Lake Creek Trailhead is along Colorado 82. According to Gerry Roach, this trailhead is 14.5 miles west of the U.S. 24-Colorado 82 junction. If you need to camp overnight, stay at the pull-off next to Colorado 82 or right next to it to avoid the private property along the (dirt) South Fork Lake Creek Road.
To begin the hike, walk back the South Fork Lake Creek Road for .3 mile, where the road turns to the right. The La Plata Trail goes straight (east) from here. There is a metal sign announcing to stay on the trail to avoid trespassing private property.
Continue over a small hump of land and go down to cross the South Fork of Lake Creek on a solid wooden bridge. After crossing the bridge, stay on the main trail for about half a mile. Then you'll come to a second creek, La Plata Gulch Creek. Here there is a smaller but sturdy bridge of logs on which to cross the creek. Almost immediately after crossing this second bridge, you will come to a sharp right (south) turn in the main trail. A less-used but evident trail continues straight from this corner. This is where you will leave the main trail and begin your journey to Ellingwood Ridge.
Once you are on the trail to Ellingwood Ridge, follow it east toward La Plata Basin Gulch. The next creek you come to will be the La Plata Basin Gulch Creek. Cross this creek and turn uphill (south), following the gulch until you come to a sharp, narrow ridge. Follow the top of this ridge; A noticeable trail along its crest leads the way. This section of trail is mostly steeper class 1.
At about 11,200 feet, you will come to timberline. Here is a huge boulder field. This is where the trail hiking more or less ends.
First Steep Slope
From the boulder field continue to follow what is left of the trail up onto the rocks, where you get the first impressive views of La Plata Peak. To the left, the steep and daunting talus-filled slopes of Ellingwood Ridge rise into the sky. Find the easiest route upward. There are some cairns and faint trails. Most of these trails, however, consist of loose scree and dirt. The solid rock to the right is probably a better option for this first slope. This is some steep class 2 hiking with some minor class 3 scrambling--no real exposure yet.
Once at the top of the first steep slope above timberline, the terrain relents a bit and beomces more grassy and gentle. The view of La Plata opens up again at this point (not looking any closer), and to the east Twin Lakes loom large below.
The first tower of rock stands at the top of this grassy knoll. Resting at this spot, the climber has a great view of what lies ahead.
The Fun Begins
Point 13,138 (Photo by RyanS)
The next section of Ellingwood Ridge consists of many such rock towers, usually with a cliff on the west side. Stay on top of the ridge or on the east side of it. Staying true to the ridge crest requires some technical climbing and likely more than one rappel. Even on the eastern slopes just below the ridge plenty of class 4 climbing opportunities can be found, but most of the difficulties can be kept to class 3 with adequate route-finding. There are plenty of ups and downs as you pass over Point 13,206 and eventually come to the grassy summit of Point 13,138.
From Point 13,138, the climbing gets more involved. Route-finding from here becomes much more complicated, as there are a number of ledges that must be traversed leading to blind corners, gulleys and cliffs. This section of the climb also involves a lot of downhill to keep the difficulties to class 3 or class 4. There is a fair amount of exposure in some places. Extra care must be paid to footholds and handholds, as there is plenty of rotten rock and scree thrown into the equation. There are minimal cairns, at least as of 2004.
This section of the ridge will begin to get tiresome after a while, but it is a fun experience. Just as you think you are getting nowhere, you will see a path of scree leading up to a small saddle. Scramble up to that saddle and you are rewarded with another view of the now much-closer La Plata Peak.
Down-climbing (Photo by RyanS)
You will also see that this is where Ellingwood Ridge takes a sharp turn to the west, toward the summit. Though the ridge gets much steeper, it is almost all class 3 scrambling from here. One massive slope of steep talus leads you uphill. You will have to climb around a large buttress; stay on its left (east) side. Eventually you will summit Point 14,180, or "East La Plata." The worst of the difficulties are over as La Plata's true summit is visible across the saddle.
One more obvious descent is required to pass to the left (south) of a number of more rock towers. Scramble up to the saddle (class 2+) and continue west for the remaining hundred or so yards until you come to the 14,336-foot summit of La Plata Peak!
This jagged ridge is fun to traverse, but beware of how long it will take--many have underestimated its difficulties. Always allow more time than you think necessary, for getting stuck in a storm on this exposed ridge is a scary and dangerous experience. Trust me, I know! Always be careful and go prepared, so you can enjoy this amazing place!
I highly recommend wearing a helmet. There are lots of loose rocks and areas of climbing and downclimbing. I think I got bonked twice on the helmet with baseball-sized rocks.
Climbing gear for technical terrain is optional.
Take a LOT of water, and enough clothes to prepared for any kind of weather.