Starting Point: Guanella Pass upper parking lot
Peaks in order of ascent: Square Top Mountain (13,794’), Argentine Peak (13,738’), Mount Wilcox (13,408’)
RT Distance: 10.2 miles (including ~1.5 mile return slog along Guanella Pass Road)
Elevation Gain/Loss: 4,570 feet
There is something eminently satisfying about a loop trail – maybe it’s the gratification of completing a journey without retracing one’s path, the feeling of properly culminating an undertaking and closing the proverbial loop. My original goal was simply to climb Square Top Mountain (13,794’) from Guanella Pass in what would’ve amounted to a short half-day hike in preparation for the tougher rigors ahead in the season. After some research and perusing many neat reports on this site, the trip gathered mass adding two neighboring 13ers, Argentine Peak (13,738’) and Mount Wilcox (13,408’) to the agenda. Of the reports I’d read, the recent account by SurfNTurf stuck to mind not only because it presented the loop the I wanted to do in the right sequence, but also because of Jeff’s inadvertent error and the resultant warning about trespassing on private land around Naylor lake on the return segment. I knew I had two options to avoid this politically incorrect outcome – climb a fourth peak, albeit a ranked but lowly 12er - Otter Mountain (12,766’) - and descend its southeast ridge until it intersected Guanella Pass road, and the other would be to descend south-east-east from Wilcox thus bypassing the lake and the surrounding private property. Both options would add some mileage and put me on unfamiliar slopes but I was ready for the challenge – after all, it’s not like any of these peaks actually had trails to their summits!
The trail to Square Top starts from the upper parking lot at Guanella Pass. Square Top Mountain is hidden behind the grass-covered slope that rises gently from the trailhead.
Lovely meadow early in the hike
The trail meanders lazily through the hillside and soon part of the ridge to Square Top comes into view even though the actual summit stays hidden from view almost the entire hike.
Route to Square Top
The weather forecast called for a 50% chance of showers and thunderstorms after noon, so I took advantage of the gentle ascent and stepped my pace up to a steady run through the first couple of miles.
Trail meanders through the meadow
The main trail leads to two lakes just over 12,000’ named Square Top Lakes, but these need to bypassed in order to climb Square Top Mountain.
Sharp left ahead!
In the world of 13ers, trails are not so common and so it was with this one as the trail petered out in less than half a mile of this detour, with one final sign pointing in the general direction of the grassy slope that climbs to the summit. Hikers can be spotted in the shot below, which was also somewhat unusual for these peaks.
Of course, none of these hikers had quite as ambitious a mission today as I did, as their goal was limited to Square Top. My plan was to summit Square Top and continue on to Argentine without much delay. I figured I would assess the weather situation after getting to Argentine so time was now of the essence.
The hike up the tundra-laden slope was straightforward as it climbed from about 12,200’ to a notch around 13,000' before making another pitch up to a false summit around 13,600'.
Tundra to the Top?
Looking down the slope
The next shot shows the relentless march up to the slope, two hikers lending perspective to the magnitude of this pitch.
Steady ascent past the notch
Hikers atop the false summit
I made it to the false summit in excellent time and the skies were still friendly as I surveyed the steep drop to the saddle with Argentine Peak, and the climb to its summit that appeared to be broken into two segments. Grays and Torreys flank the background in the next shot.
Connecting ridge to Argentine Pk
Looking to the northeast from this vantage point, I could see the distinctly shaped Naylor Lake and knew I would be skirting it on the northern border if I were successful in summiting the two other peaks on the cards.
Naylor Lake to the northeast
I didn’t immediately resume the slog to the actual summit because I met a couple at this point and started chatting with them about their plans – Square Top was their only goal for the day and I found myself talking them into joining me for two more peaks and a loop finish. Now I normally would not do this, as it is easy to get caught in some else’s enthusiasm when it comes to high country hiking, but they seemed to be in very good shape and we had that instant chemistry that always makes for good company. It didn't take much to convince them either and in ten minutes we were marching the final couple of hundred vertical feet to Square Top’s summit en route to the ridge hike down the saddle with Argentine Peak.
Final pitch to summit
We reviewed the clouds forming in the distance to the northwest and I reinforced the strategy that we will re-assess the situation after gaining Argentine’s summit whether to continue to Wilcox or retrace our paths although the elevation gain in re-summiting Square Top might negate the lower mileage of that return option.
As we embarked on the next leg, I surveyed the ridge route to both peaks; the saddle with Argentine descends to 13,000’ leaving over 700 feet of elevation gain to reach its summit, while climbing a few false summits. The saddle between Argentine and Wilcox is at 12,800’ and very broad, with Wilcox requiring around 600 feet of elevation gain to its high point.
One down, two to go!
The initial descent off Square Top is on steep talus which gives way to tundra making for an enjoyable hike to the saddle. This picture was taken while still descending to the saddle and shows the three lakes.
Once we got to the saddle, Argentine’s summit was no longer visible but the ridge route is straightforward. This ridge is marked with several rock outcroppings most of which needed to be directly climbed while some could be skirted on the right.
Ridge route to Argentine
The next shot looks back at Square Top Mountain and the ridge traverse from its broad summit – my fellow hikers can be spotted just past the saddle.
Looking back at Square Top
Bypassing rocky spurs on the ridge
After I crossed the last aręte bypassing it to the right, there was one final push left to gain the second summit of the day.
I snapped my obligatory self-portrait on the top and enjoyed the views while waiting for my friends to catch up.
There didn’t seem to be an immediate threat of thunderstorms so I knew Wilcox was a go. When my friends joined me on the peak, we discussed plans and decided we would climb Wilcox and then descend its southeast slopes while avoiding Naylor Lake entirely.
Two down, one more to go!
We surveyed the connecting ridge to Wilcox which is a bit more rugged than the one between the first two peaks.
Ridge route to Wilcox
The drop to the saddle is steep before the ridge levels out so we enjoyed boulder hopping through this section and traversing the broad saddle before starting the push for the final peak of the day.
The serrated ridge transitioned between tundra and boulders and made for a delightful traverse.
Jagged ridge to Wilcox
The next shot looks back from the final talus section well above the saddle at the broad lofty expanse of Argentine.
Looking back the ridge toward Argentine
I marched up the boulder field with renewed vigor and was soon atop the final summit of the day.
Final talus to Wilcox
The clouds were now moving directly overhead as I glanced northwest toward Grays and Torreys.
Clouds looming overhead
I was soon joined by my partners in crime and we decided to stick to our planned exit strategy of descending the grassy east slope of Wilcox. We mapped out a route that would skirt the private land surrounding Naylor Lake and eventually connect us to Guanella Pass road some 800 vertical feet below the summit where we’d parked.
As we descended down the beautiful east slopes of Wilcox, the clouds had started to build up above the peaks. I glanced up at the majestic duo of Bierstadt and Evans to the east and caught a memorable shot showcasing the rugged beauty of the sawtooth connecting these two majestic front rangers.
Bierstadt and Evans
We successfully managed to avoid Naylor Lake but did flirt with private land as we hit Naylor lake road about half a mile earlier than we’d targeted. Climbing a few cliffs on the way down was the perfect topping to a rewarding day in the mountains.
Skiting cliffs on the descent
The 1.5 mile trudge up the road was summarily dispatched as we recounted the day’s highlights and how we’d escaped nature’s fury with nothing more than a few drops of rain toward the end. I was barely halfway on the drive back down Guanella Pass road before the clouds unleashed their pent-up moisture in a torrent that lasted until I was well on my way on I-70. Close call indeed but some days everything just goes your way and I sure wasn't complaining!
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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