Wildfires this summer are stretching government resources to their limits. (Uriah Walker/U.S. Army photo)
Nobody loves a good camp fire more than me. I can stare into the flames and enjoy that mellow nighttime vibe for hours.
But if I’m camping anywhere west of the High Plains, I’m not making one. And neither should anyone else this summer.
As of this writing, there are scores of large, active fires burning in the United States, and all but a few are in western states. Arizona has closed four national forests to visitors as massive wildfires there spread. Large fires are popping up in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Montana, as well as in British Columbia. And given the lousy snowpack much of the West received this winter and spring, there’s a good chance fire conditions are going to worsen.
The western drought is so severe that lake levels at massive reservoirs such as Lake Mead are near record lows. That’s a sign that this drought isn’t just one season in the making. It’s been an ongoing trauma to ecosystems in much of the western half of the continent.
Topping it off is the widespread tree die-off from bark beetle infestations. The mountain pine beetle has killed about 100,000 square miles of forest in the North American west over the past 20 years, leaving behind huge swaths of dead trees from New Mexico to British Columbia – ready fuel to turn the smallest fire into an inferno.
I could go into the whole fire etiquette thing – keep the fire in a fire ring, make sure it’s out and cold before leaving it, etc. – but we’re past that now. Any open fire sheds embers and sparks, and as we’ve seen, it doesn’t take much heat to get a fire going. Carelessness with camp fires often leads to disaster, but given the conditions right now, even if you do everything right, you could still set off a wildfire.
Some would argue that natural events, such as lightning, are a bigger cause of wildfires than people, but this is a myth. In the U.S., almost 85 percent of all wildland fires are caused by humans.
These wildfires can – and do – cause real harm to people. Property damage from wildfires runs into the billions of dollars, and as we saw with the 2018 Paradise fire in California, the effects turned deadly. Eighty-five people were killed in that fast-moving, fast growing fire that razed a town.
A calming camp fire is a time-honored tradition, and we all like cooking over a fire. But you can use a camp stove to cook, and find other ways to make that camp experience more relaxing. This summer, we need to do our part and not light those fires.
There are some states where if you don’t find a way to get outside and step on a trail, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
Washington is one of those states. Three mountain ranges cross the state from north to south: The Olympics, the Cascades, and to the east, the Selkirk Range.
The Selkirks won’t garner the love that the Olympics or the Cascades get, but if you’re in Spokane or the Idaho towns to the east, there’s plenty to do and see.
One of the simple pleasures for the outdoorist is a long mountain hike. And just east of Spokane Valley, you have one in Mica Peak.
The mountain is easy to distinguish: There’s a white, globe-like structure perched at its summit, like some giant golf ball awaiting God’s tee time (in reality, it’s an FAA radar station).
My hiking buddy on this one, Doug, lives in Spokane Valley and he sees the mountain every time he walks out his front door. He’s been eyeballing this ever since moving here with his family about a year ago. I needed a good training hike, so up we went.
There are a lot of trails on this mountain, and the paths themselves are a mix of jeep roads, singletrack and, close to the top, a wide gravel road. There are a lot of side trails, too, so it’s a good idea to study a map before you go. Otherwise, it’s easy to get off course (we did that a few times and turned an 11-mile out-and-back summit hike into some just over 13 miles. Oops.).
The basic route we followed was looking for markers that pointed toward “Moonshine.”
That path has you choose between what look like a fork in the road (really, two jeep trails) early on. The more established one to the left is the way to go. The route will mostly stay on a path like this following the ridgeline for a few miles. Some might balk at the idea of hiking on a jeep trail, but the scenery is just as good from it as it would be any singletrack. Sweeping overlooks into the valley to the west as well as nearby wooded ridges abound as you ascend, though we had a hard time seeing many of them because of the weather: Clouds, light rain and even some fog obscured most of the views on the way up, though there is an appeal to the look of a misty forest, where stands of trees disappear into the gloom of the fog. A whole different feel for sure.
Not far from the top, the route changes its spots: Double-track jeep trails give way to an abrupt right turn up a steep singletrack path that ascends sharply for about a quarter mile. Most of the route to this point is a gentle but steady incline, but now at about 5,000 feet, you give your legs and lungs more of a test. Once we topped out there, we were greeted by two things: a sweeping view of the valley below, and that gravel road I mentioned that continued up. The slope eased some here, and before we knew it, the FAA’s giant golf ball appeared through the mists. We’d topped out.
As I said before, the weather gave us light rain and drizzle most of the day. But by the time we were at the summit (and lunch!) it was 38 degrees and snowing. Yup, late May in the mountains – even mountains that don’t quite reach a mile above sea level – can bring snow. It was a tasty but chilly lunch, and we didn’t waste too much time getting a move-on.
On the way down, the clouds lifted a little, and we were treated to better views. There was plenty of evidence of wildlife (Spokane County maintains much of the mountain for recreation and as a nature preserve), be it droppings from deer or, we suspected, large predators. One paw print looked like it very well could have been from a decent sized cat. Mountain lions, black bear, moose, elk, deer and more call these woods home.
In the middle of all this was conversation. You know you’ve found a good hiking buddy when you don’t run out of words (though I’ll admit to clamming up on higher altitude peaks). Discussions included cars, family, sports, jobs and more. It definitely makes those miles tick by faster.
By the time we got back to the trailhead, the sun was poking through the clouds, which were busy trying to clear out. Mica Peak’s summit was still hidden in clouds, but somewhere up there was that giant golf ball in the sky, something Doug will be able to show his kids and say, “I’ve been up there.”
About the route: If you do it right (and not get off track like we did), the round-trip hike is about 11 miles with somewhere near 2,500 feet of vertical gain. All Class 1 hiking, with a short stretch of steeper Class 2 close to the top just before you reach the gravel road. The true summit is a fenced-off FAA site that does not have public access.
In the days following the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens, I learned that ash from the volcano would eventually circle the globe. As a grade school kid living in the shadow of a bunch of other high mountains, the saga that unfolded in the Pacific Northwest fascinated me.
Years later, it still does. Maybe more than any single location in that part of the country, a visit to this scene of volcanic violence has been on my mind for some time.
I got a chance to head that direction last week, but with just two days to explore the area, this leg of the trip turned out to be a barnstorming tour, hitting the highlights of one locale briefly before moving on to the next.
It wasn’t enough, but at the same time, was plenty good. The drive west from Spokane to the Cascades stoked my appetite to see more.
Spokane reminds me a lot of Denver. It’s relatively dry, but gets enough snow and rain to support large stands of pine and spruce forests, which grow thicker as you move east. But 20 minutes west of the city, Washington state flattens and dries out, leaving a rolling landscape that supports mostly scrub brush, irrigated farms and sporadic vineyards.
But I noticed something else. Rocky outcrops occasionally jutted out the hillsides, revealing blackened stone. In the fields, rocks of similar composition littered open rangeland. It reminded me of the vast grazing lands of northeastern New Mexico, territory no good for farming because underneath thin topsoil were the hardened remains of ancient lava flows.
Washington, like the rest of the West Coast, is known for its seismic activity. The great Cascade peaks are all volcanoes, powered by an offshore subduction zone where one tectonic plate reluctantly slides under another. Once these fault lines slip, massive earthquakes and tsunamis can result. Pressure deep underground also pushes magma to the surface, which in turn erupts to form the enormous piles of ash and rock that, on most days, look like grand mountain scenes.
But here I was, hundreds of miles from that fault line, and evidence of volcanic activity was all around.
It became more stark once Interstate 90 crossed the Columbia River. A deep gorge has been carved into the landscape, with layers of volcanic rock exposed by the gash in the earth carved by the river. It’s worth a stop to take it in.
Across the bridge, the landscape begins to change. The gentle hills of the middle of the state give way to bigger, steeper slopes. In the distance, barren mountains appear. And beyond them, you can see the snowy peaks of the Cascades.
I knew that once we entered the range, it would become much greener. But out here, the rain shadow of the Cascades leaves behind a desert that extends south into Oregon. Most great mountain ranges do this: On one side of the range, atmospheric moisture is hemmed in, dropping rain and snow in abundance, creating lush forests and grasslands. The other side is left with thirsty scrublands and deserts.
West of Yakima, there are a number of roads that lead to Mount Rainier National Park, the first stop on this jaunt. Mount Rainier is a bucket list climb for me, so seeing it was high on my list. As it turns out, even in mid-May a number of passes and roads leading to the park are closed, still buried under snow. But we got there, only to be greeted by thick clouds and occasional rain.
I knew the mountain was huge – much bigger in mass than anything in the Rockies, and at 14,410 feet above sea level, one of the highest peaks in the contiguous United States. We got to see the peak up to about 10,000 feet, and it is indeed enormous. This much I would tell, even with the top 4,000 feet or so socked in by clouds. Funny thing about the Cascades – they don’t always avail themselves to the views craved by tourists. We saw what we could see, then beat a path toward Mount St. Helens.
The hope was that the weather that cloaked Rainier would clear out by the time we got to Mount St. Helens. But all the way up the road leading to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, it was clouds, rain and fog. There was a good chance there’s be nothing to see at all.
Once we got there, we got what I’d call “a true mountain experience.” Winds were hitting us at 20-30 mph, laden with rain and sleet. Once at the observatory, most of the mountain was shrouded in swirling gray mists.
Oy. What to do. I could see right up to the bottom of the crater, but no further. Socked in again. But with the winds blowing hard, I thought there might be a chance it would blow enough of the cloud cover away to reveal more of the mountain.
So I hiked out on the ridge, my attempt to wait it out. Clouds whipped by, and high whistling sounds whipped through the tree limbs of the few evergreens that were growing out here. Once lush with old growth forest, Mount St. Helens erupted with such violence that it wiped out thousands of acres of woodland, buried Spirit Lake, and caused a collapse of the mountain that caused its summit elevation to drop by more than 1,300 feet. Pre-eruption, its near-perfect conical form earned it the nickname “America’s Mount Fuji,” but now it’s shaped like an amphitheater, with a small but growing lava dome at the bottom of the bowl of the now hollowed-out mountain.
Even with so much hidden from view, seeing the landscape around the mountain was fascinating. Grasses and willows now carpeted the scarred land, the area a mix of browns and light greens surrounded by forest covered ridges. I imagine from the air, it looks like a giant scar (which it is), with Mount St. Helens at the epicenter.
Hiking out on the ridge, I fought the winds, the cold and the rain. One day I’d like to hike the munros of Scotland, and I imagined the weather was a lot like this. I confess to having the wrong clothes to be out there in those conditions, so it didn’t take long to get a bit soaked. Hiking back to the car, I gave up waiting out the mountain, snapped the best pics I could and called it a win. It’s a marvelous place, and I hope to come back on a day when the weather is more forgiving.
A night’s sleep means turning back east, but not before making one last stop, this one requiring far less effort. On the Oregon side of the Columbia River, east of Portland, tall waterfalls drop from steep cliffs. Of these, Multnomah Falls is the most dramatic. A thin, silvery band of water drops 611 feet from the cliffs above, falling into thickly wooded, moss-covered basins below. The drive to the falls is pretty, and you can pull over to see other handsome waterfalls as well. But Multnomah is the monarch of the Columbia River Gorge falls, made more majestic by a bridge centered about a third of the way up that makes for an excellent viewing deck. Scores of camera-laden tourists happily made their way up to the falls, looking for that perfect pic. Honestly, you’d have to have terrible photo skills to not get something gorgeous.
Driving back east toward Spokane became a review of what was seen on the way out west. It’s easy to looks at landscapes and see “mountains,” “deserts,” “hills,” “rivers” and whatnot. But what struck me is that all these landscapes were related, made the way they are because huge pieces of the earth are in a slow-motion collision eons in the making. Everything is connected here, born from the same ongoing geologic trauma. Sometimes that brings on cataclysmic eruptions or earthquakes. But on nearly every other day, we’re given natural spectacles that stick in our memories for years to come.
Humboldt Peak, as seen from Broken Hand Pass. (Mike Zee photo)
Note: This is the next in a series of trip reports focusing on route descriptions rather than storytelling. Photos and beta only!
Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains offer some of the finest alpine adventures you can find in the southern Rockies, with anything from beefy hikes to serious climbs. The peaks are more remote, being that they’re not that close to any larger cities, and some of them require a sturdier vehicle to reach trailheads.
One thing about the Colorado Sangres 14ers: There are not a lot of easy entry point peaks. All but a couple are Class 3 and 4, and some of them are among the toughest of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks.
But if you’re looking for a mountain that will give you those spectacular Sangres views without the commitment of a Class 3 or 4 climb, then Humboldt Peak might be your ticket.
Humboldt is one of three 14ers surrounding South Colony Lakes and is accessible via the same road and trailhead. It’s technically a walk-up, though I found a couple of more difficult scrambly sections higher on the mountain. The big reward for reaching Humboldt’s summit is the incredible platform to see Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak, just west of South Colony Lakes. That alone makes Humboldt’s summit a worthy prize.
There are two ways to get to the top: One is via the very long east ridge, the other a shorter route with less vertical gain via its west ridge. This will be about the latter.
You can drive on 120 Road near Westcliffe for a short distance to a two-wheel-drive trailhead or, if your vehicle is four-wheel-drive and capable, continue 2.7 miles to a gate that marks the end of the drivable portion of the road.
Easy hiking past the road and into the woods near South Colony Lakes.
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. (Many people hiking Humboldt or climbing the Crestones choose to backpack and camp here, then begin their ascents the next day. It’s a beautiful place to camp.)
Humboldt Peak, as seen from the south. (Mike Zee photo)
Gaining altitude, and seeing Crestone Needle along the way.
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 between Humboldt’s west ridge and an area nearby called Bear’s Playground. Turn right at the saddle to gain to Humboldt’s west ridge.
Hiking up to Humboldt’s saddle, you get this view of South Colony Lakes and Broken Hand Peak.
At Humboldt’s saddle. The peak pictured here is not your target, but rather a point of interest on your way to Bear’s Playground if you’re headed that way.
A view of Humboldt Peak as seen from Crestone Needle’s summit. At lower left, you can see the saddle, and trace your route to the top on the mountain’s west ridge. (Mike Zee photo)
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 are fairly accurate. At times, the trail will disappear into jumbled rocks, then reappear when the terrain eases.
Getting closer to the top.
Almost there. It’s hard not to look over your shoulder at that view.
Eventually, the ridge will take you up to Humboldt’s false summit – there is still some work to do. But once you reach this point, the ascent is almost done.
Past the false summit, with the real summit in view. Easy breezy from here.
Past the false summit, the steepness eases with only a few hundred yards of easy hiking left to the top.
Once there, you’ve earned one heck of a view. Two your west is one of the most spectacular mountain scenes in the Sangres, that of Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, Broken Hand Peak and the South Colony Lakes. If you time your hike right, you’ll catch the sunrise alpenglow on Crestone Needle’s east face – an incredible and unforgettable sight.
Humboldt Peak’s real treasure is this view of the Crestones. Not easily forgotten.
The route is Class 2, 11 miles round trip with 4,200 feet of elevation gain and mild exposure.
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.
Want to read the original trip report? Check it out here.
The wonders of GPS are thorough. Transformative, even. But there’s no pleasure in them for me.
I was reminded of that this summer when I was given a road atlas to take with me on a trip. I gratefully accepted it, knowing full well I didn’t need it. But I wanted it, and that’s a key distinction.
I’m old enough to remember when paper maps were a necessity. And that’s how I got around, learning what routes to take across multiple states and through numerous towns where I’d never been. Back then, there was no pleasant-sounding voice politely telling me to turn right in 300 feet, or to keep going straight for the next 10 miles. Getting from Point A to a far-away Point B took a little research.
I know this makes me sound like a Luddite, but that’s OK. For me, it was as simple as this: Instead of typing in a destination of choice, picking a route and punching “start” on my phone, I had the pleasure of opening that atlas, looking where I was, and running an index finger along squiggly lines until I was able to connect the dots between where I was and where I wanted to be. In doing so, I also saw what I might pass: towns of interest, wildlife refuges, mountain ranges and national parks. Tracing my route on paper gave me things to look forward to.
It was a little like watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and watching the scenes where you could see on a map where Indiana Jones was flying to now, and where he ended up – always in some romantic, exotic, adventurous locale we could only dream of. Alamosa ain’t Nepal, but at least there was some imagination working as I viewed the map rather than mindlessly poking a touch screen.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
J.R.R. Tolkien knew the allure of maps. His books are famous for their prose, but those maps also sucked you into the story. He carefully drew mountain ranges, forests, swamps and deserts, printing their names with elegant lettering – art in their own right. When you read a passage describing a place Frodo and the gang were going, you’d turn to the beginning of the book to see exactly where it was.
I’ve always been fascinated by maps. I’ll sit down and pore over them, looking at their details – state names, large cities and small towns, rivers, mountains and lakes – my own way of getting to know the land. It’s low-tech, low commitment and engrossing. Someone took the time to plot out a place, and in turn, did their best to write down its details so you can explore it. It’s not a lot different than writing, just fewer words, more visuals to interpret, and so forth. Cartography is a form of storytelling, and storytelling is an art.
And I guess that’s why I opened up my atlas to plot my course instead of looking at my phone. I didn’t head out on a road trip with a goal of merely getting there. I was looking for a story of my own.
I appreciate GPS and the ease of navigation it provides. I love that it’s as close as my pocket. But there’s no romance to it. That’s reserved for my old maps. They illustrate adventure, and that is sexy as hell.
I love a good road trip. Pack up the car, drive long miles, see places you’ve never been and make some memories. Heck, I’ve written a book in which most of the settings came by way of road trips out west.
But sometimes you don’t have time for that. And in that case, a day trip will do.
Not quite six years ago I was driving west to go to Black Mesa, home of Oklahoma’s highest point in the far western Panhandle. On the way there, I ran into a surprise bit of scenery. Between the northern Oklahoma towns of Enid and Fairview is a group of mesas that have become known as the Gloss Mountains. They rise suddenly out of the otherwise flat northwestern Oklahoma prairie, and I found them so scenic that I had to pull over, whip out a camera and snap some pics before continuing my drive. I knew one day I’d need to come back for a closer look.
Another outcrop, with a commanding view of the northwestern Oklahoma prairie.Within this range is Gloss Mountain State Park. It’s a small unit of the state’s park system, built for day hikers and casual visitors to check out the unique formations of this area.
Let’s get into a little geological history. How did these things get here? This may surprise you, but the existence of the Gloss Mountains is connected to the Rocky Mountains much farther west.
A look at Lone Peak, as seen from Cathedral Mountain.
At one time, Oklahoma and much of what is now the American West was at the bottom of a prehistoric inland ocean. The continental collision that gave rise to the Rockies also caused the flat seabeds to the east to rise with it, giving birth the the Plains. What was once underwater is now dry land.
In parts of the sea bed, gypsum and selenite deposits settled in with the rest of the sediment. When the sea bed rose, time eroded softer soil and rock away, leaving behind sturdier rock formations that have better resisted the powers of natural erosion. The mesas of the Gloss Mountains are the result.
A better look at the scope of Cathedral Mountain, with Lone Peak in the distance.
The park itself is small, encompassing Lookout Mountain, Cathedral Mountain, the Sphinx and Lone Peak, the highest mesa in the range. There are more formations to the north and west, but those aren’t part of the park.
In the park is a parking area, a couple of shelters where you can grab lunch in some shade, and a small monument bearing the U.S. and Oklahoma flags. It’s easy enough to see where the park is by spotting the flags from the highway.
As seen from Cathedral Mountain, this pointy little spire is called the Sphinx.
A trail leads to the top of Cathedral Mountain. You have to climb about 150 steps to reach the top (it’s fairly steep), and then you have a small network of trails at the top, most with great overlooks of the range and the surrounding prairie. The total trail length, round trip, is about 1.2 miles. If you’re bringing children or dogs with you, mind the parts of the trail near the edges of the mountains; there are some dropoffs where care is needed.
U.S. and Oklahoma flags flying near the trailhead, with Cathedral Mountain in the background.
It’s not a huge hiking day, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I spotted people hauling camera equipment to the top, looking for just the right place to shoot. Others brought lawn chairs to find a quiet spot near the cliffs’ edges to hang out, enjoy a bite and maybe something cold to drink. Overall, it’s a chill place to hang out and enjoy some time outdoors without the huge commitment of other destinations.
One of the things I enjoy about Oklahoma is that within all that prairie are little surprises like the Gloss Mountains. And I’m fascinated by how this place is linked by a massive mountain range hundreds of miles away.
As a day trip, I dig it. Here’s to finding more fun spots like this in the future.
A thunderstorm blooms in the northwestern Oklahoma sky near Gloss Mountain State Park.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background.
It wasn’t that long ago that a sandy patch of ground in the northern San Luis Valley of Colorado was a national monument. But it’s fitting that the dunes now make up Great Sand Dunes National Park.
It’s likely one of the smaller units in the National Parks System, but at the same time it’s earned its upgrade. If for no other reason, it would have to be its curious nature.
The semi-arid scrub of the San Luis Valley turns into a desert-like landscape where the valley meets the park.
Where else in the country can you slap a scene straight of of the Sahara right in front of the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains? The dunes of the park are the largest in the country, despite there being plenty of deserts throughout the western United States.
And it’s the curiosity of this park that makes it stand out. How did the dunes get here?
Building storms or not, plenty of people were at the park to play. The dunes are so large that the people look like ants.
The answer lies to the west. The San Juan Mountains, which make up some of the most expansive reaches of alpine wilderness in all of Colorado, are in the continual process of erosion, and some of that has pieces of these towering peaks reduced to dust. That dust, or sand, ends up being picked up by strong alpine winds and carried east before running into the wall that is the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. And it’s at the foot of these mountains that those winds dump their sandy cargo. Given enough time and a dusting of sand becomes a wide stretch of dunes, some hundreds of feet high.
People come to see the dunes, but in the summer months, they’re here to play. Boogie boards in hand, park visitors climb the dunes, then ride down as if they were body surfing or snowboarding. Pop in on any given summer afternoon and they’re there by the hundreds.
The meeting of sand and sky is dramatic.
The park has other charms. It’s known as a prime spot to take in the clearest of night skies, and there is plenty of hiking to be had near the park and in the foothills of the Sangres. Other people will explore the dunes just for the views, or possibly be on the lookout for wildlife. Campsites are numerous and many can accommodate pop-up trailers and RVs, but you’ll need to reserve in advance. This is a popular place to camp.
As for me, my visit was brief. I was spending a night in nearby Alamosa, and it seemed to be a wasted opportunity not to go there, check it out, and maybe walk out with some decent photographs.
The scenery didn’t disappoint. It would be worth a return visit to explore more, and I’ve been told that you can get a good deal of solitude in the off-peak seasons. Maybe that’s something I can look forward to in the future.
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.
The scene that stopped me cold: A lone windmill in the path of a summer storm near Clayton, N.M.
I’ve long felt that part of any road trip needs to be the flexibility to deviate from your plan when something cool comes along. On this last trip, I regretted not stopping at a weird looking display inspired by UFO culture in the middle of southern Colorado. I might not be back that way anytime soon, and seeing something that unusual is what travel memories are made of.
But I did make one stop on a whim because something was happening in front of me that contained all the visuals for an indelible recollection. Maybe a half hour west of Clayton, New Mexico, I was heading west and toward a sizable line of afternoon thunderstorms spreading over the expanse of the high plains. I was on a particularly lonely two-lane highway that didn’t look to be leading anywhere.
As the storms built ahead, the sun was still trying to peek though, lighting up the scrub brush and sage that carpeted seemingly endless rolling hills that bunched up between ancient volcanic formations to the north and the mightier Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the west, which at that time were getting pounded by heavy sheets of rain.
And then I saw it, off to the right: A lone windmill, its fan spinning at a healthy clip, not far from what looked like the ruins of an old farm house.
My right foot let off the gas, I checked my rearview mirrors for traffic (there was none) and I pulled over fast.
Out came the camera as I photographed the windmill, its slender form jutting up into a backdrop of an increasingly turbulent sky, one that promised to unload at any minute but was holding off for now. Graffiti marked the mostly roofless homestead; apparently this was a good place to pull off, drink or get high, and make a mark. In the background, sunbeams still pierced the clouds, lighting up chunks of the land while in other places, curtains of rain swept through.
This being a solo trip, I was fortunate that I didn’t have to bother anyone by making this abrupt stop. I spent about 15 minutes documenting the scene, and I kept telling myself how lucky I was to have stumbled into it. I love taking a good pic, and that place at that moment provided it.
And it also reinforced something in me. I’ve long said how much I love New Mexico. It has all the charms of Colorado, but it adds its own spice, namely those vast, empty spaces with brilliant, wide open skies – a vastness into which you can empty your soul. And while this scene didn’t have that brilliant high country blue, the skies gave me something else that was equally magical, even if a bit threatening.
Ten minutes after I left, I fought through a hellacious squall that turned everything outside my windshield into a thick, gray soup. Storms move, and I was moving, too, and thus the magical pre-storm tapestry in which I reveled passed.
Travel is often framed by stories of interesting people, novel foods and lessons in culture you can’t get from the couch. I love all of that.
But sometimes travel is a moment, and you best not miss it. Such is the nature of the ephemeral: Pay attention now or you’ll lose it forever.
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.