With my first three summits in the Sangre de Cristos, my 14er season in Colorado comes to an end. I’ve been on top of the world ten times this year and tackled tougher summits than in years past. I love the feeling when I get to the summit. I love the feeling when I pass by an especially tricky or exposed area. I love the feeling when I get to the car at the end of the hike and I feel so strong and healthy and capable of doing anything I want to. This has been an excellent summer at altitude!
Kit Carson & Challenger Point (Easy 3)
Date: Sept 3
Summit Elevation: 14,165 ft
Performance: 13.96 miles in 10 hours 18 minutes with 6,831 feet gain
Report: This is the first 14er (pair) I’ve done that started in sand. It makes sense since it’s near the Great Sand Dunes National Park, but it was still odd to briefly feel like I was walking on the beach. It was also the first time I’d ever been to the charming town of Crestone, where the road to the trailhead is. So cute – the population is less than 150 but they actually have a little bookstore!
Most people who do these peaks camp at Willow Lake, which is 4.8 miles up the trail and makes for its own great hike if you’re not into 14ers. Since I’m not really into backpacking, a day hike it was. I got to Willow Lake in 2 hours and 15 minutes. There’s a steady but manageable average incline of 600 feet per mile in those first 5 miles. I took my first break at Willow Lake for a snack and had a lovely encounter with a big horned sheep, who was not afraid of me. I think I might have been in his spot because he circled my rock several times during the 10 minutes I was there.
After the lake, the trail is fairly easy for another half mile, and then the climb upward begins. It’s steep and I knew going up that it was going to be hell going down. 14ers.com appropriately says about this section: The route can be confusing and dangerous so take your time. Look for cairns and you should be able to keep the difficulty under Class 3. There are a lot of loose rocks, and I fully recommend wearing a helmet to protect yourself from people above you. Then when you get to the top of the difficult part, you still have a bit across talus on the ridgeline to get to the actual summit, but the rocks are stable and the exposure isn’t bad.
I made it to the summit of Challenger Point in 4.5 hours, with the last two miles basically taking as long as the first five. At 9:45, the summit was warm and it would only get hotter. This was the first 14er of my season where I didn’t use my puffy, beanie, or gloves at all. Much different than the snow on Mt. Massive the weekend before!
Then I did the traverse to Kit Carson. Challenger Point only has a prominence (defined as the elevation it rises above the lowest saddle that connects to the nearest, higher peak) of 264 feet, which by some measures disqualifies it from being a ranked 14er. But if you’ve hiked that insane section up, you’ll call bullshit on people who disqualify it. Furthermore, to get to Kit Carson, you go down and up not once, but twice, which means four times in all for the round trip and a lot of extra gain.
The summit push to Kit Carson is what makes this trail an Easy Class 3. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure scramble which isn’t actually hard. It’s steep and you have to pause a lot to breathe, but it’s fun and didn’t feel especially dangerous. Less dangerous than Sneffels, for sure.
I summitted Kit Carson about an hour after I left Challenger Point and stayed for about 15 minutes, basking in the sunshine and the awesome view of the Crestones. Then, with some clever crab-crawling, I got down from Kit Carson really fast and was soon picking my way just below the summit of Challenger Point.
And then I got to the notch where the hell began, back at the steep, dangerous descent. My impression going up was true – it was a nightmare of slippery, bullshit scree and pebbles and nonsense. Even with poles for extra help, there were some seriously scary sections. That downhill mile took 1 hour and 39 minutes, and I was moving faster (for a change!) than most of the other people. It was torment on my knees and toes. Close to the end, just before the valley, I got to the point where I was swearing loudly every time my feet slipped. I was so over it.
When the torture section was over, I flopped down on a boulder to take my helmet off and shed my long sleeves because it was wicked hot out by then, even at 12,500ish feet. Despite my foul attitude at that point and the string of curses I’d been letting out for the last half hour, a solo hiker behind me decided to strike up a conversation. Well, he turned out to be an interesting guy and a good conversationalist, and we ended up hiking the entire five miles back to the parking lot together.
If you’ve ever done a really long 14er, you know that when you have miles and miles left to go to the car, it kind of sucks. So I was super grateful to have someone cool to chat with. Honestly, the miles flew by and the hike was over so much sooner than it would have been had I been flying solo. He’s also an ex-Coloradan who tries to come back for a little bit each summer for some epic hikes. We exchanged numbers and lists of 14ers we’ve conquered, which are nearly identical. So who knows – we might meet up next year and tackle some more together!
Humboldt Peak (2)
Summit Elevation: 14,064 ft
Performance: 10.6 miles in 7 hours 56 minutes with 4,270 feet gain
Report: Well, this hike started off mostly unusually when I found a dog in the middle of a busy road in Salida at 5:45am. She just stood there staring at us, so I pulled over and she hopped right into the car. She had a tag and we called the owner, but given how early it was, no surprise that no one picked up. So what to do? We couldn’t leave her in the road to get hit by a car in the dark but we couldn’t wait around Salida because we had to get to the trailhead. Since the dog was a husky and obviously young and energetic, we decided to bring her along!
The drive to South Colony Lakes trailhead was 1 hour and 40 minutes. You absolutely need 4WD to get up the road. No exceptions. If you can’t make it up, you’ll add more than 5 miles onto this hike walking up and down a miserable, miserable road. We made it and started out. About 20 minutes into the hike, the dog’s owner called. Apparently the dog, Luna, had gotten out the night before and I had picked her up about two miles from her house. The owner was totally cool with us taking the dog for a day hike, not that she really had a choice at that point. Of course, she had no idea what kind of crazy hike we were going on.
Luna was a bit hesitant in the first half mile to follow us strangers, but then she was totally down for the rest of the day. She trotted along the trail a little ahead of us, balanced along logs, chased some marmots, jumped into the stream, and made friends with everyone on the trail. She listened pretty well and seemed to understand that we were her people for the day and she needed to stay with us. And since we tend to hike overprepared, we had enough food and water to share with our unexpected trail companion.
But enough about the dog – what about the trail? I loved this mountain! Everything about it was perfect.
- The forested part was lovely (though there were a lot of downed trees to hop over)
- There were only four other groups of hikers going for the summit that day
- The lakes and bowl were so picturesque (would make for a great day hike and there were a handful of campers who backpacked in)
- The trail never got super steep (it was roughly the same, manageable grade the entire time after the lakes)
- There were almost no slippery parts. This was a solid Class 2 hike.
- The top was so different from other peaks – there was vegetation all across the long summit. Most unusual and beautiful!
Topping it off were clear skies and a warm day. With all of that and a good friend and a dog, this was really the perfect end to my 14er season.
Bonus – Definitely Not 13ers
Summit Elevation: Grizzly Peak A (13,988) and Garfield Peak A (13,780). I only made it to 13,036
Performance: 6.14 miles in 3 hours 13 minutes with 2,014 feet gain
Report: Knowing that I would be doing Humboldt on the 11th, I wanted an easier 14er to do on the 10th, but alas, I have now done all the ones in decent driving distance from Salida. Mount Lindsey would have been the perfect choice except it’s closed thanks to the further liberalization of Colorado. If you recreate in the wilderness, that’s on you. Be prepared and be smart. You should have no right to sue the landowner if something happens to you. Yet here we are and multiple peaks are now closed because we don’t expect people to be responsible for their own choices anymore.
Moving on. So, I found a nearby route for a double summit of easy class three 13ers, Grizzly Peak A and Garfield Peak A. Well, after having attempted several 13ers now this summer, I’ve learned that they are not for me. I had the .gpx file downloaded, but honestly, it’s annoying to constantly have to figure out where I am. And even that file is just one person’s route, not an actual trail, and the conditions can change from year to year. I tried a few paths up but it got too sketchy for me. It wasn’t talus like Mt Ouray but it was a bit slippery and really, really, really steep. Not deadly (at least at the spots I tried), but if I slipped, I’d be sliding a really long way and definitely twist an ankle and possibly break a leg. (But no, I wouldn’t try to sue anyone if that happened.)
However – and this is a big however – I’ve also learned that 13er trailheads make for awesome and fun day hikes! This was probably my favorite hike of the summer. The first mile and a half is an old mining road. I know mining is raping the land and I’m glad these mines are no longer active, but also, we only have all these amazing roads for recreation deep into the Colorado wilderness because of the mining history here. It’s wonderful.
After the road ends at the mine entrance, there is a faint trail, fairly well marked by cairns, that goes up to the alpine lake with the clearest and coldest water ever. I kind of wanted to dive in, but I was worried about going into shock from the cold and not having anyone else there to help me. From the lake, you can play around on a series of tiered mesas up to 13,000 feet and just have a lot of fun. Which is exactly what I did. And because no one else was there, I stripped down naked and yelled into the void. When is the last time you let it all hang out in the wilderness? It was magnificent! I also discovered that my hiking pole handle makes a great fake microphone for standing on the edge of an outcropping and singing karaoke for the pika. So to sum up…naked karaoke in the sunshine at 13,000 feet. It was a great day.
If you are hellbent on these summits, rather than following the trail, about 1/10th of a mile after the old mine entrance, at the third cairn, is a gully up. It looked like you could follow that and reach the ridgeline (which is the border between the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and the White River National Forest) and then start going across toward Grizzly Peak A that way. I can’t say for sure because I didn’t do it – the ridgeline could be awful – but it looked attainable from below. Or just have an awesome and picturesque day like I did!
Also note that to get to the trailhead you absolutely need a high-clearance vehicle and you’d better have a spare tire and some patience. I did switch my 4WD drive on right at the end, but you can probably make it without. A snowmobile in the winter would be necessary because I bet this hike would be epic on snowshoes but the road wouldn’t be passable then. The first 1.6 miles when you turn off route 82 is private, but then you enter the national forest and there is plenty of dispersed camping with almost no one using it. The trailhead itself is closed off to vehicles with a gate, but there’s more dispersed camping that you can backpack into as well.
I didn’t get the dozen summits I hoped to, but I did get 10 which is pretty good for being here less than two months. And now that my count is up to 38, where does that leave me for next year? I’m not trying to catch them all. I’m not going to do the ones you have to backpack to, the crazy long ones, the one you have to pay for, or the Class 4s. But I still have all the following, so looks like I’ll be back!