Peak(s):  Culebra Peak  -  14,047 feet
Date Posted:  07/05/2020
Date Climbed:   07/04/2020
Author:  rsuminsby
 Culebra in the COVID era   

For those who have braved the crowds on a Front Range 14er like Bierstadt, I thought I'd offer some thoughts about climbing Culebra in the Age of COVID-19. Yes, it costs $150 for access. Some people seem to find it offensive that anyone can own a mountain summit charge people to hike to it. If you are one of those people, Culebra is probably not for you. But if you are one of the people able to make peace with the fact that the owner is maintaining miles of road, and managing access smartly so as to preserve a wilderness experience, and is being appropriately compensated for the effort, read on.

We made our reservations through the Cielo Vista Ranch website (, and Carlos, the manager was very prompt with communications. You have to fill out and sign a waiver and send it back in advance. The cost was $150/person, which will seem steep to a lot of people. (I'm sure it's a bargain price compared to paying for an Elk hunt in the Fall!) But access is limited to about 20 climbers per day, so you are guaranteed to get away from the crowds that plague a lot of 14ers in high season. And there was plenty of room at the TH for all the vehicles, with no one blocked in or squeezed onto the side of the road.

My climbing buddy and I were driving up from Albuquerque, so Culebra, the "southernmost 14er" also happens to be "closest to NM". (It's true. Check the map). It was under 4 hours drive time, and we passed through the sleepy town of San Luis ("Oldest Town in CO") and arrived at the Cielo Vista Ranch north gate about 5pm. We weren't sure what to expect (part of the reason for this TR), but were pleasantly surprised. It's not a shaded pine forest by a babbling brook, but just inside the gate was an open field with plenty of level ground for tent sites. I'm guessing a hard rain could have made for a sloppy mess, but we were fortunate with only light sprinkles overnight. There was also a port-a-potty on site, an unexpected plus.

20288_01The campsite inside the gate

It's important to note that gate was NOT open, so we had to park our vehicle outside the gate and carry gear over to the campsite, about 50 yards. No big deal. There was one other party camped there, Dave from Wisconsin and his daughter, Halley. Very nice folks. Here I thought I was at a disadvantage trying to climb 14ers while living in New Mexico! A few other cars arrived, one lady with a roof top tent and several others sleeping in their cars. At about 6pm, 3 vehicles came down the road from the direction of the ranch HQ. One vehicle contained a couple who had gotten lost on descent and gone into the drainage south of the upper 4WD TH. The other two vehicles were employees from the ranch, one of whom turned out to be Carlos. We chatted briefly, and he assured us that one of his assistants would be there at 6am sharp the next morning. The weather forecast for the next day was iffy, so we were itching to start on time.

After a nice night under a nearly full moon, we awoke at 4am to break camp and be sure we were ready in plenty of time. At 6 o'clock on the dot, a truck appeared and unlocked the gate, checking us in quickly and sending us on our way up the road to the ranch HQ. There we stopped, checked in again, and got a (very) short briefing. All in all, quick and efficient, with everyone wearing face masks and observing social distancing. We all piled into our cars and headed up the road to the trailhead. The road is in great shape as 4WD roads go, but it is a very steep grade in places. I had just bought a new 4Runner TRD Off Road and was delighted to have an excuse to use 4Lo, although I could have made it without it. One guy in a Volvo overheated his engine and had to give up and park at the Fourways intersection and hike an extra mile up the road. The rest of us made it to the upper TH at ~11,600'. Bottom line, don't count on making it the last mile in a passenger car.


In my research on Culebra, I really don't recall much mention of the views from Culebra, but they are stunning. As you drive up the road to the TH, you pass through a couple open meadows and get your first glimpse of the Blanca Group, about 30 miles to the north. From the Upper TH, you can choose your own path up the open slope towards the ridge. Don't get so engrossed in selecting your route that you forget to stop and look over your shoulder! The sweeping vista of the San Luis valley is incredible. Because there are so few people on the mountain, there's a certain air of bonhomme (that's French for "good hommies") amongst the group. We enjoyed chatting with others as we headed up the slope and admired the views.


Once we reached Culebra's long serpentine ridge, the clouds had started to roll in a little and it got a bit chilly. For the next hour or so, it felt more like a ramble in the Scottish hillsides than a summer climb in Colorado. With clouds shrouding the ridge, it was hard to judge how far the true summit was. But eventually as we got higher we broke through the clouds and were treated to some nice views of Carneros Lake and the basin to the north. Lots of fun Class 2 scrambling along the ridge.


We reached the summit in 2:08. A couple 20-somethings had flashed ahead and beat us by a mile, but for a couple guys in their 60s, we felt pretty good being the next ones on the summit. We had hoped to tag Red Mountain (13,908", one of the Centennial Peaks), but with the weather still kind of iffy and lightening potential forecast for the afternoon, we decided to head back.


On the way down, since we'd decided to opt out of Red, we felt like we had plenty of time to stroll over to "Punta Serpiente", described as an Extra Credit excursion in Gerry Roach's book. And it really is a stroll, only about a half mile from the large cairn on the ridge, and barely more than 100' of elevation gain. But from that vantage point you get terrific views down Carneros Lake and the beautiful glacial basin surrounding it. Plus, you get a much better view of the full ridgeline to the summit of Culebra.


The views in the opposite direction, of the San Luis Valley, are beautiful as well.


From Punta Serpiente, you can retrace your steps back to the center of the basin and descend the same way you came up. But since the weather was holding, and we could see the TH and cars, we opted to skirt the ridgeline to the north, in order to enjoy the views down to Carneros Creek for as long as possible.


We followed the northern ridge down to Pt 12354, and then descended into the broad basin and headed directly back towards the TH. This is a wonderful way to end your climb of Culebra, and I highly recommend it.


We were back at the car by 11:30, and drove back down to the Ranch HQ to sign out. There was no one there, we just went into the office and signed out on the list we'd signed in on that morning, and on the sheet was the code to a lockbox at the gate so we could let ourselves out. Simple and efficient. Nice to know they are paying attention to getting all their paying customers off the mountain and accounted for.

So that's Culebra in a nutshell. Yes, you're out 150 bucks plus gas money, but you get the opportunity to enjoy some pristine Colorado scenery unencumbered by crowds of people. You don't have to worry if that guy hacking up a lung on the trail right in front of you just got back from Brazil and is running a fever. And if that's not enough satisfaction for you, take heart that your money is creating jobs for several people in the San Luis Valley during a global pandemic that has clobbered a lot of tourist economies. You can feel good about that, while taking in the view.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Comments or Questions

07/06/2020 12:52
Thanks for a nice trip report.

Lucky me, when I climbed Culebra, the fee was a mere $40! My dog Otter (RIP) and I were the only ones on the mountain that day.

Nice report
07/07/2020 20:52
It looks like a lot of fun.
Do you have an opinion on whether a Subaru Forester would make to the 4-wheel drive trailhead?


Upper 4WD TH
07/08/2020 09:33
I think you'd get the upper TH in your Forester...I seem to recall there was one in my group last weekend. In fact, of about a dozen cars in the group, only one (a late model Volvo sedan) didn't make it all the way. That guy overheated and had to park at Fourway and walk the extra mile. The road is in good shape, with only a few spots where you have to use caution due to deep ruts. But it is steep, so your engine will get a workout. I just bought a new 4Runner TRD Off-Road, so naturally I was just itching for an excuse to use 4Lo, but I probably could have made it without it. Leave yourself a little room between you and the car in front of you, so you can accelerate up some of the steep sections. If you have to stop for the car in front of you, it may be hard to get going again. Everyone leaves the ranch HQ building at the same time, so it's a bit of a road rally getting to the TH.

   Not registered? Click Here

Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.

© 2021®, 14ers Inc.