“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” John Muir
- SUMMIT ELEVATION: 14,014 feet
- TRAILHEAD: Stewart Creek
- ROUTE: Northeast Ridge
- ELEVATION GAIN: 3,600 feet
- ROUNDTRIP LENGTH: 13.00 miles
- ROUNDTRIP TIME: 6 hours, 15 minutes
- CLIMBING PARTNER(S): Charlie and Jon
San Luis Peak is one of the most remote and least climbed 14ers in Colorado. The mountain is the easternmost 14er within the San Juan Range. Unlike the majority of 14er’s in Colorado, this isolated peak stands alone silently, crouching just high enough to remain above 14,000 feet. Situated at 14,014 feet, San Luis Peak is truly miles from civilization and in the heart of the La Garita Wilderness. Gerry Roach describes San Luis Peak as a “shy peak” as it does not necessarily want to be in the spotlight but still proud of the elite group it belongs to in Colorado. Vertically the peak is ranked 54 of Colorado’s 58 14ers. From a difficulty view point, San Luis Peak is considered to be one of the easiest, if not the easiest, 14er in Colorado. Both routes leading to the top are considered Class I difficulty. Very few peaks in Colorado have the undemanding, uncomplicated Class I technical difficulty. This shy, quaint peak would ultimately be memorable for this very characteristic.
I had a tremendous amount of excitement leading into my hike. San Luis Peak was the beginning of a three day 14er adventure in the San Juan Range. I had wanted to do this type of trip all summer and now it was reality. It would be the beginning of a weekend with two of my close friends and three beautiful 14ers, which included Wetterhorn Peak and Uncompahgre Peak. After hiking some fantastic 14ers the weekends before (Lindsey, Challenger and Kit Carson), I was only more energized to reach the summit of some new peaks. San Luis was a great starting point due to its remote eastern location. Above all, I was also excited to have some isolation in the mountains, some new peaks to enjoy and some quality time with God.
Hours of planning occurred prior to this new adventure. We wanted to be strategic as we calculated which peaks to climb and the logistics of the trip. The planning focused not only on understanding the hikes/climbs but also figuring out the when, where, how, etc. of the trip. The more peaks we climbed, the more planning was necessary. In addition, spending several days away, camping, and the peaks being in various locations required a lot of foresight. Jon and Charlie could only climb on the weekend and then they needed to return to the Front Range for work on Monday. I had an extended weekend prior to heading to Snowmass for a business conference on Tuesday. My plan was to then hike Uncompahgre Peak solo on Monday prior to driving over to Snowmass. With all of this said, planning was important leading into our hike of San Luis Peak and was a little more complex due to the nature of our trip.
Although there was a lot of planning for the trip, our hike of San Luis Peak was straight forward. Our hike would begin at the Steward Creek Trailhead at 10,500 feet and we would follow the standard route to the top of the peak. As previously stated, the hike would be along a Class I route all the way to the summit. We would need to acquire approximately 3,600 feet of vertical gain. The total length of the hike is approximately 13.0 miles roundtrip. The route was going to be a long, gradual hike to the summit of San Luis Peak.
Jon, Charlie and I left work around noon on Friday to get an early start toward the trailhead. From Denver, we knew that it would take approximately 5 hours to get to the Stewart Creek Trailhead. We first traveled to Gunnison, acquired some additional supplies, dropped off my truck, and then carpooled to the trailhead. I have to state, when people say San Luis Peak is remote, San Luis Peak is truly distant and secluded and people are not lying. Once you leave U.S. Highway 50 and turn onto Colorado Highway 114, it is approximately 47 miles to the trailhead. The majority of this is along a dirt road. It is tedious, boring, and somewhat mind-numbing. The changing of the aspen leaves added a small degree of stimulation; however, this drive was still long and drawn-out. Besides the aspens, the new Sun Chips bag added some amusement. The bag, which is 100% bio-degradable and compostable, was ridiculously loud. The bag would ignite with an incredibly loud blast, 95 decibels in fact (based on studies completed by people upset with the bag), that sounded like fireworks exploding on the 4th of July whenever one of us placed our hand in the bag. Each time a hand entered the bag, conversation would stop because we couldn’t hear ourselves let alone anyone else. Of course, this continually made all three of us laugh at the obnoxious bag. If any of you have recently purchased a bag of these, you know what I am talking about (side note, Sun Chips has unfortunately stopped using the eco-friendly bag). I guess the little things like an extremely noisy bag can make a repetitive, semi-dull drive more amusing.
We arrived at Stewart Creek Trailhead on Friday night around 6:30 pm. As I stated, this was a long drive but arriving at the trailhead removed the numbness. The trailhead was quiet and the sun was setting. It was perfect. There were a group of three cars with New Mexico license plates but we didn’t see anyone from the group. The only person at the trailhead was Ryan, who I would come to meet along the hike the next day and is a fellow 14ers.com member. We asked him if we could set up camp near his Jeep. He was car camping and didn’t mind us sleeping nearby as long as we weren’t obnoxious. Aside from the bag of Sun Chips, the three of us wouldn’t be an issue.
As we set up camp, the peaceful trailhead awoke with an unlikely nuisance. Actually, I should rephrase that because the nuisance is a likely source considering the serenity and peace of where we were really prohibited most nuisances experienced in everyday life…people. As the truck with a bed camper pulled into the trailhead, our quiet trailhead soon clamored with an older married couple that I thought may get a divorce before nights end. They literally took an hour to find the perfect, flat spot for their camper. They moved the truck, turned it off, climbed into the camper, were they became frustrated with one another because it wasn’t perfectly flat, and then they would exit, start the truck, and repeat the process. An hour of this continual process caused aggravation, and small amount of anger, that we all experienced as bystanders. It was sad, yet kind of amusing at the same time. Our isolated, remote area felt invigorated, but in a bad way.
Charlie, Jon and I were fairly efficient once at the trailhead. Jon and I set up our tents; Charlie created a bed in his car. As we assembled camp, we also made brats on a portable propane grill that Jon brought. We sure weren’t roughing it and it wasn’t long before we were in bed. I was actually surprised to find myself in my tent at 8:00 pm. Although we were getting an early start at 5:00 am, 8:00 pm just seemed too early for bed.
As I sat in my tent, I briefly read about the climbs again. Feeling overly prepared and wasting time, I turned my thoughts to Courtney and my blessed life of successes and failures. First, I wrote her a nice note. I recognized there is truly something about being in nature that brings me closer to the people in my life. The highest peaks or the most remote areas make me feel closest to the ones I love. I then reflected a little bit on my journey and thanked God for the blessings He has bestowed upon me. How He moved my heart, burdened it so speak through some of my failures and how this journey continues to teach me so much about myself through God’s love. I went to bed at peace, excited for what tomorrow would bring.
Charlie, Jon and I all awoke at 5:00 in the morning. We broke down camp prior to starting our hike and at 6:15 am we were ready to begin.
We began hiking in the dark but slowly the glow of the sun rising began to reveal beautiful aspen trees around the perimeter of the large meadow we were abutting. The meadow soon truncated into a wide, shallow drainage corridor that was heavily vegetated with willow brush. Stewart Creek meandered through the vegetated passageway. Occasionally, Stewart Creek’s flow was obstructed by beaver dams. The attenuated, tranquil water coupled with the calm of the morning and the rising sun provided a spectacular canvas to photograph.
Soon the morning pace quickly heated us all as we were overdressed for the first light that was now upon us. Our first break wasn’t to relax because we were overextending ourselves; it was caused by being over heated. The trail was easy.
Typically, I go into a lot of detail regarding the hike since most of the time there is plenty of variation along the route. Stewart Creek and San Luis Peak felt like the exception. There was not a lot of variation. Truly, the first four miles were repetitive. We were hiking a well defined trail that would parallel Stewart Creek along the perimeter of the forest and open drainageway. Sometimes we were in the forest, and sometimes we were in the fringe of the drainageway. A picture speaks a thousand words right…since I am not sure what to write to precisely describe it I figured the photographs I included could tell the story instead.
With the first four miles complete, we now exited treeline and were at an elevation of approximately 12,000 feet. We now stood at the headwaters of Stewart Creek. The drainageway below us was small and although it still flowed; it comprised of only a fraction of the water it had in the lower reaches. Stewart Creek cut through the upper basin, which soon consisted of an open large meadow with an abundance of willows and bushes. Overlooking the basin was a triangular-shaped point that began the ridgeline to San Luis Peak. From the basin, San Luis Peak was hidden to the left of the triangular-shaped point that stood at approximately 13,700 feet. We would travel approximately 0.5 miles through the upper basin, sometimes along Stewart Creek, until we reached the base of the slope to reach the saddle of San Luis Peak and Organ Mountain.
At the base of the slope, we stood at approximately 12,200 feet. We would leave Steward Creek and begin the ascent up the slope towards the saddle. This portion of the hike is really the only hiking required to obtain the summit. We would be required to hike approximately 900 feet in 0.6 miles. If you have climbed any 14er before, you will find this “difficult” portion of the hike to be easy compared to almost any other hike. The 0.6 miles consisted of several switchbacks that ultimately lead to the saddle between Organ Mountain and our ultimate destination of San Luis Peak.
Standing at an elevation of 13,100 feet, I now obtained my first full view of San Luis Peak. San Luis Peak finally came out to play. Its timid personality finally warmed up to us. It truly is a unique, simple mountain and the perfect blue sky backdrop added some unnecessary, yet appreciated, enhancement.
From the saddle, we would continue along the defined trail towards the summit. The trail gradually ascends to the south of the actual ridgeline of San Luis Peak and consists of small compacted talus. This is the only portion of the hike that isn’t on a hard, compacted dirt surface. At approximately 13,780 feet we acquired the ridge again and then made the final, simple push to the summit.
We arrived at the summit of San Luis Peak at 9:25 am, three hours and ten minutes after we started the day. San Luis Peak was summit 34 in my journey! It was a perfect clear day but a steady wind chilled us all! The peak lived up to its name as it was completely quiet except for the three of us. It was nice to be the first ones to treasure the seclusion and isolation of this private peak. I enjoyed every minute of solitude with my two friends.
We could see several additional San Juan 14ers to the west. Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre really stood out to me since those were next in line. It was a picturesque morning above 14,000 feet.
I continued my summit tradition by photographing and filming myself opening my Fat Tire. It was a great morning to enjoy my favorite beer. That sentence alone would not be a sign of healthy behavior.
Soon Ryan, who we camped next to the night before, joined us on the summit and he was followed by Dave. Ryan and Dave are both fellow 14ers.com members and addicts. Dave saw that I was drinking a Fat Tire and pointed out that he had read several of my trip reports and enjoyed my pictures. Thank you for the compliment of my photography Dave and it was great meeting you. During our exchange of pleasantries, I also discovered Ryan was training for an attempt of Kilimanjaro later in the fall. I have to admit, I was a little jealous and envious of his future plans. Summiting Kilimanjaro is a future goal of mine and one day I will make my own attempt of the 19,341 foot mountain. (Subsequent to this hike, Ryan successfully made it to the top of Kilimanjaro in October 2010 – Congratulations Ryan and I look forward to hiking with you in 2011).
Charlie, Jon and I stayed on the summit until 10:00. The wind was really beginning to cool us down and we wanted to get moving again. On the way down, we stayed along the ridge the entire way and hiked to the top of the triangular-shaped peak at 13,700 feet. Upon reaching the saddle we met a couple that was finishing the 14ers on San Luis today.
The remainder of the hike was uneventful except for my occasional fall. I had brought my North Face shoes out of “retirement” for this hike since it was easy. However, the descent made it apparent there was a reason I placed them into retirement to begin with. They had no traction considering I had used them on 30 peaks, which was approximately 100,000 vertical feet of climbing and 220 miles of hiking. So if I hit any portion of trail that was loose, my feet would slide out under me. Charlie began calling me stumbles. With each slip, Charlie would politely and quietly utter the word “Stumbles”. I think I had at least three to four solid falls to the ground and then likely ten plus trips. Stumbles was a fair name!
We arrived back to the trailhead at 12:30. We successfully hiked the 13 miles and 3,600 vertical feet in 6 hours and 15 minutes. The hike was quiet and remote. Unlike several of the 14ers I have hiked, San Luis Peak provided a simple climb with isolation that I treasured. I learned today that even the most basic 14er in Colorado was still unique and provided me with memories that I will always treasure.
With car packed up, we then began our journey to the next challenge….Wetterhorn Peak.
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