(WINTER) HOLD ON! If you don't have much high-elevation, winter climbing experience, be careful in your planning and take a partner. Even the "easy" 14ers (Quandary, Sherman, Grays & Torreys) can be deadly in winter.
From U.S. 24 south of Leadville, take Colorado 82 west towards Twin Lakes. Drive 14.5 miles on Colorado 82 until you see the marked trailhead and parking area on the left.
Begin by walking back the South Fork Lake Creek Road for 0.3 mile, where the road turns to the right. The La Plata Trail goes straight (east) from here. There is a metal sign announcing to stay on the trail to avoid trespassing private property.
Continue over a small hill and go down to cross the South Fork of Lake Creek on a solid wooden bridge (Photo #1). After crossing the bridge, stay on the main trail for about half a mile. Then you'll come to a second creek, La Plata Gulch Creek. Here there is a smaller but sturdy bridge of logs on which to cross the creek. Almost immediately after crossing this second bridge, you will come to a sharp right (south) turn in the main trail. A less-used but evident trail continues straight from this corner. This is where you will leave the main trail and begin your journey to Ellingwood Ridge.
Once you are on the trail to Ellingwood Ridge, follow it east toward La Plata Basin Gulch. The next creek you come to will be the La Plata Basin Gulch Creek. Cross this creek and turn uphill (south), following the gulch until you come to a steep, narrow ridge. Follow the top of this ridge; A noticeable trail along its crest leads the way (Photo #2). This section of trail is mostly steeper class 1.
At about 11,200 feet, you will come to timberline. Here is a huge boulder field. This is where the trail hiking more or less ends.
From the boulder field continue to follow what is left of the trail up onto the rocks, where you get the first impressive views of La Plata Peak (Photo #3). To the left, the steep and daunting talus-filled slopes of Ellingwood Ridge rise into the sky. Photo #4 shows the easiest route upward. There are some cairns and faint trails. Most of these trails, however, consist of loose scree and dirt. The solid rock to the right is probably a better option for this first slope. This is some steep class 2 hiking with some minor class 3 scrambling--no real exposure yet.
Once at the top of the first steep slope above timberline, the terrain relents a bit and becomes more grassy and gentle. The view of La Plata opens up again at this point (not looking any closer), and to the east Twin Lakes loom large below. Photo #5 shows the view looking back down the slopes used to gain the ridge.
The first tower of rock stands at the top of this grassy knoll. Resting at this spot, the climber has a great view of what lies ahead (Photo #6).
The next section of Ellingwood Ridge consists of many such gendarmes, usually with a cliff on the west side. First head for the high point of the ridge, Point 13,206 (Photo #7). Along the way stay on top of the ridge or on the east side of it (Photo #8). Staying true to the ridge crest requires some technical climbing and likely more than one rappel. There are plenty of ups and downs (Photo #9) as you pass by many rock towers (Photo #10). Even on the eastern slopes just below the ridge plenty of class 4 climbing opportunities can be found, but most of the difficulties can be kept to class 3 with adequate route-finding (Photo #11). Cross over Point 13,206 and eventually come to the grassy summit of Point 13,138 (Photo #12).
Crux 1: From Point 13,138, the climbing gets more involved. Route-finding from here becomes much more complicated, as there are a number of ledges that must be traversed leading to blind corners, gullies and cliffs. This section of the climb also involves a lot of downhill to keep the difficulties to class 3 or class 4. There is a fair amount of exposure in some places. Extra care must be paid to footholds and handholds, as there is plenty of rotten rock and scree thrown into the equation. There are minimal cairns along this complex terrain, and likely more than one option for passage in many places. Photo #13, Photo #14 and Photo #15 display a portion of this crux.
This section of the ridge will begin to get tiresome after a while, but it is a fun experience. Just as you think you are getting nowhere, you will see a path of scree leading up to a small saddle (Photo #16). Scramble up to that saddle (Photo #17) and you are rewarded with another view of the now much-closer La Plata Peak.
You will also see that this is where Ellingwood Ridge takes a sharp turn to the west, toward the summit. Though the ridge gets much steeper, it is almost all class 3 scrambling from here. One massive slope of steep talus leads you uphill. You will have to climb around a large buttress (the second crux); stay on its left (east) side. Eventually you will summit Point 14,180, or "East La Plata." See Photo #18, Photo #19 and Photo #20. The worst of the difficulties are over as La Plata's true summit is visible across the saddle. Photo #21 shows the view back down to Ellingwood Ridge from near "East La Plata's" summit.
One more obvious descent is required to pass to the left (south) of a number of more rock towers. Scramble up to the saddle (class 2+) and continue west for the remaining hundred or so yards (Photo #22) until you come to the 14,336-foot summit of La Plata Peak!
Descend via the standard Northwest Ridge.
This jagged ridge is fun to traverse, but beware of how long it will take--many have underestimated its difficulties. Always allow more time than you think necessary, for getting stuck in a storm on this exposed ridge is a scary and dangerous experience. Always be careful and go prepared, so you can enjoy this amazing place!
Wearing a helmet is highly recommended. There are lots of loose rocks and areas of scrambling and down-climbing.
Climbing gear for technical terrain is optional. IMPORTANT: This route enters the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness area. Wilderness areas have special regulations and restrictions for party size, dispersed camping, campfires, etc. Also, dog owners should read the wilderness information carefully because some wilderness areas prohibit dogs to be off-leash and/or limit how close dogs can be to lakes and streams. If you have questions about the Wilderness area, please contact a U.S. Forest Service office for the National Forest(s) listed above.