Culebra Peak (14,047 ft.) and Red Mountain (13,908 ft.), one of Colorado’s Centennial Peaks
“Culebra” is a Spanish word meaning harmless or venom-less snake. Culebra Peak was the only 14,000-foot peak I had left to summit in the Sangre de Cristo Range for a reason — it’s on private land. The landowners — Cielo Vista Ranch — while gracious-enough to allow groups of twenty-five hikers at-a-time access to the peak, reap a pretty penny. To hike to the summit of Culebra Peak will cost you $100.00. The optional trip over to Red Mountain — a Centennial Peak — costs and extra $50.00. Needless to say, many of my peers in the mountaineering community reject Culebra as being a part of their completed 14er list and often refer to it as the “ABC” list (All But Culebra). While $150 is not a drop in the bucket for me by no stretch of the imagination, I still wanted to summit Culebra and Red Mountain. After spending virtually the entire previous month’s time tackling the upper-echelon peaks of the Elk Mountains (Maroon Bells traverse, Pyramid Peak, and Capitol Peak), I just wanted to enjoy an easy hike. The southernmost 14,000-foot peak in Colorado seemed like a good option — if I could get in.
My timing couldn’t have been better. I waited until Thursday (8/12) to contact the Cielo Vista Ranch. When I did, I simply asked whether there was room on Saturday for a solo hiker. Surprisingly, the ranch just had a few cancellations earlier that day, so I went ahead and reserved a spot. The ranch emailed me a liability waiver to fill out and bring with me and a few other documents like a map of the area and some guidelines to follow. I was expected to be at the ranch’s gate by 6:00 AM and would be let in. It seemed simple enough, though starting a hike after 6:00 was not my usual style.
After work on Friday, I went home and directly to bed. My plan was to wake up at 1:00, leave at 2:00, and arrive early enough to get in as quickly as possible. It went almost as planned. I didn’t actually get on the interstate until about 2:15. To top it off, by the time I was ten miles into the trip, I realized that I forgot my camera! I turned around and sped back to my home as fast as I could, grabbed my camera, and was back on the interstate again at 2:38. I lost some valuable time and needed to make-up for it. I didn’t actually know how long it was going to take me to reach the small town of San Luis, CO — the closest town to Cielo Vista Ranch — but I knew I didn’t want to be late. I drove about five miles-per-hour faster than I normally would have and made good time. Once in Walsenburg, I headed west on US Hwy 160 over La Veta Pass and into the town of Ft. Garland. From there, I headed south on State Hwy 159 into San Luis and followed directions to the ranch from there. I arrived at the gate at 5:00 and decided to try and catch a few more winks. There were some hikers who had car camped, others who had set up tents just inside the gate (which they allow).
At 5:50, one of the ranch hands arrived to let us in. I walked up to him with a check and my waiver in hand, but he told me that he would get those items from me at the ranch office. I jumped back into my truck and proceeded through the gate. He checked off my name as I drove through and I continued on to the ranch office which was about two miles further in. The entire group of hikers parked near the office and once the ranch hand collected our money and waivers, took us back outside for a few words of encouragement, and sent us on our way. I was the first to drive up the road. Since I wanted to record 3,000 feet of elevation gain, I wanted to start at an area they refer to as “Four Way”. Most of the hikers that day parked in the same area, but a few vehicles continued on to the trailhead at the end of the road, about another mile in. I quickly donned my backpack and headed off.
I made short work of the easy hike up the road. By the time I reached the end of it, there were just a few people ahead of me, but not by far. From the road (though not to the end of it where vehicles park), a faint trail moved off toward the southeast (I noticed a small, round blue reflector near the start of the trail). One of the things that the ranch touts is that Culebra is one of the most pristine 14ers in the state. This is basically true. By limiting the amount of foot traffic that the peak sees, it doesn’t have the large and obvious trails that most 14ers do. Unlike peaks such as Pikes, Bierstadt, and Grays and Torreys (just to name a few), it doesn’t see dozens upon dozens of hikers on a daily basis in the summer months. Culebra is an easy Class 2 hike and would undoubtedly be the most frequented of the Sangres if it weren’t privately-owned. It’s relatively easy to get to (other than being far away) and requires little skill to hike.
The rest of the day’s Culebra hikers below me.
The Blanca massif to the north viewed from just below the talus on the Culebra Peak trail
Panorama looking to the west from the Culebra Peak trail
Among the literature that was emailed to me was a map of the peak with three routes highlighted: The ridge route, the “talus” route, and the “Roach” route (a route that Gerry Roach, author of Colorado’s Fourteeners, mapped in his book). The guidelines stated that one should try to take a different route up and back down to cut-down on trail erosion. By the time I was high into the basin above 12,000 feet, I spotted a line to the south in the talus that I decided to take. I had moved far ahead of the group by then, so there was no harm in taking a slightly off-kilter route. I don’t believe it was the true “talus” route; I think I overshot the start of it at the top of a small gully with a creek flowing through it. The edge of the creek was rimmed with ice and I saw frost on the grass. It would put me up on the ridge and into the sunshine quicker, though.
After spending some time talus-hopping, I neared the ridge and was greeted by warm sunshine. As I got closer to the ridge, I noticed a large cairn ahead of me. I thought this a bit ironic because one of the guidelines mentioned in the literature sent to me stated that hikers should knock down any small cairns that they come across in order to preserve the pristine nature of the route. I guess some large cairns were in order, though, to prevent people from becoming lost. I suppose that could happen if low clouds moved in an obscured the view, but there was no chance of that happening that day as the forecast was near-perfect. Once at the top of the ridge, I got my first glimpse at Culebra’s summit. It lay beyond a false summit which appeared to be higher than the true summit due to forced perspective. The trail turned right and went in a westerly direction. I stopped for a few minutes for rest and for a photo or two
The point that appears to be the summit in this photo is actually a false summit. Culebra Peak is to the left of it.
I started walking to the west and saw that I was going to be losing some elevation before heading up to the false summit. Great, I thought to myself. The hike hadn’t been very difficult, so this minor obstacle wasn’t going to make much of a difference. Ahead of me, I saw something mighty peculiar — a huge cairn. I had no idea how tall it was, but my interest was piqued. When I approached it at last, I realized that it was probably one of the largest cairns I had ever encountered. It stood atop an already large boulder; building it must have taken quite some time and tall people to construct. Square-shaped, it reminded me of a huge, life-sized Jenga (though I wasn’t about to start pulling rocks out from the bottom to re-stack on the top :O)! I carefully stood on top of the boulder next to it to get an approximation of how tall it was. Standing next to it, I saw that it was clearly taller than I was — about half-a-head or more. I estimated it to be about six feet tall! Yep, it definitely one of largest cairns I had ever seen. I hopped off of the boulder and took a photo of it. Again, the irony of the literature sent to me came to mind. I doubted that anyone was going to be knocking this cairn over! I laughed and moved on.
After the huge cairn, I descended a little bit along the ridge route before starting back up toward the false summit. The trail in this area was faint, but easy enough to follow. I only needed to walk the ridge until I reached the summit, after all. There was quite a bit of talus-hopping involved; I remembered seeing a post on 14ers.com where someone was asking about toting a baby in a carrier to the summit and a few people advised against it because of this section. Some of the talus was very tippy and one shift could put parent and child in danger of serious injury. It wasn’t much for me, though. I’ve done so much talus-hopping this summer that I actually feel like my balance is improving! A few summers ago, my “signature” move on any 14er was a slip and a wipe-out. I was quite clumsy. I think my weight loss has also helped, but I attribute most of my improved balance to an improvement in skill-level and just feeling more comfortable and at home in the mountains.
Gaining the false summit wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Whenever you have to lose and re-gain elevation above 13,000 feet it’s a pain in the ass, but all a part of the experience. When I topped out on the false summit, I saw that the true summit was only a short distance away. Beyond that, I got my first view of my second destination — Red Mountain. There are a few summits in Colorado that bear the name “Red Mountain”. Personally, I think of Red Mountain Pass along Hwy 550 in the San Juan Range whenever I hear it. This one happens to be “Red Mountain A” and as mentioned before it is one of Colorado’s Centennial Peaks (one of the highest 100 summits in the state). From the false summit, I only hiked for another five minutes or so before I found myself on the summit of Culebra Peak at 9:00. It took me less than two-and-a-half hours to make it there. The wind was stiff and cold, but not unbearable. I sat behind a large windbreak, enjoyed half a sandwich, and re-hydrated before taking a few summit shots.
Various shots of the Blanca and Crestone Groups to the north
The Spanish Peaks to the northeast
Obligatory summit shot
360° panorama from the summit of Culebra Peak
I stayed on the summit by myself for about twenty minutes before I decided to pack-up and head to my second destination — Red Mountain. The saddle between Culebra and Red Mountain dropped about 500 feet, so I figured it was going to be slow-going. As soon as I stepped off the summit, I was immediately pelted by strong winds. If that wasn’t bad enough, by the time I had gotten almost half-way down the initial descent, I realized that I had forgotten my SPOT on the summit! I turned around and began back up to retrieve it. When I got there, a solo hiker was signing the summit register. He found my SPOT, figured I’d be back for it, and placed it on the windbreak. He asked if I was heading over to Red Mountain and I answered affirmatively. He then mentioned that he would probably see me over there. Now, when I was back at the ranch office, mine was the only name that I saw “Red Mountain” next to. I told him that I didn’t think the ranch would appreciate him breaking the rules and hiking over to it without paying the fee. His response was, “Well, Gerry Roach says that you should just summit it while you’re up here.” I was a little irritated by that. There I was — playing by the rules — and some ignoramus was going to summit for free while I chose to pay the extra fee? It did get me thinking, though, about how the ranch prevented people from summiting Red Mountain if they didn’t pay. I was seriously considering reporting him to the ranch if he attempted to do the traverse — and there was no way he was going to be able to catch-up to me.
Agitated, I left the summit for a second time and began to descend on loose talus. The wind was bitingly cold and pretty fierce. It made me wonder if I should have put my fleece jacket on. Following the ridge directly would have taken me up another high point before descending to the low point on the saddle, but I chose to skirt to the east of it and was granted a temporary reprieve from the wind. Another short descent to the low point on the saddle brought me to the base of Red Mountain. I looked up; I spotted a faint trail swichbacking sharply up to the summit. I started up thinking that I was going to tire quickly but much to my surprise, I made extremely good time. Back on Culebra, I noticed a group of hikers had summited. What I didn’t see, though, was anyone following me over. I summited Red Mountain at 10:00, found another windbreak, and immediately sat down behind it. The wind sucked a lot of heat out of my body, so I dug the fleece jacket out of my backpack and put it on before enjoying the other half of a sandwich and a Nalgene of Propel Fitness Water.
Culebra Peak viewed from the summit of Red Mountain
The Spanish Peaks seen from Red Mountain
Uhh, I don’t think this is normally an issue with summit registers O_o
Near-360° panorama from the summit of Red Mountain. I tried for the full 360°, but the wind was blowing pretty fiercely.
I only stayed on the summit of Red Mountain for about fifteen minutes before I started back. I wasn’t sure if the same group was still on top of Culebra or not, but there seemed to be a few different colors! By the time I reached the saddle, the wind was blowing at a sustained 50-60 MPH. Standing and walking became very difficult and, again, I welcomed the windbreak provided by the bump in the saddle. It was actually quite warm without the wind. To the west of me (in the direction the wind was blowing from) was a pretty deep valley. I suspected that it was this topographic feature that was contributing to the wind speed by funneling it up and over the saddle. It certainly wasn’t as strong at the top of Culebra before I left it the first time. After warming up, I continued on to the summit of Culebra again. This time, it was really slow-going. Re-gaining 500 feet of elevation again — no matter how simple it seemed the first time — was going to be a little tough. I talus-hopped up the steep slope and eventually made my way back to Culebra.
Before I plopped down behind the windbreak again, I noticed a solo hiker making his way back to the trailhead. I was going to need to rest for at least ten minutes before heading back. I ate some energy snacks as well as a Detour protein bar. Now that the sun was in a better position, I wanted to take a couple more panoramas.
Near-Panorama taken from my second summit of Culebra Peak
Near-Panorama taken from my second summit of Culebra Peak
I took this panorama looking southwest between the true summit and false summit of Culebra Peak
Various shots of the trail on my way back down to the trailhead
I passed the solo hiker on my way back up from the low point on the ridge. I asked him if he had driven up by himself (I was concerned that he might have to walk all the way down to the ranch office) and he told me that he did, so I continued on my way. I passed the large cairn and decided that I was going to walk back down the ridge route rather than descend the talus. Before I got too far down on the ridge, I decided to take one last panorama of Culebra.
Panorama looking at Culebra Peak from its northwest ridge route
The ridge route was pretty easy to follow down. There was a portion of it that looked like it could have been a road at sometime. It switchbacked down, but seemed to be going too far to the north. I took a turn, then headed straight down into the basin — back to near where I started hiking up the talus.
Panorama looking northwest from the Culebra Peak Trail
It didn’t take me long to locate the trail again as I approached treeline. I stopped in various spots and took photos of the route since my last ones were before sunrise.
Various shots of the trail on my way back down to the trailhead. If you look carefully in the photo on the far right, you can see the small, round blue reflector next to the road. I figured it was there to mark where the trail left the road.
When I arrived back at the road, the hikers who had driven up to the trailhead were still there. One of them offered to give me a ride back down to where I parked, but I politely declined. It was only another mile to walk and in order for me to get the 3,000-foot elevation gain, I had to return under my own power. Two vehicles passed me on the way down. The sun was shining brightly and the temperature rose as I got lower in elevation. I arrived back at my truck at 1:00, packed-up, and drove back down to the ranch office.
GPS stats taken from my hike up Culebra Peak.
The ranch hand explained to us that we needed to stop and sign out. The gate had a key box with a combination that was written down on the sign-out sheet. I drove down to the gate and located the key box. I had to pull the gate open myself, drive out, and lock it behind me before replacing the key. My hike was complete! I still had to endure a long drive home though. As I drove out, I stopped to take one last photo of Culebra and Red Mountain from just outside the ranch. Although the hike was easy and relatively enjoyable, it’s not likely that I’ll hike the two peaks again. Well, I suppose if someone paid the fee for me, it could happen.
Culebra Peak and Red Mountain seen from just outside Cielo Vista Ranch
Google Earth .KML file of my route (right-click and “save target as” to save the file). NOTE: For some reason, if you’re using Internet Explorer, when you “save target as”, it changes the file extension to .XML. This is incorrect. To be able to view this in Google Earth, change the file extension to .KML before saving the file. It downloads correctly in Firefox.