Saturday, March 14, 2015

Mt Peck and Peel Point- Overlooked Mountains on the Continental Divide

The past month or so I have been getting outside with a number of close to home outings.  I spent some time on my mountain bike just a few miles from my house along the Arkansas River to take advantage of dry and warm weather in February.  Snow and cooler weather moved back into the area and I explored the Hayden Pass area on cross country skis a couple times.  I also hiked a couple of shorter hikes to explore an interesting area of rock outcroppings called Turkey Rock just a few miles from home.  None of these trips were big outings, mostly just exercise to keep me in shape and enjoy nature.

Skiing toward Hayden Pass with Galena Peak and Mt Otto 
Skiing in the aspens near Hayden Pass
The past few weeks saw quite a bit of snow in the mountains and made travel unsafe in many areas due to avalanche concerns.  This week things warmed up and the snow conditions settled a bit.  My last trip to higher elevations was in late January and was eager to get back into the high country.

I have done several hikes this winter with Drew Petersen.  For a quick alpine experience close to Salida, he often hikes along the Continental Divide from Monarch Pass.  He was heading there on Wednesday and I joined him.  

In my last blog post we hiked north along the Continental Divide from Monarch Pass to Bald Mountain.  This time we headed south.  This stretch to the south is called the Monarch Crest and known as a huge mountain bike destination in the snowless months.  In winter however, the area sees very little traffic and it's easy to find solitude.

Our hike started at the summit of Monarch Pass at over 11000 feet.  From the pass we headed south on a snowcat track that is used to service a communication tower.  We started with snowshoes in chilly conditions and the snow was hardpacked  along the cat track.  We quickly passed a junction for the Continental Divide Trail.  Because of deep snow we stayed off the CDT and headed toward the ridge even though this meant more elevation gain.  We quickly left the cat track and headed off trail toward Mt Peck.

The ridge approaching Mt Peck
Because of the high elevation start, we quickly climbed above treeline.  We briefly descended into sparse trees before climbing the ridge to Mt Peck.  The summit of Mt Peck sits at 12208 feet on the crest of the Continental Divide.  From the pass, it's a short three mile hike to the summit.  Even though the views are beautiful from the summit, not too many people visit Mt Peck's summit.  Most traffic in this area is mountain bikes.  The bikes stick to the CDT and few wander off the trail even though the summit sits only a couple hundred feet from the trail.  Mt Peck stands as Colorado's 1194th highest mountain.  People are drawn to 14ers and 13ers but few people have interest in a low 12000 foot summit, even if the views are as good as this.  We didn't linger too long and continued along the divide to the next high point along the crest.

The slightly lower north summit of Mt Peck
Looking at the route ahead from Peck
San Juans in the distance from Peck
Descending Peck looking toward Ouray and PT 13472
We dropped down from Peck and continued along the Continental Divide as we moved toward Peel Point.  We occasionally could see the CDT but didn't necessarily follow it as we moved along the divide. The route became more windblown and we took off our snowshoes the last mile or so to Peel.  From Peck, Peel doesn't look like much, but as you approach you can see the well defined point of Peck.  Even though the CDT travels just a few feet below Peel we stuck closer to the ridge as we climbed.  The 12145 foot summit of Peel Point is unranked and probably sees fewer people than Peck.  The views are even better from Peel than from Peck standing on top of the Continental Divide.

Crossing open tundra toward Peel Point
Getting close to Peel Point
Large cornice on the east side of the divide
Looking back at Mt Peck from Peel Point
Both summits have far reaching views with awesome scenery.  The vast San Juan Range takes up the view to the southwest.  14ers San Luis Peak and Uncompahgre Peak are easy to pick out in the San Juans.  To the north 13ers Taylor and Aetna dominate with 14ers Shavano and Tabeguache nearby.  In the distance the Front Range 14ers of Pikes Peak and Mt Evans are visible.  Most impressive are the views of the surrounding nearby peaks.  The long alpine ridge to the south leads to Centennial 13er Mt Ouray which seems enormous from Peel Point.  Chipeta Mtn, Pahlone Peak, Antora Peak, and PT 13472 all add to the beautiful skyline in the southern end of the Sawatch Range.

Pt 13472 on left and Mt Ouray on right
Looking south along Continental Divide with Mt Ouray on left
and Antora Peak on right
Looking north along Continental Divide
Mt Aetna- pointy peak on left, Mt Taylor to its right,
 14ers Tabeguach and Shavano on right
The wonderul alpine scenery greeted us the entire route.  Since the route is essentially above treeline the entire way, the views are pretty much continuous.  The dramatic drop to the east side of the Continental Divide adds to the landscape as well.  Much of the drop holds large cornices.  Several old avalanches are easy to pick out including huge slide below Peck.  Below the drop there are several large alpine basins.

Alpine basin below the Continental Divide
The return trip retraced our route to Monarch Pass.  It is possible to return on the CDT, however, the snow is deeper along the trail. Some effort is saved heading back up and over Peck.  The scenery is also better sticking to the ridge and heading back over Peck.  The total hike covered 9 miles, and despite starting at over 11000 feet, we climbed about 3000 vertical feet from start to finish.

Aetna, Taylor, Tabeguache, and Shavano 
Approaching Mt Peck on the return
 I plan to visit this area again in warmer weather to mountain bike the Monarch Crest.  I am glad I visited this area in winter.  In summer you are sure to share this area mountain bikes, but in the winter this area is deserted.  For a quick alpine escape, this area has to have some of the best bang for the buck.  The entire route features nearly uninterrupted alpine views as you travel along the Continental Divide.

14ers get all the hype in Colorado, but this hike had better scenery than some of the 14ers I have hiked.  If you don't care about checking off a list of mountains, I highly recommend checking out the Monarch Crest, particularly out of the mountain bike season to get a feeling of alpine solitude and killer views.  If this trip doesn't offer enough alpine escape, it's possible to continue along the divide for a even bigger dose alpine fun.  The Continental Divide stays above treeline for several more miles to the south before jumping back into the trees near Marshall Pass.  Although we didn't see wildlife there were some clear mountain lion and probably bobcat tracks in the snow as well.

Closeup of PT 13472 and Ouray
Closeup of Aetna, Taylor, Tabeguache, and Shavano

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