Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sangres Camping and Horn Peak

Horn Peak (13450')
11 miles, 4500' gain RT from Alvarado Campground
8 hours

J and I were looking for a quick camping and hiking excursion, so I cross-checked the mental list of interesting summit hikes with the weather forecast. Things looked better in the Sangres than further west, and I had been wanting to show J some of this area after being impressed with it last year, so the visit to Westcliff was new for her.

Among the stunning lineup of 13ers that lord above the Wet Mountain Valley, Horn Peak stands out as being visually prominent, due to being sufficiently high but also a bit closer than some taller mountains behind it.

Horn Peak, left

Horn Peak has a standard Class 2 trail along the Hennequin Peak drainage, zigzagging up from the Rainbow Trail and entering the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area. The hike is usually done as a 9-mile roundtrip from Horn Creek TH. In this case, we started from the Alvarado Campground, adding about a mile each way (0.5 mile to Rainbow Trail, additional 1 mile to Cottonwood Crk TH, and another mile to the start of the Horn Peak trail). This provides for a leisurely 2.5 miles each way along the rolling Rainbow Trail, before the mostly relentless climbing begins, with more than 1000' per mile along the Horn Peak trail.

Staying at the Alvarado Campground ($18/nt) provided advantages of being able to return directly to our car and campsite, but also being able to have a fire in the provided fire ring, as current fire restrictions allowed for fires only in such developed areas. Although I don't usually like paying for camping, it was a worthwhile tradeoff for those reasons, in addition to having a nice campsite and easily available water.

The first night, we also had views of cool clouds:

Of course, the reason to generally eschew campgrounds are the cost, and the noise factor. While accepting the former as a reasonable cost for convenience, the latter unfortunately proved to be a scourge yet again. While the entire campground appeared to have settled in by 10:30 (with "quiet hours" beginning at 10, as is customary), we had the luck to be situated directly next to a loud group of inconsiderate a-holes. I asked them once, nicely, to be quiet, at 11pm.
I tried to meditate on the Buddhist thinking I had just read earlier in the day, about the illusion of time creating suffering through anxiety, in which the cure was to focus on the present -- but I was suffering now, and these people were being major jerks now -- no help! Serenity now.

An hour later, after more drinking and loudness, including metal-on-metal banging of midnight woodchopping, I asked again, stating the simple and direct question but with a bit more adrenaline in my voice. As is the sort of cognitive dissonance that seems to be all-too-common when people are caught in there own disregard for others (see: asking neighbors to take care of dogs), no apology was offered, but they mentioned that they'd try to be respectful -- although assuming that, by "confronting" them with a reasonable request, that I was looking for a fight(?) J was glad that I came back without getting killed. They made a halfhearted attempt at talking more quietly and trying to wrap up the evening, but you know how quiet it is when drunk people get ready for bed when camping? It's another hour of banging bottles around, slamming car doors, taking turns going to the bathroom, and laughing about everything, and then going to the bathroom again. Ugh.

So, we missed out on the crickets and the yelps of the coyotes that could otherwise be heard in the distance, and several hours of sleep were stolen from us. Why type all this negativity? To remind myself next time I think about going to a public campground -- a supposedly fun thing -- and, to bring earplugs, which is an unfortunate way to enjoy nature.

So we slept in a bit to make up for it and didn't hit the trail until 7:30am. I was worried about afternoon storms, but everything turned out fine.

As mentioned, the campground has a half-mile spur trail directly to the Rainbow Trail, so it's alternative spot to start the hike. There's an additional Day Use area at this trailhead, but because it's developed, a fee ($6) is charged, but not to campers.
The Rainbow Trail runs parallel to the line of mountains, with spur trails up many of the drainages. The trail itself is over 100 miles long, --- I've been mt. biking on the sections near Monarch Crest/Poncha Springs -- and although it's mostly a rolling, shared-use trail that doesn't go as high as the CO trail, I still think it is a "hidden gem" for through-hiking/running/mt. biking options. Anyway...
After an hour, we made the turn onto the Horn Peak Trail, ready for the steeper climbing to begin.

Below treeline, the Horn Peak trail is steep and rocky -- runnable, but relentless. We took our time and enjoyed the flora and fauna. I think this is J's first time seeing a Super Mario Mushroom.

The trail crosses the creek and enters the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, and actually flattens out a bit before reaching treeline. Knowing the amount of climbing left, however, just means that the rest is even steeper.

The final push requires a bit of perseverance to get to a false summit, followed by a rocky ridge traverse to the true summit. It's all visible from below, and looks tantalizingly close, but the steepness and thin air make forward progress slow.

Here's J just before the summit, with the entirety of the ridge behind her:

But, we had a beautiful day with great weather and no wind, so it was a lot of fun catching views along both sides of the ridge.

To the West and South were great views of the Crestone Group. I enjoyed seeing new perspectives of Comanche and Venable directly to the North. Summiting just after noon, we spent a few minutes on top, with no imminent storms threatening, but distant rain and occasional thunder out over the Wet Mountains.

We made our descent and still had great weather the entire way, and eagerly returned to our campsite. Luckily, things were quieter around camp the second night, affording time for reading and a solid night's sleep. So overall, a great time in the Sangres.

Oh, one last thing -- in comparison to my misanthropic tendencies with regard to group camping, I should mention the total number of other hikers seen in 8 hours on a perfect Saturday in July:

As for the Sangres, I really enjoyed the Comanche-Venable loop, and Humboldt was decent, but I cannot fathom why a hike up Horn Peak wouldn't be more popular. Highly recommended!


  1. Cool outing. There are so many peaks in that valley that make you say "hey, I want to climb that!" And most of the valleys have trails.

    Those campers would have driven me nuts with dark thoughts. I'm still a happy Best Western in Walsenburg customer, although of course the same thing could happen there.

    Yesterday I drove up South Colony Lakes Road to check out the Kit Carson route. That road is awful. And Kit Carson is way too far from that TH -- only got half way. Holy rugged ridge traverses!

    So much to do, so little time.

  2. Indeed -- so you were in the same area!
    Dark thoughts, indeed. And you're pretty powerless and vulnerable out there and don't want them to 'retaliate', which is why I think other annoyed groups avoid confronting them. Very frustrating.

    Since you have a good mt. bike and skillz, Colony Lakes Rd is the sort of route begging for a duathlon! It would be nice to cover all those peaks over time...

  3. Yeah. Camping sucks in most locations. Take USFS or BLM land off the beaten path whereever you can.

    I saw those beetles in the San Juans. They crazy.

  4. Peace ... can be mighty elusive.

    Luckily ... PEAKS, on the other hand, abound.

    Good for you for struggling for one, and basking in the other !

    Great pics and writing, as always....