This was just a jaunt up the standard easiest route on Kit Carson. We drove to Crestone on Saturday afternoon, arriving at the trailhead two miles east of town at about 3 pm MDT. There is no trouble finding the road out of town; the highway, “T” road, delivers you to Galena Street, and the access road is simply the continuation of Galena. Any car can make it up the first half of the road (to the National Forest), and it doesn’t take a very hefty one to make it the rest of the way. Unless the road has been recently washed out, my guess is that anything except the very lowest-clearance cars, carefully driven, could make it all the way.
The trail is well marked, as is the fork to which you come in just a short distance. Left (northeast) takes you up Crestone Creek to South Crestone Lake, and right (southeast) takes you up Willow Creek toward Willow Lake. The whole trail is well worn, and virtually impossible to miss.
A series of six long, lazy switchbacks leads up through lowland forest to the first lip. Crossing over it, through a bunch of rocks, brings a broad, open meadow into view on the hiker’s right. Espying this meadow ahead to your left, on the way back, is a clear sign that you have made it almost all the way. The trail then drops a little before leveling out for a ways as it skirts the north side of this basin. It was at this point that rain began to fall on us in earnest. Just when we thought we would need to remove clothes to stay cool, we had to put more on, and cover our packs with ponchos!
Soon a series of thirteen switchbacks begins, climbing to the hiker’s left and proceeding east. The trail here can get muddy (and certainly was, in places, on this trip!), but there is little rockiness and few big steps. After this, with rain continuing, we came to the first major stream crossing, where we crossed over to the south side of the water. There is a large bridge of logs over the torrent at the bottom of a very noisy cascade/waterfall. We went across on all fours, since a fall into the water would have been catastrophic.
Emerging on the other side, the character of the trail changes. A steep climb through rocks is accomplished via nine switchbacks, finally leading up over another lip. Again, the trail levels out, some mud may be encountered, and a much easier stream crossing soon appears, putting the hiker back on the north side of the stream. Willow Lake is now not far ahead, and most of the altitude gain to the lake is behind one.
When we finally saw the lake, and its spectacular waterfall, the rain was finally letting up. All the vegetation, however, was good and soaked. It overshadows the trail for a lot of the way around the lake’s north side, and up the steep and rocky section that finally leads to the top of the rock shelf responsible for the waterfall. When we finally, hastily, erected the tent on top of that shelf, it was late and we were good and wet.
The morning came with pervasive cloud cover, which actually got heavier, not lighter, as the sun came to the horizon. We thought we might have to abandon the climb right up to the last minute. That last minute came about 5:30 am, when we finally decided to give it a go, and see how the day developed.
We followed the trail for perhaps a quarter of a mile up the valley before turning right and heading more or less straight up the steep north slopes of Challenger. The optimal route runs just to the left (east) of a prominent rock rib and right (west) of a gully which, at least on this date, held some of the last continuous snow. There are cairns, at least occasionally, and wisps of climber’s trail, but there are still many options for how to proceed in the fine grain. You just keep going up. It’s steep, and the rock is fairly loose in many places. Call it Class 2+ or Class 3, depending on your taste. In our case, the sections where there was vegetation were also problematic, as it was still wet and slippery.
After a section of rather large rocks, with gradually increasing slope, a wide, loose gully is reached which leads to the top of the ridge. The notch at the top is actually fairly easy to spot from below, and we headed for it. Through the notch, a decent trail reappears, and it leads briefly over onto the south side of the ridge, but never far from the crest, as it turns east toward the summit. After only a few dozen yards, the trail regains the actual ridge crest, and pretty much stays on it the rest of the way. From here, the summit is easily visible.
There is one false summit that briefly hides the real one, but it’s easy to identify. It’s also not far from the true summit, which is, at least as of this writing, marked by an upright pole fixed in rocks. There you will find the memorial plaque, and the register. When we were there, the cap of the register had been damaged, but it still provided better protection for the contents than nothing. Perhaps someone can remedy this soon.
Still under cloudy skies, we made the short, steep descent to the saddle and the start of Kit Carson Avenue. The route here is obvious: It’s easy to spot as you approach, and I don’t see how anyone could get off course once on the ledge. It comes in three sections. The first section rises gently to the saddle between Kit Carson and the Prow. There it turns sharply to the climber‘s left, and the second section proceeds down. After going over a small saddle behind a rock rib, there is a gentler turn, also to the left, and the third section also continues to drop.
At the end, there is a choice of two gullies to ascend as the final leg of the climb. Roach counsels against the temptation of the first gully one encounters, which is steeper but more solid than the second. Depending on whether you want tot avoid exposure or looseness more, either one will do. We chose the easier, looser, second one, which I would rate as 2+. The other one looked like a solid Class 3, and could have gotten rather dangerous had rain come and wetted down the rock.
Once at the top of the gully (either one), it is only a short walk up the north ridge to the summit, on easy terrain. The summit is small and provides great views in virtually every direction. Our view of the rest of the Crestone group was somewhat limited by drifts of mist and cloud, but on a clear day, it would be truly stunning. There is also a clear view back down into the valley toward Willow Lake.
We didn’t stay long, again not wanting to tempt the weather, and retraced our steps to descend. At the corner on the Avenue, I’m told that it’s possible to climb up the back side of the Prow to its top without anything beyond Class 3 scrambling. Unfortunately, I didn’t test this out. Maybe another day.
The most taxing part of the descent was, once again, the steep north slopes of Challenger. Be careful if you’re tired or you could take an unpleasant spill in any one of numerous places. Your knees may complain anyway. By the time we got back down to the bottom, we finally had some mostly clear sunshine and pleasant temperatures. That made breaking camp--of which we had done very little in the morning--a lot more pleasant than I had feared it might be.
We even survived the annoyance of having to shoulder, once again, full packs for the 4½ -mile trip out. The whole length of the trail, including the stream crossings, were, or at least seemed, a whole lot easier in afternoon sunshine than they had been in pouring rain.
This trip makes sense to break into two days, unless one is a very strong, fast hiker and climber. It would be a long and arduous day trip, and I’m just as glad we didn’t try it that way. The climbing in the Crestone group is flat-out fun; it’s just the getting there that’s hard!
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