A Piece of Real WildernessAscending San Luis Peak, highpoint of the La Garita Mountains, a subrange of the mighty San Juans, was actually a backup plan for me; a problem with a leaking tire dissuaded me from tackling the 4wd road to the Wheeler Geologic Area and led me to settle for the South Ridge route on San Luis, near Creede, instead. To this day, I thank that screw I ran over and picked up on my way from Engineer Pass to Lake City.
When I hiked up San Luis Peak, I received a surprising but very welcome impression of the La Garita Wilderness. Expecting a pretty but unspectacular experience, I instead had what to this day might still be my most satisfying experience in Colorado’s mountainous backcountry, and I’ve seen a whole lot of the Centennial State’s mountains over the past eleven years. Although I may not know Colorado’s mountains as well as some Colorado-based SP members do, I know them pretty well for an Easterner.
What I found was an empty, quiet wilderness that was full of big, open high country much like that in northwestern Wyoming-- not geologically, but in nature and spirit. This was far different from the crowds typical of other fourteener routes, which I’ve usually ascended alone and in quiet because of very early starts and a fast pace but which are busy, sometimes swarmed, with people as I’ve headed back to the trailhead. For example, I have had the rare pleasure of standing alone atop Longs Peak and Mount Elbert in the summer, but my counts of people encountered along my way back down were over 200 and 90, respectively.
San Luis, though, is rarely very busy for a few reasons: the standard route is eight miles one-way, and its trailhead requires a long, somewhat confusing approach; reaching the other requires 4WD (supposedly, but high clearance is enough); and both trailheads are remote by Colorado standards.
Something I love about Colorado is all the 4WD roads that climb ridiculously high into the mountains and provide easy access to many of them, but I also readily admit that the sight of those same roads mars the views from numerous summits. Although this is the case with most high San Juan peaks not deep within the Weminuche Wilderness, it is not the case on San Luis Peak. In fact, no human development at all is visible from this summit, and the views create the impression of an endless sea of wilderness mountains.
But my favorite part of my morning in the La Garita Wilderness was not a mountain view but rather a wildlife experience--- as I approached the ridge that ultimately leads to the San Luis summit ridge, I noticed a herd of elk, several of them bulls, on the ridgetop. The sun had risen, but it was not yet over that ridge, and so the elk, who in succession all turned and raised their heads to look at me, were perfectly silhouetted. It was a magical moment, too precious to squander by digging into my pack for my camera and zoom lens, so I just stood there and enjoyed it. Soon, the elk moved away and out of sight, and when I reached the ridgetop myself, there was no sign of them, almost as if they had been apparitions. Elk are so common in many ranges in the Rockies that we sometimes fail to appreciate them, but moments like the one I experienced that morning remind us of these animals’ grace and majesty. It was the third time an encounter with elk has moved me so deeply, and I hope it will not be the last.