July 6, 2013

Hiking the La Plata Range, Colorado

When visitors arrive at Mesa Verde and climb the big slope up onto the mesa from the visitor center, they are often awed by the view of the the mountains just across the Mancos Valley. This southwestern-most segment of the Rocky Mountains is the La Plata Range. This small range is often overlooked by hikers by the larger San Juan Mountains to the east and north. But, with elevations up to over 13,000 feet on Hesperus Mountain, it is definitely work to side trip to get some real alpine experience.

View of the La Plata Range from Mesa Verde National Park

The La Plata Range is the closest area of the Rocky Mountains geographically to Flagstaff, and we had a desire to get a little "alpine" experience in before the summer monsoons and their associated lightning storms really got underway. There are a number of trails in the La Plata Range and the 500-mile long Colorado Trail crosses the range. In addition, it's highest peak, Hesperus Mountain at 13,237 ft is the "Navajo's Sacred Mountain of the North"

A view of 13,237 foot Hesperus Mountain

As you drive east from Cortez to Durango on US-160, there will be a turnoff to the La Plata Range just after passing the Hesperus Ski Area. The road starts off paved as it passes a number of summer homes and ranchettes, then is good dirt as it enters the La Plata Canyon, passing a number of camping areas and additional summer cabins. But, once it leaves the camping zone, it become a rough rocky road with a high clearance vehicle recommended.

Looking down La Plata Canyon

Most people will brave the road up to the intersection of the Colorado Trail, where they can hike 1.4-mile up to Taylor Lake, located  at about 11,400 feet. From the edge of the lake, you can admire beautiful wildflowers and the entire Cumberland Basin that makes up this portion of the range. But, standing some 600 feet above you is the headwall to the ridgetop where the real views are.

Climbing an old mining track

The trail is pretty easy going up the slope above Taylor Lake. The only sketchy part is the final 50 feet on a steep and slippery rocky face. But, upon reaching the top you instantly get a view of Hesperus Mountain and back across the Cumberland Basin. But, since the saddle is not at the ridgetop and there are dense willows blocking the view in other directions, you will need to follow the trail to the right through the brush to the highest point a few hundred feet further.

Approaching Taylor Lake, in the basin above

There, you will be able to look out across the Mancos Valley to Mesa Verde National Park, and north toward the Lizard Head Peaks and into the San Juans in the distance. In June, the wildflowers are spectacular.

The creek draining out of Taylor Lake into Cumberland Basin
The trail you are on is the Colorado Trail and it heads 500 miles from Durango to Denver, weaving through the La Plata Range, San Juan Mountains, and other alpine environments. Keep on it until it drops into a little saddle between two higher ridges to get the most panoramic views. This is where I turned around, but you can continue on the ridgetop for a couple more miles before it drops back down into the montane forest of Engelmann spruce and subalpine firs.

Be aware that Colorado has the monsoons in summer which result in regular afternoon thunderstorms. Do not go above treeline if it appears as though lightning will occur. We did our hike in mid-June realizing it was a bit before the monsoons would really get going and knowing it was a light snowpack this year so most of the snow was melted off. In another year, this hike would not yet have been possible in June. If you do go in the summer when thunderstorms are brewing, get a really early start.

A view down onto Taylor Lake in the La Plata Range

I've heard that hikers who do the 14'ers have to start their hikes at 4:30am to reach the summit just after sunrise so they can get down before noon when the thunderstorms get going. But, we knew the humidity was low and storm development was unlikely this day. Thus, all we saw by mid-afternoon were a few poofy clouds passing by.

Sophie at 12,400 feet with Hesperus Mountain beyond
So, if you live in Arizona and want to get to the closest set of Rocky Mountain alpine, then the La Plata Range may be the place to go.

A view back toward Mesa Verde National Park (mesa in far distance left)

A wooly sunflower at 12,000 feet

The saddle where I stopped to get the view out to the San Juan Mountains

Sophie preparing to head back down


Unknown said...

We hiked the other side this weekend and we want to go to the lake next ,is there any fish in that lake

The Hikemasters said...

Try parking at the intersection about 2 miles short of the parking area to save your vehicle some wear and tear. Walk up the left branch a few hundred yards and then follow the old mining track that heads up slope. Eventually it will arrive at Taylor Lake with the only sketchy part being a brief area of willows to traverse.