Sunday, July 3, 2016

Rito Alto and Hermit Peaks

The weather has been consistently hot since my last outing and much of the higher elevation snow has melted.  This led to summer trail conditions most places.  As a result, most backcountry areas are accessible with minimal snow travel difficulties.

I had several destinations in mind for my next trip, but decided on exploring in the the Sangre de Cristos.  I live at the base of the Sangres and they have always been the constant background since I moved to Colorado.  I thoroughly enjoy exploring this rugged range.

My last trip to the Sangre de Cristo high country was last autumn on Columbus Day.  I departed the Gibson Creek Trailhead and hiked to the Lakes of the Clouds basin.  Once at the lakes I climbed three 13,000 foot peaks that surround the basin.  On that trip, like any trip to high summits, I got a good view of the surrounding mountains, while concocting future trips. To read about that trip, click on the link Climbing the Peaks of the Lakes of the Clouds Basin

On that trip, Rito Alto Peak constantly towered to the south.  Standing around 13,800', Rito Alto is an impressive peak.  There are no higher mountains to the north in the Sangre de Cristo Range.  It's lofty vantage point offers fine 360 degree views of the Sangres.

On the south side of Rito Alto, a rough jeep road leads to 13,000 foot at Hermit Pass.  Most people seem to drive high up this road and make short work of Rito Alto.  Traveling on a jeep road has no appeal to me.  From the Gibson Creek Trailhead, the North Taylor Creek trail leads to a high alpine basin at Megan Lake.  Megan Lake sits more than 2000 feet below Rito Alto's east face.  Some more ambitious hikers will use this as a launching point to climb Rito Alto with Peak of the Clouds and Spread Eagle Peak.  I was hoping to climb Rito Alto from Megan Lake, then continue south and climb Hermit and Eureka Peaks, just to the south.

Because of forecasted thunderstorms I got a fairly early start.  My drive to the trailhead was a good start to the day.  I saw two very large bull elk along the road as well as a few pronghorn close to the trailhead.

Pronghorn near the trailhead

Although there is a road leading to the start of the North Taylor Creek trail.  I started at the Gibson Creek Trailhead.  Most dirt National Forest roads are rougher than I like to subject my car to.  I began hiking about 645AM.  I followed the Rainbow Trail to start before reaching a section of dirt road that led to the actual North Taylor Creek Trail.

Columbines were abundant

Wild roses along the Rainbow Trail

North Taylor Creek doesn't seem to get much traffic.  The vegetation is quite thick at places.  Evening storms the night before left this vegetation wet in the early morning.  The trail crosses its namesake creek a few times and is usually within earshot of the creek.  The creek is rushing with spring runoff and one crossing was quite tricky. I had to travel upstream to find a decent crossing.

Makeshift bridge at a wider crossing

Small waterfall on North Taylor Creek

The trail was quite faint at a few places in its upper reaches.  Although traveling through the woods most of the route,  the trail offers some nice alpine views as it gains elevation and passes through a few meadows.  After 2.5 miles on the trail, I reached Megan Lake.

Higher up on the North Taylor Creek Trail

An open meadow below treeline

Another meadow

Megan Lake sits at the edge of treeline around 11,500'.  From the lake, Rito Alto Peak towers more than 2000' above.  Peak of the Clouds is also visible from Megan Lake.   The view from the lake is pretty enough, but was further enhanced by ribbons of waterfalls cascading above the lake from heavy snow runoff.

Rito Alto Peak above Megan Lake

Peak of the Clouds in the distance above Megan Lake

My original plan was to climb a couple hundred feet higher to a smaller lake called Jeanne Lake.  From Jeanne Lake I would climb to the saddle of Peak of the Clouds and Rito Alto before climbing Rito Alto's north ridge.  Now off trail, I made my way toward the still hidden Jeanne Lake.  Making my way to the lake was much harder than I anticipated.  The entire area was covered in head high, nearly unpenetrable willows.  I would stumble but catch myself by grabbing at branches.  My bare shins took a beating.  I lost a lot of time but finally made it to the lake.

Looking back down the valley

Waterfall above Megan Lake

Meadow above Megan Lake

Peak of the Clouds above the meadow

I chose to travel up this small waterfall rather than the soft snow
or willow-whacking

From Lake Jeanne, I looked the terrain ahead.  I didn't want to wallow through more willows.  I assessed the terrain and although quite steep, the northeast slope of Rito Alto looked like a  passable route without getting into too much difficulty.

Jeanne Lake was small and very shallow

I began climbing directly up the northeast face.  The steep terrain was a mixture of grass and solid rock.  I made fairly quick time up the initial climb.  In this section, a fairly relaxed ptarmigan seemed curious to have a person in its rugged territory.  After a quick 1000 feet or so of climbing, I reached a  grassy meadow before the main bulk of the climbing.


Ptarmigan trying to figure out what the odd creature
was staring at it

Looking back down at Megan Lake

On the flat section of tundra before climbing
the rest of Rito Alto Peak

The last 1000 feet or so of climbing went quickly.  Majority of my route maintained a mix of grass and solid rock.  Although steep, the terrain remained class 2, possibly a brief section of 2+.  Within the last few hundred vertical feet of the summit, the terrain steepened and required a little more route finding.  I was now getting to the point where I needed to scramble and use my hands.  At this point I was getting into some short class 3 pitches that were unavoidable.  I finally crested the face about 50 feet from the summit proper.

I traveled just to the right of the lingering snow

The slope became rockier as I climbed

Wildflowers clinging around 13,000' on Rito Alto

Getting into the scrambly terrain

Looking southeast

Looking north

Getting into class 3 terrain just below the summit

As I summited, I took notice to the sky.  The morning had been cloudless.  As I climbed, a solitary but benign cumulus cloud lingered above.  From the summit, I had a good look at the sky and noticed a few more clouds lingering just above,  starting to build.  With a couple more summits in my sights, I didn't linger and headed down Rito Alto's south ridge.  The sky was clear to the west and the breeze seemed like it should push the potentially threatening clouds away from my position.  As I traveled down the ridge I lost my view of the clouds.  I passed a pair of hikers on the ridge making there way toward the summit from a campsite near Hermit Lake, the only others I would see until I was on the Rainbow Trail near the trailhead.

Silver Peak, Peak of the Clouds, and just barely in frame
is Spread Eagle.  I think Gibbs Peak is the point distant
peak in the middle.

Peak of the Clouds and Spread Eagle Peak

Unnamed 13,000 Peaks to the west

East toward ridge above Megan Lake

Megan Lake and North Taylor Creek drainage

Hermit Peak, Eureka Peak, and distant Crestone Group

Crestones and Kit Carson Group

Crop circles in the San Luis Valley

Remains of the old cornice heading south along
Rito Alto's ridge

I think this is looking toward Rito Alto Lake
Southwest view

I soon reached Hermit Pass.  I had a better view of the sky and noticed a bigger buildup of the clouds with some darkening.  At this point they seemed to have drifted a little further to the east.  The west still looked safe.  Hermit Peak was about a 1/4 mile away and a mere 300 vertical feet ahead.  I quickly hiked up to its summit and examined the sky.

Hermit Peak from Hermit Pass

Hermit Peak's south ridge toward Eureka Peak

Crestone Group

Rito Alto from Hermit Peak

Cotton Creek valley

Hermit's west ridge toward a group of unnamed 13ers

Traversing to Eureka Peak would require spending more than two miles above treeline.  A quick escape from weather would put me quite a bit further from my trailhead.  At this point, the darkening clouds above weren't moving much, and more clouds were building nearby.  It was only 1030 or so but I decided to descend back to the valley and play it safe.
Rito Alto, Peak of the Clouds, and Spread Eagle Peak

I descended back to Hermit Pass.  Rather than reclimb Rito Alto, I descended directly toward Megan Lake.  I couldn't find any information a route from Hermit Pass to Megan Lake, so I had to pick my own route.  As I was climbing and on the summit of Rito Alto, I made an effort to study this option.  Although there are some cliff bands to contend with, it appeared that I could pick my way through the cliff bands without getting cliffed out.

Rito Alto from Hermit Pass

After a short distance on the Hermit Pass Road, I departed the road and began my descent toward Megan Lake.  The initial drop from the road followed a gradual, grassy slope.  I quickly reached a small basin above Megan Lake with a small unnamed lake.  Below the lake. the terrain became trickier.  The terrain became quite steep and was broken sections of steep talus, cliff bands, and pockets of steep vegetation.
Rito Alto from Hermit Pass Road

 Peak of the Clouds living up to its name while
descending a beautiful grassy slope toward
Megan Lake

Peak of the Clouds and Spread Eagle Peak on the descent
toward Megan Lake

Unnamed lake above Megan Lake

Waterfall draining into the lake

Despite challenges, the travel below the upper lake was enjoyable.  Much of my route traveled close to the upper lake's outlet stream.  The outlet stream's course followed the steep rocky terrain in a series of cascades that traveled hundreds of vertical feet to the lower basin at Megan Lake.  Because of heavy snowmelt, the cascades dropped dramatically.  This made for quite a scenic descent.

Megan Lake from the upper lake

Waterfall draining upper lake

One of the longer drop in the long cascade

Waterfall cascading in rocky section

Waterfall in narrower section

Eventually the steep slope entered sections of willows.  Once in the willows, travel became quite challenging.  The willows often hid rock drops.  Other places the willows were thick enough to nearly halt forward travel.  To add to the frustration of dense vegetation, much of the ground was boggy and slick from the snowmelt.

Looking at the willows above Megan Lake

I eventually made my way to the bottom of the steep slopes.  Only a few hundred feet stood between me and Megan Lake.  Unfortunately, this stretch contained some of the densest willows.  To add to the frustration, a network of small streams covered the ground under the willows.  These streams usually weren't visible until I stumbled upon them.  I had to force my way through the mess trying to find the paths of least resistance.  Usually my shins took the brunt of the willows.  My last obstacle to the lake was the inlet stream that descended from Lake Jeanne.  Quite a few cutthroat trout were visible darting in the stream.  I finally reached the lake.

The view from inside the tangle of willow, they're about 6 feet high
and shred exposed shins

Looking back at the waterfall over the willow-whack

Another look at the falls from below

Looking back at the sea of willows

Although less than a foot wide at most spots, I followed the narrow shoreline to get around the lake to avoid further willow-whacking.  Following the shoreline I reached the far side rather quickly.  At the far side, I finally got back to the trail. By this time I was in and out of light showers.

Traversing the narrow shoreline of Megan Lake

Looking back at Rito Alto and the waterfall from
the shoreline of Megan Lake

The remainder of my trip, I was back on the North Taylor Creek Trail.  Traveling downhill, I made quick time.  Despite intermittent showers, I never did hear thunder or see any lightning.  The trail was fairly slick with the fresh rain but my descent was uneventful.  I was back at my car about 130PM.

I don't have exact mileage because a chunk of the trip was off trail, but this hike was somewhere in the 13-14 mile range and gained about a mile of elevation.  As I said before, Rito Alto and Hermit Peaks are usually climbed from Hermit Pass Road.  Even though it's a rugged jeep road, following a road doesn't have much appeal to me.  I really enjoyed my route despite rough willow-whacking in a few sections.  North Taylor Creek and the lakes in the basin offer a real feel of wilderness that can't be had traveling a jeep road.  The lakes and trail are actually within the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, whereas the road is not.

Even though I have done a couple of hikes to alpine peaks in the past month, I particularly enjoyed this trip.  I couldn't find any info about ascending Rito Alto by my direct route or descending to Megan Lake from Hermit Pass.  It's satisfying picking a route on the fly. Although I could have done without the willows, I had quite a bit of fun on the rest route.  I wish I could have hit Eureka Peak as well, but I didn't want to take a chance getting caught in lighting for an extended period above treeline, especially since the past several days saw a lot of thunderstorm activity.

Although it may seem inviting driving high above treeline on Hermit Pass Road to bag a few peaks, I would recommend hitting Rito Alto and Hermit Peaks from Megan Lake, especially if you are comfortable with routefinding and off trail travel.  From the overgrown stretches of trail, and faint tread at times, I don't think this area sees too much traffic.  Solitude is much more attractive than ATVs and Jeeps passing by any day in my opinion.  The trip to Megan Lake is worthwhile by itself just to visit a secluded idyllic alpine lake.  This trip can be cut shorter by several miles by driving directly to the North Taylor Creek Trailhead.  I think any vehicle with decent clearance could drive it as it wasn't nearly as bad as most National Forest roads.  I think my Outback would have been fine.

Crestones in the distance from high on Rito Alto's
south ridge along the cornice

Another close up of the Crestone Group

The final look back over Megan Lake toward Rito Alto


  1. Hi Tomcat, I got to your trip report from the link on I really enjoyed your report!! I am renovating a cabin on the North Taylor Creek Rd and am anxious to get up to the peaks up the road. I have yet to get up to Megan Lake and the peaks above it, but am looking forward to it in the next few weeks. If you are ever on the road, stop in and say hi. I am the only cabin on the right hand side of the 4x4 road. Sounds like you live in the area. I am also looking to meet more hikers who are interested in high peaks in the Sangres. Drop me a line if you are ever interested in meeting up! My username on 14ers is mollykay. Cheers!

    1. Glad you liked the report. The North Taylor/Megan Lake Basin is particularly nice right now with the waterfalls and the wildflowers are starting to get good. There is good access from the basin to 13ers Spread Eagle, Peak of the Clouds, and Rito Alto. Just watch out for the willows. If you have your sights on other 13ers in the Sangres near your cabin, I have several other trip reports on here for info.

  2. Nice to see my old stomping grounds again. I hiked and camped all that country the late 1960's and 70's. Now I'm inspired to do it again. In those days we called the entire double mountain on the north side of the North Taylor basin "Spread Eagle Peak" ... because from the south it so closely resembles an eagle with wingtips high and spread ... body in the center. You may not realize that you walked right by the WWII bomber wreckage above Megan Lake.

    1. I was aware of the bomber wreck but didn't know exactly where it was. There isn't a lot of info on the wreck. For all I know the willows took it over but I was keeping an eye out for something shiny. I guess Spread Eagle got it's name for its profile. Thanks for reading.

    2. The museum in Silver Cliff used to have some items on display that were salvaged from the wreckage ... 50 caliber machine guns as I recall. The last time I was up in the basin the the engines were still on the site ... although some distance apart. The fuselage was scattered about in numerous pieces but it was all easy to see. I have a few low quality photos. I'll see if I can find them for you. North Taylor has always been one of my favorite places. Thanks again for your excellent post.