Mt. Lincoln - 14,286 feet
With my long-term goal in mind of attempting to fulfill the traditional 3,000-foot requirement for each 14er climbed (no traverses allowed), I decided to try the Lincoln Amphitheater route. This was on a Wednesday and during the COVID pandemic, both of which must have contributed to the fact I saw zero other climbers until within view of the summit (and none on the return). Of course, it's also not the standard route, thus much less frequented.
Because it's a shorter route, at nearly 5 miles RT, I figured starting at 7 a.m. would allow ample time to have the summit behind me by 10 a.m. or so with a generous 1 mph average speed. Well, I was certainly mistaken about that. Granted, I'm not the fastest hiker: for reference, I climbed Torreys Peak by itself solo on the standard route (7.5 miles RT) with a total time of 3:45, about 2 mph average speed. Also, on Lincoln, I did stop to take a fair number of nature photos (the waterfalls were stunningly gorgeous).
However, it's important to note that this route has a couple of characteristics that make it slower going by necessity. First, there simply isn't much of a trail at any given point. Yes, the trail from Montgomery Reservoir is there and does take you into the forest below the Amphitheater but it soon deteriorates into something not very discernible as you ascend toward the waterfalls. Second, the talus and boulder fields you must cross are time-consuming. While there are occasional cairns, they seem to serve more as suggestions for your route rather than a definitive path. These facts -- elusive route-finding near the beginning and tedious rock-hopping -- along with my leisurely pace and nature photography, made this RT time balloon to 7.5 hours. Finally, I have no doubt that those with better route-finding ability and a swifter pace could shave a couple of hours off that time.
OK, let's get to the play by play. There are several parking options once you get to Montgomery Reservoir. I chose one midway between the main parking area and the Wheelers Lake Trailhead, but you can park within yards of the trailhead with a 2WD car. My spot put me only a 5-minute hike from the trailhead. There were several early-rising anglers already there. I did drive over a short bridge spanning a spillway into the reservoir to get to my parking spot, which led to a bit of confusion as to whether I would need to hike over another bridge or not. Instead of hiking over the very short metal bridge to the south over the Middle Fork of the South Platte River that marks the beginning of this route, I mistakenly veered northwest and quickly encountered an old building called Magnolia Mill before I realized I was mistaken and headed back down to the metal walkway bridge.
The trail winds through the forest for a short while and then quickly assumes a steep grade at the boulder fields. Here, I believe I made a second mistake by not crossing to the left of the rocky stream path below the upper boulder field (below headwall, shown in Bill's Photo #3 ) and instead had to wind my way through the dense willows to the right of the stream. This led to me having to use a few steep game paths and drainages to reach the headwall. I stopped a couple of times to snap some great photos of waterfalls on the way up to the headwall, which itself boasts a gorgeous helping of water tumbling through space.
Once you go around and up the headwall, you may choose a path to the right or left to go around the rock glacier, as mentioned in the route description. I recommend the right, which has a 100-yard-long dirty snowfield that was easy to cross without traction devices. The left side, which I chose on my return, is a very rugged, boulder-strewn drainage all the way to the amphitheater. Once in the amphitheater, it's fairly straightforward going to cross alternating boulders and talus, either using the winding, cairn-studded trail or simply following the drainage/path of least resistance to the west/southwest and veering to the right of the last rugged, rocky waterfall feature (Bill's photo #9) and then heading left (southwest) toward the southeast ridge.
Above the amphitheater, heading S/SW up toward the SE ridge, there are mining dirt roads that switchback up toward the ridge. It's easier and saves time to cut through the switchbacks, though it's tempting to follow their more gradual grade. After gaining the SE ridge and ascending toward the NW, you'll run into a well-marked trail that veers to the right (north) which will take you to NE ridge and, from there, trails leading up through boulders to the summit. I shared the summit at 11:15 with about a dozen or so climbers, most of whom were doing the exceedingly popular Decalibron traverse.
A note about weather. Like many routes approaching from the east, it's impossible to see what the weather holds to the west until you crest a ridge, come out a notch or are approaching the summit. For this reason, keeping a close eye on the sky you can see is crucial. As I reached the top of the amphitheater, the puffy white clouds blowing over Lincoln had given way to heavier, taller and darker clouds, a foreboding sign of wet weather. Though wary, I resolved to keep going until I saw clear thunderheads or heard thunder. Luckily, these never materialized, though there were several rounds of light rain. The wind had also picked up with gusts of up to 30-40 mph or so.
On the way down, I chose to veer right at the rock glacier. This proved to be a very rugged, not well-marked, boulder-packed drainage. Again, I recommend going left (to the right on the ascent) and over the snowfield on the descent. Once again, I lost the trail on the way down because I veered north too early and ended up at a dead end on the cliff side of Lincoln's East wall (directly west of the reservoir). I should have shadowed the creek and headed more to the east for the higher boulder field. Instead, I wound my way northeast through the willows to the lower boulder field and back into the pines above the lake.
To summarize, this is an awesome and challenging hike with something for everyone -- forest, wildflowers, waterfalls, a snow-crossing, lots of boulder-hopping, as well as some neat old mining structures in various states of ruin. There are also various artifacts of mining activity such as rusted cans, a rusted storage tank, exposed pipes, a filled-in mine shaft and rotting timbers strewn about. One additional bonus is there are multiple points along the way where I could see where I'd parked by the reservoir. Reminded me of Guanella Pass and how nice it can be during the journey to see where you started and where you'll finish. Happy trails!
In hindsight, I did want to include this trail conditions post from msloc_99, who climbed the day before I did and describes some of the risks with this less-traveled route rather well ...
Route: Lincoln Amphitheatre
Posted On: 2020-07-28, By: msloc_99
Info: Steep trees and cliffs, loose glacier rock, high alpine "mine fields"...if you find this complicated, dangerous, or unnecessary, you're right. "Tree section" from TH to glacier path: difficult to discern a precise route only about 0.2 miles from the parking. Some is just overgrown and some parts allow for multiple difficulties to ascend. Below and in the waterfall/ice-fall sections, it will require choosing between climbing up rocky/muddy cliff sections and/or choosing to crawl up through the creek. Slipping and falling in this section is dangerous considering the exposure and it is almost impossible to not slip due to the creek or during inclement weather. The glacier/glacier rock section: requires navigating a massive amount of loose scree, crevasses, the creek, and water falls. The best bet is to walk where you see grass so the ground doesn't crumble out from under you. Ridge Section (Above the last waterfall in the glacier, between 13k and summit cone between photos 9 and 11 ): there is a lot more loose scree-like ground to cover than the route photos indicate. There is a lot of mining debris, roads, mine shafts, crevasses, and loose rock to navigate. Traveling off the old mining roads is more difficult because the roads criss-cross the slope creating steep inclines and declines to get on and off of the roads. There are also potential hazards on the slope such as holes, crevasses, and several mine shafts that a person could easily fall into if they were not aware of them. Besides them being dangerous, they at least make you change your route to navigate around them. Several of the lower roads switch-back up to the ridge and then others go to the north east side of the cone to the well established trail that merges with the ridge trail to Mt. Cameron.
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