I attempted a hike to Cottonwood Peak a couple of week ago but encountered thunder and lightning. Rather than tempt fate in a storm above treeline, I turned around and left the trip for another day. Before heading back, I did a little research and found a route to explore multiple peaks in the area.
After a week of dreary weather with the summits socked in by clouds, the skies cleared up for Sunday, August 3rd. I got up early and was on the trail at 610AM, just in time to see the sunrise. My hike started from Forest Road 198 just past the Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp. Because FS 198 is extremely rocky, I can't take my Outback very far up it. From there it is an unexciting walk up the loose rocky road. The road isn't steep, but ankle twisting rock is common along its length which makes the hike along it drag on. Despite the temperature not quite being 50, I warmed up quickly as I traveled along the road. After a few miles I reached Rainbow Lake.
Rough section of FS 198
Mule Deer early in the hike
First look at the mountains from the trail
Small waterfall along FS 198
View across Rainbow Lake, Eagle Peak's ridge
is on left and Cottonwood is in distance
I left FS 198 at Rainbow Lake and began my climb toward Eagle Peak. On the south side of the lake a steep slope of rock rises above the water. I began climbing up the slope as close to the woods as possible trying to follow more stable rock. Although it was loose at places, reaching the ridge wasn't too difficult. At the top of the slope, I was back into the trees and on the long ridge of Eagle. To my surprise, there was a nice trail with occasional blazing that led to treeline. This trail was not shown on my map but was in better shape than some of the mapped trails.
Rocky slope above Rainbow Lake
Looking back toward Rainbow Lake
I wasn't in the trees very long before reaching treeline. The trail ended at treeline with a few cairns. Ahead of me was the long grassy ridge of Eagle. The slope was very gentle and the walking pleasant after traveling the rocky road for several miles. The skies were clear in most directions with a few clouds lingering over the northern most Sangre de Cristo peaks. Just before the summit the grass gave way to a rocky surface. The climbing was never too steep. A short section of narrower ridge was encountered a couple hundred yards before the summit proper. From the summit I had fine 360 degree views. I took a short break to have a bagel while studying my route before me.
First look near treeline
Reaching the tundra
Looking back down Eagle's ridge near the summit
Last section of ridge before summit
My next destination was Thirsty Peak. From Eagle Peak I could see most of my route. After a few rocks to start, the travel from Eagle was pretty easy going as I was able to travel on fairly flat tundra. To my right I had a fine view of Cloverdale Basin including my route all the way to Cottonwood Peak. Despite the mild terrain on which I was traveling, most of the terrain was steep and full of cliffs to my right above the basin.
Looking toward Thirsty
Easy walking in the grass
Marmot enjoying the view
View back to Eagle
The smooth travel didn't last as I approached Point 12907. From the Eagle Peak side, Point 12907 looks like a small bump in the ridge. Once I got over the bump, the terrain got a little nasty. The Thirsty Peak side of Point 12907 dropped quite steeply and the ridge became quite narrow. The rock became quite crumbly as well. I traveled along the peak of the ridge until it became too crumbly. I then dropped to the Cloverdale Basin side of the ridge several feet below the crest to travel on slightly more stable ground. This comprised of loose talus, so footing was only marginally better, though I was able to use my hands more efficiently.
The travel wasn't much worse than class 3 terrain but the crumbling rock kept me on my toes. The worst of the narrow ridge and crumbling rock ended and I regained the peak of the ridge to gain the final climb of Thirsty Peak.
Ridge becomes narrower
Starts to get rockier
Not much better below the ridge
The view below into Cloverdale Basin
I didn't notice it while on the narrow ridge as I was focusing on my footing but as I was traveling, clouds rose up from the west and started to obscure the nearby summits along my route. The clouds weren't threatening, mostly just upslope fog rising along the ridge. Most of the route from Thirsty Peak to Cottonwood Peak was obscured.
Clouds moving in fast
The last pitch to Thirsty's summit was steep but grassy. I reached the partially obscured summit and had a snack. Looking ahead, I could see most of the ridge leading to Point 13123, my next summit. Only the top of the summit was partially obscured. Mostly the fog clung to the western side of the ridge. Cottonwood's summit was in and out of the clouds. Everything to the east was completely clear with the exception of the occasional cumulus cloud floating by.
A nice section of grass before Thirsty's summit
Looking back toward Eagle
Brush Creek Lakes
The view across the basin from Thirsty
The descent from Thirsty Peak was less than stellar. The fog that occasionally passed over the ridge made the rocks a little slick. The ridge was mostly narrow and jagged rock so the slick conditions kept me on my toes.
Clouds lowering visibility
By the time I reached the saddle between Thirsty and 13123, the fog shifted to the west to keep me in the clear. The climb up 13123 from the saddle took only about 15-20 minutes and the rock was mellow compared to anything on Thirsty. I didn't linger on 13123 long before heading to Cottonwood.
Looking back to Thirsty
Thirsty from the summit of 13123
Looking toward Cottonwood
The climb up Cottonwood Peak was similar to 13123 but longer. I had been hiking for about 5 hours and was ready for a break but was determined to have lunch on the summit of Cottonwood, which was now mostly free of the clouds. A false summit taunted me as I climbed as I needed a bite to eat. The actual summit was only a short distance further and about 1120AM I reached the top of Cottonwood. At 13588 feet, Cottonwood was the high point of the trip. Although the summit was free of clouds, most of the terrain to the west and north was still socked in so the views were limited in those directions. I could see Thirsty Peak occasionally as it popped in and out of the fog. The views across Cloverdale Basin toward Eagle Peak showed me my route all the way back to Rainbow Lake which now was in sight again. I took a longer break on the summit to refuel before descending back into the valley.
View into basin from saddle between
Cottonwood and 13123
Fog obscuring Thirsty
Looking across basin toward Eagle
Closer shot of Eagle, you can see
Rainbow Lake below it to the left
Clouds closing in quickly on Wulsten Baldy
Looking across the basin at my route from Eagle Peak
heading to the right toward Thirsty
I descended from Cottonwood almost directly to Silver Lake below. Although steep, the footing was decent as it covered a mix of grass and solid rock. I had to make a short bushwack through an alpine meadow before reaching the trail that led back to FS 198. With the exception of a couple tenths of a mile below Eagle Peak, I had traveled about 5 hours off trail.
Heading down Cottonwood
Getting close to Silver Lake
Passing through alpine meadow
Clicking on the picture to enlarge it you
can see some of the wildflowers
Looking back toward Cottonwood
View across basin
One last view into basin
The long haul down FS 198 was broken up briefly as I passed through the Cloverdale Mine site. There are a few old cabins still standing as well as the mine entrance building. The cabins are somewhat rundown but still an interesting sight to see.
Mine remains from Eagle
The remaining hike was on FS 198. It was a Sunday afternoon so it was quite busy with ATVs and a few SUVs. When the road wasn't too rocky, I jogged stretches to make up time on the never ending road. With fatigue setting in, I didn't take my chances running on the rocky stretches. Around 3PM it started to thunder but it never got too close or threatening. About 340PM I reached my car, about 9.5 hours after I began.
Remains from Duckett Fire in 2011
Accessing these peaks isn't very hard if you have an SUV or truck. Forest Service Road 198 leads right up to Cloverdale Basin. The problem is that FS 198 is extremely rough and rocky at places. High clearance, four wheel drive vehicles or ATVs are needed to pass the road. I drive a Subaru Outback with not so high clearance. That means I have to walk FS 198 which adds many miles to my trip. The road ends just over a mile from Cottonwood Peak. However by foot, this is a walk of 6 or so miles one way. You can drive right up to Rainbow Lake, the start of my scramble to Eagle Peak, with a high clearance vehicle. I had to walk in at least three miles. In total I added about 6-8 miles of walking to an already 10 or more miles of hiking.
More rocks on FS 198
This hike covers long stretches, particularly on Thirsty Peak and Point 12907, of jagged rock. Traveling on this proved tiring. The added bonus miles on FS 198's less than smooth surface is also tiring, especially since the scenery isn't that great along it. I don't have an exact distance but my hike was in the upper teens for mileage I would guess The long periods of time above treeline following ridges make this trip quite scenic. Even though the clouds blocked some of my scenery, it also added a neat visual to the hike.