Exploring SW Colorado's La Plata Range
Participants: Steve Doorn, Gina Pasquale, and Tasha the climbing wolf dog.
One of the nice things about Gina being pregnant is that it has given us the push we needed to explore other areas of Colorado and New Mexico that we've always wanted to check out, but haven't because we're too busy climbing peaks at or near 14 thousand feet instead. The La Platas are the inviting range to the west of Durango that is obvious from the top of any of the 14'ers around Durango, Ouray, or Telluride. We found it to be a beautiful area with plenty of potential for peak bagging, flower sniffing, and just plain relaxing.
After cruising into Durango the night of the 30th, having a great breakfast at Carver's the next morning and picking up a couple of topo maps of the area, we headed west for Mancos. Out of Mancos, we turned north along a well-maintained dirt road to set up camp at the Forest Service's Transfer campground. This was a nice little spot surrounded by aspens and 5 minutes walk from a great overlook of the Mancos river canyon below Hesperus Mountain (13,232 feet--one of the Navajo's four sacred mountains and highest point in the La Platas). After setting up the tent we drove off to the Sharkstooth trailhead and took a pleasant afternoon two-mile hike up to the saddle between Sharkstooth (12,462) and Centennial Peak (13,062). The flowers in the San Juans have always been a fantastic assortment of forms and colors, and the ones we saw in the La Platas did not disappoint. The trail also passes some interesting mine ruins. From the saddle we had great views of Hesperus and Lavender Pk (13,160) which looked even more jagged than Jagged Mountain in the Needles. After some lunch, I abandoned Gina and Tasha for the short scramble up to the tiny summit of Sharkstooth. The route followed steep, very loose, and scary talus up a "gully" on the right face of the peak to intersect the south ridge just below the summit. Most of the San Juan 14'ers plus Lizard Head could be seen from the top. The drive back to camp went through some great areas filled with mixed conifer/aspen forests, huge clumps of columbines and wild roses, and big wide-open meadows (many of which had the ubiquitous pop-up trailers parked in for the weekend). The biggest danger of the day was avoiding collisions with the huge number of ATV nuts sharing the road with us.
After a leisurely breakfast Sunday morning, we drove out to the Gold Run trailhead and started off on a 1500 foot descent into the Bear Creek drainage. The trail headed through thick aspen groves filled with bluebells, monkshood, and columbines and felt very much like hiking in the Sangres. After reaching the canyon bottom, we headed upstream for a mile or so, passing through many large meadows with great views of the peaks at the head of the basin. The creek itself is reputed to have excellent troutfishing (cows have been excluded from the area for the last 15 years). The area would be great for backpacking, but unfortunately dirtbikes are allowed in the lower part of the valley. The popularity with horsepackers also contributes to a large, annoying fly population. A little further up the canyon, however, would leave these annoyances behind.
Monday morning we got an early start to pack up camp and drive off to a different drainage. Heading back towards Durango, we took a left up the La Plata Canyon road (directly across the highway from that popular ski destination--Hesperus ski area!). We parked just below Kennebec pass, and after enjoying the views of the Needles and San Miguels, we headed west along the 1 mile trail to Taylor Lake, again passing through amazing clusters of wildflowers. While Tasha and I headed off to climb Diorite Peak (12,761 ft), Gina stayed behind to relax by the lake. Following the Sharkstooth trail south of Taylor Lake will bring you around on a traverse to a pass southwest of the lake. >From the pass we followed the ridgeline SW over a 12,100 foot bump to come to the base of a steep rocky step. This obstacle was avoided by dropping down (about 100 feet) on its north side, traversing along its base, and then regaining the ridge about 400 yards further along. The rest of the climb was an interesting 2nd and 3rd class scramble along the ridge to the summit and included a short (10-15 foot) section of knife edge. The few obstacles encountered along the way could be passed on the left. The summit gave wonderful views of the San Juans and other nearby peaks of the LaPlatas, including the impressive looking Babcock peak. Diorite can also be climbed from Tomahawk Basin, but that route didn't look as fun as the way I chose. After a leisurely lunch on the summit, we rejoined Gina and hiked back out with the goal of making it to the ice cream stand in Pagosa Springs before it closed. After a supersized cone in Pagosa we headed back down the road to White Rock. The LaPlatas will definitely be an area we return to. Fall would be a fantastic time for a visit to see what should be an awesome display of aspen colors in the area.