Overview and Perspectives
The La Plata Mountains reward the curious and the patient. Their relatively low summits are overlooked by people who are concerned with check lists. 4x4 access and a discreet network of mining trails welcome only the most determined hikers. And so when you leave the populated valley bottoms and venture into the heights of this range, you can expect some real peace and quiet. However these mountains are not walkups. Being typical of the San Juans in general, nearly every approach begins with a steep ascent through the sub alpine. Above timberline, you will be stunned with the variety of ridge traverses, scrambles, and pure exposure that is hidden here.
The high country is a world unto itself. People venture into this land of bare elements for many reasons, but chances are that if you're visiting this page, then you are looking to experience a particular quality of the natural environment. Accordingly, please do your best to learn about and practice leave no trace ethics. For climbers and mountaineers especially, this means being conscious of what is happening with social trails that cross the tundra, and watching out for routes that induce scarring and erosion on the slopes. The La Platas especially are prone to loose fitting rock...and so unwittingly, even the most pristine areas can be loved to death. Please tread lightly.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to come to southwestern Colorado, and the La Platas, or "The Silver Mountains" is a name born from this time. The Spanish most likely traveled up the Chama River Valley, crossed the continental divide near Dulce, and then followed the San Juan River and its tributaries into the Durango area. When seen from these directions on a clear, sunny morning, the eastern escarpments of the La Plata Mountains bear a distinct silver luster that can be found on no other range in Colorado. Most prominent on this front is Silver Mountain itself, anchoring the foot of the range and commanding the morning sun from all directions. These distant southeastern views are probably the origin of the name, La Plata Mountains.
As a kid I had always done a lot of hiking in the mountains with my family. But one day at a picnic on Kennebec Pass, I realized that I could simply leave the group and start up the tundra slopes all by myself...without the help or constraint of any trails. From that point I spent nearly a decade wandering around inside the La Platas before I finally ventured farther north into the San Juans. All of my formative mountaineering experience developed in this range, as did my love for unmarked routefinding and long, quiet, high alpine traverses. This range is for people who simply love the backcountry.
The purpose of this page is to share knowledge and a some local perspectives on the La Plata Mountains of southwestern Colorado. This page will focus on helping you to find access points and trail heads, which are generally unmarked in this range.
The La Plata mountains are located in southwestern Colorado. The eastern, western, and southern sides of the range have many good points for vehicle access. However, the northern side of the range can only be accessed by arriving on the Colorado Trail, or by foot traverse between highest basins inside the range itself.
From the east
you can either take Lightner Creek Road or Junction Creek Road. Both of these areas are popular with hunters in the fall. Lightner Creek meets highway 160 about two miles west of the Durango city limits. Junction Creek Road begins in Durango on 25th Street and Main Avenue. For mountaineers, access through Lightner Creek is generally disappointing, unless you want to access some of the most undisturbed (and lowest) areas of the range. Access through Junction Creek is useful if you want to get to northeastern parts of the range. Junction Creek Road is maintained past the Animas Overlook, but it eventually turns into a 4x4 road. If you are determined enough, you can follow Junction Creek Road to the point where you must continue on foot using the Colorado Trail. From this point you can ascend up the other side of Kenebec Pass and then descend to the upper end of La Plata Canyon Road on the other side.
From the south
you want to take La Plata Canyon Road, which joins highway 160 about 1/2 mile west of the town of Hesperus. This is the most popular point of access into the range. The Forest Service maintains the lower portion of the road and there are several campgrounds. The lower canyon is popular with families and people with trailers, and so it can be crowded on summer holidays. About half way up La Plata Canyon the road starts to get rough for cars, and eventually it turns into a 4x4 road. If you continue about three miles up the 4x4 section you will arrive at Kennebec Pass, where the road ends. From this point you look north across the Hermosa Creek drainage at the southern escarpments of the San Miguel, Needle and Grenadier Mountains. The last segment of the Colorado trail meets here before descending east into Durango.
From the west
you can find access up the Bear Creek trail near the town of Dolores. You can also enter by 4x4 roads from the Transfer Campground near Mancos, and the Madden Peak road on the La Plata/Montezuma County line. Both of these roads travel a considerable distance into the range, but they end at points just below timberline.
From the north
you would backpack into the range using the Colorado Trail. From Molas Pass (north of Durango) on highway 550, it is generally a three day trek to the La Platas. The final day traverses the top of Indian Trail Ridge, which is "high and dry" with no sources of water. On this segment you would either have to pack your water, or take your chances to descend into the right creek to find a water source.
Rocks and geology: what am I climbing on?
It truly does take patience and curiosity to climb in the La Platas. Overall the rock type is crumbly and loose, with huge sections of scree and rotten talus lurking inside the range. These areas are easily disturbed and eroded by the alpine trekker. However it is precisely this material that gives the La Platas one of their best features--a striking saturation of pure color.
But there is one more thing to mention about the rock type here, and that is variety. As you move toward the central massif of the range, intrusive granite has formed just soft enough to be carved into stunning fractures, gulleys, ridges and fins. And lots of pure, stunning exposure. By every measure the composition of material in this range is eccentric...and so are most of its climbs.
The La Plata Mountains are nearly twice as old as the formations in the greater San Juan range. They "formed from multiple intrusions of magma some 65 million to 67 million years ago. This magma invaded the near-surface sedimentary layers to produce a complex of dikes, sills, and laccoliths. These laccolithic mountains differ from the central San Juans principally because they eroded from a complex of interfingering sedimentary layers, whereas the San Juans eroded from a thick volcanic pile resting upon an eroded Precambrian crystalline basement." (See Origin of the Landscapes, below.) The end result is highly colorful beds of sandstone and slate, crumbled and mixed throughout the range, and which are interrupted by beds and walls of granite.
Finding your way to the peaks
There is rarely a correct route up any given mountain. It all depends on the skill and comfort level of the adventurer. Accordingly, this section is meant to help you find the best points of access to the peaks and it will give you a general description of the material that you will encounter.
Parrott Peak (11,857) and Madden Peak (11,972)
From La Plata Canyon Road: With a sharp eye you can find the trail that goes up Root Creek, beginning near the Kroeger campground (locally pronounced "Craig-er".) A little farther north of there you can find the 4x4 road that goes up Madden's eastern ridge. This road begins by ascending a bare, rocky knoll immediately next to the main road. The road up to Madden Peak eventually Ts out below timberline and you will have to bushwack the last 500 feet or so to get above timberline. Both peaks are class 2 hikes on tundra and fairly stable talus.
From Madden Peak road at the Montezuma County line: This road quickly becomes 4x4. Follow it all the way to the point where it is now closed. Leave your vehicle at the closed area and follow the remaining traces of the road up past timberline. Then gain the ridge and choose your traverse. If you are adventurous you can also try to head in a northerly direction past the closed point to find the connecting road that ascends up Madden's west ridge. I have seen this spur many times from high up, but I have never been able to find it from down below. From this side you will find expansive talus fields above timberline.
Gibbs Peak (12,286)
From La Plata Canyon Road at Bedrock Creek, a good 4x4 road travels northwest and ends below timberline. From there Gibbs peak is a class 2 hike mostly on tundra.
Burwell Peak (12,664) Spiller Peak (13,123ish) and Babcock Peak (13,149ish)
Travel on La Plata Canyon Road for about 1,000 feet past the point where it crosses Boren Creek. On the left side you will see a parking area. Be careful not to inadvertently walk through someone's front yard to gain this road: every time I come back here trees are felled, there is a new pile of earth, and the access has moved a few hundred feet. In general, stay right and gain elevation quickly to climb past the private property.
This road winds high up into the Boren Creek drainage. It eventually swings due west toward Burwell Peak and abruptly ends at an old mine. From here climb up past the mine through the trees. You will leave timberline quickly. At this point stop to assess your options. There are some amazing class 3 and 4 routes to find up here. You will find more stable talus and rock faces on the southern slopes of Babcock, and lots of rotten talus and scree on the eastern slopes of the Spiller/Burwell ridge. Burwell Peak is especially filled with rotten scree material. There is some debate as to the elevation of Spiller and Babcock peaks, as well as errors on the USGS map, leading some to call this the "lemon quad."
Babcock option 2, Mount Moss (13,192) and Lavender Peak (13,140)
Travel well past Boren Creek on La Plata Canyon Road. After a very steep and rotten section, the road levels out a little bit. Keep your eyes peeled for a hidden 4x4 road on the left, which immediately switch backs and rises to the south. The road is very hard to spot, but if you reach the Columbus Basin turnoff, come back down and you are more likely to see it on the right. This road is still open to vehicle access, but it is extremely narrow and rocky. It is the kind of stuff that punctures tires.
The road winds high into Tomahawk Basin and abruptly ends at an old mine. From here Mount Moss and Lavender Peak are best reached by traversing north into the upper Bear Creek Basin. From the mine in Tomahawk Basin, hike due north on talus and rotten talus to gain the ridge. Once on the ridge, contour and descend northwest toward Lavender Peak through an extensive talus field. Be careful. The north side of Moss' east ridge appears stable because the rock type is hard and in large pieces. Do not be fooled. This talus field is particularly tricky with unbalanced pieces.
Once below the north and east faces of Moss and Lavender, assess your routes. The rock type in this area is hard granite, but it can still be loose and weathered in areas. There are untold class 3 and 4 scrambles in this area.
If you choose to go west into the upper Tomahawk Basin instead, stay high and to the north side of the creek in order to avoid several steep sections. You can access Moss' south ridge and the north face of Babcock from this approach.
Hesperus Peak (13,232) Sharkstooth (12,462) and Centennial Peak (13,062)
These peaks are best accessed from the west side of the range. From the Transfer Campground north of Mancos, continue for ten miles on a maintained road heading north out of the campground. It generally heads north, and slowly begins turning east high above the north side of the West Mancos Canyon. If you see any forks in the road, it is generally best to stay right and on the maintained road. The Forest Service often changes the management plans for these roads, so as you return to these areas on a year-to-year basis, be aware that road maintenance, points of closure, and intersections have often been modified.
After you pass a short series of steep switchbacks, the road levels out and begins to narrow. Make a final right onto a moderate 4x4 road that angles southeast and gently descends into the very top of the North Fork of the West Mancos River. The road ends here at the Sharkstooth Trailhead. For Hesperus Peak, leave your vehicle and bushwack due south to the west ridge of the mountain, and then gain the west ridge on talus. Once past timberline, the ascent up Hesperus is a fun scramble on solid talus and large boulders. For Sharkstooth and Centennial Peak, take the Sharkstooth Trail east to the saddle between the two peaks.
Hesperus Peak is a regional landmark because it is one of the four sacred mountains of the Navajo Tribe. In the Navajo language the mountain is called Dibé Ntsaa. It is the sacred mountain of the north, and it is associated with the color black.
Centennial Peak used to be called Banded Mountain, but was renamed (I think) for the US bicentennial.
The Sharkstooth Trail is a classic, old-school Colorado experience. It is a moderate class 2 hike, but expect snow to cover parts of the trail well into June. It could be done as a very long in-and-out for athletes who want the cardio, or it can be done as a through trail for a pleasant weekend backpacking trip. It flirts with timberline and tundra on the north side of the La Platas, delivering unprecedented views of the San Juans and the upper Bear Creek Basin.
Diorite Peak (12,761)
For this mountain you can either park in La Plata Canyon and try the direct ascent up Shoebeck Gulch, or you can try a traverse over to the mountain from Kennebec Pass via the Sharkstooth Trail. I have not tried the Shoebeck approach, but from what you can see from the inside of the canyon, it would be a very steep, sustained hike with many scrambling opportunities starting at timberline. Be careful of the ridge separating Shoebeck Gulch from Fly-by-Night Gulch. It is one of those ridges that looks easy from a distance, but close inspection reveals nasty scree pitches. From Kennebeck Pass start on the trail to Taylor Lake, but take the southern loop of the Sharkstooth Trail southwest beyond the lake, and to where it reaches a pass between La Plata Canyon and Bear Creek. From there leave the trail and continue on the ridge to Diorite Peak. Do not be tempted to save elevation by contouring below the west side of this ridge. The rock is tedious and unstable.
Unnamed "Burro Mountain" (12,101) Cumberland Mountain (12,388) and Snowstorm Peak (12,511)
All three of these mountains can either be approached from the La Plata Canyon side or the Junction Creek side. Although the Junction Creek Road has to be finished on foot as part of the Colorado Trail, both routes meet at Kennebec Pass. Here the last segment of La Plata Canyon Road crosses the saddle between Cumberland Mountain and Snowstorm Peak through a large road cut. On the other side it turns into a foot trail and descends to rejoin Junction Creek Road.
Locally called "Burrow Mountain" this norhteastern-most ridge and summit is best combined with Cumberland Mountain. From Cumberland's west side, ascend the class 2 slope on tundra. For Snowstorm, go over to the east side of Kennebec Pass and then head south by southwest up a class 3 slope on mostly tundra and some scree.
Lewis Mountain (12,681)
There are two points of access to this peak. From La Plata Canyon Road you can take the 4x4 into Columbus Basin and ascend the peak on talus.
The other route is filled with red tape. About 2/3 up La Plata Canyon Road, there is a side road (I will call it Lewis Creek Road) that heads down an open meadow and crosses the river. On the other side, the Lewis Creek Road is a 4x4 route that heads up Lewis Creek to Eagle Pass. In years past, there is a property owner who has posted no trespassing signs along the road, about 2/3 of the way up to Eagle Pass. More recently, it looks like a property owner in the canyon has made the first part of this road into their private driveway. Inquire at the Lands Center about current access up this road before you try to use it. If you can go, then from Eagle Pass ascend the south ridge of Lewis Peak on stable talus and boulders.
Baker Peak (11,949) Silver Mountain (12,469) and Deadwood Mountain (12,285)
Historically, you access these peaks by turning right at the Lewis Creek Road from within La Plata Canyon (see above paragraph for red tape.) After crossing the river there is a parking area immediately adjacent to Lewis Creek. Cross the creek on boulders, and you will find an old mining road that runs south along the mountain. Call the Lands Center about this point of access. If it is closed, you can park along La Plata Canyon Road, descend, and cross the La Plata River to find the mining road.
Once on the mining road, continue south and the road starts to bend east and ascend into Tirbircio Creek. You will pass the remains of the Gold King Mill, which was a historic structure that burned down about 10 years ago. The Tirbircio Creek trail gives out right at timberline, after which there is a lot of fun backcountry routefinding
involved before you can summit these peaks. Expect talus and broken talus fields down low, and then hard
scree slopes up high.
This is a simple and pleasant walk down one of the most prominent ridges in the entire range. From the summit of Deadwood Mountain, simply head south to your heart's content. You will eventually come to the Inca mine in Little Deadwood Gulch. From here it is best to head back up the ridge to Deadwood Mountain. If you continue down the 4x4 road, you will come down into the town of Mayday and there will be no way to return to La Plata Canyon Road without crossing private property.
Access problems are percolating in La Plata Canyon and this situation is typical of many other "New West" developments in the rest Colorado.
La Plata Canyon has an unusual density of old mining claims, which over time have mostly been converted to summer-home properties. These properties are frequently called "inholdings" because they are historic claims to land that either preexisted the creation of the national forest, or were removed from the public domain via a new mining claim and the contemporary exercise of Colorado's 19th century mining laws.
The real-world result is that roads that were historically used to access US Forest Service land are being closed by private property owners in the canyon bottom. These property owners reason that public access to the forest is not allowed to cross their private property. This logic is incorrect in many cases, but it may be correct in some circumstances. It is important to respect private property, but do not be fooled into thinking that the owner of a few acres can shut off public access to tens of thousands of acres.
This situation is constantly evolving. In particular, I was disappointed to see recently that someone has closed off the primary access to Lewis Creek and Tirbircio Creek. Since this road is now "closed" access to these trails requires a steep descent from the main road and wading across the river. Continuing up the Lewis Creek Road may be even more problematic. If you want to access either the Lewis Creek or the Tirbircio Creek areas, check with the San Juan Public Lands Center first.
In general, if you see a private property or no trespassing sign, consider walking around the property until you can find what looks like unmarked public land. Most properties and claims are in the canyon bottom only. Simply walk up through the forest around these properties, and with some routefinding skills, you can intercept the mining roads above these areas.
May 2012 update: It appears that the Forest Service is trying to mark some of the public mining roads with numbered fiberglass staffs (these are the standard markers for remote forest service roads.) I saw that access to Boren Creek and Tomahawk Basin is now clearly marked public, but many other points of traditional public access are still unmarked. Additionally, some other points of traditional public access, which have been blocked by private property owners in the recent past, have now been restored to their original condition-but are not marked. In all cases, pay judicious attention to private property signs in La Plata Canyon, and call the San Juan Public Lands Center in Durango if you have any access questions.
Geography: what am I looking at?
Above: the Grenadier and the Needle Mountains as seen from Kennebec Pass.
The most startling thing about the La Platas is their relative isolation apart from the greater San Juan Mountains, and their commanding presence over the entire Four Corners region. Many years ago when driving over highway 64 at the base of the Carrizo Mountains, a friend of mine from Arizona pointed at the La Plata Mountains in the far distance. They were covered in snow and pierced high into the blue sky, far behind the Sleeping Ute Mountain. He asked me if the La Platas were "the start of the Rocky Mountains." I had to think for a moment, because when asked this kind of a question, normally one thinks of coming in from the Great Plains and seeing the aptly-named Front Range. I looked at their western escarpments that stood out so uniquely from all of the other features in the Four Corners, and then I thought about how they effectively stood in front
of the San Juans. I had to tell him yes, they were.
With this vantage point, you should expect some pretty amazing views. From various points in the north of the range, you can spot Lone Cone and the Dolores Mountains, the San Miguels, Lizard Head, the Sneffels Range, the Rico Mountains and the Silverton West Group, the Grenadiers, the Needles, and even parts of the Mount Oso Group above the Pine River. From the south of the range you can easily find the South San Juans, the Jemez Mountains, the Defiance Plateau, the Chuska and Carrizo Mountains, Sleeping Ute Mountain, the Blue Mountains (a.k.a. the Abajos,) and the La Sal Mountains. In fact when the sky is clear enough, you can even see the Sandia Crest behind Albuquerque and Navajo Mountain outside of Page, Arizona. Last but not least, you can also spot Shiprock.
Below: looking back at the La Platas from Turret Peak in the Needle Mountains..
Exposure above La Plata Canyon.
Mesa Verde and Sleeping Ute Mountain.
Eastern face of the La Platas from near Ignacio, Colorado.
There are several US Forest Service campgrounds along lower La Plata Canyon Road. There are restrictions because of the use in this area, and the restrictions are posted at the Forest boundary near the town of Mayday. I do not think that dispersed camping in the lower canyon is allowed anymore.
If you descend into the Cherry Creek valley on highway 160 west of the town of Hesperus, there is a campground immediately before you start to head up the hill to the Montezuma County line.
Just north of the town of Mancos is the Transfer Campground.
There are several excellent "hunter's camps" along the upper Madden Peak Road.
External linksOrigin of the Landscapes
Four Corners Air Quality Group
In the Red Tape section I mentioned the term "New West," which has been used for about the last fifteen years in various magazines and newspapers. In contrast to the mythical Old West, it refers to a contemporary time where many places have been "built out," and where many of society's values toward the western landscape have changed. In times past western lands were a story of exploitation--the promotion of agricultural settlement and extractive industries. But after the markets for energy development and hardrock mining in the Rocky Mountains collapsed in the early 1980s, many western communities who were in need of jobs and revenue turned to promoting tourism and the aesthetic value of their landscapes. With this new policy came new people, and new values.
However most of Colorado's 19th century mining laws are still in effect, and energy markets, in particular, have rebounded with new markets and new technologies. And so when when people visit western Colorado, it often surprises them when they find that the environment here is not as undisturbed as the post cards would have them believe.
For anyone but the casual tourist, a trip through La Plata County and its namesake range will raise some questions. First when you enter La Plata Canyon, you will notice that the community of Mayday is quite vocally opposed to the new operations of Wildcat Mining Corporation. A long story of this development has been reported in the Durango Herald: Wildcat Mining Corp first wanted to mine and reprocess old tailings for gold and silver, but now they are also considering the rare earth element Tellurium (for which Telluride is named.) In the best of juxtapositions, Wildcat Mining Corp has been out of compliance with
a wide range of environmental laws, at the same time that Tellurium is valued on the global
market for its use use in solar panels.
Up on Mesa Verde, there is a an old place marker that describes the view extending out from Lookout Point. A reference on the marker correctly states to the effect that "the Four Corners region used to have some of the cleanest air in the United States." This statement is correct, because air quality monitoring data from the region has shown a steady deterioration in most parts of the Four Corners. In fact at many monitoring stations in the region, levels of regulated pollutants such as ozone are approaching Federal limits. The atmospheric deposition of airborne mercury pollution has also become an issue of concern. There have been times in recent years when data collected at Mesa Verde have shown some of the highest rates of mercury deposition in the entire country.
It is beyond the scope of this page to provide an in-depth discussion of local environmental issues: there are many. But in the new west, locals and many visitors have noticed that the skies and the landscapes are changing. And so even though we visit the backcountry in order to find physical challenges and spiritual rejuvenation, it behooves us sometimes to remember that environmental issues and human impact do not magically cease when we cross a National Forest or wilderness boundary. As we must be mindful of our impacts when recreating in the outdoors, anyone who develops an intimate relationship with a mountain range will also begin to think about the "dispersed" or "societal" footprints that are not so easily avoided.