Approach to Cottonwood Lake from Cottonwood Cr TH
Sunday, Jan 29, 2012
8 miles RT, 3100' elevation gain
Time: 7 hrs (lots of breaks; maybe 5 hrs moving)
A newly posted trip report by MadMike got me excited - a day trip of the Crestone Pk/Needle traverse from the recently opened Cottonwood Creek trailhead, in calendar winter no less. There have been more than a few strong accomplishments by this community in the last few winters, including several ascents of Capitol and even the Little Bear to Blanca traverse. I can easily admit that I am lacking in the capacity to perform at that level, but feel a strong draw to at least follow the easier sections they trode. Can a mere mortal complete even a moderate portion of their grand adventures? I was game to find out.
Searching for information about the Cottonwood Creek approach did not boost my confidence. Stories of vast ruins of downed timber and misleading cairns dominated the descriptions. I've been through my share of deadfall in the Sangres, so it was easy to assume the stories had some amount of exaggeration. A past descent down Garner Cr found me hopping over and ducking under at least 500 trees (no exaggeration). I don't think Cottonwood had the same quantity of deadfall, but the addition of snow added to the challenge.
Thanks to GoogleEarth, I was provided with good insight to the logistics related to the TH. What was described as a "meadow" was merely space for maybe 5-6 vehicles. Back in rural New York, a meadow was at least 40 acres with several hundred cows grazing. I could see issues arising on a summer weekend if 20-30 vehicles show up trying to jockey for the few available spots. Fortunately, I was the first on the scene on a beautiful January morning. Only one other vehicle showed up that day, so I'd say we were pretty low impact.
Parking at the Cottonwood TH
My goal for the day was to "touch the base of Crestone Peak"; bottom of the red gully if you want to be more specific. I figured I could sleep in a little since I wasn't going to peak out on anything. Also, navigating the deadfall would be considerably easier in daylight. So, sleep in till 5:15am, on the road at 5:45am and arrive at the TH by 7am.
The first 2 miles were straightforward and went by fairly quickly. The trail was packed down for the first mile and a single set of boot prints pointed the way for mile 2.
Initial trail section
Could these be Mike's from the prior weekend? I wasn't sure how much snow the area had received during the week. Turns out they weren't Mikes. At mile 2.0, the bootprints abruptly stopped. I was on my own from that point forward.
End of the trail
After mile 2.0, the snow got deeper and the deadfall started in earnest. I spent a fair amount of time scouting for the path of least resistance. If you need to make good time, having an existing trench is highly advised. It would have taken a lot longer in the dark, likely being more cautious about committing to the wrong direction. None of the downed trees took me far out of the way, but there was considerably back and forth to avoid the worst of it.
Must be the path - someone cut a tree
About 3.5 miles in, the deadfall ended and a steep talus slope began. I don't know if I took the "make sure you don't take the left fork" path, or if I was indeed "on trail". If the talus was toaster size and smaller, I wouldn't have given it second thought. But the cairns weaved between microwave to car-sized boulders. I definitely took my time since the snow hid numerous leg-eating holes.
Snow in the creekbed
Ready for some boulder hopping
Nice views from higher up
After about 500 vertical feet on fairly steep climbing, I dead-ended at a vast slab, tilted at about 45 degrees. I knew I wanted to be at the far side of the slab, but didn't know if I should avoid the slab altogether by climbing higher or if a promising ledge traverse was the easier option. After a few false starts, I figured my adventure was about done and it was time to turn around at 11,200'. It wasn't until I got home and cracked open GoogleEarth that I realized another 150' of climbing would have gotten me around the obstacle and onto easier ground.
The return trip went a bit quicker, as I didn't have to stop frequently to search out the path of least resistance. I passed one other fellow quest seeker, otherwise it was a nice quiet day in the mountains.
My second opinion of MadMike's "Crestones in a day", wow! Even more impressive once you see that the "easy" part isn't very easy.
Not the easiest trail out there, but provides some great views and leads to a beautiful spot in the Sangres. Have fun out there!
Trying to get around the slab
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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