Hiking Colorado’s West Spanish Peak

All grins atop West Spanish Peak. But know that I was beat after this one.

The popularity of hiking and climbing the Colorado 14ers (peaks that rise to an elevation of 14,000 feet) has not waned in the slightest, and that has left many peakbaggers looking for less lofty – and less crowded – mountains to see. Part of the appeal of hiking and climbing mountains is being in a dramatic natural landscape that’s away from crowds.

That’s where the 13ers come in. Colorado had 58 14ers, but the number of 13ers is somewhere in the 600s, giving you lots of options.

My latest trip took me to a mountain that had the appeal of smaller crowds but easy accessibility: West Spanish Peak (13,626 feet). You can see it and its shorter neighbor, East Spanish Peak, from Interstate 25 between Trinidad and Walsenburg in southern Colorado. The Spanish Peaks, part of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, dominate the landscape around them as they sit relatively alone, surrounded only by lower rising ridges and mountains. They’re a dramatic pair that only grows more impressive as you get closer.

Campsites at Cordova Pass. The trailhead is here, and the campsites are pretty sweet. Bonus: Any passenger car can get here.

The route up West Spanish Peak is straightforward. Its trailhead is located at the Cordova Pass campgrounds, administered by the National Forest Service (any passenger car can get to the trailhead, and the campgrounds are excellent; there is a $7 daily fee to camp). The ascent has two phases that could not be much more different.

Easy hiking and sweet views last for nearly three miles. The peak is in the background.

Starting from the Cordova Pass trailhead, hike an excellent trail into the forest. It will follow a mellow ridgeline up and down for just short of three miles, crossing a broad meadow at one point and also offering a few overlooks which give you awesome views of the surrounding terrain as well as the peak itself. This portion of the hike is, with a few exceptions, mostly flat and pleasant. There is a section of switchbacks in the middle of the route, and then one larger set as you gain the needed elevation to reach treeline. None of these are very steep, but you’ll feel the elevation quickly: the trailhead starts at just over 11,200 feet.

One of many scenic overlooks below treeline.

As you break through treeline, the real work ahead becomes apparent. A large cairn marks the beginning of the ascent of the peak’s west ridge, and yes, it’s steep. Starting at this point, you’ve got a mile to go to the summit and 1,600 feet of vertical gain, so it’s a bit of a leg/lung buster.

Above treeline, the monster cairn is seen at the bottom of the picture. The route follows the ridge all the way to the summit.

The route is frequently marked by cairns, and unlike some mountains, these are all helpful. However, at the start of the route they are easy to miss because they blend in very well with the abundant talus here. From the large cairn, just hike up the ridge and eventually you’ll see the first smaller cairn and the route will be more apparent. Resist the urge to follow a faint trail that traverses the side of the mountain to your right; it doesn’t take you anywhere useful, and is basically a path through loose rubble.

This is what it looks like for a mile and 1,600 feet up. Follow the cairns.

The route more or less does a zig-zag straight up the ridge. It’s mostly stable, but there is loose scree and some loose talus. For the most part, there is no scrambling here – just very steep hiking.

Summit view looking toward East Spanish Peak.

As you approach the summit ridge, one more cairn will point the way. Once you reach it, the path to the summit becomes clear. Head to your right up easier hiking on a fairly clear trail to the summit. Once there, you’ll get a great view of the Cordova Pass area from which you came, the town of Le Veta below on the other side, and East Spanish Peak.

Another summit ridge view, looking north.

Heading back down. You can actually see the whole route back to the pass from here, including the ridgeline and the meadow.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: Round trip length is about 8 miles, with 2,384 feet of vertical gain. It’s easy Class 1 hiking to treeline, and then it becomes a steep Class 2. You will also get surprisingly good cellphone reception the whole way.

Bob Doucette

Hiking Colorado’s Mount of the Holy Cross via the north ridge

Mount of the Holy Cross.

Note: This is the next in a series of trip reports focusing on route descriptions rather than storytelling. Photos and beta only!

One of the more memorable and scenic summit hikes I’ve ever done is the northernmost of the Sawatch Range 14ers, Mount of the Holy Cross.

The mountain is steeped in history, as it became a goal for people to see it because of its namesake couloir, a thin, snow-filled and cross-shaped gash in the mountain’s rugged, dark face. For Americans seeking to find peace in nature and embark on a bit of a spiritual pilgrimage, Mount of the Holy Cross was a major destination in Colorado’s early history.

This is a remote peak, so getting there takes some doing. But the trailhead campsites at Half Moon Pass are accessible by car. So you get the best of both worlds: easy access, but a wilderness experience.

Be warned: while the peak’s standard route on its north ridge is a hike, it’s a taxing day.

Via the Half Moon Pass trailhead, hike generally south on an excellent trail up the pass. You will gain about 1,000 feet in elevation until the reach to the top of the pass.

Going up Half Moon Pass. It’s good trail, gaining about 1,000 feet of elevation from the trailhead.

As you start down and go south, Mount of the Holy Cross will finally come into view, and it’s a stunner.

Now over the pass, you get this sunrise view of Mount of the Holy Cross. (Bill Wood photo)

Continue hiking down to East Cross Creek. There are lots of campsites here, all of the wild variety. If you choose to camp here, you’ll have to abide by wilderness rules. If you continue, cross the creek, then start up a steeper but excellent trail up the north ridge.

Once above treeline, the route becomes rockier, but a system of tall cairns will direct your path. At this point, the trail becomes Class 2.

Gaining the ridge, watch for the cairns. This shows one on the way down off the mountain.

Climb up to the shoulder of the ridge to where it levels off just before you hit the summit ridge. You’ll head east up a boulder-strewn slope, and it this point, you’ll be picking your own way up to the summit.

Summit view. It’s one heck of a scene.

Round trip route length is about 12 miles, with a total elevation gain of 5,600 feet. Exposure isn’t too bad, but because of the route length – and the fact that you’ll have to regain that 1,000 feet back up to Half Moon Pass, be sure you’re packed for enough to sustain you. It’s also not a bad idea to have a water filter if you need to replenish at East Cross Creek.

East Cross Creek is a great place to filter water before starting the last bit of hiking to the trailhead.

Something to remember: Once your get off the mountain and past the creek, you still have 1,000 feet of elevation back over Half Moon Pass in front of you. Budget time to tackle this last piece of work.

Last note: A few years back, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative installed some sizable cairns along the upper portion of the route to help hikers stay on route. Staying on the route is key here, because if you descend the ridge on the wrong side, it’s easy to get lost. More than a few hikers have gotten lost in the Holy Cross Wilderness and were never found, or did not survive the experience.

Want to read the original trip report? See it here.

Bob Doucette

Climbing Colorado’s Wetterhorn Peak

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from nearby Matterhorn Peak.

Note: This is the next in a series of trip reports focusing on route descriptions rather than storytelling. Photos and beta only!

I’ve mentioned in numerous writings that the San Juan Mountains are my favorite range. There are mellow hikes, but also vertical climbs that can test your nerves.

Although my experience is more limited than some, I’ll say that my favorite mountain in the San Juans – or anywhere, for that matter – is Wetterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn (14,015 feet) offers the best of all worlds when it comes to peak-bagging. It’s easily accessible from Lake City, it has a reasonable route length and offers a combination of pleasant alpine hiking, solid climbing on steeper pitches, and at-times dizzying exposure that can spook some, but is fairly manageable.

And unlike a lot of San Juan peaks, Wetterhorn offers stable rock throughout the climb. Add this to the gorgeous profile of the mountain and its impeccable summit views and you have probably the most bang for your buck in terms of Colorado alpine adventure. Let’s get on with the route description.

At the trailhead, with a good view of Matterhorn Peak. But that’s not the target here.

Hike a good trail up Matterhorn Creek Basin until your reach your first sign at 0.75 mile. At that junction, go right.

The sign is a little confusing. But at this junction, go right.

Continue up the trail to the next junction, then go left. The trail will take you toward the base of Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge. At the base of that ridge, hike northeast through a yellow dirt section before the trail gives way to rockier terrain.

Go left at this trail junction.

Hike over rockier terrain on the way to Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge. The peak is shown here in the background.

Getting closer to the peak.

From here, you gain the southeast ridge, and the yellow dirt section of the route. It’s still easier hiking at this point, but that will soon change.

Climb the rocky gullies leading up to a prominent rock formation called the Prow. Note: If there is snow present in these gullies, they become trickier to traverse. As is the case on most mountains, bring foot traction and an ice axe if you think snow and ice will be on the mountain. You’re entering Class 3 scrambling/climbing here, and the runouts on some of these gullies end in a sizable cliff face below.

Rockier, class 2 hiking here. The mountain gets more rugged from here on.

Class 3 scrambling over and up some rocky gullies. Snow in the gullies will make things trickier.

When you reach the Prow, there is a notch to the right; go over the notch and work your way down to an angled rock slab ramp that goes down to the base of the final pitch. The exposure to your left is significant, but the rock is solid and if you stay close to the wall to your right you shouldn’t have any problems.

Once you’ve cleared the gullies, hike up this slope to a notch to the right of the Prow (seen to the left).

Once you reach the bottom of the ramp, the final pitch is before you. Climb up solid rock until you reach one last ledge. From here, you have two choices. Turn left and walk along a narrow, exposed ledge before going up easy Class 3 climbing to the summit. If you don’t want to walk the ledge, just keep climbing straight up on steep but solid rock until you reach the top. The summit pitch is stable, and handholds/footholds are plentiful.

At the bottom of the ramp past the notch, the climbing of the final pitch is all that’s left. It’s about a 100-foot climb to the top.

Looking up at the summit pitch. Lots of stable handholds and footholds here.

Looking down the pitch from near the summit.

On this look down, you get a clear view of the Prow and the ramp below.

A look at the ledges, about halfway up the summit pitch. Walking these ledges is completely optional.

From there, you’ll reach a flat summit that will give you some room to stretch out and enjoy views of Matterhorn Peak, Uncompahgre Peak, and the many 13ers of the Cimarrons to the north.

Summit view of Matterhorn Peak (foreground) and Uncompahgre Peak.

Hiking is Class 1 until you get past the yellow dirt, where it turns into Class 2. Climbing can get steep, but the handholds and footholds are solid and do not exceed Class 3. Route length is 7 miles with 3,300 feet of vertical gain. Note: You’ll need to bring your own water supply, as Matterhorn Creek and many of the waterways that feed it are spoiled by mine tailings and are not suitable for drinking or filtering. There are dispersed campsites along the road all the way to the trailhead.

GETTING THERE: In Lake City, take Second Street to Henson Creek Road and turn left. This is also called the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway. Drive 11 miles to the Matterhorn Creek trail road, turn right. If you have a car with good clearance and preferably four-wheel drive, go 0.7 miles to the trailhead.

Want to read the original trip report? You can see it here. And be sure to watch the video at the end.

Bob Doucette

Hiking Colorado’s Mount Belford

Mount Belford.

Note: This is the next in a series of trip reports focusing on route descriptions rather than storytelling. Photos and beta only! Thanks to Rick Ponder for supplying some of the photos you see here.

One of the more welcoming alpine scenes in Colorado can be found just west of the Arkansas River Valley in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. In here you’ll find a good number of high peaks, including a bunch of the state’s coveted 14,000-foot summits.

Most of these summit hikes are long, and with plenty of vertical gain to boot. In some cases, the going can get steep. But all of the Sawatch Range 14ers, which includes the Collegiates, are hikes that do not require climbing gear. A strong pair of legs and lungs and a stout heart are all that’s required, aside from standard hiking gear and a watchful eye on the weather.

Among the more accessible of these peaks is Mount Belford, one of three 14ers of Missouri Gulch Basin. Of the three, Belford (14,197 feet) has the shortest route length, and I suppose in terms of effort, is the easiest of the three to get. But don’t underestimate Belford. It’ll test your fitness. Anyway, let’s get to it.

The trailhead can be accessed by a roadside pullout and parking lot off Chaffee County Road 390. It’s a good dirt road that any passenger car can travel, so no worries about four-wheel drive or clearance.

The switchbacks going up Missouri Gulch.

From the trailhead, hike across a bridge and about a quarter-mile, where you will reach a series of steep switchbacks. The incline relents slightly as you continue hiking through the woods. Near 10,800 feet you will reach two creek crossings. Near 11,000 feet you will reach a more level area where the remains of an old trapper’s cabin sit. This is a good spot to take a breather or, if you’re backpacking, to set up camp. The creek that runs through the area is a good place to filter water if needed.

Check out that water source, just past the old trapper’s cabin.

Your first trail junction. Left to Mount Belford, right to Missouri Mountain. Go left.

Leaving the trees at 11,300 feet, the trail continues uphill through a large patch of willows. Here you will reach a split in the trail; going left will take you toward Mount Belford, while heading right sends you toward Missouri Mountain. Go left.

Hiking the switchbacks up Mount Belford.

The steepness of the hiking eases as you approach Belford. But as your reach its northwest ridge, things get steep again as you tackle a series of switchbacks going up the flanks of the mountain. The trail is solid and easy to follow.

Summit view from Mount Belford.

Eventually the route eases as you near the summit. Continue to follow the trail to a point where it flattens out near the top. The final few hundred yards are over 14,000 feet and are fairly level hiking.

Summit if Belford, with Mount Oxford in the background.

The route is 8 miles round trip and is considered Class 2 hiking with low exposure. Total vertical gain is 4,500 feet. From Belford’s summit you can see Missouri Mountain to the south and Mount Oxford to the east. Oxford can be reached via a connecting ridge from Belford, but this will add another three miles and 1,000 feet of vert to your day.

Want to read the original trip report? Check out this link.

Bob Doucette

Hiking Colorado’s Missouri Mountain

Missouri Mountain, as seen from Missouri Gulch.

Note: This is the next in a series of trip reports focusing on route descriptions rather than storytelling. Photos and beta only!

Colorado’s Collegiate Peaks Wilderness contains some of the state’s prime alpine scenery while at the same time delivering accessible adventure to anyone with a good set of lungs, a strong set of legs and a stout heart. The mountains here are not known for their technical challenges, but they do have a reputation for having lengthy routes and beefy elevation profiles. The mountains of the Sawatch Range, of which the Collegiates are a part, aren’t walk in the park.

One of my favorite areas of the Collegiates is Missouri Gulch. Three 14ers and more than a few 13ers are accessible from the gulch. Of the ones I’ve done, Missouri Mountain (14,067 feet) is a favorite.

The gulch leads to a large U-shaped basin. On its western flank is a ridge with three unnamed 13,000-foot points. To the east is Mount Belford (14,197 feet) and Peck’s Peak (13,270 feet). The closed end of the amphitheater is a tapered ridge whose high point is the summit of Missouri Mountain.

Missouri Mountain is a hike, with one brief scrambling section near the summit. The route starts steep, mellows for awhile in the basin, then steepens again as you gain the peak’s northwest ridge. Once that ridge is tackled, the summit ridge is a pleasant hike to the top, with that one crux area to negotiate. From the top, you get an excellent view of the entire basin as well as a panorama of the rest of the Collegiates. It’s pretty mind-blowing. Anyway, let’s get to the route description.

The switchbacks going up Missouri Gulch.

From the trailhead, hike across a bridge and about a quarter-mile, where you will reach a series of steep switchbacks. The incline relents slightly as you continue hiking through the woods. Near 10,800 feet you will reach two creek crossings. Near 11,000 feet you will reach a more level area where the remains of an old trapper’s cabin sit. This is a good spot to take a breather or, if you’re backpacking, to set up camp. The creek that runs through the area is a good place to filter water if needed.

In Missouri Gulch Basin, just above treeline, looking back.

Leaving the trees at 11,300 feet, the trail continues uphill through a large patch of willows. Here you will reach a split in the trail; going left will take you up to Mount Belford, while heading right keeps you on track to Missouri Mountain.

Your first trail junction. Left to Mount Belford, right to Missouri Mountain. Go right.

Continue up a hill just below 13,000 feet where you’ll reach another fork in the trail. Left takes you to Elkhead Pass (this can also take you to Belford’s summit), right takes you to Missouri Mountain’s northwest slopes.

Easier hiking in the basin.

Your second trail junction. Left takes you to Elkhead Pass, right goes to Missouri’s northwest ridge. Go right.

The trail will lead you to a series of steep and at times rocky switchbacks. A few sections of this part of the route have moderate exposure.

Starting up the ridge. The hiking gets steeper here.

More from lower on the ridge.

Higher on the ridge, looking toward Mount Belford.

Around 13,700 feet you will gain Missouri’s ridge, and the hiking will ease. Continue following the trail east toward the summit. There will be moderate exposure to your left.

On the summit ridge. The hiking eases here, but another obstacle remains.

More from along the summit ridge. Near here is a notch that will require some brief scrambling.

Just shy of 14,000 feet you’ll reach a notch that drops about 30 feet. This requires a more careful descent on rocky and sandy ground, but is not quite Class 3.

Close to the summit now.

Once down the notch, continue up the trail for a last bit of steeper hiking to Missouri’s summit.

Summit view of Missouri Gulch Basin.

Mount Harvard is visible to the left.

View of Mount Belford from Missouri’s summit.

The route is Class 2, with the notch Class 2+, and third-class (moderate) exposure. Route length is 10.5 miles round-trip with 4,500 feet of elevation gain.

Interested in reading the original trip report? You can see it here.

Bob Doucette

Hiking Colorado’s ‘Decalibron’ loop: Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross

Nephew Jordan on Mount Democrat.

NOTE: Going through old trip reports, I’ve found a lot of them are long on storytelling and short on beta. So on occasion, I’m going to revisit a few peaks to give a more straightforward look at what it’s like to hike or climb these mountains.

There are few opportunities where you can combine four 14,000-foot summits within a relatively modest 7-plus miles, but that is what you get with the Lincoln Group – more commonly known as the Decalibron – in the heart of the Mosquito Range.

The Debalibron consists of four 14ers – Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross. Cameron, though above 14,000 feet, is an “unofficial” 14er due to the fact that it has less than 300 feet of prominence from nearby Mount Lincoln.

This is a fun day of straightforward hiking – a strong pair of legs and lungs are all that are needed, in addition to a sharp eye on the skies and the Ten Essentials most hikers carry in their day packs. If you catch it at the right time of year, the Decalibron can offer a wildflower bonanza. Either way, there are old mines to see, plus great views of nearby ranges. Much of the hike is above 13,000 feet.

Low on the trail above Kite Lake.

A little higher, above the ruins of an old mine.

From Kite Lake, follow the trail as it goes up the slopes toward a saddle between Mount Democrat (14,148 feet) and Mount Cameron (14,238 feet). You’ll pass some Kite Lake campsites, then follow the trail to the ruins of the Kentucky Belle Mine. From here, the trail ascends a rocky slope where you’ll gain much of the elevation in this hike. It will follow three switchbacks before hitting the saddle between Mount Democrat and Mount Cameron.

Going up the slopes of Mount Democrat.

Once at the saddle, go left and follow steeper switchbacks up to a broad, flatter area just below the summit. From here, hike to remaining couple of hundred yards to the top. The hike up Mount Democrat gains about 2,000 feet and is the hardest part of the route. Democrat is also a good point to stop, look at the weather and decide if you will move on to Mount Cameron.

On the summit of Mount Democrat.

From here, descend the mountain back to the saddle and follow the trail up the ridge on Cameron. The terrain steepens for a few hundred yards, then eases as the summit nears. Cameron’s summit is broad, and you get a good look toward Mount Lincoln and the remaining route toward Mount Bross. This is another good place to do a weather check and see if you will have time for what comes next.

Low on Cameron’s ridge, looking back at the saddle and Mount Democrat. This is a good view of the route of Mount Democrat.

Higher on Cameron’s ridge, with a nice view of Quandary Peak.

From the summit of Mount Cameron, looking at Mount Bross.

The moonscape summit of Mount Cameron, with a view of Mount Democrat.

The easiest part of the route is following the trail off Cameron’s moonscape-like summit toward the saddle between it and Mount Lincoln (14,286 feet). It’s a short descent, then a quick rise over a knob, then on to Lincoln’s true summit.

A short, easy walk to Mount Lincoln’s summit from Cameron.

From here, go back to the Cameron/Lincoln saddle and follow the trail that goes around Cameron’s south side. It continues between a long, broad connecting ridge to Mount Bross (14,172 feet). This is the longest section of the upper route, and is a mild grade in its entirety. The 1.5 mile hike to Bross ends either just short of the summit or, if you wish, follow one of the unmaintained trails (there are a few) to the top.

Looking back on Mount Lincoln while on the way to Mount Bross.

Something to keep in mind: The summit of Mount Bross is private property, so technically speaking, hitting its summit is an intrusion. But most people hike to its summit anyway.

On Mount Bross, heading down. Mount Democrat is to the left, Mount Cameron to the right.

Leaving Bross, head west down the ridge that slopes down toward Kite Lake. The hiking is easy at first, but degrades as you get lower and the route steepens. Loose footing is present until the route goes left of the ridge and follows a more solid, gentler decline that leads to the willows and the easy hiking back to the lake.

Going down Mount Bross. Lots of loose talus.

Lower on Mount Bross, heading back toward the trailhead.

The route is 7.25 miles from the lake. Going up Mount Democrat is Class 2; the rest of the hiking, with the exception of the descent off Bross, is Class 1. Danger from falls (exposure) is minimal, with the exception of a few points on the summit of Mount Lincoln, and even there it’s manageable. The route is straightforward and easy to follow on well-defined trails, though its can get somewhat murky coming off the loose talus on the lower part of Mount Bross.

Waterfall sighting close to the trailhead.

If you want to park by the Kite Lake trailhead, you’ll need to pay a $3 fee. Camping is available near the trailhead. The road to the trailhead can be somewhat rough, but most cars and trucks with some clearance can manage it. You can avoid the fee by parking below the parking area along the road, though that will add some length to your hike.

Want to read the original trip report? You can see it here.

Bob Doucette

Climbing Colorado’s North Eolus

A cropped look at North Eolus, from the summit of Mount Eolus.

NOTE: This is the next in a series of revisiting some peaks from past trip reports, with an emphasis more on the route. Special thanks to Mike Zdero and Matt Carver for helping me out with some photos for this one; for some reason, I didn’t feel like taking many pics going up this mountain.

Of the four 14ers of Chicago Basin, North Eolus (14,039 feet) is probably something of an afterthought. It’s not an “officially ranked” 14er because it’s summit does not rise 300 feet or more from the saddle connecting it to its parent peak, Mount Eolus.

That said if you set out to climb it, there will be no doubt left in your mind that it’s a real mountain, complete with a few challenges and incredible summit views. North Eolus is usually done in tandem with Mount Eolus, and among the Chicago Basin 14ers, some might argue that it’s the easiest of the four to get. I can’t make the judgment – all I can say is I thoroughly enjoyed its comfortable, scenic summit perch. By itself, with Mount Eolus, or with the rest of the Chicago Basin 14ers, this is an unforgettable alpine wilderness experience.

Some of the information to follow is identical to that of Mount Eolus, so if you read my post on that one, you can skip ahead a bit. But if not, read on.

Getting to Chicago Basin is a bit of an obstacle. It’s remote, and there’s no quick way to get to its trailhead on foot. You basically have two choices: Hike in from Durango (that might take at least a couple of days) or get an open-air ticket on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train, a tourist service that takes vacationers on a ride between the two towns and through the mountain scenery along the Animas River. Most people do the latter, a service provided by the train operator to backpackers. The train stops at a place called Needleton (there’s no town there, just a spot for the train to stop and let people off), and on the banks of the Animas River there is a pedestrian bridge that leads you to a trail. Your ticket price will include pickup and a return trip to Durango once your trip is over; be sure to book in advance.

The bridge leading across the Animas River from Needleton.

From the bridge crossing, a good trail goes all the way to the Basin. It starts out flat, but soon you start gaining elevation quickly. About 5.5 miles in, you will see places where you can camp. Campsites are available up to 7 miles or so from the bridge crossing, right at the southern foot of Mount Eolus. Most people choose to camp after the hike in so they can get an early start – a wise thing in the summer, as afternoon storms are common here.

Easy hiking on the low part of the trail to Chicago Basin.

Impressive view of the Chicago Basin peaks from higher on the trail.

A great water source high on the trail to Chicago Basin. Several campsites are close by. This is about seven miles from the trailhead.

From there, follow a good trail along the river, then a series of switchbacks up the headwall – steep Class 1 and 2 hiking. It’s a real leg- and lung-buster, but nothing more. Higher up the headwall, you will cross rock slabs that are slippery when wet. This will lead you to a saddle between Mount Eolus (to your left) and North Eolus.

A view looking back at the route low on the headwall.

High on the headwall, looking up toward the saddle between Mount Eolus and North Eolus.

It’s about here when you’ll want to take a look at the skies and determine how the weather is going to hold out. Even though the climbing on North Eolus is straightforward, none of these peaks offer a fast retreat to treeline.

If it all looks good, you can proceed up North Eolus’ south ridge to the summit. At the saddle, turn right to gain North Eolus’ summit ridge. Even though North Eolus shares the same ridgeline as its taller neighbor, the rock couldn’t feel more different. Rather than a series of blocky ledges like you see on Mount Eolus, North Eolus is more a more slabby experience and not as steep. A Class 3 scramble on grippy, solid rock awaits, giving you quick access to the summit. There are no route-finding issues here, and much of the pitch is walkable. The two most difficult spots on the route are at the very beginning – an awkward scramble move to gain the ridge, and just short of the summit where the route steepens a tad. While there is a good amount of exposure to your left, it’s avoidable – certainly nothing like the airy ridge-direct route on Eolus.

Looking up at the route on North Eolus, with a mountain goat looking down. The route scrambes over this craggy spot, then follows the ridgeline up.

From above, looking down on hikers beginning to ascend North Eolus’ south ridge.

A climber nearing the summit of North Eolus.

Looking up at North Eolus’ summit.

The reward is the magnificent view of Mount Eolus, in addition to Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak on the other side of the Basin. Equally impressive are the Weminuche 13ers, including Pigeon Peak, Turret Peak, and further in the distance, Vestal Peak and Arrow Peak. The panorama of the Weminuche’s alpine wilderness from the North Eolus summit is not to be missed.

A magnificent view of the Weminuche Wilderness peaks.

From the campsite closest to the headwall, your elevation gain is about 3,000 feet. Route length is about 6 miles.

A couple things to note: Bring bug spray (the flies are relentless in the summer), and know that there is a sizable population of mountain goats that are accustomed to people and often hang out a camp and might follow you around.

Interested in reading the original Chicago Basin trip report? See it here.

Bob Doucette

Climbing Colorado’s Mount Eolus

Mount Eolus, as seen from neighboring North Eolus.

NOTE: Going through old trip reports, I’ve found a lot of them are long on storytelling and short on beta. So on occasion, I’m going to revisit a few peaks to give a more straightforward look at what it’s like to hike or climb these mountains.

The San Juan Mountains make up my favorite mountain range to date, mostly because of the variety of peaks you can find there, in addition to the sheer quantity. Inside the range is anything from simple, short walk-ups to highly technical – and spicy – climbs. Whatever mountain you choose is going to have a sense of wildness, as these mountains almost entirely exist within established wilderness areas.

One of these areas is the Weminuche Wilderness, some of the wildest and most remote country in the state of Colorado. Among the prime destinations in this wilderness are Chicago Basin and its numerous 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks.

Four 14ers serve as the pinnacles of a crown of peaks surrounding the basin. On the east end are Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak. On the west, Mount Eolus and North Eolus.

Mount Eolus (14,083 feet) is the second-highest of the four and seen by most as the second-hardest. It’s definitely a worthy target, and is often climbed in tandem with North Eolus.

Getting to Chicago Basin is a bit of an obstacle itself. Like I said, it’s remote. It’s not like driving to a trailhead in the Front Range or the Sawatch. You basically have two choices: Hike in from Durango (that might take at least a couple of days) or get an open-air ticket on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train, a tourist service that takes vacationers on a ride between the two towns and through the mountain scenery along the Animas River. Most people do the latter, a service provided by the train operator to backpackers. The train stops at a place called Needleton (there’s no town there, just a spot for the train to stop and let people off), and on the banks of the Animas River there is a pedestrian bridge that leads you to a trail. Your ticket price will include pickup and a return trip to Durango once your trip is over; be sure to book in advance.

The bridge at the Needleton stop, crossing the Animas River.

Easy hiking to start the trip to Chicago Basin. But it gets steeper and more difficult until you get the basin itself.

The hiking mellows as you get closer to the basin. Dispersed campsites appear up the trail from here.

Looking up at the flanks of Mount Eolus from camp.

From the bridge crossing, a good trail goes all the way to the Basin. It starts out flat, but soon you start gaining elevation quickly. About 5.5 miles in, you will see places where you can camp. Campsites are available up to 7 miles or so from the bridge crossing, right at the southern foot of Mount Eolus. Most people choose to camp after the hike in so they can get an early start – a wise thing in the summer, as afternoon storms are common here.

Looking back at the base of the headwall leading up to the upper portions of the route. From here, steeper switchbacks await.

From there, follow a good trail along the river, then a series of switchbacks up the headwall – steep Class 1 and 2 hiking. It’s a real leg- and lung-buster, but nothing more. Higher up the headwall, you will cross rock slabs that are slippery when wet. This will lead you to a saddle between Mount Eolus (to your left) and North Eolus.

Nearing the top of the headwall.

Getting closer to the saddle between Mount Eolus and North Eolus.

Almost to the saddle, with Mount Eolus seen in the background left.

Higher on the mountain.

It’s about here when you’ll want to take a good look at the skies and determine how the weather is going to hold out. The route from here will slow you down considerably, and if you’re caught on the connecting ridge or on Eolus’ summit pitch, there is no fast retreat.

The Catwalk. It looks spookier than it is. But there is relatively high exposure on either side of you as you traverse it.

Here you will face the first real obstacle climbing Mount Eolus – the Catwalk. Visually, it’s a slender ridge that is usually about 10-15 feet wide, but as narrow as five feet in some places. There is no alternative route to get to Eolus from the saddle – you either cross the Catwalk or forgo the summit entirely. The rock is solid, but it is exposed on both sides. Mostly, it’s a walk with an occasional scrambling move.

Once off the Catwalk, a couple of options are available. Most people follow a series of cairns up the ledges leading to the summit, just left of the ridgeline proper. There is some exposure, but it’s manageable. The main challenge here is route-finding: negotiating the blocky ledges to find your way to the top. The route is classified as a Class 3 scramble with high exposure.

Nearing the summit, taking the ridge direct. Most people ascend to the left of the ridge proper as seen here. That way is less exposed. If you take the ridge direct, be prepared for more committing moves and much higher exposure.

For a more direct climb, go up the northeast ridge proper. This is a more demanding way to finish the climb in terms of route-finding, climbing difficulty and managing exposure.  The ridge direct is Class 3-4 climbing, with spots of airy, no-fall zone exposure (large drop-offs to your right would likely end in death if you fell). You will be able to climb over or around several stone blocks; some require traverses that are pretty committing.

The final push to the top involves easier scrambling and a rest stop on the mountain’s small summit perch. From here, you’ll have sweeping views of North Eolus to the north, along with 13ers Pigeon and Turret peaks to the northwest. To the east, Sunlight Peak, Windom Peak and Sunlight Spire (among others) can be seen.

Either route you take, be sure to test handholds and footholds. But I found most of the rock fairly solid.

Summit view, looking at (from left) Sunlight Peak, Sunlight Spire and Windom Peak.

From the campsites closest to the headwall, your elevation gain is about 3,000 feet, with a round-trip route length of about 6 miles.

A couple things to note: Bring bug spray (the flies are relentless in the summer), and know that there is a sizable population of mountain goats that are accustomed to people and often hang out a camp and might follow you around.

Interested in reading the original full Chicago Basin trip report? See it here.

Bob Doucette

A quick photo tour of three great national parks: Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Great Smoky Mountains, and Rocky Mountain National Parks

Last week I took a break from the weekly “here’s how the virus has messed up our lives” beat, going instead with a short photo gallery of some of my favorite images from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

I like that idea again for this week. This time, I want to go with a few national parks I happen to like a bunch. So here goes…

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

I’ve only been here once, but it was memorable. Situated in west-central Colorado, it emcompasses a deep gorge cut by the Gunnison River, one of the deepest canyons in the country.

The Gunnison River, with the steep walls of the Black Canyon rising high above.

Most of the park’s river-level campgrounds and trails are easy enough, but if you’re up for a scramble you can get some amazing vistas. And, if you’re so inclined, some good fishing.

You might catch fish here if you’re not too distracted by the scenery.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A couple visits to the Smokies of eastern Tennessee gave me a deep appreciation for the rugged, wooded beauty of this classic American landscape. I love how the elevation changes create such a wide variety of ecosystems. At one moment, you’re in a warm, humid broadleaf forest. Hike up a ways and it’s the sweet smell of pines, which always makes me think of the Rockies. But the Appalachians are not the Rockies — they’re their own thing, and it’s awesome.

A sweeping view of the Smokies.

Most views here are seen from outcrops and not from summits. Take time to stop for a few minutes to soak it in.

Thick woods and great trails on the Alum Cave Bluff Trail.

The trails can wind along for a ways, but each mile is filled with memorable scenes.

Alum Cave Bluff. Whoa.

Some rest stops offer scenes that exemplify the diverse and lush nature of the Appalachians, a mountain range said to be one of the greatest examples of biodiversity in the world.

Low clouds and fog give the appearance of smoke, which is how the Smokies got their name.

Drive through the park and several pullouts will give you incredible vistas.

Atop the observation tower on Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in Tennessee.

Clingman’s Dome, Tennessee’s highest mountain, has an observation tower which gives you a rare summit view in the Smokies. It’s worth a look.

Rocky Mountain National Park

This is the national park I’ve visited the most, and each time I come away in awe. The Rockies are a grand range, and the park has some of the most amazing alpine scenes that can be found anywhere. From thick evergreen forests to rocky alpine landscapes, any view is a hard-earned treat. It’s worth the effort to hike this park’s trails, however high they take you.

Sunrise on the Longs Peak Trail.

There is nothing quite like watching the sun rise high in the Rockies, especially when you’re treated to a cloud inversion.

Longs Peak shrouded in clouds.

The star of the park is Longs Peak, the highest mountain in the park and one of the most dramatic and rugged pinnacles in the entire state. You can see the mountain from Denver, but it’s a whole different experience to see it up close.

The Keyhole on Longs Peak.

If you’re up for some work, climbing Longs Peak is a great way to see the mountain and challenge yourself in a whole new way.

Longs Peak looming over Chasm Lake.

Even if you don’t want to climb the mountain, the scenery around Longs Peak is worth taking in.

So there you go. I confess, I’m not one of those people who has been to a ton of national parks. But the ones I’ve been to are something to see.

Bob Doucette

At the trailhead or on the starting line, the coronavirus may wreck your plans

Climbing Mount Everest has been canceled for the year because of COVID-19 concerns.

The news cycle tends to dominated these days by one thing: the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19.

It’s going to affect pretty much all areas of life for us here in the United States, and from what I can see, things are just starting to ramp up. And “all areas” include those things that we love to do the most: live adventurously.

As an example, China took the extraordinary step to close the north face of Mount Everest for the season. Not long after, Nepal announced plans to close the south side. Himalayan mountaineering there and on the other peaks is pretty much shut down now.

I can imagine that’s going to be a similar story in a lot of places outside the Himalayas. Given the severity of the outbreak in northern Italy, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine a near-dead climbing season this spring and summer in the Alps. Certainly that will be the case in the Italian Alps, and as the disease progresses in neighboring countries, it may be a quiet year in European mountain towns for some time.

I don’t know what that means for us here in the States. For now, there haven’t been any restrictions on travel inside the country, but should we experience the level of outbreak seen in Italy, it could happen.

Local races can draw hundreds of competitors and thousands of spectators. Will these events still happen this year?

There’s something else, too. The same community that heads to the hills for adventure also tends to find itself on starting lines. From 5Ks to ultramarathons, and any number of cycling races, the spring usually brings on a ton of events that draw outdoor athletes from all over the place.

Close to my neck of the woods, we’ve got a local half marathon and full marathon coming up next month. In late April, the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon – a big event by most standards – is on deck. In my city, Tulsa, we’ve got an IRONMAN triathlon set for late May, and the annual three-day Tulsa Tough cycling race series in early June. All of these events draw anywhere from several hundred to several thousand people, be they competitors or spectators.

Will they still happen? It’s difficult to say, but the NBA just suspended its season indefinitely after two of its players came down with COVID-19. College and pro leagues initially looked at playing games with no fans as a way to salvage television revenues and not endanger the public, then came back and canceled events and postponed seasons. Some of the same conditions that are giving these organizations pause exist in running and cycling events, especially the big ones. Will there be a Boston Marathon this year? A summer Olympics? Should there be?

And what about us? Should we be out doing the adventure thing? Should we be racing? Some of that is personal, for sure. Foremost on our minds ought to be one group of people: those most likely to suffer the worst effects of the disease. You never know who might give it to you. And then, who you might bring it to. At this point, I’m playing it by ear. I want some mountain time, but no summit is worth someone else’s health.

One last thing: Don’t underestimate the financial impact all this mess is going to have on the businesses you know and love. People whose shops depend on adventure tourism and sports are going to be hurting. I’ve got friends who are race directors, and know a bunch of people in different outdoor industry circles. Their experiences are going to be a lot like those who count on fans showing up to regular sporting events. If you think canceling a race is no big deal, think about how many businesses in Austin lost out when South by Southwest got canned. It’s no different for businesses (hotels, restaurants, bars and gear shops, to name a few) that are connected to big city races, as well as all those mountain town enterprises that make or break their year by how well the high summer season goes.

Looking for advice from me? I don’t have much. Take care of the things you can control for you and those around you. And when the time comes, be there to support those who are going to take a hit from this outbreak. Aside from that, buckle up. It could be a bumpy ride.

Bob Doucette