Saturday & Sunday, August 25-26, 2018
Since our plans for last weekend changed at the last minute we decided to try and hike Stewart Peak in the La Garita Mountains again this weekend. Stewart Peak is actually the highest thirteener in the San Juan Mountains at 13,983 feet and is the second tallest thirteener in Colorado. I believe it was even mistaken as a fourteener at one point in history before a more accurate survey proved that wrong. The weather forecast for the weekend was looking wet and stormy when I checked on Saturday morning, but it also looked like a typical summer monsoon pattern and I was hoping we would have just enough time on Sunday morning to get our climb in before the storms arrived.
As we drove along the Blue Mesa Reservoir on our way to Gunnison, I stopped for a quick photo of the Dillon Pinnacles since I liked the look of the clouds and light.
We slept in late on Saturday since we were taking a more relaxing approach to the weekend and left home later in the morning. We followed the Gunnison River from Grand Junction to Gunnison and then Cochetopa Creek to Los Pinos Pass. After leaving Gunnison the sky started to get progressively cloudier and by the time we reached the pass it had started to rain off and on. Fall is definitely in the air in the high country early this year as we already saw a number of aspen trees starting to change color. As we neared the Cebolla Trailhead we found that this area is currently in the process of being heavily logged thanks to all the beetle-kill trees, which made finding a good campsite a little bit difficult. We did end up finding a nice spot in Willow Park not far from the trailhead, but it was raining hard when we arrived so we had to wait a while for the rain to stop before we could set up our tent.
Dark clouds and rain moving into the area near Los Pinos Pass.
Rain falling over the Cochetopa Hills as we searched for a campsite.
After the rain finally stopped we were able to setup our new tent. We ended up purchasing an REI Grand Hut a few weeks ago after having to retire our old Big Agnes Jupiter’s Cabin after our Memorial Day Weekend trip to Dinosaur National Monument. I sure hope we end up liking this tent just as much! The stormy weather also dropped the temperature significantly and it was already down to 48 degrees at this time.
We had a decent view of Stewart Peak from near our campsite in Willow Park which we were finally able to see after the low clouds cleared out. Looking the other direction we were able to see Mount Ouray on the horizon, too.
As I hiked around Willow Park before sunset, I came across a few of these small signs nailed to select trees.
I thought it was too cloudy for there to be a colorful sunset, but I was wrong…
There was nothing interesting to put into the foreground, so these beetle-kill trees in silhouette will have to do.
When the color in the sky was gone, I walked to to camp to get into my sleeping bag for the night. A short while later we heard a nearby pack of coyotes start making a lot of noise as the full moon started to become visible through the clearing clouds. Once they quieted down we were able to get to sleep. On Sunday morning we woke up at 5:15am to my alarm. We were expecting it to be a cold night since it was 44 degrees when we went to bed, but the temperature only dropped down to 40 degrees and we stayed pretty comfortable. We left camp and drove the short distance to the Cebolla Trailhead and started hiking into the La Garita Wilderness around 6:00am as it was just beginning to get light out. The hike was timed perfectly and we were able to watch the sunrise from just above treeline.
After leaving treeline the trail became a little tricky as we had to find our way through a maze of thick and tall willows. There were occasional posts marking the way, but even they were difficult to spot. Thankfully most of the willows were dry from wind overnight or we would have really got soaked! Here you can see Diane finding her way through the willows to the wooden post in the upper left.
An early morning view from above treeline over the Cochetopa Hills. A little bit of fog filled the distant valley.
After leaving the willows behind we hiked straight up the slope to the summit of Baldy Chato across an expanse of golden tundra. We had a pretty good view of distant peaks over the Cannibal Plateau including Wetterhorn Peak (14,015) and Uncompahgre Peak (14,309).
On the summit of Baldy Chato (13,401) overlooking the Bondholder Meadows. Diane decided to stay on this summit while I hiked over to Stewart Peak.
Following the ridge from Baldy Chato over to Stewart Peak. It was pretty easy hiking.
Looking back to the summit of Baldy Chato.
From the summit of Stewart Peak (13,983) I had a pretty nice view over to San Luis Peak (14,014). It was nice to finally have a day of climbing with no smoke in the air. By this time clouds were building pretty quickly and I didn’t stick around too long so I could hurry back since Diane was waiting for me.
The 1958 Benchmark on Stewart Peak. Earlier this year I set a personal goal to hike to the summit of at least 30 mountains and highpoints this summer, and I met that goal on Stewart Peak! Now to see if I can reach 35…
An expansive view over Pauline Creek as I hiked back to Baldy Chato.
Hiking back across the golden tundra with clouds quickly moving across the sky above.
I met back up with Diane on Baldy Chato and we started hiking back down to the Cebolla Trail.
The clouds were beginning to look more threatening but also created beautiful spotlighting on the landscape below.
Diane spotted a large group of ptarmigan (at least a dozen, which is the most I’ve ever seen in one place) on a rocky section of the slope and while most of them were hard to see among the rocks, this one appears to already have it’s winter coat and stuck out like a sore thumb. I think it’s a little early to be changing colors already?
Diane finding her way back through the maze of willows. As we hiked back down there were a few brief periods of light rain, but nothing that required us to get out our rain jackets.
Leaving the La Garita Wilderness.
We arrived back to the Cebolla Trailhead just in time to hear the first few rumbles of thunder. It was perfect timing! We had just enough time for the climb before the stormy weather arrived!
We quickly returned to camp so we could take down the tent before the rain really started to come down. Again, we got it down and packed into the Jeep just before it started raining hard. It would rain pretty heavily as we drove back over Los Pinos Pass to Cathedral and then followed Cebolla Creek on our way back home. It turned out to be a great overnight trip into the La Garita Mountains!