Thursday, 21 April 2011 20:36

California Peak - a Sangre de Cristo warm-up

Written by
The Crestones and the Great Sand Dunes from California Peak The Crestones and the Great Sand Dunes from California Peak

California Peak has long eluded me. Being one of the highest 100 mountains in Colorado (a Centennial), it has been in my sights for awhile. California Peak rises to 13,849 ft. and is ranked 84th highest in Colorado based on my list of the highest 100 mountains in Colorado. Over the past two years, I've set eyes on it numerous times, first from the summit of Lindsey, Iron Nipple and "Huerfano," and later from the summits of Ellingwood Point and Blanca Peak, all close neighbors of California Peak. I had hoped to climb it back in 2009 with my wife, but those plans were foiled by some hoodlums shooting guns at me and my family. I also wanted to climb it in 2010, but those plans were foiled by a seriously bad weather outlook that forced me to stay home. So, a few weeks ago, my long-time hiking partner, Ethan Beute and I made plans to climb California Peak. Our plans to climb it two weeks ago were completely thwarted by forecasted 100 MPH winds and again the following weekend due to snow. Alas, this weekend came and we pulled the trigger, with highs forecasted in the 40's for California Peak and wind gusts of up to 40 MPH. Not knowing how much snow was on the trail itself, we both packed our MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes and a great deal of winter gear. We both also brought our Outdoor Research gaiters, expecting to encounter a fair depth of snow. I scoured the internet for trip reports for California Peak in April and found none, so we really had no idea how much snow would be on the trail or the road. I met Ethan at his house at 3:45 AM and we left for the beautiful yet dangerous Huerfano Valley. We were not sure what the road would be like, so we were very concerned with how far we could get his vehicle, given the last report stated the road had significant snow drifts fairly far from the trailhead. At 6 AM, we were able to make it to within about 2 miles from the trailhead just as the first views of Blanca Peak came into view.

Ethan snapped a great photo of California Peak and Blanca Peak (right to left respectively):

Huerfano Valley - Blanca Peak and California Peak

I was very pleased with this starting point and start time. I was also very pleased by the apparent lack of snow on the road and in the trees, as well as the relatively warm temperature. After evaluating the snow levels from afar, we opted to bring our snowshoes because we were unsure if we would need them or not, and since the MSR Lightning Ascents only weigh 3 pounds, it was a sacrifice we were both willing to make to ensure peace of mind. After properly securing our gear and donning our hiking boots, we were off to the races.

Blanca Peak in the early morning

One thing you should know about both Ethan and I is that our first passion is hiking but a close second for both of us is photography. Last year, Ethan purchased a very nice Olympus camera on a deal that was too good to pass-up. I became increasingly jealous of the great images he'd been producing, so I set my sights on upgrading my old Sony DSC-F828 that I purchased in 2001. I was able to purchase a Nikon D7000 a couple of months ago and so I was really excited to finally put it to the test on a proper mountain ascent. Given our mutual love for photography, Ethan and I tend to take several breaks on our climbs to capture some photos along the way, and this trip was no different. In retrospect, I feel that I have a lot to learn about my new camera even though I felt really good about all of the settings after familiarizing myself with its features for the past couple of months. Many of my photos from this trip were blurry, under or over-exposed, and just plain not what I expected. I need a ton more practice!

Right away after setting off on the trail, Ethan and I were greeted by the sunrise kissing the top of Blanca Peak, one of the most magnificent mountains in Colorado. The vantage of Blanca Peak from the Huerfano Valley is one to behold, and I can't produce a much higher recommendation for a scenic location.

Ethan Beute photographing Blanca Peak

The road was almost completely clear of snow, minus a few large drifts that were in the shadows of trees. A large dead aspen tree had fallen to block the road about 1/8 of a mile from where we parked, so we were glad we parked where we did. Someone's going to have some fun with a chainsaw to get that tree out of the way.

The Trailhead for California Peak in April

The standard route for California Peak takes you from the road up the Zapata Trail that weaves through the trees and intersects with a high meadow.

Aspen trees on the California Peak trail

From there, the trail heads even higher on the eastern slopes of California Peak until dropping you onto a gentle ridge at 11,800 ft. From here, the idea is to follow the very long south ridge of California Peak all the way to the top, a ridge walk consisting of about 2,000 ft. in elevation gain over three miles. Our plan was to stick to the standard route as much as possible, taking detours when the trail was lost. As it turned out, the trail was quite visible for most of the hike, until we lost it just after the meadow. From here, we opted to head where we thought the trail went and then straight up a steep gully towards the ridge.

Snowfield on California Peak's trail

This gully ended up intersecting the actual trail eventually, and so we re-gained the trail and followed it to just below the ridge, where we trodded up a steep snow slop and over a small cornice to reach the ridge and the crazy wind that accompanied it.

Matt Payne crossing a snowfield on California Peak

Here is an outline of the route we took for California Peak (click for higher resolution):

California Peak Route Map

The trail offers some pretty nice views of the Huerfano Valley below, including a nice vantage of the Iron Nipple.

Huerfano Valley Pano

The wind on the ridge was pretty intense. It was not gusty, rather a constant ripping wind that had a biting chill to it. The wind was blowing across the ridge from the west, which explained the relatively little amount of snow on the ridge minus the drifted cornices on the very eastern edges of the ridge.

Matt Payne crests the ridge for California Peak

Ethan and I began hiking up the gentle ridge towards what we thought was the summit of Unnamed 13,476. Once we crested it, we realized it was merely one of several false summits leading up to California Peak. While these false summits were constantly demoralizing us, we were pleased and surprised by the breathtaking views of Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, Mount Herard and the Great Sand Dunes National Park to the north.

Matt and the Crestones


We reached the summit of another false summit and realized that California Peak was a long ways off yet. This ridge was quite a long approach indeed!

Ethan climbing up the ridge of California Peak

Once we reached the summit of Unnamed 13,476, we needed to stop because Ethan's hands had gone numb. This was surprising to both of us because he was wearing his brand new Marmot Windstopper gloves. Apparently they did not stop the mighty wind of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I went into my first aid kit and produced two Hand Warmer kits, one of which I had looted from a geocache find near Mount Shavano in 2009. The kits seemed to help Ethan, so we continued on up towards the next false summit.

Ethan warms his hands

The summit block of California Peak was fairly steep, although nothing too crazy, and we were able to boulder hop our way through the shallow snow and to the summit by noon. Needless to say, the views of Blanca Peak, Ellingwood Point, Mount Lindsey, Iron Nipple and "Huerfano Peak" were outstanding.

Mount Lindsey, Blanca Peak, Little Bear Peak and Ellingwood Point

It had appeared that no one else had signed the summit register since October, so it was cool being the first to sign it in 2011. We took several picutres and refueled for the descent. Despite the strong and chilly winds, the summit was great. It was awesome to be on my first top 100 mountain of 2011.

Matt and Ethan Summit Shot

Ethan on California Peak summit

It was also really great to make the realization that I had just completed my 60th highest 100 summit of my life.

Matt on California Peak summit

If all goes according to plan, by the end of 2011, I'll have only 15 of the highest 100 left to climb. My life-long dream is coming closer to completion. After soaking in the amazing views from the summit of California Peak, Ethan and I headed back down the ridge, but not before taking a 360 degree panoramic photo set:

California Peak 360 Degree Pano

Click HERE to view an interactive version of this photo (SMALLER FILE - 1.8 MB).

Click HERE to view an interactive version of this photo (LARGER FILE - 27.1 MB).

I was able to take two more sets of parting shots before we left the ridge, and I was quite pleased with the way in which they both turned out (one is the first photo in this trip report and the other is below).

Ethan Descending California Peak

We found our trail in the snow without too much trouble and made quick time back to the road, and eventually, Ethan's car. Here is my favorite shot of Ethan's from the trip:

Awesome Aspen trees by Ethan Beute

Here are some fun statistics from our hike:

Miles hiked: 11.5 round-trip

Total time: 10 hours

Total photos taken: 190 (far less than usual, despite having the new camera - shooting photos in the wind sucks)

I hope you enjoyed this adventure or that the information was useful for your planned hike of California Peak. As always, you can follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Please also remember, if you're planning on making any camera-related or outdoor-related purchases, use the links found HERE to support this site.

I look forward to your comments or questions regarding the hike or the methods used in any of the photos!

Additional Info

  • Trip Date: April 17, 2011
  • Yosemite Decimal Class: 2.0 - Simple scrambling, with the possibility of occasional use of the hands.
Read 5880 times Last modified on Tuesday, 29 August 2017 01:25

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.