With the arrival of Spring I was ready to get away from the flatlands of South Dakota and get into the mountains. Since I was driving to a conference in Laramie (on teaching about energy in geoscience courses), I wondered what I could do in that area. I had driven across the Laramie Range on I-80 between Cheyenne and Laramie many times. That area appears as a plateau with some nice rock outcrops, but I had never noticed any peaks. I had heard of Laramie Peak as a site of radio repeaters and found that it was located 70 miles north of Laramie. The description on SummitPost made it sound like a worthwhile hike, and it would not add many miles to my drive home.
Laramie Peak from the southwest
My conference ended with a breakfast talk on local wind farms, then I drove north from Laramie to the town of Rock River and got a good view of the wind farms I had heard about with the Snowy Mountains in the background. From there I took dirt roads northeast across endless desert flats toward some peaks in the distance. There was a sign for Laramie Peak where I left the pavement, but after that I was at the mercy of my GPS and tracking software to guide me through the maze of unmarked dirt roads. The SummitPost description only described an eastern approach to the mountain from the town of Esterbrook, but the maps showed the road continuing southwest in my direction. I got excited when the large monolith of Laramie suddenly came into view!
The road I was driving on became smaller and more bumpy, and I passed a sign that said “No Winter Maintenance.” Then, to my disappointment, I came to an impassable stream crossing the road. I wasn’t sure a high-clearance 4WD truck could get through it, and in my Corolla it was out of the question. It was already almost noon, so searched the maps for some alternate route. Going around the mountain to Esterbrook would leave me insufficient time to climb the mountain. So I was looking for any alternative.
Attempt on the Southeastern Route
Laramie Peak from the southeast
Oddly, while the 1:24,000 topographic map shows the trail from Friend Park described on SummitPost, the 1:100,000 scale map shows only a trail on the southeast side of the mountain. The 1:24,000 scale map shows a powerline going up the mountain in the same vicinity, but no trail. I figured that this was an old road or trail that supported the powerline and that it would serve as an adequate route. It also had the benefit of being on a south-facing slope and therefore less likely to have snow.
I had to do a lot of backtracking and a return to the desert flats before I could finally drive north to Cottonwood Park at the southeast edge of Laramie Peak. It was a beautiful mountain with no sign of snow. I drove up a side road to the base of the mountain and parked at a convenient spot next to a gate at 6,600 feet elevation. It was 1:30 p.m. I couldn’t find the access road shown on the 1:100,000 scale map, so I hiked cross-country up the route I had loaded into my GPS. Once I got into the forested hillside I found a road that matched the one on the map. It appeared not to have been traveled in many years. The only signs of a powerline I found were some broken insulators scattered around, so the powerline was a thing of the past. The road was easy to hike on, even though it made some significant ups and downs to circumvent cliffs.
Old road on Laramie Peak
After I hiked about two miles to an elevation of 7,300 feet things began to get nasty. The road completely disappeared, and there was no easy route to travel. The partly cloudy sky became dark as a huge cloud accumulated over the mountain, and then the wind picked up and it began to rain and hail. I sought shelter in some trees and put on my jacket to wait it out. Fortunately the storm didn’t last long.
I quickly learned that cross-country travel on this mountain is painfully slow. The lovely outcrops of granite, composed of giant boulders separated by large cracks, are difficult to cross even when the terrain is horizontal. The granite is mostly covered by lichen and is slippery when wet! An even more difficult obstacle was the dead trees which littered the mountainside like a giant graveyard, which tended to crumble as soon as I put any weight on them. I was accustomed to negotiating this kind of cross-country maze, but travel was painfully slow—about a half mile per hour. The terrain steepened so there were a lot more cliffs, and I had to do a lot of backtracking to get around them. I got caught in one spot and began a dangerous climb before thinking better of it and finding an alternate route. I tried to follow a path that matched the trail on the map, but no trail ever appeared. In fact this “trail” went straight up some of the most difficult terrain.
Summit still far away
After two hours of this effort I emerged onto a point at 9,100 feet where I could see the summit with its radio towers. It was still a mile away, and the terrain looked as bad or worse than what I had come up already. It was 4:30 p.m. I realized that I could surely reach the summit by dark, but I wouldn’t be able to get back down. Travelling this terrain by flashlight would be nearly impossible, and another rain storm would put me in even greater danger. Then I thought of a plan: If I hiked down I could probably drive to Esterbrook and over to the Friend Park trailhead by dark, and I could do an early hike up the trail the next morning. With an early start I would still have time to drive home. So down I went. It was easier to find favorable routes going down, and it was a great relief to finally reach the old road again. I was back to the car at 6:30, and after a painstaking drive on winding dirt roads I finally reached Friend Park at 8:30 just in time to throw my sleeping bag on the ground before dark. I calculated that I had just enough food, water, gear, and time to hike this mountain, so I was happy.
The Friend Park Trail
Friend Park Trailhead
The Friend Park Trailhead has several signs describing Laramie Peak and the trail to the summit. There is also a sign demanding a fee of $5.00 per vehicle for any group making the hike. I had the place to myself. I could see no snow, so I decided to wear my running shoes rather than my boots in hopes of quickly running down. I was still recovering from a marathon five days earlier, but hiking hadn’t bothered me the day before.
Northern ridge of Laramie Peak in morning fog
I left the car at 5:10 a.m. and made rapid progress up the trail. There were bridges over a couple creeks and some nice waterfalls. The sky was overcast with clouds covering the summit, so I left the camera packed until it got lighter. There was an occasional log over the trail and a tiny patch of snow here and there, but it was easy going. I planned to reach the summit in an hour. I thought it was a joke that there was so little snow left on this mountain in May after such a snowy winter. But the joke was on me. Soon the patches of snow became larger, and then the snow became deep and continuous and made the trail hard to follow. It was the kind of snow that would support my weight half the time and let me sink the other half. Wearing the running shoes wasn’t such a good idea after all. But I was determined not to let the mountain beat me again. The switchbacks only made the route longer and more tedious, so I spent much of the time hiking straight up the hillside following the general route of the trail on my GPS.
Snowy trail near summit
Eventually I found myself above the clouds looking down on sunny ridges of granite and forest that looked like they were floating in fog. Out came the camera. The snow became more firm and supportive as I climbed higher, so I stayed on the trail when I could find it. Soon a ridge of huts and radio towers appeared, so I knew I was near the top. Most of the equipment appeared to be damaged and out of service. There were no powerlines on the mountain, but one building had a large array of photovoltaic cells.
Radio towers on summit
It was tricky locating the actual summit amidst all the towers and antennas that rose above it. I determined that the high point was a rocky pillar, and I climbed atop a radio hut then chimneyed up a crack with the help of a chain and some bolts that remained from old antenna anchors. It wasn’t a safe spot to be in a high wind, but conditions were pretty calm. I shot some pictures and ate a snack then climbed back down and took a self-timed shot of myself next to the summit pillar. The clouds parted to expose some of the surrounding valleys to view, and the scene was beautiful. The clouds made it feel like a real mountain—a tall order at 10,272 feet among radio towers.
Looking down the southwestern ridge of Laramie Peak
As I started down I realized that my wife might have expected to hear from me by then and become worried, and I didn’t want to be “rescued.” So I pulled out my ham radio and scanned the 2-meter band. I made contact with a UPS driver near Rawlins who agreed to relay a message by cell phone. I also learned that there was an operational ham repeater on Laramie Peak that was powered by the solar cells I had seen, and I was able to key it up. I never heard any sign of a reported Forest Service repeater on the mountain. It was nice to know that hams could maintain a radio system where government and business could not!
Hiking down the snow wasn’t as bad as going up since sinking in the snow wasn’t such a setback. My feet were soaked and cold but I didn’t care. When I got back down to the dry part of the trail I ran about half the way, but I had to stop to photograph a few scenes that were too dark on the way up. When I got to the trailhead the summit was in clouds again, but with a bright sun shining above them. It was a beautiful sunny day. A two hour hike had turned into four and a half hours thanks to the snow, but I had finally made it.
The Trip Home
Laramie Peak from the north
Driving the endless dirt roads was the most unpleasant part of the trip. Many had been recently graded or were in the process of being graded and had loose rocks and gravel that behaved like ball bearings. Whenever the car started drifting sideways I had to slow down. I swerved to miss two large bull snakes on the road, and then every dark spot in the road looked like a snake. The map indicated that the shortest route to pavement was to Highway 94 leading to Douglas, so that’s where I headed. I even found a shortcut that bypassed Esterbrook, though it would have made a good rollercoaster ride. Reaching pavement was a mental relief.
In Douglas I called my wife (why do payphones have to charge a dollar for calling card access?), bought two big Arby’s burgers to relieve myself from eating snack food for the previous 28 hours, and filled my tank with cheap Wyoming gasoline before crossing the state line. Then I made the long drive across northern Nebraska on Highway 20 with a minimum of stops. It was an 11-hour drive home, and I arrived—utterly exhausted—not long after dark.
As I lay in bed my hips and legs ached from a week of abuse, and I couldn’t get comfortable. Long drives in a small car are not a good idea after marathons and strenuous hikes. Then my stomach became upset and I had to head for the medicine chest. In the morning I realized I was genuinely ill, and I spent the day in bed and could only get up for a few minutes at a time before the nausea became unbearable. I couldn’t tell how much a virus vs. self-abuse contributed to the breakdown, but it was the most sick I’d been in several years. Work would have to wait for the Memorial Day weekend. The important thing was that I had the Spring adventure I was craving along with new stories and pictures to share!