Date hiked: 06/16/16
Mileage: 7.4 miles; 3.5 hours
Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): 3 groups in June, 0 groups in April
When I first moved to Montrose, Lizard Head gave me one of my first tastes at San Juan hiking. But with an April ascent – and a wet April at that – the snow hadn’t even begun to melt, and a freak storm forced me to turn around just below the summit. But my second attempt in June saw me to the Cross Mountain – Lizard Head junction, where a heavy blanket of snow still clung to the Black Face traverse over to Wilson Mesa.
From the trailhead, a bridge spanning Snow Spur Creek escorts you into the first look at our destination – the jagged spire of Lizard Head Peak. The meadows are well-watered down here from this year’s snowpack, soon to be leaving behind brilliant displays of wildflowers.
The Cross Mountain Trail follows a route parallel to Lizard Head Creek, breaking away within the first half mile. Coming up to the split with the Groundhog Stock Trail, take the right (north), where most of the elevation gain will be coming up.
Tall clusters of pine close in. With the day shaping up to be a searing one, the temperature dwindles beneath the impressive canopy, and small pockets of snow still remain in the deepest shadows. The trail levels out with another meadow, bringing with it a well deserved rest. The trees thin out slowly before finally opening up to an impressive view of Lizard Head.
The high peaks supporting Ice Lake Basin’s western ridge: Vermilion Peak hogging center stage, the swooping knob of Golden Horn, and Pilot Knob’s craggy ridge.
There’s a big difference between hiking in the summer and hiking in the cold months of wintertime. For one, it’s a lot easier to prepare in the summer. When the snow is falling, you’ve got the winter gear to think about: snowpants, jacket, mittens, hat, warmers, snowshoes, skis – if that’s your thing. It’s a lot of extra weight. And if you plan on venturing off the beaten track, you’ve got a good chance of ending up on a pristine blanket of snow that hasn’t seen human touch in weeks, if not months. In those situations, a GPS unit is a given, but loading the trail and following it is a real pain to say the least. And more often than not, something is going to force you to back out early.
Or in my case – a freak snowstorm.
When I came up here in April, the forecast called for blue skies all day. But breaking through treeline, I came face to face to a bank of clouds saying anything but. I kept pushing, hoping I’d luck out, then the wind picked up. A frigid curtain of snow blew right through me, taking with it my footprints, and any landmark I could use to find my way back down the trail. With a real chance of my batteries freezing and my GPS konking out on me, I turned back, knowing I’d be kicking myself for it later. But, there’s no sense in getting stuck in the middle of a freak blizzard above treeline in unfamiliar settings.
This time around, as I reached treeline, the Wilson grouping burst onto the scene, and the base of Lizard Head takes shape. Even now, in the thick of summer, the last vestiges of winter still cling this high above sea level.
As the erosional remnant of a giant pile of volcanic ash, the rotten and crumbling rock makes Lizard Head arguably the most difficult peak to summit in the entire state. Just the simple act of reaching for a handhold could bring a deadly avalanche of rock down around you. This was evidenced by a 1911 landslide which brought down an entire spire that used to sit on the north side of Lizard Head, forever altering the appearance of the peak. Though I couldn’t find any before-and-after pictures, this fallen mass purportedly gave the rock more of a lizard appearance.
But rest assured, gazing out from the base is just as rewarding.
Not much further, the trail hits the Cross Mountain – Lizard Head split. If you turn back here and retrace your steps, it’s 7.6 miles round trip, but continuing on along Black Face towards Wilson Meadows, you can make an 11.7 mile loop out of it.
(From Telluride): At the roundabout on the western end of town, drive south on CO-145. After 2.9 miles, turn left at the second roundabout to continue onto southbound 145. The trailhead is on the right side of the road 14 miles beyond the roundabout (about 2 miles past Lizard Head Pass). The parking lot can hold a dozen or so cars, but there is overflow parking in the pullout along the highway.
17 miles; 25 min