| Far Side of Nowhere; West Willow Creek Approach
San Luis Peak
14,014 Feet (50th Highest in Colorado)
South Ridge from the West Willow Creek 4WD Trailhead
Trailhead Elevation: 11,500 Feet
11 Miles Roundtrip
Approximately 3,700 Feet Elevation Gained
Map required: Trails Illustrated #139
May 27th, 2012
Greenhouseguy (me), Derek (Derek), SlowMovingFunSeeker (Jay), SenadR (Sen), Clay, Chris, and Michelle
Far Side of Nowhere
San Luis Peak is Colorado’s most remote fourteener, miles from civilization in the La Garita Wilderness. It doesn’t rank highly in altitude or technical difficulty, but its distance from metropolitan areas makes it an excellent destination for those who are seeking solitude.
The southwest side of San Luis Peak viewed from the Colorado Trail
GPS track of San Luis Peak’s South Ridge route
We arrived in the town of Creede late Saturday afternoon and immediately set out to find the trailhead. We found that FR 504 is closed at the Equity Mine, and all traffic is being routed around the mine on FR 503. The detour is well-marked with road signs, so finding the trailhead was a simple matter. We didn’t have to spend much time scouting for a camp site; there is an excellent spot on the west side of FR 504 about 0.9 miles south of the Equity Mine. The site has a pullout for three vehicles and enough level ground for numerous tents.
Camp site on FR 504
Freezing temperatures, high winds, and smoke from several regional forest fires gave us less-than-ideal sleeping conditions; five o’clock came all too early. Fortunately, conditions had improved somewhat overnight. The wind was still brutal, but it had shifted in a way that gave us some relief from the smoke. The seven of us piled into my Cherokee and set out for the 4WD trailhead. Four wheel drive is not really necessary for this road, but high clearance is a must. Along the way, we saw a pair of moose foraging in the West Willow Creek basin.
Moose cautiously eyeing the intruders
There are pullouts for several cars at the trailhead, which is only marked by a pair of posts in the middle of the road. The summit of Pt. 12,540 is clearly visible from the trailhead; our goal was to follow an old jeep road to a saddle just to the right (southeast) of this peak.
Starting out at the trailhead
We crossed a couple of creeks, and passed a trail junction at 0.3 miles. The left fork is a trail to San Luis Pass; the right fork leads to the 12,380-foot saddle southeast of Pt. 12, 540. Both trails eventually lead to the Colorado Trail, but the right fork (which does not appear on most maps) is the most direct route. The trail was faint in a couple of spots, but was generally easy to follow.
Heading up the jeep road to the saddle east of Pt. 12,540
As we approached the saddle, the southwest face of San Luis Peak came into view. The Colorado Trail passed less than a hundred feet below the saddle. There is a social trail from the saddle to the Colorado trail, but much of it was covered by a snowfield. The snow was frozen in the morning, and was easy to traverse.
The southwest face of San Luis Peak in the distance, with a stretch of the Colorado Trail visible in the foreground
The Colorado Trail descends about 400 feet into a wooded area in the Spring Creek drainage.
Descending into the Spring Creek drainage on the Colorado Trail
There were still some significant snowfields along the trail, but traction and flotation were unnecessary.
Emerging from the trees on the Colorado Trail in the Spring Creek Basin (front to rear: Brian, Jay, Clay, Derek, Michelle, Chris; image by Senad R.)
We followed the contour of the basin and reached a junction with the trail that leads to Bondholder Meadows. We stayed on the Colorado Trail as it climbed to a second saddle at about 12,360 feet.
Sen at the junction of the Colorado Trail and the Bondholder Meadow Trail
Looking back at our route through the Spring Creek Basin, with Derek passing the Bondholder Meadow Trail sign
Sen approaching the 12,360-foot saddle as a herd of elk flee over the saddle
Sen surveying the next part of our route from the second saddle
The east side of the second saddle was covered in a snowfield that was too steep and frozen to safely descend. We bypassed the snowfield and traversed beneath it.
Michelle (front) and Chris (rear) traversing the lower part of the snowfield on the second saddle
Looking back at the east side of the second saddle
On the east side of the second saddle, we entered a basin that held the headwaters of an eastern fork of Spring Creek. The Colorado Trail did not lose or gain much altitude as it followed the contour of the basin.
Sen following the Colorado Trail around the second basin
We had to improvise a route around a 10-foot wall of snow on the trail in the eastern part of the second basin.
Wall of snow blocking the trail in the second basin
The building wind seemed to reach a crescendo as we gained the 12,620-foot saddle between San Luis Peak and Pt. 13,511. Sustained winds probably reached at least 20 miles per hour, which made the ascent of the south ridge rather unpleasant.
Looking up at San Luis Peak’s south ridge from just below the saddle
Reports tend to underestimate the steepness of the south ridge, but most of us agreed that it provided a sufficient challenge. We gained 1,394 feet in the 1.1 miles between the saddle and the summit.
Ascending San Luis Peak’s south ridge
Approaching the summit ridge
There is a faint trail through the small, platey rocks on the summit ridge. All seven members of our group made the summit, and some of us lounged up there for up to an hour in the bitter wind and beautiful sunshine. We met three people on the summit who had come up from Stewart Creek, and one pair that had followed us up from West Willow Creek. Views from the summit were stellar; we could see Stewart Peak, Organ Mountain, “Phoenix Peak,” Uncompahgre Peak, and an ocean of unnamed San Juan thirteeners.
Summit shot (L to R): Sen, Jay, Clay, Derek. Not pictured; Michelle and Chris
Me keeping a low profile on the windy summit (image by Derek Freed)
The tundra is not yet in full bloom, but I saw isolated specimens of many familiar alpine plants such as dwarf clover, sky pilot, and alpine forget-me-nots.
Dwarf clover (Trifolium nanum)
Sky pilot (Polemonium viscosum)
The trail passes beneath some scenic spires on the western slopes of Pt. 13,511. Exploring this rock garden would make an excellent side trip.
Garden of spires on Pt. 13,511
The snow melt in the second basin provided plenty of moisture for wetlands plants like marsh marigold. These plants have foliage that is edible in the early spring, but allegedly becomes bitter as it matures.
Marsh marigold (Caltha leptosepala)
The snow in the basins had been solid in the morning, but it turned to slush later in the day. We hardly left boot prints as we passed over snowfields in the morning, but we postholed through them in the afternoon. We kicked steps in the snow on the saddle between the first and second basins and were able to head straight through the obstacle that we had bypassed earlier.
Jay ascending the snow on the saddle between the first and second basins
I noticed quite a few pocket gopher feeding tunnels in the melting snow. These small rodents feed on vegetation beneath the snow, and line their feeding tunnels with soil. When the snow melts, these tubes of excavated soil are exposed.
Pocket gopher feeding tunnels
My energy was running low as we rose out of the first basin to the saddle southeast of Pt. 12,540. Gaining altitude near the end of a long hike is never fun.
Taking the Colorado Trail back to the first saddle
We all met back at the Jeep, stowed our gear, and headed back to the camp site to get ready for the long drive home. The moose that we had seen earlier in the day had not moved far, and were still converting vegetation into organic fertilizer.
Shy moose retreating into the woods
Jay and I had taken the Stewart Creek route on San Luis Peak a couple of years ago, and had been stormed off of the mountain just 500 feet short of the summit at 9:30 in the morning. Needless to say, we were relieved and grateful to have gained the summit on our second attempt. In our opinion, the West Willow Creek approach was much more scenic than the Stewart Creek approach (though not significantly easier). The wild, virtually untouched nature of the La Garita Wilderness made this a memorable journey.
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