The magical San Juan range
Moderate fourteeners abound in southwest Colorado
Steamboat Springs — Avid hikers in Northwest Colorado who haven’t made the pilgrimage south to the San Juan Mountain Range are missing out on some of the most spectacular scenery our state has to offer.
There’s no better way to dive into the San Juans than to climb a 14,000-foot peak. And there isn’t a better base camp for tackling moderate fourteeners than the sleepy 19th century gold mining town of Lake City.
From downtown Lake City, the trailheads to five fourteeners of moderate to intermediate difficulty are within a dozen miles.
For ambitious peak-baggers, three of those mountains — Handies, Redcloud and Sunshine peaks — can reasonably be climbed in a two- or three-day weekend, depending on how much recovery time your muscles require.
The four-wheel-drive road to the trailhead will give you a good reading on whether you have acrophobia — the dropoffs are steep and there are no guardrails. On the other hand, there’s no reason to drive off the narrow road.
Remember, the uphill driver has the right of way.
Handies Peak is the easiest of those three to climb. Redcloud and Sunshine peaks are linked by a long col (a saddle between the peaks).
It means hikers strong enough to climb an additional 1,000 feet of vertical (500 feet in two directions) can grab two fourteeners in one day.
You’ll summit Redcloud first, then continue on to Sunshine, then return to Redcloud for the trip down.
Some people shorten the return trip to the parking lot via a steep scree field between the two peaks.
Guidebooks don’t recommend this route, and a party from Steamboat interviewed hikers who have done it and vow they’ll never do it again. When you begin to descend the scree field, there’s no turning back. We settled for climbing only Redcloud.
The four-mile hike to the summit of Redcloud is tougher than it sounds.
If you start by 6:30 a.m., you should be off the peak and headed back down by 10:30 a.m. and ahead of any building thunderstorms.
You can camp at the trailhead the night before or set the alarm for 5 a.m. in your cabin in Lake City.
There is water along the route, but Silver Creek is cloudy with mineral content, and although beautiful, the water looks vaguely unappealing in terms of drinkability.
Climbers should make plans accordingly.
After climbing out of the aspen and evergreen forest, and crossing bands of startlingly orange rock, the trail climbs more gently across a broad Alpine meadow that was largely devoid of flowers July 28.
At the end of the meadow, the trail begins to switchback toward a high saddle. It’s difficult to grasp the scale of the landscape until you glimpse tiny insects toiling up the ridge ahead of you. They appear smaller than ants, but in reality they are fellow human hikers.
From the saddle, it is readily apparent that your goal is still off in the distance.
Before they can gain the bright orange summit of Redcloud, hikers must climb across difficult loose rock to a false summit.
From there, it’s a relatively easy walk across a col that leads to the summit and views of other fourteeners to the west and south in the vast Weminuche Wilderness.
There is always a little pain involved in hiking a fourteener, but always a sense of satisfaction that is difficult to match.
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