Peak(s):  Culebra Peak  -  14,047 feet
Red Mtn A  -  13,908 feet
Date Posted:  08/12/2014
Modified:  08/20/2014
Date Climbed:   08/09/2014
Author:  OutbackDobbs
 Paying to Play on Culebra Peak, Is It Worth It?  

Basic Info

    Name: Culebra Peak & Red Mountain
    Range: Sangre de Cristo
    Where: San Luis, Colorado
    Max Elevation: 14,047 & 13,908 feet
    Distance: 9.6 miles round-trip
    Elevation Gain: 4,300 feet
    Time: 6.5 hours

Topographic Map of the Route

Having focused on climbing 14ers in the Sawatch Range this summer, I decided I needed a change of scenery and decided to begin hiking 14ers in the Sangre de Cristo Range. I settled upon Culebra Peak because my family and I have never toured the San Luis area and wanted to check it out. Plus Culebra is a peak with a very interesting history. There is probably not a 14er in Colorado as controversial over the decades as this one has been. This peak has long had a reputation of being a "forbidden mountain" because of land access issues due to the fact that it is the only 14er in the country that is on privately owned land. Before 2004 the peak was frequently inaccessible to climbers after it was bought by Jack Taylor in 1960. In his book, Halfway to Heaven: My White-knuckled-and Knuckleheaded-Quest for the Rocky Mountain High, Mark Obmascik provides a good history about the history of the ranch that included plenty of altercations and even the shooting of Jack Taylor due to the fight over the unique communal grazing rights in the San Luis Valley that is a legacy of when this area was part of Old Mexico. By 1999 the Taylor family finally had enough of fighting with the locals and decided to sell the ranch. The Colorado State government tried to buy the ranch for $20 million to turn it into a park. The Taylors decided to sell to the highest bidder which ended up being the Enron executive Lou Pai for $23 million. The crooked Enron executive would prove to be worse than the Taylors when he hired an army of security guards to defend the ranch. Pai also was quite the dirtbag by dumping his wife for a stripper after he made it rich and he would fly out to the ranch with her on a private jet for $45,000 a flight all on Enron's dime. By 2004 Pai had lost the legal battle to keep locals off his land and decided to sell the ranch for $40 million to Texas businessmen Bobby Hill and Richard Welch. They renamed the ranch the Cielo Vista (Heavenly View) Ranch. The new owners vowed to responsibly share the land with nearby residents and develop it for recreational purposes such as hiking. Fast forward now ten years later and I have to say that the owners have lived up to their word because Culebra Peak is regularly open for hiking now, but on a reservation system with a $150 fee. This fee has been a source of consternation with some people, but after having paid to hike up Culebra Peak myself, I have to say the Cielo Vista Ranch has used that money to run an efficient operation and keep this property in pristine condition:

The ranch takes reservations for hiking during a two month summertime window which can be seen on their website. Each week during this window they allow hiking for 30 people on Fridays and Saturdays only. Considering the limited window and number of reservations the ranch is not getting rich off of hikers by charging this fee. If the ranch has 30 hikers in one day that would mean that they would make $4,500. If they maxed out every two days for every week they are open they would get a total of $72,000. Since they do not max out the number of hikers on every open day I bet the ranch brings in about $50,000 a summer from hikers. Considering this is a $40 million ranch that amount of money is nothing to the owners and is likely just used to help maintain the road and pay the ranch hands for the weekends they are working to run the hiking program. It is pretty clear the owners are not running the hiking program for profit and are doing it to be the responsible land owners they promised to be when they bought the property. So I think people need to keep that perspective in mind when deciding to whether or not to pay to hike up Culebra.

Enough of the history lesson, here are the details about the hike. The first thing to do is decide whether to camp or stay at the local motel in the area. Camping is allowed at the ranch's front gate. They have a large designated camping area with a porta-potty:

In San Luis there is one motel, the San Luis Inn which is where my family and I stayed at:

We found the hotel room clean and the owner, an elderly gentlemen by the name of Augustin to be quite nice. In the motel you can see a number of Korean War memorabilia that Augustin has hanging on the walls. A surprising number of Korean War Medal of Honor recipients have actually stayed at the motel at his invitation. Definitely an interesting man to talk with if you have the time. I left the motel at 5:15 AM the next morning to be at the ranch's front gate by 6:00 AM when it opens for check in. The directions to the ranch were easy to follow and I was there by 5:35 AM which gave me time to talk to some of the other hikers parked out front. Shortly before 6:00 AM the ranch hands led by Ron showed up to check people in. Think of an older looking Old West cowboy and that is what Ron looks like. After everyone checked in we followed Ron to the ranch headquarters. There all the hikers gathered in a office where Ron checked our waiver forms and proof payment before giving us a safety brief. After the briefing everyone was free to head up the dirt road from the ranch to the trailhead:

The only vehicle the ranch hands had concerns about was my truck since it is a Ford Escape Hybrid with all-wheel drive. So I stayed back and let everyone else go up the road before going up it myself. As it turned out my truck had no problems going up the road and I actually found the road to be much better than I was expecting. It was very steep and rough in sections, but overall well maintained which shows the ranch is using the hiking fees to help maintain the road. Here is a picture of one of the rougher sections:

For those wanting the shortest hike there is a parking area at the upper trailhead. From there the hike is 6 miles round-trip with 2,800 feet of elevation gain. For those of us like me, who wanted to gain over 3,000 feet to make the hike "official" we had to park at Four Way:

From Four Way it is a one-mile hike up the dirt road to the upper trailhead which makes this an 8-mile round-trip hike with 3,200 feet of elevation gain. I made quick work of the first mile and passed everyone else who began at Four Way:

From the upper trailhead hikers make their own decision on which way to go because there is no official trail:

Most people followed a faint trail that led to the lower ridgeline. I decided to continue to follow the dirt road a short distance to the south which crossed a creek and then take a faint trail up a minor ridgeline that led more directly to the upper main ridgeline that leads to Culebra Peak. This below picture shows the upper trailhead below the ridgeline I was on if you look closely on the lower left:

The faint trail from the upper trailhead leads to the lower ridgeline while the path I took leads more directly to the upper section of this main ridgeline. Going up this steep slope reminded me of the Manitou Incline but with no railway ties. It was steep, but I had a good rhythm going and powered up it to gain the ridgeline that was above 13,000 feet. From here the long ridgeline leads to the false summit of Culebra Peak which I could see directly in front of me:

As I walked along the ridgeline I next passed the biggest cairn I have seen yet on a 14er:

After the cairn the trail gets a little rockier and loses and regains elevation a couple of times. Here is a view looking towards Culebra where the last major saddle that needs to be crossed can be seen:

After crossing this saddle the hike becomes a bit steeper and features a lot of rock scrambling:

This section of the hike I found to be fun because the rock was quite solid and fun to scramble on. After crossing over the false summit the true summit of Culebra Peak came into view:

After a little bit more scrambling I found myself on the summit of Culebra 2 hours and 20 minutes after leaving Four Way. This hike ended up being a lot more fun than I expected with great views. Here is the view looking North with the Spanish Peaks visible on the upper right, Blanca Peak in the upper left, and the beautiful Coneros Basin down below that is nearly encircled by Culebra's long ridgeline:

Here is the view looking towards the South where the 13ers Red Mountain, Vermejo Peak, and Purgatoire Peak dominated the view:

On the summit approach I had caught up with the people who had started at the upper trailhead. They ended up being a great group to spend time on the summit with. Many of them were quite experienced hikers and it was great to spend time talking 14ers with people with similar interests as mine. I ended up spending about 45 minutes on the summit talking, taking pictures, and enjoying how brave the marmots on the peak were. The marmots would come right up to you and try to snatch food:

I ended up being one of the few people that decided to do the traverse over to the 13,908 foot Red Mountain which is one of Colorado's 100 highest peaks. After offering my goodbyes to the great group of people I met on the summit of Culebra I started down towards the saddle with Red Mountain. The descent from Culebra required some rock scrambling, but nothing too difficult. On the saddle there is a small hill that can be bypassed on the side:

There is a steep dirt trail that goes up to the summit of Red Mountain that is easy to follow. In total I completed the traverse in 45 minutes. Here is the view from Red Mountain looking back towards Culebra:

I ended up spending about 30 minutes on the summit of Red Mountain before heading back over to Culebra. Here is a picture looking towards Culebra during the traverse:

Once I got back up on the summit there was no one left there other than the friendly marmots:

I spent about 15 minutes on the summit eating my lunch and enjoying the views to the East of Fishers Peak in the distance:

I then took off to begin the descent back down the long ridgeline. This time though I planned to follow the ridgeline to what Gerry Roach calls in his book Punta Serpiente which is the point on the right as seen from Culebra's summit:

This 13,436 foot un-ranked point is towards the far end of Culebra's serpent like tail of a ridgeline that looks right down into the Coneros Basin below:

This basin is home to a prized elk herd that the ranch offers hunting tours for that cost I have heard $10,000 per person. Here is the view from Punta Serpiente looking back towards the true and false summits of Culebra Peak:

From Punta Serpiente I then began the long descent down the grass slopes of Culebra's ridge back to the upper trailhead:

From the upper trailhead I then jogged the one-mile down to Four Way on the dirt road:

From Four Way I made the drive back down the dirt road. I made sure I was in low gear and carefully drove through the rougher sections of the road. Overall though no issues. I stopped at the ranch headquarters to check out and I was given a code for the lock at the front gate. After passing through the gate I headed back to San Luis not before getting one more photo of Culebra Peak:

Overall this ended up being a great hike up Culebra Peak. In total it took me 6 hours and 45 minutes round-trip to hike up Culebra, Red Mountain, and Punta Serpiente and back. This includes all the time I spent talking to people on the summits. So is it worth paying to play on Culebra? I felt like I got my money's worth on this hike. The ranch employees run a friendly and smooth operation, the access road is in good shape, and the mountain is a lot of fun to hike. It may not seem like you pay to hike on other 14ers, but indirectly you do through taxes. The ranch does not receive taxes to support their operation and thus the reason for the fee. Also paying to hike up Culebra sure beats having the mountain logged like the prior owners tried to do. So I felt it was money well spent.

Finally, something else I recommend is spending some time checking out San Luis. The village has a lot of history and the Stations of the Cross hike is interesting to check out. I highly recommend a hike up Culebra combined with checking out San Luis for a great weekend adventure in this seldom visited part of Colorado.

 Comments or Questions

08/12/2014 13:48
The answer to your question is whatever you think. It's your money. If you enjoyed the hike and felt you got your money's worth, then yes, it's worth paying to play. I feel the same way.

Red #89
08/12/2014 17:31
I climbed the same day. Red was #89 of my top 100. The people at the ranch where great and worth every penny of $150.00.


Culebra cost
08/12/2014 21:59
Wow! That's a lot more than the $40 I paid maybe 10 years ago.


I'd gladly pay...
08/13/2014 02:10
Nice TR! The history nerd in me especially enjoyed it.
I'd pay just to avoid the ever expanding masses I'm finding on these peaks. Sadness.


Definitely More Expensive Now
08/13/2014 11:47
Claybonnyman, did you visit when Pai still owned the ranch? Before he sold in 2004 he started to let some hikers on to the ranch in an effort to influence the legal appeal he had to over turn an earlier ruling allowing locals onto the property.

Revis, there are no masses to be found on Culebra and even fewer people if you hike over to Red Mountain as well. Since people that are really into 14ers tend to pay to do this hike, the people you do meet are really awesome and great to talk to.


Good to know...
08/13/2014 16:16
I'm doing this hike on Friday, so thanks for all the good information.


Paying for Culebra
08/13/2014 23:53
Definitely, I wish I could recall the year, but I do think Taylor owned it by then. There was literally nobody else on the peak that day. I camped overnight in a meadow below, popped up and down with my dog, and was back to my car ” stuck on that terrifying uphill crank below.

D Potter
08/22/2014 02:36
Thanks for the great travel log!

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