Summit Peak trip report

Disclaimer

Although my last trip wasn't very productive and killed my goal of getting even close to my 100th 13er or 14er, I wanted to take one more short trip to Colorado before classes start. The main goal was the trio of 13ers near the Summitville Mine Superfund site, Summit Peak, Montezuma Peak, and the unofficially named peak in between, "Unicorn Peak". Summit Peak is somewhat popular nowadays as it is the highpoint of Archuleta County and it ranks very high on the Colorado "prominence" list based on its large rise above the saddle that connects it to higher ground - if you are into those sorts of things. For me, it was mainly that it is reasonable to climb all three peaks in one day and I had a hard time finding any reasonably priced motel rooms in the western San Juans, so I ended up in Alamosa.

It is still a fairly long drive from Alamosa and it ended up taking exactly 2 hours to reach the "trailhead". Half of that time was spent on US 160 and the other half on the long, unpaved route to the peaks. I decided to try the route that leaves US 160 7.4 miles past the CO 149 junction in South Fork and heads up Park Creek. This is a good gravel road to support heavy equipment going to and from the Superfund site and probably some logging operations. Stay on the main road, following signs to Summitville for 15.1 miles to a signed right turn for Elwood Pass to remain on FR 380. From here until the junction for the short 4WD road to Elwood Pass after another 3.5 miles, the road has a good surface, but with a lot of potholes. After that, the road gets rougher with more exposed rocks as it switchbacks mostly downhill; still fine for a normal car if you take it slow since there aren't any large rocks or deep holes. After another 4.3 miles past the Elwood Pass junction, turn right onto the signed road for Treasure Creek.

Normally, one drives 3 miles up this road, which is a smoother surface again, to a dead end with decent parking. However, there has been a lot of rain and some flooding during this monsoon season and the road is washed out about 0.7 mile short of the trailhead. There is enough roadbed left to walk across (that might even collapse, too, as the picture below indicates), but the entire section will have to be rebuilt so don't expect that to happen anytime soon. Past the washout, there are a couple of impassible spots where mud and gravel flows crossed the road (maybe navigable in a sturdy 4WD). There are a lot of steep faces above this road and in addition to these washes there are a lot of avalanche chutes, too, in the other half of the year.

Washed out road Washed out road

Thanks to not getting up early enough and the longer than planned drive, I didn't start hiking until nearly 0830. It didn't take long to reach the end of the road and start up the climber's trail along the raging Treasure Creek. It is a very narrow streambed, but this area is steep and it was charged with all of the runoff from the recent rains. The trail gets rather steep and was a little muddy as it climbs up the right (north) side of the creek past some scenic small waterfalls. Once it levels out, one is supposed to find a place to cross and continue up the left side of the drainage. That took a bit because some of the more obvious fallen trees across the creek were wet from the strong flow or even partly underwater.

I had decided that I wanted to try to use a trail that the USFS had on their maps. So, I angled away from the drainage and worked my way to a GPS waypoint at treeline where the trail should have been. I did find a trail segment here, but quickly lost it in the meadows. At this point, I was faced with a steep rock "wall" in front of me with one spot where grass was leading up to a bit of a break in the slope. I decided that was where the alleged trail was supposed to go.

That turned out to be the correct choice as an eroded trail did appear at the top of this slope and I was able to more or less follow this old trail up to the Continental Divide Trail just below Summit Peak. The trail isn't always in great shape and breaks up into multiple paths in places, but it is quite usable. (This is probably the quickest route if you are prepared; the point at which you climb the break in the steep rock is that flat area just north of the very close contours just north of Lake 12164.)

The route levels out considerably past the steep rock and you have to traverse below the very rocky east ridge of Summit Peak and past a talus field at its base. Exactly as Covill & Mitchler's slightly misnamed "Hiking Colorado's Summits" says (it is strictly a county highpointing guide), as soon as you clear this talus field and can see a clear tundra route up to the highest point you can see, go for it. The footing is sometimes a bit of dirt and gravel, but not too bad for being a fairly steep slope.

I managed to pick a route that lead right to the summit even though you can't quite see it all the way up. You have good views here as this is the highest land within a 40-mile radius. Some clouds were building up just a bit, although I thought any storms would hold off for a while. However, I had been considering my future. I just wasn't "feeling it" and also didn't really like the looks of the descent off of Montezuma Peak once I got over there, 1.58 miles by air from Summit. It would be doable, but there would be unavoidable steep parts and I could see a lot of ground willows on the slopes leading down to the creek. If I had been looking for a bit more adventure and had started an hour earlier, I probably would have bagged the other two peaks, but decided that one was enough today. Also, I had already considered another possible route for the other two peaks which I hoped to do later on this trip.

Montezuma and Unicorn from Summit Peak

I essentially retraced my ascent route with the advantage of having climbed it. I crossed Treasure Creek at the same spot, but ended up not being able to follow the trail down. I actually ended up on the steep hillside above the trailhead and had to steeply descend back to the road. The problem is that there are enough game trails that it can be hard to stay on the real trail. But, this was easy enough to fix, and I made it back to my car in under 4 hours.


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File last modified: 13 November 2007

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