6,500′ -7,000′ gained
This loop is a great way to experience the northern Sangre de Cristos without getting yourself into too much trouble as you may on peaks like the Crestones or Little Bear. The 13ers in this area are more reminiscent of their Southern Sawatch neighbors than they are the conglomerate monoliths that signify the South Colony area. Ben and I had grown fond of the Sangres earlier last summer exploring the east side of the range around the Horn Peak region, as well as the 13ers around Music Pass and Lily Lakes. We found that the entire range isn’t as dry as we had once thought, as the trail system around the iconic Horn Peak massif was dense with lush vegetation, creeks, and waterfalls. The trail system was great as well, some routes leading all the way to the summits of some pretty high peaks.
The west side, sheltered from the Wet Mountain Valley to the East was a bit more dry, with fields of scrub and sagebrush and a semi-arid feel to the area. But the forest road system on the west side was surprisingly solid, with 2wd roads abundant, making access to some of the trailheads a breeze. Our destination, Hot Springs Trailhead, was no different. Here are some solid directions from RyanS over on Summitpost:
Start at the Hot Springs Trailhead. To reach the Hot Springs TH from Poncha Springs, head south on US-285 over Poncha Pass into the San Luis Valley. Once ~4 miles south of Villa Grove, leave US-285 for southbound SH-17. Immediately after this junction, look sharp for the left-hand turn onto Saguache CR-GG. The junction between 285 and 17 was reconfigured in 2003, so CR-GG is no longer accessed directly from 285.
Follow GG for ~6 miles to a fork. The left fork remains GG and leads to Valley View Hot Springs. The right fork is CR-65 and leads to the Hot Springs Trailhead after ~.5 mile (continuing a bit further leads to the Major Creek TH, incidentally). The left turn to the Hot Springs TH is indicated by a brown FS sign.
These roads are among the best dirt roads in Colorado for mountain access and are very accessible with low-clearance 2WD.
We had a little over 5 miles to get to the summit of our first objective of the day – Bi-Centennial Cottonwood Peak A (13,588′). The trail went through some nice aspen forests and emptied out onto some easy grassy slopes we used to get into the higher alpine.
The summit ridge was windy so Ben and I decided to take our minds off the wind by picking the local professional tax accountants brain – Mr. Sarnelli – about potential ways to rip off Uncle Sam. His advice was sound – almost as sound as the panoramic views of the area. We reached the summit around 3.5 or 4 hours after take off and found some shelter just below the register in a notch where we ate our first meal of the day.
At the risk of describing this semi-distant memory of the ridge in detail, I’ll show the highlights with some commentary along the way. Most of the ridge – from Cottonwood all the way to Lakes – was class 2 or below. It was grassy in most spots and then had some mild 2+ scrambling, mainly on the section from Point 13,123 to Thirsty. The peaks went in order from North to South (Cottonwood to Pt 13,123 to unranked “Thirsty”, finishing off with Lakes Peak, with peak baggers Ben and Steve polishing off the day with local Bi, Electric Peak). Some shots, in order:
We reached the summit of Lakes Peak, supposedly the final objective for the day, with everyone talking at length about what they were going to order at Moonlight Pizza in Salida. A conversation between Ben and Kevin commenced. It went something like this (some of this rendition is fiction):
Ben: “I’m glad to be not tied to any lists and able to just enjoy time spent in the mountains.”
Ben (looking South): “What’s that peak over there on the other side of the this saddle we are descending.”
Kevin: “That’s Electric Peak….. a Bi-Centennial.”
Steve: “(salivating noises)”
Ben: “Does anyone want to climb that with me?”
Steve: “(more salivating noises – which signifies a yes)”
Me and Dillon: “I can taste pizza sauce in my spit.”
Ben and Steve parted with us at the saddle, and we agreed to just hike slowly so they could catch up further down the trail. There is an obvious trail stemming off the Lakes/Electric saddle that spills out down in to Major Creek (which we would later name Major “Pain in the Ass” Creek). Ninety percent of the hike out was gorgeous aspens in fall colors. The pics will tell the tale.
We could all start to smell the exit of Major “Pain in the Ass” Creek, but just as we neared the mouth of the canyon, the trail veered north and began switchbacking up the hill. We were all confused but too tired and delirious to really care. This is due to the fact that the mouth of Major Creek lies on private property, so in order to avoid it the trail winds northeast on a wild goose chase back to the Hot Springs TH. It was around this time where we heard Ben and Steve approaching from the rear (and we were above them) so we yelled down at them to “go up”. They interpreted this as straight up, so they left the trail and crawled up a couple hundred feet of loose scree and dirt only to find out they could have just stayed on the trail. It was an honest mistake that made for some good laughs (at their expense) when we got back to the car.
The trail eventually meanders back to CR-65, which we picked up and took directly North back to the Hot Springs TH where we started the day. We didn’t have time to soak in the Valley View Hot Springs, but we did have time for Moonlight Pizza.
And “The Feast” for the Fall of 2013 ensued. We actually ended up here cause we went to Amica’s and didn’t feel like waiting 45 minutes for a table. Little did we know that the best pizza in Salida resides here. All in all – a fine fall Sangre adventure.