Peaks: Tomasaki, Manns, Pilot, Green, Waas and La Sal high point Peale
Free Camping Spots: Burro Pass, La Sal Pass and Geyser Pass
# of people encountered on all 6 summits combined = 0
For some reason, I always forget how to get around the town of Grand Junction. The grid is set up similar to Salt Lake City with numbers and letters and shit. Rick Thompson, a GJ native, is convinced this makes life easier for the general population, but I find that hard to believe, especially when you are looking for an address that starts with “D 1/4 Rd”. Anyways, directions aside, I’ve always been fond of the area and thought it would be a cool place to live. It’s 2 hours from everything.
I got off at the usual Clifton exit and went to pick up last minute supplies and catch the end of the Federer match. Problem was, the City Market that was off that exit, no longer existed. Luckily the Walgreen’s did and that would serve as my supply outpost. As I sat there streaming the Federer quarterfinal match, with a darkening sky, I thought to myself how convenient it was to have the San Juans a stone’s throw to the south and the desert canyon country less than 2 hours to the west. Talk about stress free!
I purposely waited till dark and then began my drive to my projected camping spot. I did this cause there is nothing cooler than arriving to a place like Moab in the pitch black and waking up to such a vast, diverse landscape. It makes the experience that much more unique and exciting.
My previous trips to the La Sals had been in conjunction with some other activities in the Moab area, like slot canyons, arches or Needles District loop hikes. This was my first La Sal focused trip with the unofficial goal of finishing all the 12ers in the area. I had climbed Mount Tuk and Tuk No with Kevin and Sarah over Thanksgiving of 2011, as well as Mellenthin with Matt the spring before. The La Sals are a special range for a number of reasons. I realize the word “special” gets thrown around a lot with regards to people and their affinity for certain ranges, so let me elaborate on what I mean by that. First off, the vertical relief of the La Sals is noteworthy. They rise 7 to 8000 feet out of the ground from Moab, and are some of the most prominent looking peaks in the lower 48, despite not even being the highest, or largest range in Utah. For a state with a high concentration of prominent peaks (Wasatch, Uintas, Henry’s) the La Sals are right up there with the best of them. Second, the views are tough to rival with 360 views of distant ranges in bordering states and of course, the views of the Canyonlands and the iconic desert towers of the Richardson Amphitheater. Third, the La Sals are bordered almost 100% by public lands, so finding free campsites that are both aesthetic, secluded and quiet is not a difficult task like it can be here in Colorado. Fourth, while I’m sure a lot of peakbaggers have made a goal to climb all the 12ers in the range, its not as advertised as the 14ers in Colorado and the opportunity for solitude is easier, despite a smaller, more concentrated area. I was here just a few days after Labor Day and had 7 summits 100% to myself, and 99% of the trails to myself as well. Lastly, the access for spring ski descents is surprisingly very good, as the La Sal Loop and Geyser Pass roads are all plowed year round, providing access from as high up as 9600”, with numerous approaches less than 10 miles round trip. The ski potential in the small range is quite good as well, with solid lines off most of the peaks with 3000” or more of potential skiing.
My goals for the weekend were the remaining La Sal 12ers – 8 of them in total left. I didn’t really have much of an idea how I was going to do this, but I had a map and bits and pieces of Summitpost beta and figured it can’t be that hard. From Route 128, I took a left on to the La Sal Loop Rd and weighed my options. I thought about Miner’s Basin Rd to hit Waas/Pilot/Green until I saw the road in person and didn’t have much interest in abusing my wagon. Beaver Basin was another option, but more of the same access issues. Warner Lake had a campground – campgrounds usually means gapers and I didn’t want to have any human interaction for the duration of the trip, so that was out as well (I attribute my campground paranoia to the state of Colorado). I figured I’d give good ole Geyser Pass a shot and was pleasantly surprised with the outcome, as I was able to drive all the way to the pass and beyond to Burro Pass without incident. There was a pull off right at the Burro Pass sign and I called that home for the night.
I woke up around sunrise and began the easily navigable hike.
If you find adding 0.5 miles to your day too much to bare, then you can probably continue up the road to the actual trailhead. If you find abusing your car to save half a mile a confusing endeavor – park here. I think it took me 15 minutes and 150 vertical feet to hike the half mile. From the actual trailhead, its 0.9 miles to Burro Pass and from the pass, there is a climber’s trail with massive Culebra-esque cairns all the way to Manns Peak’s summit. Tomasaki is a class 2 jaunt to the east and I soon realized how easy it’d be to combine all the Northern La Sal 12ers in a single day, so I tagged that one first. There is a switchback trail all the way from the saddle with Manns to the summit, and the views are worthy of a trip to this easy peak.
After a nice breakfast on Tomasaki, I regained the saddle with Manns and made the grunt up to Mann’s summit, all class 1, even without a defined trail. Manns provided a better view of the Southern La Sals and gave me a better idea of the remaining peaks. I picked out an old 4wd road that went just under Pilot towards Green, and could barely make out a climber’s trail up Waas’s south ridge. A loop was born. Some shots from Mann….
There was a defined climber’s trail from Manns to saddle with Pilot. Between Manns and Pilot stands guard an unnamed 11er (11,849 on the topo) – this is easily skirted via a climber’s trail to the south. From the 11,849/Pilot saddle, its a moderate grunt to Pilot’s summit with encouraging views of Green and Waas. At this point, I felt like Forrest Gump running around the Lower 48.
Pilot to Green to Waas back to Pilot/Manns saddle is a peak bagger’s wet dream. From Pilot, you gain Green via a highway of a trail to within feet of its summit, have a nice shelter on the summit and a front row view of Waas’s South Ridge and a switchback trail in the loose talus to it’s summit. On the way back to Green from Waas, there is a trail that avoids having to re-summit Green, avoids having to re-summit Pilot and joins right back up with the traversing climber’s trail back to the 11,849/Manns saddle. I was amazed how easy this circuit was.
All this easy terrain had me cocky and I made my first mistake of the weekend on the way back to the car. Looking at the map, I thought from the Manns/Pilot saddle, to avoid regaining Manns, I could hike out the Dry Fork trail and rejoin Burro Pass from the west. At no point did I ever consider the elevation loss/regain, which was nearly triple when compared to simply regaining Manns via an easy climber’s trail. I had done some research for this trip by reading Mike Rodenack’s Moab TR from years ago. He had made mention of a scene from The Last Crusade being featured in Arches National Park, so a common theme of my weekend would revolve around the movie and my decision making from the movie. This was the first. As I was descending in to no man’s land (i.e. Dry Fork Basin) and watched the elevation get lower and lower, I couldn’t help but think of the Night of the Holy Grail and what he’d think of this idea….
Somewhere along the way, I tried to justify my decision by thinking of this circuit as a nice “Tour de Northern La Sals”. At the very least, I found a cool forest and one of the few water supplies in the range.
I reset my altimeter watch, since it needs to be re calibrated every 15 minutes. I found myself looking at it every 50 feet and it got more and more discouraging each time I looked. Around halfway up the trail to Burro, I started to look something like this….
I finally reached Burro at 11,150 feet and was greeted with this welcoming view….
I plowed through the remaining 0.9 miles to the car and was greeted with this….
Since I had put a much larger dent in the Northern La Sals than originally planned, I decided to leave the northern most 2 – Castle and La Sal – for another trip and head south for the high point of the range – Mount Peale. I drove back to La Sal Loop Rd, was contemplating heading in to town to re-supply, got to Route 191 junction, looked north, saw a herd of campers, said f**k it and hung a left south towards La Sal Junction. At this point, I was really feeling the freedom of the road with some Soundgarden blaring on the speakers as loud as my stereo system allowed, with kid-like anticipation of the road to Peale. I took a left on to Route 46 and 12 miles later took another left on to La Sal Pass road – a grated dirt road all the way.
The views of Peale got better and better as I meandered down this road to nowhere:
The drive to La Sal Pass from the south has got to be one of the finest drives in the Lower 48, enhanced even more with the fact that the majority of the land you are driving along is public with unreal dispersed campsites – and a shitload of cows.
I camped next to the parking lot at the pass and had the place all to myself. There are 4 or 5 peaks in the immediate vicinity to justify calling this place home for a couple nights. A special place indeed.
I began at a leisurely alpine start of 8am. The agenda the day before took a bit of a toll on my motivation, but I was truckin’ up the trail soon enough. You’d think the highpoint of the La Sals is straightforward, but that would prove otherwise from the start. When I started the day from the La Sal parking lot proper, this guy was already wondering what the hell I was doing…
To make a relatively long story short – don’t start Peale from the La Sal Pas parking lot. Drive 1/4 mile back down the road and locate a side road labelled “4725” (its labelled 725 on some topo maps). From there you basically hike up the old 4wd road, locate a massive cairn, and follow those cairns all the way to the SW gully described in most TR’s, then gain ridge and run easy class 1 ridge to summit. It’s that simple. Some scenics of the day….
It was time to begrudgingly rejoin society and I made the quick drive back in to town. After the Never Summer Traverse earlier in the week, the Northern La Sal Traverse the day before and a scree slog up Peale, my peak interests were waning. My #1 goal at this point was finding a solid place to eat. Mike Rodenack’s TR also provided this need – Zax. This place is run by the same owners as Woody’s Pizza in Golden and I was just in time for the Pizza Buffet. No slice of unattended Buffalo Chicken was safe and I left 110% satisfied. I read on Yelp this place had an overall rating of 2/5. That’s classic gaper bullshit. Be sure to check this place out next time you roll through town.
I found a WIFI hotspot to catch the Federer match vs. Monfils. I thought to myself its silly to be all the way over in Moab watching a tennis match, but this one certainly did not disappoint. Top 5 of all time, its just a shame RF couldn’t keep the momentum going in to the semi’s. Ce la vie. All this meant is I would find another campsite in the dark, which meant another classic desert sunrise.
Waking up to Castleton inspired me to check out the Fisher Tower area on my last day in the area. It certainly did not disappoint. Seeing these towers in person makes you appreciate and respect the nut jobs who climb them – and puts any aspirations to ever climb a desert tower to rest. Also – an early start along this trail is highly recommended – from a heat and crowds standpoint. All in all – another memorable trip to the Beehive State. Some parting shots.
Thanks for reading.
(I apologize for the moderate usage of foul language throughout this post – but that’s the beauty of having your own blog. Deal with it!)