Pilot Knob (left) & Yellow Mountain (right) from upper Ice Lake Basin
Photo by Ellen Ritt
Pilot Knob joins an impressive line up of peaks accessible from Ice Lake Basin. Perhaps Pilot Knob is the least climbed summit of this group. As one of Colorado’s highest 200 peaks, the mountain gets some attention, but it is known for its rugged reputation and challenging route. It is ranked 131, tied in elevation with Argentine Peak and one of the Grizzly Peaks. The mountain’s summit ridge is one long ridge of volcanic pinnacles.
Located west of Silverton, Pilot Knob gets to spend its time in one of the most impressive locations in Colorado, Ice Lake Basin. There is water everywhere and as a result the display of wildflowers is incredible. Entire hillsides are carpeted with flowers that stand as tall as your waist. The flowers seem to grow in patches, first you will pass through hundreds of yards of Larkspur and then yellow Indian Paintbrush followed by huge patches of Columbine. The native grasses are so green it almost hurts your eyes.
The basin is surrounded by the most incredible display of jagged peaks. The entire area is overwhelming. It would be very easy to spend a week here exploring all areas of the upper and lower basin and the mountains that surround it. There are ample camping spots in the protected lower basin as well as in the upper basin. Great care should be taken and all Leave No Trace principles should be strictly followed.
Pilot Knob is located within a cluster of five high thirteeners that offer a variety of climbing possibilities around Ice Lake Basin. Fuller Peak (13,761 feet), Vermillion Peak (13,894 feet), and Golden Horn (13,780 feet) are all day-hike summits that aren't too difficult. Pilot Knob (13,738 feet) and U.S. Grant Peak (13,767 feet) are more technical climbs for experienced summiteers only.
The San Juan Outdoor School rates Pilot Knob as a technical climb. The majority of the climb on this mountain is class 2 at best. There are 2 sections of the mountain that give the mountain its tougher rating. There is a class 3 couloir on the west side of the summit ridge. This couloir is probably the easiest way to gain the ridge to the summit. The summit ridge itself is rated class 4. There is extreme exposure and very loose San Juan rock, which makes the traverse treacherous. All but the hardy climber will want to rope up for this 200 foot section of the route.
From the east, Pilot Knob looks unclimable which adds to its mystery and allure.
The view from the top of this peak is extensive. The Wilson Massif to the west, Sneffles north, Potosi, Courthouse, Red Cliff, Coxcomb, Redcloud, Sunshine, Handies, the Needles are just some of the impressive peaks you can view.
Getting ThereTo get to Ice Lake Basin, where Pilot Knob is located, from Ouray, drive over Red Mountain Pass on Highway 550. Measure from the top of the pass 7.8 miles. If approaching from Silverton, measure from the junction of Colorado 110 and 550 south of town and go west 2 miles on 550. A National Forest access sign for Mineral Creek Road is the turn-out you are seeking on the south side of the highway.
Go west on this road, San Juan County 7, 4 miles, bypassing camps along the way. The road to the right takes you up a jeep road to Clear Lake. This road is probably passable with cars that have a little bit larger clearance than an average passenger car but 4WD is not necessarily required. It is not a particularly rough or steep road.
This road, according to Gerry Roach's "Colorado's Thirteeners," gains access to an unmarked trail further up that joins this route. You should park at the first switchback about 1 mile to the northwest. There is parking at that switchback for approx 4-5 vehicles. By starting your hike here, you will save approximately 540 vertical feet and 1.8 miles. The unmarked trail on the west side of the switchback joins up with the main trail very quickly after crossing the waterfall that runs across the trail.
If driving up the Clear Lake road is not an option, continue on the main road to the left.
Almost ½ a mile beyond the Clear Creek road, Mineral Creek Road crosses Clear Creek. If you cross the creek (a large culvert is under the road), you've gone too far. The Ice Lake Basin trail starts just before the crossing. Park in this vicinity. There is a large parking area and an outhouse.
Red TapeRed Tape: No fees or permits required
Ice Lake Basin is an unprotected area of the Uncompahgre National Forest, although many people think it should be. Yet, it has all the characteristics of a premiere wilderness area, so observe all wilderness protocols. Ice Lake Basin is a major watershed. Please guard the water quality and camp as far as feasible from water sources, observing wilderness camping protocols.
Island Lake & U.S. Grant Peak, Ice Lake Basin, San Juan Mountains, Colorado
Photo by Ellen Ritt
When To Climb
Climbing Pilot Knob, West Couloir Route
Photo by Ellen Ritt
July through September offers optimal dry conditions, plus the flowers will be out! San Juan falls are spectacular, so this would make a great fall hike as well.
Ice Lake Basin is a massive snow shed. The lower basin melts out first, while the upper basin retains great amounts of snow well into July in normal to heavy years of snowpack. The upper basin is routinely buried through June. Skis or snow shoes may be necessary. Ascending Pilot Knob would require technical gear, and an ice axe is a good idea for the ridge approach and the mountain itself. Avalanche danger is a constant concern.
Do not attempt in questionable weather. Running from a San Juan thunderstorm across the vast expanse of Ice Lake Basin is something you do not want to experience. Approach with caution in the winter as well. Retreat into the lower basin in white out conditions could be a real adventure. Be mindful of the weather, which generally travels west to east, and know that in most cases, you won't see it coming since the mountains block your western view. A common San Juan trap is to climb a steep mountain, only to discover a black thunderhead on the other side just waiting for you to show up.
CampingCamping possibilities are endless. Camping near the trailhead on the west side of Clear Creek, south of the road, is very good. Mineral Creek Campground, a fee site, is nice for vehicles and RVs. Camping in lower Ice Lake Basin is exemplary, particularly on the west side near some gorgeous and unusual waterfalls (see lower Ice Lake Basin section). Alpine camping in upper Ice Lake Basin is among the best in the San Juans. This is a high alpine environment. Severe weather can turn a glorious campsite into a nightmarish experience. Take appropriate gear and tent suitable for alpine use, or be prepared to retreat to the lower basin.
The higher you can manage to camp, the more time you will have to explore this vast wilderness and take your time on the peak.
Mountain ConditionsUncompahgre National Forest
2250 Hwy 50
Delta, Co. 81416
San Juan National Forest
15 Bunett Ct.
Durango, Co. 81301
COLORADO STATE PATROL ROAD CONDITIONS STATEWIDE
Miscellaneous InfoSome text by Aaron Johnson, sourced and edited from here.
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