Date hiked: 07/13/16
Mileage: 8.8 miles; 4 hours
Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): 8-10 groups
Ah – my first fourteener (or two) of the season. Now I can say that summer has officially dawned!
Though I’ve never seen the same face twice, there’s always a comforting sense of community at each 14er that’s hard to find on any other trail. It feels like coming home again.
When I tell people I like to hike these trails alone, I usually get one of two responses. Exhibit A: the backhandedly awestruck (Quote: Wow! But…you’re a girl). And Exhibit B: The worrysome (Quote: Do you have any idea what could happen to you out there? )
I do in fact have a very good idea of every anxiety-inducing scenario I could happen across miles deep in the wilderness with no one to turn to for help. It’s why I carry a knife poised in my hand or my pocket at all times, and have a canister of bear spray strapped to my pack. And it’s why I sometimes resort to blasting my music on the loneliest stretches. But, really, that’s part of the fun. There’s no greater feeling of accomplishment than standing alone at 14,000 feet knowing your skill alone is what got you there – never let that fear hold you back.
With the trail up to Redcloud starting out at elevations already exceeding 10,000 feet, the route first winds through quick groves of aspen and pine before soon approaching treeline. As the stunted growth makes way for grassy knolls, the dirt then gradually closes in on Silver Creek and maintains a level route parallel to the water. Crossing a few haggard scree fields stretched taut across the trail, the route soon rounds out Redcloud’s northern flank and climbs a series of wide switchbacks carved into a grassy basin painted with wildflowers. Nearing the northeast ridge, you’ll have gained roughly 2,500 feet of elevation in just over three and a half miles.
Cresting the ridge, Redcloud and it’s namesake red rock come into view. The switchbacks grow tighter, and at 12,500 feet – where the altitude usually starts to hit me – things really slow down. With my breaths coming out shallower, and my backpack feeling pounds heavier, each step taking way more effort than it should, I push through. While the temperature was probably in the eighties back at the trailhead, the wind picks up enough that I shrug my jacket on as a shield against the frigid cold.
The rest of the route climbs up a steep talus field, reaching Redcloud’s false summit just shy of 14,000 feet. The trail levels out for a bit, then it’s just the short, final burst to the top.
Now onto Sunshine. Starting off, the slope up Sunshine doesn’t look too daunting, but loosing over five-hundred feet in the mile and a half it’ll take to get over there, it’s agonizing knowing you’ll have to make that up again somehow. Each quarter mile you eat up, it slowly starts to become a reality, until the last scree-filled stretch.
From the summit, two options will get you back to the trailhead. The first is to turn back the way you came and regain Redcloud, while the second is to descend via the northwest face (difficult class-2). With my affinity for loops, the choice was a no-brainer.
The route starts out following Sunshine’s west ridge. A quarter mile in, drop from the ridge and into the shallow basin of the peak’s northwest face. From above, you can almost make out a faint line of the trail, but down here on the ground, it all disappears but sparsely populated cairns.
(From Lake City): From the southern end of Lake City, follow Highway 149 for 1.7 miles. Turn right onto CR 30 at Lake San Cristobal. The trailhead is 16.2 miles up this road. The first 4 miles are paved, then it becomes an easy 2WD dirt road for about the next 8.5 miles, growing rougher until the trailhead. The road is passable by any passenger car, though spring and early summer may require 4WD. The 14ers website cautions for higher-clearance, but I got mine all the way to the trailhead with 5.9 inches of clearance and only minimal trouble higher up. Use caution – it’s a busy road in the summer with ATVs, and grows tight in some areas.
13.8 miles, 29 min