Missouri Mountain and Jeeps
Colorado Highway 285/24 through the Arkansas River Valley is a route that has become etched into the Colorado chapter in the life of David on Earth. West of this highway is the Sawatch Range, a vast feeding ground for anyone ready to feast on Colorado alpine adventures. It is home to 15 Colorado 14ers, including Missouri Mountain. And if that’s not enough, there are 144 other peaks that are above 13,000 feet in this range. But, surprising to those who don’t study this kind of stuff, all but one of the 14ers in this 100 mile-long range actually lies east of the Continental Divide.
Today, it is all about Missouri Mountain and crossing creeks in a Jeep. Anytime there are two thrills to be gained in one trip, take it. And take along a couple of buddies too; it just isn’t the same without someone to corroborate the story. Brian Listy and Kevin Ahman joined me. We met up on Friday after work in September 2014 at the Missouri Gulch trailhead along Highway 390, west off of Highway 24 between Buena Vista and Leadville. We were running short on daylight so we didn't waste any time getting to the 4WD road at Rockdale, crossing Clear Creek and Lake Fork Creek and finding a place to camp along the 2.5 miles of road that leads to a gate marking the trailhead.
Crossing the creeks was as much of a thrill as anticipated. The water was moving swiftly but only as high as the side door steps on the Jeep. Other trip reports wisely caution against attempting these crossings any earlier than late summer or early fall. One should steer left to avoid bottoming out on the rocks when coming out of the last creek. There are a couple mildly challenging maneuvers in the first half mile along of the road; after that it’s a relatively easy 4WD road. We camped near an old log cabin not long after clearing the first part of the road. There are several old log cabins down this road from mining days long past. We set up camp, built a fire, and ate our last meal of the day before settling in for the night. It was a full moon night with a mostly clear sky.
The next morning we woke just before sunrise, ate breakfast, and began our hike up the road. In hindsight we could have cut a few miles off our day by driving to the gate, but we didn’t know if the road had more of the same obstacles in store for us. It didn’t.
Shortly after leaving the gate, the view of Hope and Quail Mountains behind us was a great way of introducing the views that lay ahead. Less than a half mile down the trail from the gate is Clohesy Lake nestled in Missouri gulch between Huron Peak and Missouri Mountain. From this point the trail climbs quickly to break tree line into magnificent alpine tundra with spectacular views of Browns Peak, Middle Mountain B, Huron Peak, and several unnamed 13ers to the west. And to the east is Missouri Mountain. It’s a nearly 360 degree view of unspoiled Rocky Mountains. We rested near 13,000 feet to eat a snack and soak in the morning sunshine and fresh air. There are no words that can describe how awesome this is.
We lost the trail as we approached the west ridge, but the good news is that this brought us to some class 3 climbing. None of us seemed to mind the detour. Breaking up a climb with some more technical maneuvers is always welcome, as long as it doesn’t get into terrain that is beyond what the climber is prepared to handle. Once on the ridge the elevation remaining is less than 150 feet; it’s relatively flat up there. Taking the summit was less than a mile of ridge distance with comfortable but cautious exposure. (Exposure to climbers refers to the steepness of the terrain and the potential consequences of a fall; the greater the exposure, the riskier the climb.)
From the summit there is a clear view of Mount Belford and Oxford to the northeast, Mount Harvard to the southeast, and a spattering of 13ers all around. I like to relax on the summit, enjoy my PB&J, take down some electrolyte infused water, and bask in the full benefit of the climb. Today the weather had other plans for us. Although it was September and threat of lightning was mostly diminished, the quickly approaching black clouds from two directions gave us all the sense that it might be better to high tail it out of there. So, after a few pictures, 10 minutes after we summited we were dashing down the hill with the objective of getting off of the ridge before the clouds dumped on us. We did and the clouds did. Graupel, snow crystals that encounter supercooled water droplets to form soft hail, were the byproduct of our little black skyward friends. It had become so dense it very much resembled a heavy snow storm or rain fall. Over the course of the next half-hour it covered the tundra just enough to remind us that our intuition to leave the peak was a wise move. Graupel, incidentally, happens often at high altitudes and is a significant contributor to creating slab avalanches due to its density and low viscosity.
The rest of our decent was not nearly as eventful. We made it back to the Jeep, packed up camp, and headed back home. Brian waded through the creek to take a video of the crossing in the Jeep. We showed off that video for several months.
This trip ranked in the top few of all the hiking I did in 2014. It’s a good route to avoid the normally trafficked trails and enjoy a good dose of solitude. We saw only a few people that day and mostly near the trail head on the way back. Great day – great memories!