Tuesday, May 17, 2016

St Charles Peak

Too much time has passed since I last hiked, and it's been ever longer since I was on a summit.  Although I have done a few short outings nearby since, my last real hike was March 1st.  That was a rather tame hike in Brown's Canyon National Monument.  My last summit was on Big Baldy Mountain on Valentine's Day.  It was the first half of January since I was above treeline.

Since the beginning of March, I have been working six days a week most weeks.  My time has been rather limited.  During this time, I have been on my mountain bike a handful of times, but couldn't find the time to get in any longer hikes.  I needed to hit the trail soon.

Last week I started throwing around ideas for a hike with my friend Drew Petersen.  We had talked about hiking St Charles Peak in the Wet Mountains, but never got around to it.  He hiked it before and deemed it a worthy summit to revisit.

St Charles Peak, at 11,784', is relatively low by Colorado standards.  It ranks as the 1417th highest mountain in the state, which isn't all that impressive.  It is however the second highest mountain in the Wet Mountains and tall enough to offer two summits above treeline with outstanding views.

Even after a couple of  spring snows in the past month, we figured St Charles Peak would be a safe bet to eliminate the excessive snowy conditions of higher mountains this time of year.  Just a few days earlier, Drew climbed 9600' Curley Peak and saw no snow at all.  We expected a few patches on the upper reaches of St. Charles, but hopefully no prolonged stretches of deep snow.

On Friday morning, May 13th, we met up and headed to St Charles.  The trailhead is just over 9000' in elevation along route 165 near Rye, Colorado.  The sheltered roadway had a few patches of snow visible in the shadows but nothing to worry about.

We began our hike and almost immediately ran into patches of snow along the heavily forested St Charles Peak Trail.  The trail itself was mostly dirt, but there was some snow on the trail.  The terrain along the trail is fairly pleasant, almost reminiscent of the terrain in northern New England.  I don't think we made it even half way before we were consistently in snow and the entire ground was covered.  Travel wasn't too bad though as the snow was generally firm in the cooler morning temperatures.  When the trail broke into a sunnier stretch, we would posthole, but it wasn't a serious problem earlier on the hike.

The snow is fairly consistent early

Drew along the trail

It didn't take long for 100% snow coverage

We had footsteps from the previous day in the snow to confirm the route.  Abruptly the tracks ended in a section of steep postholes.  At this point the trail was no longer visible.  We snooped around and couldn't find the trail ourselves.  We decided to backtrack to the last obvious turn and found a clear corridor that appeared to be the trail.  The previous hiker, missed this turn.

End of the line for the last hiker

Typical trail
Lots of shade on the way up kept
the snow firm
No more tracks to follow
The rest of our route required some moderate route finding in the increasingly deep snow.  This area is heavily wooded and the trail route was never too obvious, and easy to lose when the trail made a switchback.   Too add to the difficulty, the temperatures were warming and snow softening.  Postholing became more frequent. 

Typical knee deep posthoole
Between the two of us, we have a lot of hiking and routefinding experience.  We seemed to stick pretty close to the trail most of the way.  Occasionally we would see a hash mark or ribbon on a tree to confirm our path.  We topped out on a high point along the route around 11,400' where the two summits of St Charles were visible and confirmed we were headed in the right direction.    

View of the lower summit
Taking a break to determine our route
to the first summit (Photo by Drew)
We traveled slightly off the trail corridor on a more direct route toward the first summit of St Charles.  There are two small alpine areas on St Charles.  We reached slightly lower summit first, which is over 11,600'.  This summit is no more than a couple hundred feet above treeline.  This lower summit features a few rock formations and is more attractive than the true summit.  Far flung views immediately open up above treeline.  The snow was more consolidated above treeline and the postholing was minimal. 

Breaking out of the trees

Approaching rock formations

The Sangres in the distance

Near the crest of the first summit
(Photo by Drew)

Rock outcroppings

We crossed the lower summit and headed toward the higher true summit a few tenths of a mile away.  We dropped briefly back into the trees on a direct route since the trail was hidden under at least three feet of snow before climbing the short distance to the summit.

The Crestones, Humboldt, Kit Carson/Challenger,
Centennial Mt Adams, Colony Baldy

Distant Pikes Peak

Looking back along first summit toward the plains

True summit ahead

With all the snow, we got to the summit a little slower than anticipated.  The trail climbs around 3000 vertical feet from the trailhead to the summit.  Our route by trail is about 5 miles to reach the summit.  We probably cut that a little shorter since we were traveling over snow and missing some switchbacks on a slightly more direct route.

Most of the Sangres are visible

At the true summit, standing on top of at least 3 feet of snow
(Photo by Drew)

Taking in the view (Photo by Drew)
Even though the lower summit is slightly more attractive, the true summit has better views.  There is a small tower and outhouse sized building on the summit that is only a minor distraction.  The alpine area at the is a relatively flat snow covered meadow.

The views from the summit, particularly with the surrounding mountains covered in heavy snow, make this hike worth it.  The Sangre de Cristos dominate the view with good looks at the Crestone, Humboldt, Kit Carson group of 14ers.  Just below the Crestone group, the Blanca group looms large.
Further south, Culebra Peak and its neighbors in the Culebra Range are easy to identify.  I'm not positive, but I think the Southern Sangre Range peaks around Taos, New Mexico were just beyond the Culebra Range.  The fairly large alpine summit of Greenhorn Mountain, the highest summit in the Wet Mountains seems close to the south.  The Spanish Peaks stand just beyond Greenhorn.


Mt Adams, Horn, Fluted Peak, among others

Cluster of 14ers in the Crestone Group
Crestone Group close up

Blanca Group of 14ers

To the north the views are quite far reaching.  A good chunk of the Sawatch Range is visible and identifiable from Shavano to Harvard and beyond.  Nearly the entire northern reaches of the Wet Mountains are visible up to Curley Peak.  Pikes Peak looms beyond the Wets.  Although I can't positively identify the individual mountains from that distance, the Mosquito and Front Ranges are visible.  The plains spread forever to the east with Pueblo Reservoir seeming quite close.

Further north in the Sangres

The Sangres stretch out forever

North toward Pikes Peak and northern Wet Mountains

Pikes Peak close up

After enjoying the summit views, we began our descent.  Traveling wasn't too difficult until we descended below treeline.  A few of the steeper sections we could boot ski for short distances.  Quickly however we got into increasingly softer snow.  Much of the ground on the upper half of the hike had at least three feet of snow.  The postholing became quite nasty, rarely getting in more than a few good steps before sinking repeatedly well above the knee.  Luckily we had gravity on our side and it wasn't as exhausting as it could have been.  As we made our way down the lower half of the route, we faced less snow and eventually more bare ground.

Retracing our tracks between the summits

Heading back down the first summit

A marmot on the the rock outcropping keeping an eye on us

Despite the added difficulty of deep snow, I had a good time on this hike.  I was long overdue for a hike and this trip was much needed.  Having another person to share in the postholing also made that experience less frustrating.

Luckily we were faced with a great spring day with little wind and warm temperatures.  Neither of us had snowshoes or gaiters, which would have made life easier.  Neither of us expected this much snow at this elevation in a southerly location.  Mistakenly, I used the 10-11,000' Arkansas Hills near my house to judge snow.  They are bare right now but get very high sun exposure compared to the St Charles Peak area.  Even with the more challenging conditions, we climbed the 3000 vertical feet and traveled nearly 10 miles in a little over 5 hours.  In much better conditions, Drew was able to do the same trip in less than 4.

The trailhead for this hike is just a few miles away from an interesting Colorado landmark called Bishop's Castle.  The Castle was built over the years by an eccentric local named Jim Bishop.  If you've never heard of or seen it, it looks like a medieval castle built of rock and iron complete with 160 foot towers.  Since we drove right by it, we stopped to check it out.  The castle is open to explore to the public and there is a donation box.  Exploring the castle doesn't take too long but may not be for the faint of heart or those afraid of heights.  You can climb the spiraling staricases in the towers to a bridge and lookout near the highest part of the castle.  The lookout, and especially the bridge, are quite shaky as you walk over them.

Bishop's Castle

Tower at the castle

Inside the main room of the castle

The main room in the castle courtesy of Drew

Yours truly on the shaky bridge courtesy of Drew

Inside the highest tower courtesy of Drew 

This is my third hike in the Wet Mountains and I'm sure it won't be my last.  Their lowly stature, when compared to other Colorado Mountain ranges, seems to keep them off the radar.  I have found the Wets to be a worthwhile destination, particularly in the off season.  If nothing else, the Wets have some of the best views of the impressive Sangre de Cristo Range.  (Click on Hiking Tanner Peak in Memory of Tanner Brown and New Years Day Hike of Curley Peak to see my other hikes in the Wet Mountains.)

Looking into the heart of the Sangres

Crestone Group close up

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Hiking Rarely Visited Peaks: Beddows Dome, "Puma Peak", and Big Baldy Mountain

In a state known for its mountains, Colorado has plenty of lesser known summits that are overlooked.  Many of these peaks are close to more dramatic mountains that draw away the attention of those passing by.  Despite the obscurity of these peaks, many make worthwhile destinations to explore. 

With winter weather making mountain conditions highly variable, these lower and less traveled peaks make for good winter hiking alternatives.  This season I have been visiting these off the beaten path locations and having a great time.  Most of these places have no trails.  It's fun to explorer and test my route finding skills.  Best of all, many of these peaks offer grandstand views of higher mountains. 

While a couple of these hikes were at the suggestion of a friend, several of these mountains I see close to home and have the desire to explore.  With nice summer weather, I am typically drawn to alpine locations with short travel seasons or mountain bike trails that are snow covered much of the year.  Most of these off the beaten path places are lower in elevation and are nice to travel in cooler weather.

I have written about many of these off the beaten path places on my blog over the past couple years.  While some have there own post, sometimes I combine trips in a post.  Here I have three separate outings from this winter to places that don't see much traffic.

Destination #1:  Beddows Mountain and Beddows Dome

Just before Christmas, my friend Drew Petersen and I planned for a hike.  Our original destination in mind was Curley Peak in the Wet Mountains.  One of Curley Peak's biggest attractions is the views of the Sangre de Cristos from its higher elevations.  A storm moved in the night before our hike and left the Sangres obscured by clouds.  Since we weren't going to get our views, we decided on a lower elevation destination.

Along Colorado 69, between Hillside and Westcliffe, there are numerous small bumps that rise along the highway out of the surrounding ranch land.  One of these bumps is Beddows Mountain.  What is most interesting about Beddows Mountain its large cliff face known as Beddows Dome.  This area is just a few miles from Drew's house.  He has visited the area before but never fully explored it.  He didn't want to travel solo.  I'm always up for exploring new places  With the poor visibility at higher elevations, this seemed like a good time to check out the area.

Beddows is part of Colorado State Trust Land.  There is a small gated parking lot along CO 69 that is easily missed if you don't know its there.  The area itself is fairly small with no trails.  I'm not sure, but it appears that the state land is surrounded by private land.  The summit of Beddows Mountain rises about 700 feet above CO 69 to an elevation of 8495'.  The summit proper isn't quite visible from the road.  The large cliff face of the Dome seems to block the view of the summit.

Beddows Dome
Since there are no trails, we headed uphill, following the path of least resistance toward the Dome.  Despite a few inches of snow, travel was fairly easy through the forest.  As we neared the base of the cliff, we climbed up a notch to the left of the main cliff.  This provided easy access to the flatter terrain above the cliffs.  Skirting behind the Dome, we soon reached the top of the main cliff band. 

A hoodoo along the top of the rocks
From the top of the Dome, on a clear day, the views of the Sangres must be incredible.  Because of cloud cover, we only caught glimpses of peaks.  Only the lower portions of the mountains were visible.  Despite the poor views of the Sangres, the terrain and cliffs of Beddows Dome are impressive enough.  For the more adventurous, you can scramble around the top of the Dome.  There is also a small cave in the rocks.

A short scramble to a high point on the Dome
Looking south across the Dome
Looking across the Dome from a ledge
Looking up the valley from top of the Dome
After taking some photos and checking out the top of the Dome, we headed to the summit of Beddows Mountain.  The summit is maybe a 15 minute walk from the top of the Dome.  The views are similar toward the Sangres.  From the summit however, the Wet mountains are visible as well as the lower peaks of the DeWeese Plateau.  Despite its lowly elevation, Beddows Mountain is a ranked Colorado summit.  That's right, only 3,325 mountains in Colorado are taller than Beddows.

Clouds obscuring the Sangres
We descended back down along the south side of the Dome.  We walked under the base of the Dome before hiking back to the trailhead.  The views from the bottom of the Dome are interesting.  The area is used by rock climbers and it's interesting trying to pick lines up the rock.

Standing at the bottom of the Dome
A good looking climbing line
A good look at the Dome from below
Another look up at the Dome
Even though I have driven by it many times, I wasn't familiar with Beddows Dome.  The area is occasionally open to rock climbing and perhaps, that is the most common visitor.  There were even a couple of anchors on the summit of the Dome.  Despite its obscurity, Beddows Dome and Mountain was a worthwhile place to explore.  I'd like to visit again on a clear day when the Sangres are visible.  I wouldn't mind checking the area out late in the day when the late day sun illuminates the Dome.   The area reminded me of Turkey Rock, the local destination close to my house that I often visit for a quick outing. See Local Escapes: Turkey Rock, Castle Gardens, and Bighorn Sheep Canyon

Looking down at the cliff bands below the Dome
Interesting erosion on top of the Dome
Standing atop the Dome
Destination #2:  Peak 8759 aka "Puma Peak"

Less than a month after exploring Beddows Mountain and Dome, I explored an even more obscure peak close to home, in the vicinity of Turkey Rock.  My destination was PT 8759. 

Peak 8759 is one of those mountains that I see everyday while driving.  It stands in the area north of the river in Howard.  Before I hiked Burned Timber Mountain, see Bushwhacking to Burned Timber Mountain,  I was pointing out the mountain to Puma.  Puma suggested that I hike PT 8759' because it looks interesting.  PT 8759' does stand out in the foreground, higher than the surrounding terrain with long cliff bands along its ridges.  Puma was right, it does look interesting.  So I decided to climb it.

My hike started in the Turkey Rock area.  A short walk up a dirt road brought me to a prominent cliff where I left the road.  Although the cliffs can be bypassed by climbing a notch, I wanted to explore the cliffs.  My path wasn't the path of least resistance.  I was faced with many class 3 moves and even some class 4 sections before I made my way to the top of the cliff.  The ridge is well protected with a long band of cliff stretching out quite a distance to the south.  Many of these cliffs are vertical with class 5 moves on rotten rock, so I avoided the worst sections.

Looking up at the main cliff I ascended
The view of the cliff from the wash below
A close up look of the cliffs
Interesting erosion
Standing just below the cliff
Large blocks of rock at the base of the cliff
Large crack between two large blocks
Once on top of the cliff, I was on a ridge.  This trailless ridge was fairly gradual, leading to my destination.  At times the travel was slowed by knee deep snow in the shadows and north facing slopes.  I managed to make decent time however traveling through the sparse forest.  There were numerous small outcropping along the way that provided excellent views of the northern Sangres.  The final part of the ridge was steeper and rockier as it led to the summit. 
"Puma Peak" is the point on the left in the background
Cliff bands protecting the southern ridge
The Sangres from the top of the cliff
Looking back at the top of the cliff
Gentle ridge to 8759
Moderately deep snow at places along the ridge
Yucca poking through the snow
I reached the top of the ridge and the summit.  The summit of 8759 is quite interesting.  The summit is composed of a long, narrow spine of rock with several minor bumps along it.  Most of the spine is free of trees providing outstanding, unobscured views.  Just across the river, the Sangres are most impressive.  Upstream in the Arkansas Valley is the southern end of the Sawatch Range with its group of 14ers.  Despite the lower elevation, I was surprised to see quite a few grey jays around the summit, the first I've seen in Colorado.

A close up of the cliff bands along the southern ridge
Looking down the ridge I hiked near the summit of "Puma Peak"
The summit spine
Good look at the bumps along the spine
Mt Shavano, Antero, and their neighboring peaks
Taylor Mountain in the center with Shavano on the left
The area surrounding 8759 is mostly BLM land with pockets of private land mixed in.  Other than one dirt BLM road, the area is nearly wilderness.  To the north, the land is relatively low.  North of the lower elevation, the area is ringed by moderately higher peaks including 10,000' Burned Timber Mountain to the East, 11,000' Jack Hall Mountain to the north, and 10,700' Big Baldy to the west.  The area is dissected by Badger Creek between Big Baldy and Jack Hall.  These mountains, including 8759 are all apart of the Arkansas Hills.  Although lacking grand alpine summits, the view into this area from 8759 is quite interesting, due to its untouched nature.

Big Baldy Mountain
Jack Hall Mountain
Burned Timber Mountain
Looking across the summit spine to the ridge between
Burned Timber and Jack Hall Mountains
I explored the length of the spine along the summit before descending.  I descended a more direct route to Sand Road, the road that I hiked in.  I descended an area of somewhat loose talus and scree before reaching a large clearing.  From the clearing I descended a few gulches, following the path of least resistance.  A few spots in the gulches were quite steep, descending over loose, sandy terrain.  A few interesting rock features lined the gulches and gullies.  I made it to the road fairly quickly for an easy hike back to my car.

Looking down toward Sand Gulch
Road near the summit
Clearing below the summit
Looking back toward summit from clearing
Looking down the steep descent to Sand Gulch Road
Rock walls along a gulch on the descent
Rocky descent in a gulch
The total hike was about 4 hours.  Close to an hour of this was exploring the cliffs on my ascent.  Despite its modest elevation, the climb was close to 2000 vertical feet from trailhead to summit.  Given its location surrounded by lower terrain, the peak has over 1000' of prominence.  I was really impressed with its views. Since the trailhead is only 10 minutes from my house, I'll be sure to visit here again for a relatively quick hike.  Since Puma pointed out this summit and inspired me to hike this mountain, I have dubbed this unnamed mountain "Puma Peak."  Best off all, I'm pretty sure this place sees a handful of people a year, so I am almost guaranteed a spot with fantastic views to myself.

Sangres from a rock outcropping on the ridge
Bushnell Pk,Twin Sisters, Red Mtn, Hunts Peak
A close up of the cliff bands along the ridge
Southern Sawatch Range from the summit
13,071' Hunts Peak close up
Destination 3:  Big Baldy Mountain

Big Baldy is another mountain that I see on my commute.  At 10,742', it is the highest peak in the immediate area.  The elevation isn't what drew me to the mountain though.  As it's name implies, the mountain features large expanses of treeless slopes below the summit. 

While Big Baldy is more easily accessed from Salida from forest service roads, I wanted to climb it from the south.  I had no interest in a long ride on rough dirt roads followed by a short hike.  The area is trailless and I wanted to explore.  Looking at maps, the peak seemed reachable from Wellsville to the south using various gulches and ridges.

About a week after climbing "Puma Peak", I attempted a climb of Big Baldy Mountain.  My route followed a snow choked gulch with a lot of blowdowns.  I didn't get very far before calling it quits.  I was also dealing with a zero degree temperature at the start of the hike.  Fast forward a few weeks we had a period of warmer temperatures that melted much of the snow and I made another attempt.

This time I approached from a different gulch with a quicker ascent to the ridgeline.  I started my hike up the unnamed gulch and made good time.  However as the gulch narrowed, I sought higher ground with more sun exposure.  In the gulch, I would travel over clear ground only to be in knee deep snow two steps later. 

The start of the gulch
Deep snow in narrow sections of the gulch
I'm guessing a deer leg bone
The snow was more consistent as
I made my way up the gulch
Leaving the gulch for the drier ridge
I ascended a ridge that looked snowfree.  On this ridge I made much better time and had occasional views of my destination.  After a short time in scrubby forest, the ridge soon ended.  I reached the open grassy slopes on the lower reaches of Big Baldy.  The southern facing slopes were basically snow free and travel was easy despite an increase in steepness.  Best of all I had unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains.  Although I didn't see any elk, there was abundance of elk scat on the grassy slopes.

Making my way to the ridge over dry ground
From the ridge I quickly got views
A random cairn on the ridge, the only one I saw
The southern slopes of Big Baldy just ahead
Beautiful grassy slopes on Big Baldy
Good views from grassy slopes looking toward
Mt Ouray and Chipeta Mountain
Only small pockets of snow remained on the open slopes
I soon made my way to the summit crest of Big Baldy.  Once on the crest, the open slopes gave way to trees.  Even with the trees blocking much of the view, I still occassionally had a break in the trees with a grand vista.  Now at well over 10,000', the ground in the tree cover was holding much more snow.  There are several humps along the ridge and I dealt with generally knee deep snow along the crest.  I made it to the southern peak of Big Baldy at 10,610'.

Looking ahead along the ridge crest
Consistent snow along the ridge crest and a few tracks
View from a clearing on the crest toward the Cottonwood
Group in the Sangres
Close up of Mt Ouray and Chipeta Mountain
 from a clearing on the crest
Southern Sawatch from Taylor to Antero
I headed from the southern peak toward the true summit at 10,742'.  The route dropped into thicker trees on a northern slope.  Immediately the snow became quite deep.  Every step postholed into crust over my knees and up to my waist occasionally.  I could see the true summit was wooded.  The good views were below the crest on the grassy slopes.  I had no interest in postholing through a viewless area just to bag a peak with no views so I turned around.  I descended back below the trees to take in the unobscured views for as long as I could.

Trudging through crotch deep snow.
The rabbits seem to have no difficulty.
Looking south along the ridge crest
Another good look to the Sawatch
Another view of Ouray and Chipeta
Looking toward the southern ridges of  Big Baldy
Descending back down the grassy slopes
The Bushnell, Twin Sisters, Hunts Peak Group of the Sangres
The grassy slopes provide endless views
Another close up of Ouray and Chipeta
The grassy slopes cover a large area on Big Baldy
Rather than dropping into the gulch, I stuck to the ridge as long as I could on my descent.  The ridge held very little snow and made for quick travel while providing decent views.  Finally I dropped into the gulch for the last mile or so before making it back to my car.  The roundtrip was about 5 hours but would be quicker without the snow.  I gained around 3000' in elevation.

Another look at the 14ers as I descend
Shavano close up over a cliff band
Ouray and Chipeta over PT 8856'

Leaving the grassy slopes for the scrubby ridge
The views continued much of the way
down the ridge
Looking back up at Big Baldy
The northern Sangres were constantly in view along the ridge
Jack Hall Mountain above a cliff band
in the Badger Creek drainage
One last look at Big Baldy when I reached the gulch
Close up of the grassy slopes
Narrow section in the gulch
The snow was quite deep in the narrow parts of the gulch
Big Baldy is partially visible from a few part of Salida.  The mountains around the Crater block it from most parts of town. A few landmarks of Salida are visible from the mountain including the smokestack, airport, and US 50 area closer to Poncha Springs.  Although rough jeep roads can get you fairly close to Big Baldy from the Salida side, I don't think it sees to many visitors.  Most of the recreation in the area in the Arkansas Hills is focused on the trails right outside of Salida behind "S" Mountain.

Big Baldy is a worthy destination.  It seemed like all sides of the mountain had grassy slopes giving grandstand views to the 14ers from Princeton to Shavano and particularly good views of Mt Ouray.  There are also rare views into the Ute Trail area, including a good look at Black Mountain.

Jack Hall and Stony Face Mountains
Black Mountain is the point in the center distance
Jack Hall Mountain from the ridge

Northern Sangres
Clouds moving in over Shavano
Mt Ouray close up
All three of these mountains I will probably visit again.  "Puma Peak" and Beddows Dome are fairly quick outings with good scenery and fun exploration.  The grassy upper slopes of Big Baldy provide stunning views and I'd like to climb to the true summit when the area isn't so choked with snow.  I'd probably avoid all three in the peak of summer since there is a lot of pokey desert vegetation and likely a fair amount of rattlesnakes.  Since they elevations of these hikes all start low, they are probably quite hot with little cover.  These three outings, along with Burned Timber, were all predominantly bushwhacks.  Map reading skills and at least knowledge of the area is helpful to navigate the area.

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