Peak(s):  Aztec Mtn  -  13,310 feet
Kennedy, Mt  -  13,125 feet
Date Posted:  07/08/2020
Modified:  07/14/2020
Date Climbed:   07/05/2020
Author:  Chicago Transplant
 Lime Zest   

Lime Zest: West Ridge of Aztec Mountain

Peaks climbed:

Aztec Mountain (13,310'): 385th Highest
Mount Kennedy (13,125'): Not Ranked

17.5 miles and roughly 4000' with the ups and downs. I didn't track it with a GPS but did run it on Topo! I will post a map later when I can get it converted from PDF, my photoshop is acting up today. Can save 4-ish round trip and a couple hundred feet of up and down from the road with the shortcut trail.

Pigeon, Turret, Fifteen, Eolus from Kennedy


Zest, noun

  1. keen relish, enjoyment, gusto
  2. an agreeable or piquant flavor imparted to something
  3. anything added to impart flavor, enhance one's appreciation

Aztec Mountain is part of the ridge line that forms the south wall of Chicago Basin. As people hike the approach trail for the 14ers at the head of the basin, the steep walls, narrow chutes and rugged towers of this ridge hover overhead. However, most are too busy looking up valley and it seems this ridge rarely makes any photo appearances in people's trip reports. If people have an extra day, they may climb the centennial 13er Jupiter. A few may venture across Columbine Pass to climb the bi-centennial Grizzly - maybe adding its neighbor McCauley (a highest 300). Fewer still may climb Aztec, a lowly highest 400 peak. The two times I have been in Chicago Basin, Aztec just didn't fit into the plans. A couple of years ago I thought maybe we would add it to a backpacking trip for peaks to its southeast, but that didn't work out either. What to do with this Weminuche orphan?

Having day hiked Overlook Point (12998') from Lime Mesa after we packed out of the previously mentioned backpacking trip, I wondered if Aztec was possible to day hike from Lime Mesa. Knowing a few people who have climbed it from Columbine Pass, it sounds like it is a surprisingly loose peak that is not particularly enjoyable from the east, which further pushed my interest to the west side of the mountain. There is a video trip report on this site, and a GPX track from John Kirk on his site that when combined with looking at my photos and some satellite photos convinced me that the approach would be a very reasonable one and largely on grass. All I needed was a 3-day weekend to deal with the long drive, and a favorable forecast for a 2+ mile traverse above treeline each way.


Lime Mesa is accessed by the Missionary Ridge Road north of Durango, the trailhead is about 24.5 miles from pavement at 11,500' above sea level - and you leave the pavement at 6650'. The road starts out with a series of washboarded switchbacks before crossing open meadows and a forest still recovering from a 2002 fire that burned over 70,000 acres. To get to the bottom of the road, turn east off of US 550 at Trimble Crossing then after just under a mile left (north) onto County Road 250. After about 3 miles the Missionary Ridge veers off to the ridge and is signed as County Road 253. About 12 miles up keep going straight on FS 682 as you pass a turn off for Burnt Timber. At about 18.5 miles in you will see a sign for Henderson Lake and Lime Mesa, take this road (FS 081) which is now a narrower and rougher road. The first 2 miles are probably fine for lower clearance, but there are two steeper rocky sections between miles 2 and 3 that may stop you. There is a good parking/camping area at 10,900' just after mile marker 3 (22.5 from pavement) that is where most people will choose to stop (this is where I parked both times I have been up this road in my Outback). Higher clearance 4WD vehicles can make it to the final trailhead 2 more miles up. It takes about an hour to get from where you leave the pavement to where I parked.

The main parking was full and there wasn't really any good place to park to camp in my trunk, so I went back to a flat pullout just below the parking area instead and made my dinner while fighting off mosquitos. The forecast for Sunday originally was looking very favorable, but had deteriorated slightly to include a 20% chance for weather at 10am. This pushed my start time up to 4am, but with the full moon I didn't mind too much. I got ready quicker than I expected and actually hit the trail at 3.45am using the moon light as my guide. I never turned my headlamp on during the approach. The road was easy to follow with a few ups and downs and I was soon at the 4WD trailhead where I signed in to the trailhead register and followed the trail. Again, no headlamp needed in the moonlight. The trail is pretty flat with some minor ups and downs for the first 2 miles to Dollar Lake, only gaining a net of about 400 feet from the end of the road. The trail clears the north end of Lime Mesa at 11,980'.

Dollar Lake (on the way down)

There is an alternate approach from the lower trailhead, about a quarter mile up the road there is a trail that goes off to the left. The trail is not really marked as a trail, just a brown FS stick closing it to motor vehicles. This takes about 2 miles out of the hike each way. According to the Durango couple I met at the trailhead after my hike, its a good trail and it spits out at a large cairn above Dollar Lake. The trail contours below Lime Mesa's cliffs. I knew there was a short cut, but I wasn't sure where it was in the morning and didn't want to mess with it in the dark.

From the north end of Lime Mesa the trail weaves through some pretty cool bouldery benches and rock outcrops as it approaches the 12,500' pass over Mountain View Crest that drops to Ruby Lake. Before you get that far, however, a second unmarked trail veers right towards a small pass (also at 12,500') between a secondary N-S ridge. This is also the trail to Emerald Lake. I made it to this pass in about 2 hours from the car and was now navigating by the early morning's first light rather than the moon as I no longer was casting moon shadows. This was a great place for a short snack and water break and to check my route forward. It is about 2 miles from here to the Kennedy-Aztec saddle I was aiming for.

Moon over the La Platas from my 12,500' break

The Emerald Lake trail drops off this small pass on a strong trail that skirted the remaining snow. At the low point of 12,220' on the backside, the trail drops to Emerald Lake but to my surprise a game trail continued on in the direction I was traveling. This 280' drop and reclimb later are the most notable loss/gain on the traverse portion of the route. This trail would fade in and out a couple of times but mixed with the grassy benches I was traversing below the main ridge crest, kept things moving quickly. There are a few ups and down, one notable section where it drops through a cliff band to add about 100' or so more elevation loss, before you find yourself below the south slopes of Mt Kennedy. Along the way you get a few glimpses of the peaks to the north and learn that Mountain View Crest is a very appropriate name.

Overview of 2 mile traverse from 12,500' pass on the way back. Trail in foreground, with 12220' low point at narrow snow strip at bottom of that trail

Here I began an ascending traverse to wrap around the south and east side of Mt Kennedy as I climbed up onto the high shoulder of West Silver Mesa.

View back from along the way

As I reached about 12,600' the terrain steepened a bit before I then traversed relatively flat at 12,800' to the 12,860' saddle. I was now only about 3 hours from the car and making great time on the 8 mile approach. It was not even 7am yet and the skies were nearly perfectly clear. I stopped for some water, snacks and to finally put on sun screen. The traverse thus far had not had the morning sun hit yet for more than a few brief moments.

Final contour to saddle around Kennedy's SE side

Peak Ascent

Looking down from the saddle I could see the Chicago Basin trail and a couple of tents as well as the towering mass of Mt Eolus. Early on I passed a gully that was narrow, steep and may make a good technical snow climb to approach this ridge from Chicago Basin. Looks spicy.

Interesting narrow couloir

The ridge itself was a nice stroll up grass to the initial false summit where now the sun was in full force in my face as I was walking directly towards it. As such, I don't really have pictures looking up route, just back down. From the crest of this first false summit the ridge crosses a delightful catwalk similar to that on Eolus.

Initial climb from saddle, mostly grass after these first few rocks.

It ended abruptly with a small cliff, but an easy class 3 descent to the south brought me into the first of two notable notches.

Looking back at first notch

I went back to the ridge crest but quickly a second deeper notch presented itself and I had to backtrack a little. Its better to traverse flat from the first notch. I crossed a loose gully and reascended to the ridge crest on some loose rock that gave way to stable slabs near the crest. A total of about 2 or 3 minutes of loose rock in either direction vs the long loose traverse from Columbine Pass.

Loose reclimb

The remaining ridge crest was a second equally delightful catwalk with airy exposure to Chicago Basin below and a few minutes later I was at the summit.

Lower catwalk section

A large cairn with a stick, but no register. Great views all around as the entirety of upper Chicago Basin unfolds to the northeast and the peaks to the east and southeast tower over Johnson Creek and the Florida River.

Chicago Basin waking up

I retraced my steps back to the saddle with Mt Kennedy and began my ascent of the other side. A few large granite blocks and steps to start up provided some good solid class 3 scrambling before passing over a 12980' false summit and crossing a flat col.

Kennedy blocks

The remaining route to Mt Kennedy was a gentle stroll to a large flat summit area, a stark contrast to the steep walls, narrow gullies and pointy towers coming off to the north side of the ridge.

Kennedy summit stroll

A good look back at Aztec, but there was still a lot of glare. I tried to get as best a pic as I could shielding the sun with my hat.

Aztec from Kennedy


My descent came off the southwest side of Mt Kennedy until I reached the grassy benches and intermittent game trails of the earlier approach.

Heading back on the grass and game trails

The reclimbs were short and on good trail and not too painful and I soon was crossing back through the 12,220' saddle looking down on Emerald Lake. Maybe a future camping trip is in order, it seems that this weekend most of the cars at the trailhead were either there or at Ruby Lake and as I joined the main trail I passed pair of couples coming out. One quick push to the 12,500' saddle and it was mostly downhill.

Emerald Lake and PT 12082

Again, I stayed on the main trail as I did not know for sure where the short cut came out, or how good it was to follow. It was a pleasant hike, and I had it all to myself. Before too long I reached the road and then it was 2 miles of remaining descent to the car. The road is rugged with a few rocky spots and some areas that looked like they could get messy when mud fills the ruts. Seemed passable for the off-road oriented stock vehicles.

General condition of the upper road

On the way down I kept my eyes open for evidence of the shortcut trail and found the best candidate at the brown FS stick mentioned above. The couple from Durango I met at the trailhead confirmed it.

Shortcut trail starts here

I enjoyed a quick lunch and packed up my camp, no rain yet but a few light clouds. I was on my way back down around noon. Thankfully nobody was coming up through the steep narrow sections. Traffic was light on the entire road, but 550 was crowding up with people returning from the holiday weekend. By the time I got to Coal Bank Pass the rains were hitting hard, but the drive was mostly uneventful, just long. Including a few breaks for gas and food, it took 8 hours from trailhead to my house in Edwards. I guess the 3.45am start was still good for something, had I started at my originally proposed 6am I wouldn't have gotten home until after 10. This way I had a little time to sort gear and such from the weekend before heading to bed for another work week.

La Platas from the hike back to the car

I would highly recommend this route to anyone, especially if you can take advantage of the shortcut trail, its a great way to climb this peak and experience this area from a different perspective. It is also the best approach for climbing Overlook Point which at 12,998' is probably a 13er now anyway. I mean, if Sunlight Spire (13995) is being called a 14er, surely Overlook is a 13er! If one did want to hit this ridge on Aztec from Chicago Basin and avoid the loose east ridge route you could wrap around Bullion Mountain on the Trimble Pass trail. If you wanted to add this route to a backpacking trip of the other 13ers in the area or from City Reservoir, Missouri Gulch or West Silver Mesa would be grassy approaches and work well too.

Finally got my photoshop to convert the PDF to a JPG on my map:

Route Map

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Comments or Questions

quintessential trip report
07/08/2020 20:25
You nailed it Mike. You made it clear why we do this, why we put up with the stress of driving and other overhead to walk 17 miles in nature's great cathedral.

You're so close now. Good luck with the last five.


07/09/2020 07:13
great report

the quest continues with a short way to go

Ridge runner

Lime Mesa
07/09/2020 10:07
Lime Mesa is still one of my favorite places in Colorado, including Overlook Point. I was reminded there that I didn't always need to be on the highest peak in the area to truly appreciate the beauty that surrounds. It's been close to 7 years since I've been out there, but I think I found the shortcut on the way in, but missed it on my return trip. It's easy to miss. Great photos and glad you had a great trip, Mike!

Chicago Transplant

07/09/2020 10:59
Thanks! The last 5 will be interesting, I am hoping to go rock climbing after work today with a friend who wants to lead Lizard Head so hopefully I can get my rock skills dialed back in. Last year I was recovering from a broken thumb and didn't get on rock all summer. I'll give you a heads up on the finisher, would be fun to have you all along if you could make it.

Kevin Baker

Good route
07/09/2020 13:39
Nice way to do Aztec, Mike! I hear rumors that you may wait to finish next spring with a ski descent of Star? Let me know if a lowly slowshoer can tag along!


Great report!
07/09/2020 16:58
And, I am stoked for you on your pending ascension!

Nice report!
07/09/2020 17:47
We were drooling over that line as a snow climb up Kennedy, from Chi basin! Looks like a lot of fun. It stopped us dead in our tracks when we saw it, to where we had to look up which mountain it was to make note.
I'll wait til we can take the train next time tho.


07/10/2020 09:56
Helluva way to get one of your remaining peaks! I like it!
Good luck getting to the finish, Mike!

As for that couloir, if it's the one I noticed from Chi-Basin when I was in there one early May, I think this report by Boggy gives the details...

Chicago Transplant

thanks again
07/10/2020 19:16
Thanks! It was a fun route. Yeah, one of my ideas is ski descent of Star. I should have all the others done by labor day though, so we'll see if I'm patient enoguh to wait 8 months. I guess #98 to #99 cents was 2 years, so I might wait it out.
I think boggy and Kylie went up the opposite side of Kennedy. The route in my photo is slightly above the saddle in the Aztec side. There were several steep narrow chutes though, could be some fun challenges.


Gorgeous area
07/26/2020 23:51
Thanks for posting, Mike! I enjoyed it your report, as always. I tried this approach in July '19, thinking the southern exposure would give me a drier approach, but the snows were still very high and my the valve on my air mattress broke apart in the morning, so that all I got to enjoy was a hike to Overlook Point (and, wow, what views of the Needles!). Anyhow, with no train this year and not being keen on the Purgatory approach, I may revive this plan. My thought then (and possibly now) was to grunt over Kennedy and Aztec with the big pack to camp near Lillie Lake. I of course appreciate any observations you might offer.

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