| Night in the Ruts
14,421 Feet (2nd Highest in Colorado)
Southwest Slopes Route (Class 2)
North Halfmoon Creek Trailhead (10,500 Feet)
7.7 Miles Roundtrip
Elevation Gained: 3,950 Feet
July 6th, 2008
Night in the Ruts
Mt. Massive viewed from the east
Mt. Massive is the third-highest peak in the contiguous United States, and it prevails over Leadville's southwest skyline. Henry Gannett made the first recorded ascent in 1873, but it is likely that the early miners or Ute Indians had already reached the summit before that time. The mountain clearly deserves its name; it has a three-mile-long summit ridge with five peaks over 14,000 feet. The 30,000-acre Mt. Massive Wilderness Area was formed in 1980.
The Southwest Slopes Route on Mt. Massive offers a shorter alternative to the 14-mile East Slopes Route. While the route is shorter, it is not necessarily easier; the nearly 3,000-foot slog up the steep side of the ridge is an intimidating challenge. The Colorado Fourteener Initiative trail, however, is in excellent shape. The road to the standard Mt. Massive Trailhead is in fair shape, and is accessible to most vehicles. The road beyond the Mt. Massive Trailhead gets progressively worse, and it is definitely a 4WD road long before it reaches the North Halfmoon Creek Trailhead.
Mt. Massive's Southwest Slopes and the North Halfmoon Creek Valley viewed from Mt. Elbert (image taken July 2007)
I wanted to get an early start, so I drove up on the previous evening and car camped. Driving the Halfmoon Creek Road late at night was a nerve-racking experience. The upper portions were muddy, potholed, rutted, and littered with rocks. I got out once to move rocks from the road and fill in a pothole. Most stock 4WD vehicles should be able to handle the road, but the smaller ones may have trouble. The smallest vehicle that I saw at the trailhead was a Ford Escape.
Rough portion of the Halfmoon Creek Road (image taken on the return trip)
Plush accommodations at Chez Cherokeé
The overnight low was about 37°, which was perfect for comfortable sleeping. I was dressed, fed, and on the trail by 5:30 a.m. There was barely enough light to see what I was doing without a headlamp.
The North Halfmoon Creek Trailhead
Starting down the trail in near darkness
I filled out an information card as I entered the wilderness area. The trail followed North Halfmoon Creek, which was a raging torrent. I could hear the sound of the rushing water for much of the day.
Entering the Mt. Massive Wilderness area of the San Isabel National Forest
The trail followed the east side of North Halfmoon Creek for about 1.25 miles, then emerged from the forest into a broad willowy meadow. This valley was probably the most scenic part of the hike; the view of Mt. Oklahoma was incredible.
Looking up the valley towards Mt. Oklahoma
The trail splits in the meadow; one branch goes northwest towards North Halfmoon Lakes, while the other branch goes northeast towards Mt. Massive's southwest slopes. The trail junction is well cairned and signed.
Sign marking the trail to Mt. Massive's southwest slopes
The trail up the southwest slopes is a little bit too well developed in places. The rocks steps through on the C.F.I. trail protect the mountain from erosion, but they detract from the wilderness feel. The rocks seem like they would be incredibly slick when wet.
Rock steps through the boulder field
The wildflowers and shrubs appeared to be nearing the peak blooming season. The twinberry honeysuckle, trumpet gooseberry, and red elderberry were all blooming; these shrubs produce berries that are valuable food for wildlife.
Delicate pink flowers on the trumpet gooseberry (Ribes leptanthum)
The western red columbine were blooming down below in the forest, and the Colorado columbine were blooming on the slope between 11,200 and 12,200 feet. How many states have a better state flower?
Our state flower, the Colorado columbine (Aquilegia caerulea)
At about 12,000 feet, the trail leveled off and entered the tundra. The respite from the steep terrain was brief.
Hiking through tundra towards the big rockpile, with South Massive in the background
What more can I write about hiking dozens of switchbacks? Some people consider this to be a bland mountain, but not me. The trail wound through pleasant rocky tundra with a wide variety of colorful wildflowers. The trail was in excellent condition, and it was easy to follow. I had to pass through a couple of small snowfields, but gaiters and ice axe were not required. The summit was not visible from any part of the slope.
Small snowfield on the southwest slope
The summit ridge started at about 14,200 feet. There was still a little bit of snow on portions of the ridge, but it was easy to clamber above and around the snow.
What do you mean this isn't the summit?
As I approached the summit, I passed several other small groups of hikers who were head back down. Other than a group of three hikers who were just a few minutes ahead of me, I hadn't seen any hikers all day. The longer standard route appeared to bear the brunt of the traffic. The wooden pole sticking out of the summit block was visible from a long distance.
Mt. Massive's main summit (in the center of the image with a small snowfield)
I shared the summit with the three cheerful hikers who had summited just a few minutes before me. We watched a herd of mountain goats grazing on the side of South Massive. It was only 9:30, but some slightly troubling clouds were starting to move in. There was no lightning or thunder, but there was also no easy way to bail off of the ridge if a thunderstorm developed. I lounged on the summit for about 10 minutes, and made haste for treeline.
Not my best summit shot
To the south, I had a good view of Mt. Elbert and La Plata Peak.
Looking back down the ridge towards Mt. Elbert and La Plata Peak
To the east, the raging Arkansas River looked pretty timid.
The Arkansas River Valley viewed from Mt. Massive's summit
I couldn't identify many of the mountains to the north, but they seemed to go on forever.
View to the north from Mt. Massive
As I bailed off of the summit, I enjoyed the view of the North Halfmoon Creek Valley. It was scenic, and incredibly deep.
Peering down into the North Halfmoon Creek Valley from about 14,200 feet
The rocky tundra is an ideal habitat for marmots. I could see them and hear them in every direction. One particularly dull specimen tried to elude me by running down the trail just a few steps ahead of me. I nearly had to boot him out of the way to pass him on the trail. He gave me his toughest look, but I was not impressed.
Marmot giving me his best Clint Eastwood look
The hike down through the tundra was enjoyable. The trail was easy, it was not crowded, and there were plenty of interesting wildflowers.
Narrow trail though the tundra
Hall's Penstemon (Penstemon hallii)
As I reached the valley floor at about 11:15, it started to drizzle. I put on my rain gear, and got wetter from sweating than I would have gotten from hiking in the rain. The sun popped back out after about 15 minutes.
The North Halfmoon Creek Valley during a light drizzle
I was back at the trailhead by 12:15. Some ATV riders were crossing the creek in less-than-ideal conditions, and a few people were breaking down camp. The hike had been a pretty intense grind, but I enjoyed it from start to finish. I've hiked eight out of the 15 Sawatch fourteeners, and this is my favorite so far. Good scenery, good wildlife, good wildflowers, and a good physical challenge. As much as I enjoyed my hike, I eventually had to head out and face the REAL crux of the route: the drive home!
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