My friend Tyler and I headed down to the Cielo Vista Ranch near San Luis on Saturday evening and met up with my buddy Mike, who climbed Ellingwood Point the day before (he did not see any bears at Lake Como). We each brought a tent and set up for the night.
I am such a rebel!
Jumping the gate!
Actually I’m not, the Ranch lets climbers jump over the gate and camp the day before within 150 yards of the entrance and they also provide a Port-o-Potty which is very nice!
Last few Indian Paintbrush hanging on as these were the only wildflowers I saw.
Last of the wildflowers
We each got in our tents and went to bed around 9:00 to the sounds of coyotes howling. This lasted all night!
Going to bed
We woke up a little after 5:00 a.m. and made breakfast. Carlos came by to unlock the gate at about 5:50 a.m.
5:15 a.m. breakfast
I got one sunrise pic just before driving off to the ranch headquarters.
Carlos gave us the run down and had us all sign in and pay the fee. Our group paid $150 each as we would climb Culebra and Red Mountain. Interestingly, there were only 4 people on the list for both peaks, us 3 and one other guy, but we saw more than 4 that climbed Red Mountain.
At the headquarters there is a large map showing the ranch boundaries. It is 77,000 acres in size and it runs from just south of the Blanca group all the way to the New Mexico boarder. The eastern border of Cielo Vista Ranch runs right down the summit and ridgelines of Culebra, Red Mtn, Vermejo, and Purgatoire Peaks. This is why you are not supposed to explore the east side of Culebra during the hike as the owner of the ranch on the east side has never allowed climbers and has issued trespassing fines to those that have explored that side of the mountain.
We drove up the very steep road to the trailhead and started our hike at 7:00 using the Roach Route. Mike the happy hiker!
Starting the hike
The views were beautiful as we hiked up the soft grassy slopes. The Blanca group came into view, then the Crestones.
Little Bear, Blanca, and Lindsey
The Crestones getting morning light
I found a bone of some animal while hiking up. My guess is an elk or deer, but who knows? Tastes like chicken!
There were marmots all over and wherever you looked there were many different kinds of scat. I don’t mean to make this a “crappy” trip report, but this was a huge pile of very fresh scat. Does anyone here know what animal this came from?
What animal made this fresh scat?
We arrived at the ginormous cairn in less than an hour and saw the false summit of Culebra. Here is Mike with the cairn… That thing must be at least 8 ft. tall.
Mt. St. Cairn
Looking south we had beautiful views all the way to Taos New Mexico. Here is a view of 2 bicentennial 13ers, Vermejo and Purgatoire Peaks (I’m sure New Mexico’s high point Wheeler Peak was visible, but I couldn’t identify it).
Long summit of Vermejo and Purgatoire in back
Along the ridgeline looking down into the valley we could see Pt. 13,436 and Carneros Lake.
The beautiful valley below Culebra
Here is a close up of Coneros Lake. If I were allowed, I would spend a lot of time camping right there!
Carneros Lake, what a great place to camp!
The Spanish Peaks came into view along the ridge. This was the first time I have ever seen these peaks from the South.
The Spanish Peaks
We reached the summit at 8:50 a.m., just under 2 hours from the trailhead.
Culebra summit shot
There was a curious and hungry marmot that would sneak up behind you and try to eat food out of your hand when you were not looking.
A very naughty marmot
We stayed on the summit for about 25 minutes then headed over to our next peak, Red Mountain.
The properly named Red Mountain
As we started to descend the ridge towards Red Mountain low thick stratus clouds came and started running up the mountain. Here is Culebra from the Culebra/Red Mtn saddle.
Culebra from Red Mtn saddle
We reached Red Mountain’s summit in the clouds at 9:55, 40 minutes after leaving Culebra's summit.
On top of Red Mountain in the clouds
In this video, you can actually see the clouds rising up Red Mountain from below during our descent. It was a cool sight.
We spent less than a minute on the top, as we were getting totally socked in and wanted to see our route back. There were no thunderheads, but I knew that they could eventually form, so we quickly made our way down. In order to get back to the ridgeline near the huge cairn, we did not re-summit Culebra, but traversed a few hundred feet below and to the West. I was about 150 yards ahead of Tyler and Mike and when I looked back they were just standing there pointing down. I was wondering what they were doing and that is when Tyler said, “There are 2 black bears down there!”
Now you have to understand, in 9 years of hiking and climbing in Colorado I have made 113 successful 14er and over 50 13er, 12er, 11er, and 10er ascents and have never seen a bear. I have seen elk, deer, coyotes, marmots, moose, bobcats, mountain goats, and have even had a mountain lion charge me from about 10 feet away when he finally backed off. I once was surrounded by 3 bighorn sheep that started licking me on my leg, arm, hand, and neck (there tongues are very rough and teeth quite flat in case you were wondering), but still no bear! So when I heard Tyler say he saw a bear I sprinted over the talus to get a good view.
Sure enough there were the bears. What they were doing walking around at over 13,000 feet I’ll never know, but they were there. Here is a picture of one of them down in the clouds.
The black bear at 13,000 ft.
The bears were huge and we watched them as they wandered around for a while. Then we hiked over to the ridge now completely in the clouds. I’ve never been to the Scottish Highlands, but I picture them looking like this. Here is Mike hiking the ridgeline.
Into the clouds
Visibility was about 10 feet (if that) and we made a wrong turn down the other ridge. I could visualize the entire route in my head and have no idea how we went the wrong way on such a simple route, but being that socked in was quite disorienting. When we saw that the terrain didn’t look right, we quickly realized our mistake and made our way back to the correct ridge. It took us about 5 minutes to get back to the correct route.
Mike and Tyler socked in on the ridge
Almost no visibility
We got back to the huge cairn and made our way down the talus route (the ranch asks you to take a different way down than you take up). The whole way looking down I was just amazed how aspens literally covered all the mountainsides. This place puts the town of Aspen to shame with the sheer coverage of aspen trees.
Mountainside covered in aspens
If you plan on climbing Culebra, I would highly recommend doing everything you can to try and climb this peak in late September. It would be a photographer’s dream to be up there during late fall as all the mountains that you can see are blanketed with aspen trees. I think if you arrange a large group, you can specify a specific day to climb, but I believe you have to pay more (worth it for late September with the views you would get in my opinion).
As we were almost back to the car we saw a grouse that was hopping all around us. Tyler hunts grouse and told me they are the dumbest birds out there. The more wildlife the better!
We got back to the car and drove down very slowly in 4wd low as the steep roads can really heat up your brakes (a person almost got in a bad accident the day before due to brakes overheating). We signed out and left the ranch only to get stuck in a bad Chama traffic jam.
For all of you that think mountain property is way too expensive, Chama/San Luis has some absolutely breathtaking views of Culebra, the Blanca Group, and the Sangre de Cristo range, at very low prices, but unfortunately there are many abandoned houses.
It’s too bad that it has become so rundown, because it is surrounded by such beautiful mountains. Oh well.
Here was a funny motel sign in Walsenburg. I bet it is close to 40 years old.
Impressive, I always assume black & white
The mountains and land around this ranch are absolutely beautiful. I couldn’t help thinking how pristine everything was, with abundant wildlife. I enjoyed every second of this climb and am so glad I could visit this place. To me paying the $150 fee was worth every penny, especially for seeing the bear, but I guess I could have just hiked up to Lake Como this year and waited 5 minutes to see several!
When I think back on the thousands of dollars I have spent on gas, gear, food, etc, I was not going to let $150 prevent me from climbing all the 14ers or top 100 peaks for that matter. It is a great mountain and I had a wonderful experience. I highly recommend it!
FYI the turnoff at the Phillips 66 station in San Luis is now a Conoco station.
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