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Peak(s):  West Elk Peak  -  13,040 feet
Teocalli Mountain  -  13,213 feet
Date Posted:  10/04/2016
Date Climbed:   09/28/2016
Author:  bergsteigen
 A journey into the Elks for Autumn leaves   

Teocalli Mountain

Trailhead: Teocalli (West Brush Creek road)
Mileage: 5.53 (1.1mi as crow flies)
Elevation Gain: 3,137'
Partners: solo
User groups on roads/trails being courteous to each other: 4x4'ers, Hikers, Mountain Bikers, Dirt Bikers, Cows, Cowboys on horses, wild animals...

Since I have changed around my work schedule to work weekends and take off during the week, planning my days around the best weather has been interesting. Hoping next summer will be better, when I'm less spoiled. This week, the weather looked great on Tues&Wed. But the logistics of making it work were not great. I have rehearsals on Monday night, and leaving Boulder at 9pm is not ideal. But the weather was good.... hmmm So after a bit of searching, I figured I could drive out Tuesday morning, and do an afternoon hike of Teocalli, as long as I could drive to within a mile of the summit. No storms, so it doesn't matter when I summit the peak, even late afternoon/evening.

So Tuesday morning I wake as early as I can stand it, and got on the road about 5am, for a reasonably pleasant drive over Kenosha and Cottonwood passes. No traffic, so I make great time into the Crested Butte area. Followed the directions to get to the Teocalli TH and can definitely recommend high clearance 4WD for this road. Not technically challenging or exposed, just really big rocks. Also a lot of mud potential, so I would avoid during mud season or after a big rain storm. My truck could handle it, but the road would be a disaster afterwards.

Gold along the road into Teocalli

Teocalli in distance, after leaving road to Pearl Pass

Getting closer to Teocalli

After having virtually no traffic the entire way, the last 2 miles were done at a crawl. A large herd of cows were being shepherded up the road by some cowboys. A group of European mountain bikers were also in the mix. The bikers waved me on, and I started approaching the large herd of cows. But I then paused, since I wasn't sure how to make them move. So with that delay the spunky mountain bikers somehow just muscled their way through. So I followed in their wake for a bit, until the cows closed in. Then it was a matter of switching to 4WD low and revving the engine a bit to get the cows to move. After quite some time, I managed to get through the cow herd. The final stretch of the road gets a lot more rough and the final stream crossing may be challenging to some.

I arrived at the new trailhead wondering what Furthermore was talking about with the willows/bushes. I had been keeping track of my mileage, and I didn't quite make the 0.25mi left to go. After I started up the trail, it became apparent that they moved the trailhead lower, below the bushes. So no need to worry about that anymore.

I geared up as the mountain bikers took a break from their ascent. I decided to follow a cow path up a drainage instead of following the old road and trail. I took it on the way back down though. From my truck, the summit was barely over 1 mile away, but with the ease of following the trail to the gentle ridge, I added on the extra mileage, since otherwise it would have been 3K gain in a mile!

Traffic Jam on the way to the trailhead

Peak from trailhead

Mountain bikers on trail

Well behaved cows didn't hurt my truck, phew!

As I approached the trees on the trail, a pair of dirtbikers were making their way up the trail. They were from San Diego and were doing a giant loop in Colorado starting in Telluride, where they left their truck. They had some interesting stories to tell of trails over mountain passes during the snow storms of the past weekend. They were on their way to Aspen and then around and about back to Telluride. Sounded like a fun trek to do on dirt bikes. Sure, not the same as on a mountain bike 14er/centennial treks as we've seen the past couple summers, but a worthwhile adventure none the less!

I departed early from the trail, to make my way up the slope, mostly to avoid the mountain bikers relaxing on the trail by the saddle. There is a trail that diverges from the main one, and I took that on the way down. Beyond the trees, it was a grassy and steep ascent up to the one cliffy area to negotiate. The trail peters out and seems to veer off way to the right/east, so I left it and went straight up at that point. I spotted some mountain goats above, and I ended up veering even more to my left to not directly approach them. On the way down, there is a nice almost trail through the rocky section, that I took on the way down.

Long grassy slope uphill

Teocalli guardians

Rocky spot

Castle with the mountain goats running away on ledge

Once on the ridge, it was a short talus stroll to the summit, where the Elk 14ers dominated the views all around me. The other 13ers I have yet to do in the area were under scrutiny, as I try to figure out the best way to summit them. With all the looking I do, snow seems to be the best way to avoid the nasty rock. I should probably just set up camp in the valleys, and just ski the lines that I'm sure are everywhere!

I would have loved to sit on the summit for much longer than I did, but I did have the long 4x4 drive out, and to get over to West Elk peak TH to cook my dinner too. Evening summits are great, but not always if you have big plans for the next day.

Approaching the Teocalli summit

Summit pano

Elk 14ers

Route back down

Late afternoon glow on route up from treeline

It was tough to not stop frequently and enjoy all the autumn scenery on the way out, but I also knew sunset was coming sooner than I would like.

Golden valley

Golden beaver pond reflections

Colorful sunset

Made it to the Mill Creek TH and quickly started grilling dinner under headlamp. The only thing I saw at the trailhead, was that the view would be spectacular the next day.

If only people followed the instructions on this sign...

West Elk Peak

Trailhead: Mill Creek
Mileage: 19.14
Elevation Gain: 4,784'
Partners: Solo

With 19 miles to hike in a day, I couldn't get away with a late, post sunrise start. I have been very much enjoying those. Best side effect of picking the best weather days this year! So up before civil twilight, I was on the trail about 5am in the pitch dark. It was probably a good thing, as I would have been distracted too much by those views in the first 3 miles. As it was, as soon as the sky started getting light, my jaw dropped and I spent some time trying to get a shot with stars the the cliffs above me. It didn't work, and I think it may have messed with my camera settings a bit.

As I approach the first real uphill section (first 3 miles I think I gained less than 1K), the light started hitting the trees, cliffs and spires, and I knew I needed to find a good spot for sunrise. Thankfully I kept going up the trail instead of stopping at the first amazing spot. Something I've learned, is usually the most amazing spot, is further than the first one you see. So I kept going, until I found it. And even then I went a bit further to confirm. Then I put on my puffy and waited.

What's the difference between a hiker and a photographer that hikes? A hiker would have seen this spot, and maybe thought, this looks cool, I'll snap a photo on the return and kept hiking (since it was still dark). A photographer will stop, sacrifice an hour of their day (in a long day at that), put on a puffy and make sure they get 'The Shot'. But the photographer knows when the sacrifice is worth it, most of the time. I was really glad I was solo right now. Other partners on a 19miler like this would have had a heart attack waiting. Impatient B*stards. Especially when my camera seemed to go into idiot mode and no matter how I set my aperture, would post-process the crap out of the shot. It looked great on the preview screen, snap, preview = awesome, process -> crap. Full panic mode. Why were all the shots bright orange? I even went to the extreme to shoot in raw. But then I filled up my memory card. Super panic. Delete 1 raw, keep 2. I don't do much if any post processing at home on my photos. I crop/scale and make pano's. I don't mess around with settings. If I don't get the shot in the field, I'm not going to play around at home making it better. I take too many photos for this to happen, and I just don't have the time or energy either. Plus I like the challenge of getting the shot on round 1, using skills and photography techniques, not using Lightroom/Photoshop. But that's my style. I also like when real photographers can get more from a shot, but then it's their job!

Golden frame

Alpenglow sunrise frame





Eventually I get the camera to behave by fixing the white balance to daylight. Who knows what I messed up. But after being in one spot for an hour, I was antsy to get on my way. Plus I now had to make room on the memory card for the remainder of the trip!

I was able to keep hiking on the way up the amazing valley, since the whole scene was backlit, and wouldn't turn out anyway. I just hoped that I could be fast enough to get back to the spot, in the afternoon, when the lighting was more favorable. So I put it back into hiker mode and charged up the easy gentle trail. i had been cruising at almost 3mph before sunrise, and was keeping the speed up pretty well once the scenery went back to mellow and not terribly exiting. I kept an eye on my GPS, to make sure I made the turn to go up the Storm Pass. I vaguely remembered that Brian had missed it on his trip. Just after the willows on the trail is the unmarked split.

Only excitement was watching the sheep, crows and raptor interact. The raptor was chasing the crows around in the sky. All the drama caused the sheep to run off before I could get to the ridge/pass.

From there the trail has wide switchbacks up to the pass, where I expected the trail portion of the day to end. But yet it continues, if a bit more faint, all the way to the summit.

Looking up at the ridge to summit, from trail split

Mountain drama!


There was a little bit of snow along the ridge, but nothing to be worried about. As I reached the turn on the ridge, I decided to skirt it to the NE side of the ridge point, and go through the snow. On this day, it didn't even go over my boot tops. With more snow, I'm sure that will change. Even with 9.5 miles to the summit, I still arrive at about noon. Not too bad, even with the hour spent on the sunrise! I should have no problem getting back down to the pretty valley for afternoon light, and to the trailhead to grill dinner before sunset!

Route up from ridge, West Elk on right

Other valley view

Final ridge to summit

Spent about an hour on the summit. Quite the lovely view of the Elk Range and the autumn colors in front. Tough to tear myself away, but in a long hike, I was only half way through with it.

Elk Pano

Elk colors pano

San Juans

Further west, West Elks

Ridge back down

Getting back into the magical lower valley, my hiker pace once again drops to photographer pace. I even sit admiring the view for awhile. I also wanted to rest the feet a bit, since it's been years since they've seen this many miles in a day. So in a way, I was grateful for the photography, even if it did add another hour onto the descent, as my mouth went agape more times than I can count. Especially as I hiked through the section that I had done in the dark. Very glad I didn't see this on the way up! I would have been so late!

The last few miles were so flat, it seemed like an eternity. But the views made up for it. Though with the last 0.75 mile being on a perfectly good road (minus one boulder), I was wanting it over, so I could get to the trailhead for that amazing view I remembered (if not in it's details) and for dinner!

Approaching the magical valley

Rugged Elks and color

Looking back up valley




Some grilling locations are better than others.

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
10/4/2016 1:54pm
I hiked up West Elk this same time of year a few years back and my partner and I spent over an hour taking pictures as well. So important to pick the right partner if you value the photos too! West Elk is just a great peak. Thanks for the write up.

10/4/2016 2:04pm
What sweet pics!

Traffic jams!
10/4/2016 5:21pm
I'll take those kinds of jams over ones encountered on I-70 any day!

Gorgeous shots, Otina! Glad you got the camera out again!

Thanks for posting!

those sunrise shots
10/5/2016 8:31am
do not suck

great photos
10/5/2016 10:02pm
Looks like a good place for aspen viewing

10/6/2016 10:32am
Super glad I got the camera working again!

10/12/2016 9:37pm
Great trip report and fantastic photos, thank you ! What a gorgeous place!

Wonderful Wildlife Encounters
11/24/2020 3:19pm
Great wildlife sightings and pics! What colors! Great shot! Makes me want to do this hike in the Fall for sure!

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