This is the first installment of a three part series, exploring some amazing peaks in southwest Colorado near Lake City.
Living in Portland, Oregon has certainly slowed my progress towards climbing the highest 100 mountains in Colorado. Last year, I was only able to summit one mountain on my (at the time) remaining list of 17. This year I wanted to change that a bit. I started planning very early in the summer to spend about a week in Colorado trying to work on finishing my goal. I made plans with my best friend Sarah to head to the San Juan Mountains to tackle some of the more remote peaks I had remaining. Sarah still had the need to complete two 14ers in that area, including Handies and Uncompahgre, so we would certainly be able to string together some plans that included peaks on both of our lists. I flew in to Colorado Springs from Portland on August 19th with my wife. It also happened to be our 9th wedding anniversary. We had dinner with awesome old friends at a new vegan bar in Colorado Springs called the Burrowing Owl. I tried hard to sleep well that night, knowing Sarah would be at my door at 4 AM for our trip to the Lake City, Colorado area to begin our week of summiting peaks in Southwest Colorado.
For this trip we decided to car camp, which turned out to work really well. We played almost the whole trip by ear, not really planning any specific days in advance other than having the knowledge on how to get to various trailheads. I utilized my new F-Stop Loka backpack to ensure my Nikon D800 and the Nikon holy trinity (14-24 f/2.8, 24-70 f/2.8, 70-200 f/2.8) were secure and ready for adventure. I have to say in advance that I really liked using this pack for climbing mountains. Enough gear talk though - let's get to the adventure! Bear with me on this trip report, as it is the beginning of a great adventure that is very important to me. The photos progress in quality as we go!
Sarah picked me up at 4 AM and we drove to Gunnison to buy groceries. I was absolutely exhausted from the night before and slept a bit in the car. Of course Sarah took full advantage of this and took a photo (a lot of the photos here are hers).
Upon reaching Gunnison, we decided to buy a bit more food for meals, having only packed some dehydrated meals. We stocked up on tasty supplies and head for Lake City, one of my favorite spots in Colorado. Our first objective on this trip was to get as high as possible on the road leading to the trailheads that service Half Peak near the old ghost town of Sherman. I knew through research that the main trailhead was lower and that there was another trailhead much higher that offered a seclusive alternative route up Half Peak via Cuba Gulch. The advantage of using that upper trailhead would be that we could also use the area as a base camp to accomplish other goals, like Handies Peak, Jones Peak, Niagra Peak, and American Peak. If we did not decide to use that trailhead as a base camp, we could easily go up the road and hit American Basin, so it was a logical place to start.
Sure enough, we found an incredible campsite just about a quarter mile before the end of the road and the start of the Cuba Gulch trailhead. The campsite offered perfect access to water and was nestled between an amazingly beautiful gully coming down off of the north side of Half Peak and a huge granite rock formation making up the bulk of the northern side of the valley. Having been away from Colorado for a year, I was quite honestly in heaven. I just loved the spot.
What a beautiful area.
After setting up our camp site we decided to assess the weather. The time was 11 AM and the weather looked absolutely fantastic. Having summited several high peaks in the afternoon and evening in the past, I was fairly confident that we could climb Half Peak with a late start as long as we kept an eye on the clouds. We both decided that we'd give it a shot and head for the trailhead, a mere 1/4 of a mile away. My main concerns for this week were altitude sickness and my ankle, which I had severely injured in June playing basketball pick-up game at a park near my apartment in Portland. The ankle was still sore and not 100%, but I felt pretty good in my great boots.
Sarah and I quickly reached the trailhead and shot some photos there, per tradition.
You could rest assured that locating Sarah at any point of the day's adventure would not be a problem.
You know you miss Colorado when even after 2 minutes on the trail you let out a silly laugh like a child when you hike through some willows. Sarah stopped to see if I was OK and I just said that I was really happy to be in Colorado and she replied, "I figured that was what was going on." The amount of wildflowers on the trail was quickly evident and a very pleasant surprise. I figured they would all be long gone by late August; however, the trail was filled with tons of them!
The Cuba Gulch trail was just about perfect - not too heavily used, but not a total bushwhack. We found it to be a very nice adventurous trail off the beaten path, for sure. The climb up into the gulch was a long one, with the steepest sections happening only right at the start. We stopped only a couple of times - once at a really great footbridge over a waterfall for a requisite selfie.
I have to admit, it was pretty amazing to finally be back in the Colorado backcountry with Sarah - we have climbed so many awesome peaks together.
After about an hour and a half of hiking up through the dense forest and wildflowers, Cuba Gulch began to open up.
We followed the description provided by Gerry Roach's awesome 13ers book and found the end of the Cuba Gulch trail right before a huge open area of willows. We knew that from that area we'd need to navigate ourselves up a slope to the east following game trails. I opened up my topo map that I had borrowed from my dad and verified our position based on our surroundings and formulated a plan.
The slog up from here was pretty brutal - only faint game trails and lots of willows adorned the hillside before us. We finally prevailed though, and reached a nice plateau with views looking east at the rest of our day. Holy crap - we thought. Is that really Half Peak? That long, insane trek? All the way up that huge valley in front of us? Yep. Check out the huge ridge line! I don't think Sarah was too thrilled. Based on the map, I knew we'd need to cross that huge valley, as high as possible to the right and then hit the saddle between the lower peak on the right and Half Peak on the left. Giddy up.
I spent some time here admiring the view of Half Peak - it really was quite a sight to see. The scale, the distance, the sheer awesomeness of the cliffs of its faces - everything was just so great to behold.
We decided to keep going - there were very few clouds in the sky, which was filled with light layers of haze likely produced by the recent huge wildflowers in the state of Washington. As we continued on the upper reaches of the basin, following the most southern slopes to avoid willows, I spotted a huge moose down in the basin below us, quite a distance away. This was a rare opportunity to utilize my heavy 70-200 lens to photograph him. He was really far away and so he still looks quite small, but you can easily make out his huge velvet antlers.
As we continued up the long basin, I could not help but admire the view of Half Peak's west face - it really stood out prominently among the area's peaks. This peak really has some very interesting features and looks totally different from all angles. We got to see it from the north a couple days later and it looked completely different.
Sarah caught me taking some photos of Half Peak's impressive cliffs.
It is worth mentioning that Sarah has been training for the Pikes Peak Ascent, while I've been training to taste all of the different beers that the great city of Portland, Oregon can offer. With that being said, I spent a great deal of the hike behind Sarah, which afforded me the opportunity to take lots of photographs of her as we climbed up.
As we reached the end of the basin's flatter section, we encountered some good up-climbing sections on loose, but very manageable rock.
The views from the upper basin were of course very good. We appreciated the lower 13ers and high 12ers that were visble from here, including this prominent point to the north of us, which I have yet to be able to identify.
We continued up very faint game trails until we began to identify some cairns in the distance, which belonged to the Continental Divide Trail, which headed east and south from our junction.
There were a lot of vantage points by which I could photograph Sarah looking really awesome on the ridges and trails.
The numerous opportunities to photograph the scenes before me offered a nice respite from the steep climbing off-trail.
Once up the steep part of the basin, we stopped for a minute to enjoy the view. At this point I passed the camera off to Sarah to get some photos of me enjoying our surroundings.
It is safe to say that I was really enjoying being in "my happy place" - the high country of Colorado.
It was at this point that Handies Peak (big, center) and American Peak (far left) became visible. It was nice to see a couple of our future objectives.
It might be hard to make out Sarah in this next panoramic photo, but it does help to show the massive scale of the scene before us here. Half Peak, which is very large, is actually just a small peak in the center of frame, with the American Basin peaks to the left. What an amazing approach Cuba Gulch provides!
It was about here where we met up with the Continental Divide Trail, which immediately showcased two mountain bikers. It was quite a surprise to run into these two mountain bikers, and I could only imagine where their journey was taking them.
Half Peak made a nice backdrop for this mountain biker on the Continental Divide Trail.
The Continental Divide Trail made for a nice leading line up to Sarah's visage in the distance. I was really enjoying all of the photography opportunities, but my legs were getting really tired.
As I caught up with Sarah, our gaze was pulled to the east, where some very prominent peaks loomed in the distance. In this case, our view was of the mighty 13er, Carson Peak.
This was the point of no return. We had reached the terminus of the basin and the start of the huge ramp that was Half Peak. The ramp was at least 2 miles long by my estimate, perhaps even more. Unfortunately, I don't have any map software installed on my Mac to be able to measure the distance accurately; however, I can tell you - it was quite long! We spent a good 60 minutes hiking up this long ramp and about 2/3 of the way up we reached the start of the scrambling ridge section that I was excited to tackle. If you own Roach's 13er book, you'll recognize this view of Half Peak - the only photograph he shows in the whole book of the peak!
The hike up this beast took a toll on my legs, but I was super pumped to get closer to the top!
We continued up and found ourselves really enjoying the more difficult terrain on between the two flatter sections of the peak.
The clouds were holding nicely, intermixing with the haze to produce some really interesting effects, juxtaposed with the rugged terrain at our feet.
The ridge up Half Peak offered lots of amazing places to enjoy the rocks and view.
After a few more minutes of grunting up Half Peak's barren slope, we arrived at the summit, elated and exhausted.
I was pretty lukewarm about the light, photographically speaking; however, I think this 180 degree panorama turned out pretty well. This is the view looking south-west-north from the summit. How many 14ers can you spot?
The views of my two favorite peaks - Vestal and Arrow (left and right respectively) were fantastic, only obscured a bit by the haze. I really liked how this black and white shot turned out. Again, nothing super special, but the subject is one of my favorites in the world.
This next photo from the summit was looking north east. I had to really study my google tool to figure out that it was a shot of Quarter Peak in the foreground, and I'm pretty sure that's the 14er Sunshine behind it - or at least, I think that's what it is!
This next one should be easy - Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre!
Sarah was taking our time on the summit to text our wives to let them know were still alive and OK on the summit. I just loved how Vestal and Arrow rose above her to the left.
Sarah of course took the opportunity to take some shots of me enjoying my craft from the top of the world.
A glance down to the north and west presented some really intersting cliffs on a decending ridge away from Half Peak towards the trailhead - what a magical place.
Next up - a wider panoramic view showing Handies, Wetterhorn, Uncompahgre, Sunshine and Redcloud. Not bad. Quarter Peak dominates on the right.
After basking in the glory of being on top of Colorado's 86th highest mountain, we decided it was time to head down. We did not want to get caught in the dark above tree line and it was already 5 PM. The look down from the top sure was good though...
As the sun began to set, the light just kept getting better and better on our decent. I just loved this next photo - the catwalk of a ridge from Half Peak leads the eye through the bottom half of the frame and up to the more grandeur scene to the north, including the rugged Chicago Basin 14ers and Vestal & Arrow.
We reached the bottom of the huge ramp in no time at all, but my legs were just destroyed! My ankle was sore, I had taken several Ibuprofen, and I was pretty tired. We had to eat. The huge cairn marking the Continental Divide Trail seemed like a great place to stop.
As the sun went down I found energy levels increase. The light was getting to be really great and I knew that it was going to be a magical sunrise. Sarah caught me taking lots of photos of flowers, which I could not help myself from doing. What can I say - I'm a sucker. I was too lazy at this point to get the tripod out though! Haha!
Sunset was quickly approaching, and golden hour had mostly arrived. The back-lit wildflowers were just incredible.
I found this awesome rock formation and captured a great sunstar right through it, which also illuminated these wildflowers in the foreground. Yes!
Half Peak at sunset just looked magical.
Descending the upper basin was like being in a Western movie - it was so surreal being all alone up there walking into the sunset.
I found endless opportunities to photograph the scenes we stumbled upon, like this awesome huge stand of wildflowers with the killer sun colors lighting up the sky above.
And then I found these awesome flowers, perfectly arranged before the setting sun. What a beautiful basin to enjoy.
It was really hard peeling myself away from this area - the light, the flowers, the view, the stillness to the air - it was all just so therapeutic.
I think Sarah was getting a kick out of it also; however, I knew she was hungry and anxious to get back to the trail below.
The colors in the sky were rapidly changing from moment to moment, likely exacerabated by the haze and smoke in the air. I didn't really mind!
The pinks and purples were starting to color the sky - making for a very pleasing sunset.
As we reached the lower reaches and the end of our view of Half Peak, I found myself gazing back often. It probably did not hurt that the sky was exploding with color.
I even stumbled upon a small patch of Indian Paintbrush - which complimented the scene in a quite lovely way.
We finally reached the end of the upper basin where the drop off back into Cuba Gulch lay before us. I wanted to stop one last time up there to get some shots of the sunset, which had really produced some great color in the clouds to the west - see!?
One parting shot of Sarah before the downclimb into the nasty willows gave us our final view of Half Peak.
After a very long slog in the dark through Cuba Gulch, we finally reached the car in the dark at 9:30 PM, but not before encountering what we believed were two elk on the road between the trailhead and our campsite. They were quite stubborn and were scaring us a bit with their glowing eyes and strange behavior; however, Sarah's rock-throwing skills (not at the elk, at the ground) scared them off into the woods. We reached camp, cooked dinner, and crashed, despite the amazing night sky that was above. I just could not stay awake to photograph it. Not to worry though, in my next two trip reports for our next days of climbing, there will be plenty of night sky photos to make up for it. For now - enjoy one last parting shot of Sarah's feet while she was doing dishes the next morning - I just know she'll love it!
P.S. I'm pretty sure that Roach lists this hike at 11 miles RT; however, I think it was closer to 12 or 13 miles total.
Coming soon - my trip reports of Jones Mountain and Uncompahgre Peak! Hope you enjoyed this trip report of Half Peak via Cuba Gulch. If you'd like to inquire about any of the photographs, please do visit my photography website, or on Facebook! Feel free to leave a comment below as well. Happy trails!