| Go West, Young Man
center foreground - "the Castles", background - South Maroon and Pyramid, as seen from Storm Pass
I left work early on July 3rd and drove down to Buena Vista, over Cottonwood Pass, down into Almont, and across the valley to the Ohio Pass Road, where I turned west on Gunnison County 727 to the Mill Creek Trailhead. A Lists of John trip report describes the route as 18.5 miles and 4,800' of gain (Jon Frohlich's 2008 14ers.com trip report says 4,000' of gain), which seemed like a long daytrip, so I opted to backpack in a few miles and camp. The Mill-Castle Trail starts as an old road on the south side of Mill Creek before narrowing into a trail. After a mile or so, I had to search around for an easy place to cross the creek before rejoining the trail on the north side.
entering the West Elk Wilderness
Switchbacking up through the trees on the north side of Mill Creek, I started smelling what I thought was a skunk, then I rounded a corner and found this within a few feet of the trail.
About 30 seconds after passing the cow carcass, I heard a sound like a tree crashing over, and saw this bear staring back at me from an uncomfortably close distance to the trail. I had been scouting for a campsite, but decided to keep going a while and put some distance between myself and the bear.
After hiking two hours and I don't know how much distance or gain (I wasn't carrying a GPS), I found a good campsite to the left of the trail. It had been raining on and off, and I was fortunate to get a lull in the rain to set up camp, pump water, and eat dinner before going to sleep. The mosquitoes were annoying, but not miserable enough to have to hide in the tent. I woke up at first light without an alarm and started hiking at 6:20.
Within 30 minutes of starting, I smelled a familiar fragrance, but much stronger. I was breathing through my mouth as I rounded a switchback to find another two cow carcasses in a more advanced stage of decomposition. Choking back dry heaves, I raced past them to get uphill and upwind.
Mill Basin comes into view
The steepest parts of the hike are all between the creek crossing and treeline. The trail is nearly overgrown with willows in many places, but not difficult to follow. The next photo is the last patch of willows before the junction with the trail to North Baldy Mountain.
turn right here for the trail to Storm Pass
I missed the junction and went left into Mill Basin. After realizing my mistake, I considered going for North Baldy and traversing over to West Elk, but seeing the steep section marked on the next photo nixed that idea. I later read some notes in the summit register that people had completed the traverse, but I had no idea of the difficulty of that steep section.
I hiked easy terrain across Mill Basin to the bottom of the switchbacks up to Storm Pass.
From Storm Pass, the trail stays mostly on the ridge crest heading west toward the point at left, then turns northwest toward West Elk's summit at right.
The last few hundred feet was an easy stroll to a gentle summit.
What does it mean that West Elk Peak is the 17th most prominent in Colorado, with 3,095' of prominence, even more prominence than all but nine of the Colorado 14ers, despite being ranked a lowly 617th in the state? It means the views kick ass.
WNW: Mt Gunnison, Colorado's 13th most prominent
N: Capitol and Snowmass
NNE: South Maroon and Pyramid
NE: Castle Peak
ESE: Mt Ouray
SSE: San Luis Peak
SSW: Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn
I spent 45 minutes on the summit, eating lunch, taking pics, and using the PeakFinder app on my phone to identify peaks, in the company of a multitude of moths and flies, but fortunately no marmots (marmots are EVIL). Many Sawatch and western San Juan peaks are also visible from the summit. I had seen a few elk on my hike up, on the south side of Mill Basin, and along the ridge to the east of Storm Pass. As I descended from the summit, I saw about 40 elk in the drainage to the north of Storm Pass, at center of next photo.
Descending back toward camp, the pair of cow carcasses I passed in the morning came into sight from a few hundred feet above. I held my breath and sprinted through what by the midday heat had become an orgy of flies. Soon enough, I was back in camp.
I broke camp quickly, the mosquitoes were somehow worse in midday than the evening before, and joined by numerous biting flies. The hike out went quickly, hastened by knowing there was at least one bear between camp and the trailhead.
Time stats (distances unknown) for the trip:
Trailhead to campsite: 2 hours
Campsite to summit: 3 hours 40 minutes
Summit to campsite: 2 hours 15 minutes
Campsite to trailhead: 1 hour 40 minutes
Thanks for reading...
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):