Herard, Mt - 13,340 feet
Herard, Mt - 13,340 feet
|Mt. Herard: Not too hard and not too easy, with great views from the summit|
The road to the trailhead
For some, this could be the hardest part of the trip. There is a 22-mile, 4-wheel drive road over Medano Pass that connects the Wet Mountain Valley and CO 69 with the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in the San Luis Valley. The trailhead is pretty much smack in the middle of this road, just west of the pass.
Fun fact: in January, 1807 explorer Zebulon Pike used this same route through Medano Pass to cross the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, traveling from east to west in search of the Red River (yes, he was lost). Not long after Pike and his dwindling, poorly-provisioned party of explorers got through the deep snow in the mountains and down into the San Luis Valley they were arrested by Spanish soldiers for “trespassing”.
I drove up from the west side and don’t know much about the eastern half of the road (people I talked to that came up that way said it is steep and rocky). The western half of the road (and the short spur road to the trailhead) definitely require (IMO) high clearance, because there are numerous deep ruts. The national park requires 4-wheel drive to enter the road, which seems to me quite prudent. There are areas of pretty deep sand in the westernmost 2-3 miles of the road (the park service suggests deflating tires to 20 psi) while the upper portions of the western side of the road are rocky and steep in a few places. Quite a bit of the western half of the road is a tight one-lane that could require some extensive backing up if you encounter a vehicle going the other way. Also, there are nine crossings of Medano Creek. The crossings were not bad when I drove the road in September, but it could be quite different in the Spring.
Thus, I would highly recommend checking the park web site for current conditions and maybe calling the park to get a report on road conditions (especially the water levels in the creek, which could, potentially, be a show-stopper).
There are 21 designated, first-come-first-served car-camping sites (each with a bear box and campfire ring) along the western half of the road (west of the pass) and two of those sites are accessed from the short spur road to the trailhead. If you are fortunate enough to snag one of those two sites you can easily walk the 1/10th of a mile or so up the road from the campsite to the trailhead. If not, there is room for maybe 4-6 vehicles to park at the trailhead.
The trail to Medano Lake
This is a very pleasant, improved trail that gains about 2,000 feet of elevation over 4.2 miles (from 9,500 at the trailhead to 11,500 at the lake). The bottom half of the trail is relatively flat with a lot of the gain coming in the last two miles, where there are some switchbacks and improved steps. There are downed trees that were not much of a problem in September, 2020; but there is certainly a potential for a lot more at any time. There are also several stream crossings. On my September hike the trail was in good shape and the crossings were not bad. But I would imagine that conditions could be pretty muddy in wet Spring conditions. The trail is well-worn and easy to follow.
Maybe ¼ mile or so before the lake (and the steepest part of the approach trail) there is a nice camp site, marked with a sign (but no bear box or fire ring).
The climb up the mountain from the lake
Except for the valley that you walk up from the east, the lake is surrounded by mountains and it can be a bit confusing about where to go from the lake. Part of the reason for that confusion is that you cannot see the summit of Mt. Herard from the lake.
When you get to the lake the trail will lead you around north side of the lake, which is pointing pretty much due west toward a mountain wall with a pronounced V-shaped “split” near the top.
Mt. Herard is just west and a bit south of the that V, but you cannot see it from the lake. In other reports you may have read about a “notch” but that is different than the large “V”. Don’t confuse the two. I will get to the notch in a moment.
When the lake first comes into view you’ll see some small, shallow pools just before you see the main body of the lake. At about that point there will be a use trail to your right that leads up the hill away from the lake, more or less due north.
This is a use trail but it is well-cairned and should be pretty easy to follow once you get started on it. If the main trail you are on, heading westward around the north shore of the lake, begins to peter out and you have not found the use trail heading up the hill to the north then you need to stop and backtrack and start looking for cairns. Keep at it, you’ll find it and it will be worth the trouble.
From the lake the goal is to gain a point on a saddle at about 12,500 that you cannot see from the lake. Find the cairns and follow them. The use trail is a little steep and slippery with scree and loose rocks, but it’s not bad and does a nice job of traversing just below a cliff wall that you can see from the lake.
At the saddle at 12,500 you will turn 90 degrees, from north to west, and you will see a steep ridge that leads upward toward the previously-mentioned small notch. That notch is your target.
While it may look a bit intimidating, I found the hiking on this steep ridge to be quite enjoyable, with plenty of grassy turf and solid rock with very little scree. I would suggest staying as close to the ridge crest as possible. Right after you make the 90-degree turn there is a small, rocky mound and I would suggest going straight over the top of it. When you get close to the notch there will be another small but narrow rock outcrop that you will have to cross to reach the notch and pass through to the point just beyond it at about 13,000 feet.
Once you gain the point at 13,000' you will be able to look west and see the relatively gentle terrain for the final 300 feet of ascent. You still cannot see the actual summit but it’s on top of the big, rocky, flat-top mound in front of you and there are a series of good cairns that will lead you straight to the ginormous cairn that someone spent a lot of time building at the summit.
The virtually flat area around the summit is huge (I’m guessing, maybe, a few acres) and very flat with fabulous views of the sand dunes in the valley and the Blanca group of 14ers to the south and the Crestone group to the north as well as the Wet Mountains and the valley to the east.
On the descent I think the keys are to be sure to get back to the 13,000-foot point and the crossing of the notch and then try to stick to the ridge all the way down to that cairn at the saddle, and then follow the cairned trail back down to the lake.
In summary, Mt. Herard is a good, challenging class 1 & 2 hike with a bit of exposure on the ridge near the notch that some might find a little more challenging than a class 2. The ridge from the saddle to the notch (12,500 to 13,000) is steep but the footing is good. The summit is huge and flat with outstanding 360-degree views. The maintained trail to the lake is good and easy to follow. The use trail from the lake to the saddle and then up the ridge to the notch and then on to the summit is well-cairned and pretty easy to follow, once you find it and get started on it at the lake (which might require a bit searching). Roundtrip distance from the trailhead to the summit and back is right at 10 miles with about 3,800 feet of gain. Most people will probably want/need a 4-wheel-drive/high-clearance vehicle to get to the trailhead.
According to Wikipedia this mountain was originally called Medano Peak. In 1970, at the request of the Colorado Mountain Club, it was renamed Mount Seven because it supposedly has seven peaks (six of which were not apparent to me). In 1984 the name was changed again to honor Ulysses Herard who homesteaded on its slopes starting around 1875 (according to the NPS).
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