can’t be understated.

I’ve often told people that the farther west in America you go, the weirder it gets. Boulder is pretty weird. All those little mountain towns from Montana to New Mexico are pretty weird (even the smallest Montana villages have at least one church and one bar). Roswell is weird. In Nevada, you get the weirdness of Las Vegas, Burning Man and Area 51 within its odd confines. Once you hit the coast, you reach the gleaming metropolises of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. The farther you make your way west and north, the stranger it gets.

And then there’s Alaska. For those fleeing conformity, broken relationships, the law or any other demons, there is no farther place you can go, at least not in the U.S. You have to be committed to go that far, and even more so to stay. And that makes for a place with some truly colorful personalities – real frontiersmen and women who could actually live libertarian ideals of self-sufficiency, and ex-governors who say they can see Russia all the way from suburban Anchorage.

People go to these places, and invariably, those places change them. A person who has lived in the mountains or the desert for any length of time won’t look, talk, think or act like those who have spent their existence in a suburb of Cincinnati or in a borough of New York. Harsher climes and sweeping landscapes alter people in that way, building up quiet strength and self-reliance while stripping away pretense. Scratching out a living out West will humble and toughen you in ways few other places can. Many folks envy that, which explains why people pay for the privilege of spending a week on dude ranches and will even shell out thousands to outfitters who give them “authentic” backpacking experiences. Guns are scary to many Americans; they’re just tools to the people of the rural West.

And let’s revisit that landscape. America is filled with gorgeous places. I’ve been out east quite a bit. Tennessee, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are knockout beautiful. Closer to home, northwest Arkansas has the same feel. All throughout the east you have these wonderful hills and mountains, thick woods and meandering rivers.

But it’s also stable. It feels old. Established. And that makes sense, seeing that the communities in the east date back to the 1600s or even earlier, and the Appalachians are some of the most ancient mountains on Earth.

Not so much in the West. While some Spanish settlements there are quite old, most cities and towns out West are pretty new, historically speaking. The mountains themselves are younger. Their rise is more dramatic, and in the case of the Tetons, startlingly so. The West has volcanoes. One of them famously blew up back in 1980, and we know that some of its Cascadian neighbors could well do the same. The West has glaciers. In one section of Colorado, deep in the San Juans, you can see the confluence of geologic uplift, volcanism and ice-age glacial carving, sculpting a landscape so wild that it boggles the mind.

Wind gives us the carefully crafted arches and towers of Utah and Arizona. A tiny alpine trickle gathers itself and plummets downhill, gaining strength and size and speed until it slices a gash so long, wide and deep that it can be seen from space.

Towering heights.

Deep canyons.

Deserts and rain forests. Grizzly bears, wolves, eagles and whales.

Is there any wonder as to why I don’t take off right now?

I envision a future trip unfolding like so many others have in the past: I’m in my car, cruising at seventy-five miles per hour on a two-lane highway with endless vistas of the Oklahoma Panhandle prairie all around. The stereo is up loud, cranking out tunes from U2’s The Joshua Tree. In the back, with the seats down, my belongings – a pack, a tent, food, mountaineering gear and campsite tools – jostle with the contours of the road.

Then I spot it. Rabbit Ear Mountain, a small peak in the far northeastern corner of New Mexico, a marker of what I see as the easternmost outpost of the Rockies.

I grin a bit. Adventure is close. And I keep driving.

West.

Bob Doucette

So I wrote a book… and you can read ‘Outsider’ now

In this post, a little bit of news.

I’ve been writing on this site since 2011. That, in itself, is hard for me to believe. Nearly eight years of writing about the outdoors, running, fitness and whatever else strikes me, I suppose. Before that, there were a couple more years on the blogosphere at the new-defunct Out There blog on newsok.com.

In the midst of all of this, I’ve been working on another, longer-term project, one that’s finally ready to be read. It’s a book, titled “Outsider: Tales from the road, the trail and the run.”

I’ll dispense with the more cliché descriptions of what this work means to me. And yeah, I’ve had a hard time coming up with an elevator speech to describe what it is. But I’ll give it a shot here.

When I was young, I loved the outdoors. I can recall many adventures in the mountains, at camp and in a cabin that cultivated a fascination with the mountains and other wild environments. Growing up, I let that stuff slide. But eventually it came back to me, and boy, I needed it.

The book details it pretty well, but I hit a spell when my normally in-control life was anything but. How I pulled out of that nosedive was heading outside, running downtown streets or wooded trails, hiking in the hills, climbing mountains and taking road trips across the West. I learned a lot about myself, about life, and about God in those times. I wrestled with some tough questions. And I met some fantastic people along the way, each one of them making my life that much richer.

Scenes for this happen in my hometown, in the High Plains and in the Rockies, among other spots. All of them hold a special place for me, and there are some specific moments that will be burned into my memory for as long as I live.

I think a lot of you will be able to relate. How many of you use running to battle personal demons? Or head into the wilderness to quiet your mind, sort things out and recharge? If that describes you, we’re birds of a feather, my friend.

I’ll cut to the chase: I hope you buy it, read it and enjoy it. Hopefully we can start a few conversations. You’ll read my stories, as well as those of some folks I know. Maybe you can give me a few tales of your own.

“Outsider” is available in paperback and on Kindle. Pick up a copy, have a read and tell me what you think. And thanks – not only for giving a book a read, but for being here on this site through the years. We’ll see ya out there.

Bob Doucette

Friday distraction: Some of my favorite summit views

Man, this has been a bummer of a week in the news. We could all use a short distraction from the horrible headlines and gloomy predictions, so this is my contribution. I went through some of my older images and found a few of my favorite summit views. So sit back, forget the angry world outside and relive some alpine goodness with me.

1. North Eolus

Looking deep into the Weminuche Wilderness from the summit of North Eolus.

The mountain itself is sort of an afterthought of the four big peaks that rise over Chicago Basin. But I found this view from North Eolus particularly impressive. I love the San Juan Mountains, and this view of a sea of wild, jagged peaks exemplifies the range’s rugged nature. “Awe-inspiring” is an understatement.

2. Mount Sneffels

The view west from the summit of Mount Sneffels.

Sticking with the San Juans, this view from the top of Mount Sneffels is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever been. Mount Sneffels is, by itself, an impressive peak, but it’s joined by a family of high mountains that add to the ridiculously scenic area around Yankee Boy Basin. To date, climbing Mount Sneffels remains one of my favorite days in the mountains.

3. Missouri Mountain

Looking into Missouri Gulch Basin from the summit of Missouri Mountain.

I’m a repeat customer at Missouri Gulch Basin, and I know I’ll go back. Five years ago, I did a solo climb of Missouri Mountain and was rewarded with this dramatic summit scene. The basin is beautiful, but is particularly impressive from the south end, guarded by the wall of rock that is Missouri Mountain. An unforgettable fall day.

4. Wetterhorn Peak

Looking north from the Wetterhorn Peak summit.

Back in the San Juans, Wetterhorn Peak remains my favorite mountain. It’s got all the goods for hikers and climbers. No less impressive is the payoff at the top. A summer solstice climb revealed a range still clothed in snow, and looking north from Wetterhorn’s summit gave me this lasting memory of 13,000-foot peaks that guard the northeast flank of the San Juans.

5. Mount of the Holy Cross

Holy Cross Ridge from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross.

There are so many great views from Mount of the Holy Cross, but this one of Holy Cross Ridge hits the mark. It’s a striking ridge, made even more so by the presence of snow contrasting with the dark coloring of the rock. The peak’s Cross Couloir is its most famous feature, one that has captured imaginations for well over a century. But there’s more to this mountain’s beauty than its namesake scar.

6. Uncompahgre Peak

Northwest view from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak.

Back in the San Juans, there’s no shortage of excellent views from the highest peak in the range. This one got my attention, giving you a decent perspective on the height of the mountain and the expanse of the kingdom it oversees. The San Juan Mountains are captivating.

7. Sunset Peak

A unique view north from Sunset Peak’s southern summit.

I couldn’t finish this list without at least one summit view from my home state of Oklahoma. The Wichita Mountains make up a collection of ancient crags and domes that are out of place in the surrounding Southern Plains. While not as lofty as most North American ranges, they still pack a lot of punch. The gnarly cedar remains of a tree on Sunset Peak’s southern summit caught my eye and is one of my favorite mountain images I’ve ever taken.

Obviously, I have a lot of other memories of great summit views from dozens of other mountains. But these rank as some of my favorite photos from any given mountaintop. Hopefully you can get out and make a few mountain memories of your own and, for a few hours or days, forget about the bad news floating around right now.

Bob Doucette

Video: Take a visual tour of the Wichita Mountains

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve written about a recent trip to the Wichita Mountains in southwestern Oklahoma. It’s a unique landscape of ancient mountains, wide valleys and amazing wildlife.

It’s one thing to see pictures and read words, but another to see it in video. My partner in this adventure, Brian, put together a good compilation of the things we saw and did. It’s about 13 minutes, and it’s definitely worth your time. Have a look:

If you missed it, you can read my two-part series on our Wichita Mountains trip here and here.

Bob Doucette

Return to the Wichitas, Part 2: Hiking Sunset Peak and Crab Eyes in Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains

Brian heading into the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

It usually takes a me couple of days to get used to sleeping on the ground. Fancy mattresses and memory foam have made us weak. Comfy, but weak.

The growing chill of the night and the empty bottles of beer that Brian and I had finished off signaled that it was time to hit the rack. Frankly, I looked forward to crawling into my sleeping bag. It had to be warmer than sitting outside in the cool chill of the wind. But sleep doesn’t come easy. Not at camp, and certainly not with a thin pad between me and the ground. Then again, I knew this. It would be 20 minutes of dozing here, an hour there and so on for several hours, interrupted by the need to roll over to another side, shake off the chill or go outside to take a piss.

What I didn’t expect were the wake-up calls from our neighbors. And by “neighbors,” I mean the furry, four-footed kinds.

Somewhere near the lake, a chorus of howling and yipping pierced the still of the night. A regular coyote party, loud, constant and maybe even a tad aggressive. Those suckers wanted to be heard. And then, as if something caught their attention, it would cease. Not tail off from weariness, but end abruptly. It was weird. The little buggers would repeat this act a couple more times during the night. It wasn’t scary, but it was loud. It’s almost as if they knew they’d be waking us up.

On another occasion, I heard something more sinister. Some rustling, then loud, high-pitched animalistic noises of protest and pain, and finally silence. It wasn’t hard to solve that mystery. One fuzzy creature became another fuzzy creature’s dinner. It’s a hell of a thing to listen to something die.

That happened twice, further disrupting my sleep. The circle of life, on display in the Wichita Mountains: an annoying wakeup call to be sure, but at least I wasn’t someone’s midnight snack.

DAYBREAK

Sunrise from camp. Oklahoma does sunrises right.

Being a night shift worker, I rarely see a sunrise. That’s the beauty of camping, though. When it gets dark, you turn in. When it gets light, you get up. More like it should be outside the artificial construct of things like work, civilization and whatnot.

Dawn broke and I willed myself out of my sleeping bag to get the day going. We had a big day planned, so there was no sense dragging out any more minutes in the bag and on the cold, hard ground.

I was greeted by a cheery sunrise over the lake where we camped. High clouds blown in the from the south added texture to the fiery colors of the rising sun, with the orange, red and pink hues of dawn reflecting off the water. Oklahoma sunrises and sunsets are vastly underrated.

We munched breakfast, gathered our gear and talked about what the day might be like. Seven years of being away from the Wichitas left me wondering if I’d remember how to get to some of the spots I hoped to see. The trails in the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area tended to be faint and sparsely marked, and I’ve been known to get lost a time or two.

No matter. We’d figure it out. We got in the truck and headed back to the Sunset trailhead and made our way west.

I told a few stories along the way. As we were hiking through a patch of thickets and blackjack oak, I showed him where I had a close call with a buffalo nearly eight years earlier. Although I wasn’t keen on repeating that experience, I was hoping that we’d see some bison.

Shortly after leaving the woods, we ran up on a trio of hikers coming the other way. A man and his wife, plus another fella were making their way toward us. The second guy, as it turned out, was the other man’s father. His age: 86.

I know plenty of people 10, 20 and even 30 years younger than this guy who’ve long resigned themselves to steering clear of anything remotely close to wilderness exploration. And here he was, pounding dirt on a brisk Saturday morning. Call me impressed.

Eventually we made our way far enough where I could show him where Crab Eyes was, but that side trip would have to wait. The first destination, Sunset Peak, had to come first. We kept hiking west.

Mount Mitchell.

Somehow, I got us on the wrong side of a ridge that was taking us away from Sunset Peak and toward another mountain, Mount Mitchell. I figured this would lengthen our approach (Bad guide! Bad!), but it also showed me a more direct route to Mount Mitchell than the one I’d taken nine years before with my friend Johnny and his sister Ouida. On that trip, we hiked to Crab Eyes, then pointed ourselves toward Mount Mitchell by way of Styx Canyon. The canyon is probably the most rugged patch of “hiking” in Charon’s Garden. There’s no trail, but there is about an hour’s worth of heinous bushwhacking and route-finding before you’re clear of the thickets, thorns and boulders that litter the canyon floor. That’s not exactly what I’d call fun, so finding a smoother, clearer game trail that went straight to Mount Mitchell’s base was a pleasant discovery.

Around the time we were making out way around the ridge and toward Sunset Peak, we had our first megafauna sighting: First, it was one female elk. Then another. And then, more. At least seven of them warily eyed us from the crest of the ridge, then loped away and out of sight. No buffalo yet, but seeing elk in Oklahoma is rather rare unless you’re in the Wichitas.

By now, Sunset Peak’s south summit was in view. It stands out, towering above a high meadow that rests atop a short headwall. The last time I was here, that meadow sported a herd of a couple dozen bison. So I half expected to see them again once we topped the headwall.

But the meadow was empty. It was just us, the wind, and stubborn cloud cover that was keeping the temperatures down. While it would have been fun to see buffalo, at least we didn’t have to worry about navigating around these at-time temperamental beasts. Before long, we at the base of the peak.

SUNSET PEAK

Sunset Peak’s south summit.

Nearly seven years ago, my friend Johnny and I topped out on this mountain. It was tamer than Mount Mitchell, but there were still a few challenges getting up to the top. I remember some fantastic views and a little bit of effort, but I figured this mountain to be solidly Class 2 without any need for Class 3 scrambling unless you wanted it.

What we got was something else altogether.

There’s no trail up the south summit. It’s all about zig-zagging your way up the face, and route-finding is a constant.

My memory must have dimmed a bit on this one. I didn’t recall the thick, intermittent bushwhacking. And I certainly don’t recall as many Class 3 scrambles as we got. Brian readjusted his pack and stowed his trekking poles to handle the climb more easily.

Halfway up Sunset Peak.

Brian tackles a scramble going up Sunset Peak.

We did spot one cairn, so I went over to it hoping it would lead to a more obvious route up. No dice. It was a worthless rock stack, and I should have kicked it over. That took me back to more scrambles up the face before we eventually climbed our way to the big blocks atop the south summit.

One memory did hold, and that was the views. They’re spectacular. Shorter peaks and rock formations littered the surroundings. Farther north, Sunset Peak’s north summit (and true high point) awaited. The big sentinels of the Wichitas loomed in the distance, and for miles to the west, the fringes of the range could be seen rising from the prairie floor from as far away as Altus.

View from the top of Sunset Peak’s south summit.

What I like about these mountains is that they offer something most peaks east of the Rockies don’t: unobstructed summit views. When you’re in the Appalachians, most summits are covered with trees. It’s not until you get to New England that you hit mountains with treelines. The same is true in the Ozarks, the Ouachitas and most other mountain ranges east of the Rockies. You’ll get occasional outcroppings with panoramic vistas, but the Wichitas give you that alpine-style, 360-degree view without all the hassles of high altitudes. It’s hard to describe, other than maybe the Wichitas resemble what Joshua Tree might look like if you plopped it down on the Southern Plains.

We took a snack break in a natural wind break. Forecasts called for 60-degree temperatures, but even at 10 a.m., it was just 40 degrees and incredibly windy atop the peak. Soon we headed away from our shelter and down the saddle toward Sunset’s north summit.

Traversing the saddle proved a lot easier than climbing the south summit, and the north summit was an easy hike to the top. No bushwhacking, no scrambles. The north summit might be Sunset’s high point, but it’s considerably milder than its southern neighbor. Sadly, I forgot to take any pics from here. You’ll have to trust me that we got there.

From the east, you can see Sunset Peak’s gentler north (true) summit to the right.

Another view of the Sunset Peak massif. Both the north and south summits are visible.

From there, we stayed on the eastern slopes of the mountain and angled our way down south toward a ridge that stood between us and Crab Eyes. I wanted to avoid the ravine – just more boulder-filled heinous bushwhacking that didn’t look like a lot of fun. As we left the mountain and hiked up the rise, we saw the elk herd again, and just like last time, they eyed us for a few moments and hurried off. Within a half hour, we were back at the junction of the trail we took to Mount Mitchell and the southern trail that led to Crab Eyes, our final destination of the day.

CRAB EYES

A good look at Crab Eyes. This is an older photo from another visit to the formation.

We also talked with a young couple that was camping there: they were among the lucky few that got a backcountry permit. They were relaxed, munching on pizzas they made at their campsite. Cold pizzas, of course: Campfires are forbidden in the wilderness area.

The hike to Crab Eyes is a fun one. You meander through skinny trails that hug rock walls leading to the formation’s base, and then you see it towering above you: enormous granite slabs holding two massive boulders at the top. It looks like a huge, stony hermit crab staring down at you, hence the name.

A view of Elk Mountain, from the base of Crab Eyes.

Every time I’ve come here, I’ve had the place to myself. But this time we had company. I spotted three people at the base, with one person shimmying between two rock slabs. I recognized the move, as the route he was climbing was the “easy” way to the top. It goes something like this:

First, you wedge yourself between two roughly horizontal but slightly angled slabs and crawl your way up. Free of that obstacle, you can do one of two things: Crab-walk up two slabs (hands on one slab, feet on the other) or, for the more daring and dexterous, tightrope-walk up one of the slabs and never mind that 50-foot drop to your left. I’d call it a solid Class 4 route with a no-fall zone to the climber’s left.

As it turned out, they were making this climb to set up an anchor to do a technical climb up Crab Eyes’ east face. This is no small trick.

Though it’s a single-pitch climb, it’s notoriously tough. It’s a crack climb on really grippy granite, but it’s also slightly overhanging in spots. It’s rated a 5.10+, and according to this crew, a tough 5.10 at that.

A climber tackles a technical route on the east face of Crab Eyes. It’s rated a 5.10.

Belaying the climber on Crab Eyes.

I munched a little more and watched one of them negotiate the climb. He handled it expertly, but even after being lowered down, he admitted, “It’s harder than I remembered it.”

His friend piped in, “Just typical climbing in the Wichitas!”

Brian struck up a conversation with a third member of that party. She was considering hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and given Brian’s interest in through-hiking that Appalachian Trail, talk of gear and logistics came easy. As for me, I munched on my trail fave: summer sausage, cheese and a tortilla.

Tortilla, summer sausage and cheddar. This may be one of the best food combinations ever created.

We headed back not long after, reliving the complications of Sunset Peak and the beauty of the range. Too few people in Oklahoma know of this place, the most rugged patch of rock in the state. Considering the scarcity of public lands and real wilderness, it’s a little surprising to me.

At the same time, it is exactly as I remembered it. Wild, untamed and severe. It was a reminder of what America does right, in that we have long taken seriously the idea of preserving wild places such as this.

I can only hope that sentiment endures. The Wichitas are my Oklahoma happy place, a destination where I can climb rocky crags, enjoy sweeping summit views and tread the same paths of creatures that have called these environs home for longer than people have lived here. I hope it is always so.

Okie mountains rock.

Getting there: Take Interstate 44 to the State Highway 49 exit and go west. The highway will take you to the refuge.

About the route, Sunset Peak: From the Sunset trailhead, take the trail that starts at the gate of the west side of the parking lot. You’ll hike through a wooded grove until you reach a sign pointing left toward the Charon’s Garden Trail. Go right instead, continuing roughly west. You will cross two dry creek beds, then hike up a rise that gives you a view of the western portions of Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

In less than half a mile, you will run into a junction in the trail. One spur goes south toward Crab Eyes, the other turns into a game trail going west. Keep going west. You will hike toward Mount Mitchell, then turn north at the end of a rocky ridge to your right. Getting around the ridge, you will see Sunset Peak’s south summit. Hike up the headwall and cross the meadow to the peak’s base. From here, you’ll likely zigzag your way up the face. Route finding will be essential. About half this effort will be steep hiking, with some short but numerous scrambles on mostly solid rock. Continue until you get under the summit blocks, then traverse to your right to gain the top.

Once you’ve reached the south summit, hike down the saddle between the south and north summits. You should be able to find easier hiking with a little boulder hopping by staying toward the left side of the saddle. At the bottom, start going up toward the north summit on easy hiking to the top. A small bit of boulder hopping near the top will help you gain Sunset Peak’s true summit.

Round-trip hiking is about 6 miles. The route up Sunset’s south summit is difficult Class 2 to Class 3. The rest of the hike is a Class 1 approach, with class 2 sections on some portions of the mountain’s north summit.

Always something to see.

Crab Eyes: Follow the trail out of the Sunset trailhead parking lot like you would going to Sunset Peak. At the trail junction mentioned above, go left (south) and follow the established trail up toward the formation. The trail will eventually take you to a small headwall at the base of Crab Eyes. Hike left of the headwall, then up and to the right to the base of Crab Eyes. A Class 4 route to the top is the easiest way up if you choose to do it. On the north side of the base, hike up to an upwardly slanted pair of horizontal slabs. To ascend, wedge yourself between the slabs and shimmy your way up about 20 feet. From there, you will see two parallel vertical slabs about three feet apart that make up the main tower of the formation. You can crab walk up (hands on one slab, feet on the other) or tightrope walk up the left slab to the top. This is a very exposed part of the climb, as a 50-foot+ vertical drop is on your immediate left. The climb takes you to the top of the formation where the “eyes” (two large boulders) rest. Don’t bother climbing the boulders.

Otherwise, there are Class 5 routes up both the east and west faces. Bolts are in place on the west face.

The hike to Crab Eyes is Class 1, with Class 2 portions at the end, and is 3.6 miles round trip.

Things to know: The Wichita Mountains are home to abundant wildlife as well as a managed herd of longhorn cattle. Of particular note are bison. Give bison and the longhorn cattle plenty of room, as they can be dangerous when spooked or angered. The range is also home to rattlesnakes, so be on the lookout for them during warmer months. The range is also dry. All creeks and waterfalls are seasonal, so opportunities for filtering are relatively few. Bring plenty of water, regardless of season.

Dawn breaks at the Doris Campgrounds.

Camping: For tent or car camping, the Doris Campground features 90 spots. Some are semi-primitive, others have RV hookups. The east edge of the campground is by the western shore of Quanah Parker Lake. Campsite costs are $10 a night for tent camping. Prices go up for sites with electrical hookups. Restrooms and showers are on site.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also offers limited backcountry camping permits in Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area. Inquire for reservations; all permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. No campfires are allowed in the backcountry.

For more, go here.

Read Part 1 of “Return to the Wichitas” here.

Bob Doucette

Return to the Wichitas, Part 1: Hiking Elk Mountain and Little Baldy in Oklahoma’s rugged Wichita Mountains

Brian checks out the views on the way up Elk Mountain.

Oklahoma is a prairie state. That’s its identity, and for the most part it’s accurate. But that also discounts the fact that the state contains wooded hills, desert-like terrain and in its southwestern reaches, rugged, ancient crags we know as the Wichita Mountains.

They’re not lofty by any stretch. Having stood for over half a billion years, you’ll forgive the effects of erosion over time. The Rockies, the Appalachians and the Ozarks are babies by comparison. But the venerable Wichitas still stand, popping up from the flatness of the Southern Plains between the military towns of Lawton and Altus. They’re out of place: craggy, alien forms that don’t match the sweeping plains dominating this part of the state. You might say there’s a geological generation gap going on there.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time there, hiking the wide valleys and rocky slopes inside this range, sharing the space with buffalo, elk and other prairie wildlife that call the Wichitas home. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees and wildlife refuge here, and within that refuge is one of the state’s few true wilderness areas. It’s not big, but it’s definitely wild.

I moved to Tulsa seven years ago, and since arriving, I haven’t been back to the Wichitas. A real shame, because that’s the place I spent time hiking and climbing in preparation for bigger adventures in the Rockies. What I’ve learned is that the Wichitas are a fine destination of their own. I missed this place, my Oklahoma happy place, and yet hadn’t set foot there in some time.

That changed recently. I have a friend who had never been there, someone breaking into the world of hiking and backpacking and eager to test his gear and his legs somewhere. After spending some time on the trails of northeast Oklahoma, he was willing to give the Wichitas a try.

The plan: drive to the refuge, make camp, and hit a few of the easier highpoints before calling it a night. Then get up the next day and do a deeper dive into the wildest patch of the range.

After seven years, I just hoped I wouldn’t get us lost.

A.T. OR BUST

I met Brian Hoover a few years back, probably at one of the races his company puts on. He got into trail running several years ago, began organizing events, and eventually TATUR Racing became one of northeast Oklahoma’s bigger race sponsors and chip timing providers.

More recently, backpacking and bushcraft has captured his interest. Being a goal-oriented fella, the lure of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail hooked him hard. He’s done a lot of research and beefed up his gear stash with his eye on attempting the AT in the not-too-distant future.

When I put out some feelers on social media about going to the Wichitas, he was keen to do it. The plan, in his mind, was to see a new place, don his new gear, and test it out. He also wanted the extra burden of loading his pack and doing our day hikes with the same gear he intended to carry on the AT.

The drive from Tulsa to the Wichitas was a quick three hours. We’d hoped to get a backcountry camping permit, but the refuge intentionally keeps permit levels down. Ten were issued, and that was all they could take. We settled for the established campsite at Doris Campground, which was fine by me. I joked that this meant we could use an outhouse rather than pooping in the woods.

After setting up camp, it was time to hit some trails.

ELK MOUNTAIN

There are loads of hiking and climbing areas throughout the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Most of the trails, while scenic, are also easy walks. The gateway to the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area – the most rugged part of the range – has long been the Sunset trailhead at the foot of Elk Mountain.

Looking at the Sunset Massif on the way up Elk Mountain.

The mountain itself looks more like a broad mesa from a distance. It’s only when you get up close that the mountain’s rugged nature is revealed. Its southern face is steep, slabby and in spots sheer, and rock climbers can find numerous technical routes there. The northern slopes are gentler, and that’s where the Elk Mountain Trail goes. It ascends several hundred feet to Elk Mountain’s broad summit, where commanding views of Mount Lincoln, Sunset Peak and numerous other high points in the wilderness play out.

Looking north on Elk Mountain.

I opted for a day pack, but Brian went ahead and hiked in his full backpacking kit. Practice makes perfect, and there were going to be plenty of places on the AT where you’d gain hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of feet uphill on any given day. May as well get used to it now.

Bouldery terrain at the top of Elk Mountain.

The trail ends atop Elk Mountain, but doesn’t hit the summit. That would require more off-trail hiking and a little boulder hopping west, toward the steeper cliffs on the south and west sides of the mountain. Stiff, chilly breezes greeted us and a few other hikers on the hill that day. Curiously absent: wildlife. Aside from a few birds, Elk Mountain was quiet.

Brian records some video and sound on the summit of Elk Mountain. Wind is noisy.

West views from atop Elk Mountain.

Brian checks out an overview looking east.

Summit view, looking east.

We headed back down, but still had some daylight to kill. One more minor summit would do.

LITTLE BALDY

Away from the wilderness area but still in the refuge is Little Baldy, a minor summit that guards over the dam at Quanah Parker Lake. Unknown to me at the time, but there’s a trail that leads from where we camped on the other side of the lake to Little Baldy, but I don’t think we would have been able to complete that hike before sunset.

Quanah Parker Lake as seen while hiking up Little Baldy.

Anyway, the dam is this cool concrete structure that looks like a miniature version of the Hoover Dam, built high in a ravine to impound the waters that now make up the lake. We parked at the dam, then hiked up the trail to the granite dome that is Little Baldy.

For such a small point, it commands excellent views of the refuge and the lake. I opted to take a tougher scramble to the top; Brian wisely chose not to, seeing that he was hiking in his bigger pack (Brian would do a lot of smart things on this trip without any prompting from me).

Looking northwest from the top of Little Baldy. This is a low-commitment, high-payoff summit hike.

Little Baldy’s breezy summit and the lowering sun cued us to hike down and make some dinner before turning in. I’m a night owl, but when I’m camping the setting sun is my sign to hit the sack.

After scarfing down dinner, we stayed up a bit, chatting about hiking, running and gear. I brought a six-pack of beer, a nice after-dinner treat to enjoy with the conversation (Shiner black lager – yum).

With that, we turned in. It would be a cold night – and quite memorable – to set the stage for a more ambitious outing in the morning.

Our camp was on the lake shore, and we had these fellas as neighbors. They were cranky when we got too close.

In the next installment: Brian and I wake up to bitter winds, cloudy skies and a busy day hiking through the heart of the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

Getting there: Take Interstate 44 to the State Highway 49 exit and go west. The highway will take you to the refuge.

About the route on Elk Mountain: From the Sunset parking lot, cross the first bridge to the Elk Mountain Trail. The trailhead is well-marked, and the trail itself is easy to follow. Class 1, about 2.2 miles round trip.

About the route on Little Baldy: From the Quanah Parker Lake Dam parking lot, follow the paved walkway to the dam and walk across the dam to the trail. The trail is mildly defined from here, and going to the top is a matter of easy route-finding to the top. Route length is 0.6 miles round trip. Class 1, with some minor boulder hopping close to the top.

Things to know: The Wichita Mountains are home to abundant wildlife as well as a managed herd of longhorn cattle. Of particular note are bison. Give bison and the longhorn cattle plenty of room, as they can be dangerous when spooked or angered. The range is also home to rattlesnakes, so be on the lookout for them during warmer months. The range is also dry. All creeks and waterfalls are seasonal, so opportunities for filtering are relatively few. Bring plenty of water, regardless of season.

Bob Doucette