The Journey to Planet X
19 May 2007
The Kenosha Mountain massif (pardon the French!) lies just south of Hwy. 285 in Park County. The highway follows the massif from the town of Bailey through the villages of Glenisle, Shawnee, Santa Maria, and Grant, and eventually crosses the massif at Kenosha Pass (10,001 feet in altitude). The massif has an extensive willow-covered plateau at about 11,600 feet, and several 12,000+ foot peaks arise from the plateau. The peaks range from rather ordinary to absolutely spectacular, but all are worthy of a visit. Peak X, at 12,428 feet, is the highest peak in the Kenosha Mountains. The Kenosha Mountains, along with the Platte River Mountains, the Tarryall Mountains, and the Puma Hills, form the Retirement Range. The 12,431-foot Bison Peak is the only peak in the Retirement Range that is higher than Peak X. Most of the Kenosha Mountains lie within the boundaries of the Lost Creek Wilderness.
The peaks in this range are noted for long and scenic approaches, many of which are longer than 10 miles. I have been suffering from some overuse symptoms in my right knee, and was leary of venturing into the wilderness solo on one of these lengthy hikes. I consulted Roach & Roach's "Colorado's Lost Creek Wilderness" (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2001), and found that the roundtrip ascent of Peak X was only five miles. This short route offered the benefit of adding peaks X Prime and Y, if health and weather permitted. The standard route was rated at Class 2+, probably because it involves some off-trail travel and very limited scrambling over boulders. It sounded like an excellent payoff in terms of scenery vs. energy expended, so I needed no further encouragement.
The easiest way to access Peak X is from the Long Gulch Trailhead at 10,080 feet. Lost Park Rd. (Park County Rd. 56) is three miles southwest of the summit of Kenosha Pass. Turn left (east) on Lost Park Rd., and follow it for 10.6 miles. The turnoff for the Long Gulch Trailhead is not sufficiently marked. The only sign that can be seen from Lost Park Rd. is a small post on the north side of the road that is labeled Forest Service Rd. 817. The trailhead is only about a tenth of a mile down this excellent dirt road. I had no problem reaching the trailhead in a compact 2WD car. The Colorado Trail can also be accessed at this point. I had to slow down for two herds of female elk that were grazing along Lost Park Road.
Trailhead sign on the Long Gulch Trail.
There is a trail register beside the Long Gulch Trailhead sign. I noticed that Jennifer Roach (co-author of the above-mentioned trail guide) had taken the trail about a week ago. Jon Bradford had taken the trail last month; I recognized him as the person who had submitted a detailed overview of the Kenosha Mountains on Summitpost.org. After signing in, the journey begins on a pair of planks that cross the apparently unnamed creek. I made the mistake of attempting to cross on an icy log, so I began my day with wet socks and soggy boots. Frost still covered the vegetation, so I clung to the hope that the low overnight temperatures had frozen the soft spring snow. It did not take me long to find out that the low temperatures had only frozen a thin crust on the rapidly melting snowcover.
Trail register at the Long Gulch Trailhead. The path starts with the two planks that can be seen to the right of the register.
The path crossed the Colorado Trail at about 0.2 miles. The route to Peak X does not use the Colorado Trail; it starts out by heading eastward on the Hooper Trail, which is a pack animal trail. The snow was patchy, and snowshoes were not necessary until I got above 10,800 feet. I followed some tracks left by a person who wore only boots, and the postholes were impressive. They were at least crotch-deep, and did not even bottom out in the deep snow. At about 10,700 feet, there is an unnamed spur trail that splits off from the Hooper Trail and heads in a northeast direction. I missed the spur trail, and didn't realize it until I reached 10,800 feet. I ascended a bit further, and bushwhacked through some deep snow beneath a cliff band until I was headed in the right direction. Even if the trail is not visible in the snow, it is possible to stay on route by following the creek through the gulch all the way to its source. The trail does not appear in my DeLorme Atlas, on Trails Illustrated Map #105, or on my Garmin MapSource software. Roach & Roach's guide is probably the most reliable source of beta on this route.
Trail conditions on the Hooper Trail.
A Camp Robber checking me out to see if I had any food. These birds, also known as Gray Jays or Clark's Nutcrackers, have very little natural fear of men.
The creek is lined by willows and bog birch, with spruce and bristlecone pine lining the sides of the gulch. Imposing granite cliffs overlook the gulch on both sides; I saw a bighorn sheep peering over the edge of one of the cliffs. The path stays to the left (west) of the willows for most of the way through the gulch. The minimal willow-bashing that was required seemed to follow game routes that were wide enough to permit easy passage. I found scat from bears, elk, and several cattle that had apparently strayed from one of the neighboring ranches. The gulch gets steeper as it approaches the plateau.
Looking up the willow-laden gulch towards the plateau.
A tall granite tower marks the top of the gulch; the standard route passes to the right (east) of the tower. From the tower, Peak Y is visible on the right and Peak X is on the left. The two peaks are connected by a saddle; the standard route heads straight for the saddle. Both peaks can be summitted easily by this route.
The Granite Guardian of the Gulch.
Crossing the willow-covered plateau would be an easy task in the warmer months. However, it is still covered by three to four feet of snow at this point. Frigid temperatures had frozen a stiff crust on the snow, but postholing was still a nuisance. I had not worn snowshoes in the gulch, but it looked like they would make my life easier in the deep stuff on the plateau. I saw a set of human and dog tracks in the snow that headed towards the west ridge, which was not the standard route. I followed the tracks, hoping that the compressed snow would make for easier travel. I was at least partially right, and I encountered few problems on the plateau.
Peak X as viewed across the willow-covered plateau. The standard route ascends the gentle ridge seen on the right of this image. The West Ridge Route took me to the left of the small granite dome that can be seen in the extreme left of this image.
Gaining the West Ridge may have been the crux of the route, if there was one. It was longer and steeper than it looked. My snowshoe crampons performed well as I inched my way up the side of the ridge. The ridge led to a summit plateau that was decorated with a number of unusually-shaped granite structures. This bizzarre rock garden is what sets Peak X apart from the other peaks in the Retirement Range; it is well worth the effort to visit this special place. Bison Peak probably has the only summit in the Retirement Range with more interesting geological features than Peak X.
Curious granite knobs on the summit plateau.
The Xebec Towers near the summit. These towers are visible from long distances, and are probably responsible for the peak's other common name, "Knobby Crest."
The summit plateau is at least 200 feet below the actual summit. It was littered with bighorn sheep scat, which resembles slightly-pointed rabbit droppings. There is a large and healthy herd of bighorns that lives in the area, but they were nowhere to be found today. I dropped my pack and snowshoes, and pushed on towards the summit with only my camera and my GPS. Three rock piles vie for the title of summit block on Peak X. It wasn't immediately apparent which pile was the actual summit, but my GPS guided me to the center one. I saw a steel fence post sticking out horizontally from between two rocks, so I presumed (correctly) that this marked the route to the summit. I scrambled over several boulders and found myself standing on top of the pile. I looked down, and there was the summit register. Although the case appeared to be in excellent condition, the contents were too soggy to sign. I snapped an image, and took a few minutes to enjoy the view.
Approaching Peak X's various summits. The highest peak (12,428 feet) is the cluster of rocks in the center of the image.
The summit register on Peak X.
Peak Y (12,274 feet) viewed from the summit of Peak X. The summit of Peak Z (12,244) is barely visible to the left of Peak Y.
Peak X Prime (12,100 feet) is the lower peak in the center of this image.
The most important view was that of a storm front moving across South Park. An earlier front had passed through and spit a few harmless snowflakes. I could hear that this second bank was producing thunder, and I was not anxious to stick around and find out if it was producing lightning. I had to descend about 600 feet of mountain and dash across about 0.4 mile of plateau before I could duck below treeline. As I approached the granite tower at the edge of the plateau, a pair of hikers emerged from the gulch. They were the first people that I had seen all day. They started to put their snowshoes on, but seemed apprehensive about the approaching thunderstorm. It would have been a shame to reach the plateau without summitting, but it seemed like an unreasonable risk to cross the treeless willow barren with thunder clouds directly overhead. I packed my snowshoes and started back down the gulch before they arrived at a final decision. The storm produced some ominous-sounding thunder, a few bolts of lightning, and a smattering of sleet. It wasn't worth breaking out my rain gear.
An ancient windblown Bristlecone Pine at the base of Peak X. Bristlecone Pines may be some of the world's oldest organisms; some specimens in Park County are more than 1,600 years old.
Looking down the gulch as the thunderstorm rolls in. Time to move out!
I never bothered to put my snowshoes on for the remainder of the descent. I had to bash through some deep snowdrifts, but I was able to avoid most of the snow on the final two miles of trail. There are quite a few blazed trees on the route, which is helpful when the trail disappears beneath the snow. It was a quick descent, and the sun was shining when I reached the trailhead. As I was making traildust down Lost Park Rd., I could see that a third bank of dark clouds was bearing down on South Park. The storm was producing plenty of lightning, and I was glad that I had saved peaks X Prime and Y for another day.
Information on peaks other than the CO 14ers and 13ers.
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Another way in is to go a few miles further on the Lost Park road then take a left on the 134 rd and go a mile to where theres a gate to the left . Park there and walk down the hill and cross the meadow to the Colorado trail, go west a 1/4 mile and go north on the McCurdy Brookside trail to the crest or saddle. This is a good approach to the east end of the Kenosha range.
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