| Walking on Sunshine
14,034 Feet (46th Highest in Colorado)
14,001 Feet (53rd Highest in Colorado)
Ascent: Northeast Ridge of Redcloud from the Silver Creek Trailhead (Easy Class 2)
Descent: Northwest Face of Sunshine (Difficult Class 2)
Trailhead Elevation 10,400 Feet
About 10 Miles Roundtrip
Approximately 4,250 Feet Elevation Gained
July 18th, 2010
Greenhouseguy (Brian), Misirlija (Sen), Derek, Zoomie83 (Todd), and SlowMovingFunSeeker (Jay)
Walking on Sunshine
Redcloud Peak and Sunshine Peak are two of the easier fourteeners in the San Juans near Lake City. Topographer J. C. Spiller of the Wheeler Survey named Redcloud Peak in 1875. It's easy to see that the mountain was named for its red soil, which is derived from a volcanic rock called rhyolite. Endangered Uncompahgre Fritillary butterflies live on its north slopes, and endangered Colorado River Cutthroat Trout live in lakes and streams around its perimeter. Sunshine Peak was named by the USGS in 1904. Its primary claim to fame is that it is the lowest fourteener in the United States. The two mountains are a mile apart and are connected by a saddle that drops more than 500 feet. They are frequently hiked as a combination, and this was my goal because the six-hour drive was just too exhausting to allow me to leave with only one summit.
The most popular point of access for Redcloud and Sunshine is the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch Trailhead. It is on the Cinnamon Pass Road, which is rough and barely 2WD passable up to the trailhead. There is a pit toilet at the trailhead, and plenty of dispersed camping sites. A pair of old log buildings near the trailhead are all that remain of a small settlement that existed back in the mining boom in the 1870's.
Dispersed camping at the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch Trailhead
Historic buildings on the Cinnamon Pass Rd. near the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch Trailhead
We camped in what may have been some of the less-desirable sites close to the road, but nobody had any complaints. Because we had a long hike ahead of us, we attempted to be on the trail by 5:00 a.m. We only missed our mark by 15 minutes. When the sun started to rise, we put our headlamps away, layered down, and noticed that it was cloudy. Hopefully the clouds would burn off and we would get in a good hike.
Sen stopping to layer down under cloudy skies on the Silver Creek trail
After climbing steeply through the woods, the trail leveled off and followed Silver Creek through a beautiful gulch. We paralleled the creek through immense fields of small talus. The wildflowers were showy along this section of trail, particularly the Rocky Mountain Columbine.
Looking up the beautiful Silver Creek Gulch
Silver Creek is appropriately named. A white, chalky mineral (perhaps an aluminum compound) precipitates on the rocks in the stream and contributes to the silvery appearance.
Water cascading over rocks in the aptly-named Silver Creek
A particularly rocky section of trail
One of the noteworthy wildflowers I saw was the Dusky Penstemon. John Bigelow first collected this plant in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico in 1853. It was named for Lt. Amiel Whipple, whose surveying expedition laid out a potential course for an intercontinental railroad. The route that he surveyed later became the iconic Rte. 66.
Dusky Penstemon (Penstemon whippleanus) growing in the talus along the trail
We couldn't see either summit from the lower portion of the trail, but we spotted a false summit in the general direction of Redcloud Peak. It lacked the reddish color for which the peak is known.
A false summit on Redcloud Peak
We left the willows and krummholz behind at about 12,000 feet and entered a huge basin on Redcloud's north side. The headwall of this basin was the saddle between Redcloud and Pt. 13,561.
Derek hiking into the basin on the north side of Redcloud Peak
We gained some serious altitude switchbacking up to the saddle between Redcloud and Pt. 13,561. We could see the true summit and much of our upcoming route from the top of the saddle. It seemed like the summit was miles away, but it was much closer than it appeared.
Sen on top of the pass on Redcloud Peak's northeast side. The true summit is visible in the distance behind him.
We still had a bit of steep terrain ahead of us. Without switchbacks, parts of the northeast ridge would have been miserable.
Switchbacking up a steep portion of the northeast ridge
Redcloud Peak's reddish hue became more pronounced as we drew closer. The mountain is just a big rounded lump, but the coloration makes it much more attractive.
That's why they call it Redcloud. Redcloud Peak's summit viewed from the northeast ridge.
There were a few bumps on the northeast ridge, but it was easy to keep up a good pace on the rolling terrain. There is an obvious trail all the way to the summit, but the route is graded as a Class 2 because the trail passes through talus. The distinction between Class 1 and Class 2 is purely academic in this case.
On top of the northeast ridge moving towards the summit
We could see a trail snaking its way to the top when we reached the base of the summit cone. The rapidly-vanishing remnants of a cornice lingered on the southeast side of the ridge.
Approaching Redcloud's summit cone
All five of us made it to the summit within a few minutes of each other. The soil was redder than red, as if it had come straight from Mars. Georgia and North Carolina's red clay pale in comparison.
Summit shot on Redcloud Peak. Left to right: Sen, Todd, Derek, Brian, Jay
The views of the Uncompahgre Group really got our attention. Coxcomb Peak looked like a square box, Wetterhorn and Matterhorn were sharply pointed, and Uncompahgre's flattened summit ruled the horizon.
View of the Uncompahgre Group from Redcloud's summit
Sunshine Peak was only a mile away, and the undulating ridge didn't look like much of a challenge. Clouds were moving in from the southwest, so we didn't want to linger on the summit. Jay headed back to the trailhead via the standard route, and the rest of us pushed on towards Sunshine Peak.
Sunshine Peak viewed from Redcloud
I had to jog to keep up with Derek and Sen as they set a blistering pace for Sunshine. The trail was good, and we made our way down to the saddle in just a few minutes.
Following Derek and Sen down to the saddle between Redcloud and Sunshine
The BLM place a sign on the saddle warning hikers not to descend from the saddle. This used to be the standard descent route, but the loose rocks on the steep slope represent too much of a hazard. People generally return over Redcloud, but many people find it distasteful to have to gain 550 feet on the return trip.
Sign warning of the treacherous terrain below the Redcloud/Sunshine saddle
A large gray cloud moved in as we approached Sunshine's summit cone. Our descent route was on the other side of the summit, so it would have made no sense to turn around. We hadn't heard any thunder yet, so we felt relatively safe at this point.
Sen approaching Sunshine Peak's summit cone
The last section of the trail was steep, but small switchbacks in the trail made it more manageable. I was extremely motivated to get my second fourteener summit of the day, because I didn't want to suffer through another six-hour drive to summit Sunshine.
Clouding up as we top out on Sunshine Peak
A problematic cloud was directly overhead when we reached the summit. The anxiety built as a couple drops of rain started to fall. Once again, we didn't want to spend too much time on the summit. We still hadn't seen any lightning or heard any thunder, so we took a few minutes to enjoy the views and energize ourselves with a snack.
A small gathering on Sunshine Peak's summit. Ominous clouds are directly overhead.
We could see a few people making their way over from Redcloud. The trip between summits had only taken us about 45 minutes.
Looking back at Redcloud Peak
Handies Peak barely stood out as a low fourteener in the sea of high thirteeners.
Looking over towards Handies Peak (dead center of image) from Sunshine Peak
We decided to head down Sunshine's west ridge, and follow the northwest face route. There was a distinct trail on the ridge, and the initial descent was quick and easy. We could see the Cinnamon Pass Road at the bottom of the ridge.
Starting down Sunshine Peak's west ridge
The basin at the bottom of Sunshine's northwest face was huge. There were sections of clear trail through the basin, while other parts of the route were marked with large stone cairns. For the most part, it was not hard to find our way through the basin.
Dropping down into the basin on Sunshine Peak's northeast side
A hiker who was ahead of us turned around and came back with a puzzled look on his face. He had followed a cairned route that took him back up a ridge, probably to the ranked thirteener "Sundog." We obviously wanted to stay in the basin. He descended a sharp dropoff on the left side of a gendarme. Judging from the rocks that I heard falling, he probably had a rough time of it. I had the correct route downloaded to my GPS, and it took us to the right side of the gendarme. It still didn't look right. It was a dangerously steep scree/dirt gully with nothing but rotten rock to slow our descent. This may be a good winter route, but the footing was not stable enough for me to call it a good summer route. We slid and scooted down a couple hundred feet of some of the worst scree imaginable. Derek actually sank up to his knees in one spot. Gaiters would have been a good idea.
Looking down the dirt gully beside the gendarme
We gathered at the bottom of the dirt gully and took a well-deserved break. Afterwards, we contoured through the talus-strewn basin until we reached a good trail that followed the South Fork of Silver Creek. Brilliant red Narrowleaf Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja linariifolia) broke up the monotony of the dull green willows that lined the trail. The dark cloud that had threatened us on Sunshine's summit had moved on, and the sky was a beautiful shade of blue.
Good trail beside the South Fork of Silver Creek
A Narrowleaf Indian Paintbrush growing along the trail beside the South Fork of Silver Creek
We reached the main trail at the junction where the South Fork flowed into Silver Creek. It was good to know that we had nothing but Class 1 ahead of us, but it was still a long haul down the valley to the trailhead.
Looking down Silver Creek Gulch towards the trailhead
We got back to the Jeep exactly 7.25 hours after we started, and the weather couldn't have been better. It seemed like a shame to leave the San Juans so early on such a beautiful day, but we'd had a full day and it was a long drive home. Redcloud was all that I had hoped it would be, and walking on Sunshine was a blast. Walking down Sunshine, not so much. Returning to the main trail by re-summiting Redcloud seems to be the best option, however onerous it may seem. Definitely do this hike in July, when the wildflowers are in full bloom. The colorful scenery will not disappoint you.
Greenhouseguy's Hiking Page
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