Friday, July 3, 2015

Visiting My Backyard Mountains: Bushnell Peak and the Twin Sisters

Recently I wrote about bighorn sheep in the Stouts Lake Basin.  I went on that hike to check out snow conditions with no intent on climbing any summits.  A few weeks passed since that hike and on Sunday, June 28th I set out to climb the peaks around the basin.

The Stout Lakes Basin sits only a few miles from my house.  The prominent peaks that surround the basin are the Twin Sisters.  South of Twin Sister South sits the Bushnell Lakes Basin and Bushnell Peak.  Both basins are accessed from the Kerr Gulch trailhead.  Since I moved to Howard, Colorado, I look at these peaks daily.  

Since I do see these summits daily and they are the closest mountains to my house, I have wanted to climb them.  Last fall, I attempted to hike the peaks on Thanksgiving day.  However, the summits were clouded over and violent winds kept me from getting past treeline.  A few weeks ago when I saw the sheep, I was well above treeline and within a mile of the summit of Twin Sister North but limited on time and didn't summit.

Sunday morning I left the trailhead about 610AM.  My first destination was the Bushnell Lakes Basin.  From the trailhead I followed the trail that links to the Rainbow Trail.  I headed south on the Rainbow and nearly an hour later I arrived at the Bushnell Lakes Trail.  Thanksgiving Day was the last time I was on this trail and it was completely snow covered.  This time I had snowfree passage.  The Rainbow Trail rolls through the forest at low elevation.  The climbing starts quickly on the Bushnell Lakes Trail.  It was a warm morning and the climb was rather hot.

Pleasant forest along the Rainbow Trail
Dense forest at lower elevations
Rainbow Trail in the dense forest
Wildflowers along the trail
Flowers in meadow along the Bushnell Lakes Trail
View of the Cottonwood Peak area
The trail was much easier to follow with no snow.  Where the trail exits the trees I had to cross a short but relatively steep section of snow.  The snow was solid however and posed no serious issues.  The trail weaves in and out of trees on its way to the first Bushnell Lake.  There are some views below the lake but the scenery really begins at the lower lake.  The alpine basin opens up at the lake.  Beyond the lake is a large waterfall that was gushing with snowmelt.  A smaller pond sits between the waterfall and the lake.  I don't know how much this waterfall normally flows, but it was roaring this time.

Snow crossing before entering treeline
Brief section above treeline
Dropping back into the forest
Climbing higher on Bushnell Lakes Trail
The lowest of the Bushnell Lakes, the waterfall is visible
above the lake in the middle
Waterfall between the lakes
Another waterfall shot
Closeup of the falls
The trail beyond the lower lake was spotty at best.  Brief snippets of trail passed in and out of thin forest before fading.  Intermittently I would find remnants of trail as I continued.  Where the trail was not visible, my route was a fairly tame bushwack in the wooded stretches.  Bushnell Peak is guarded by cliffy terrain making direct access from the basin nearly impossible.  To avoid technical climbing, I climbed via Twin Sister South's ridge   Before I reached the highest lake, I started my ascent of Twin Sister South's ridge.

Bushwacking up a grassy slope
Getting into the rough stuff
Bushnell Peak over an icy upper Bushnell Lake
A previous report mentioned shooting for a white tower to gain the ridge.  The white tower was easily visible and I made my way towards it.  Gaining the ridge was challenging.  The slope was filled with extremely loose scree, punctuated with rocky ledges.  I gained the ridge just beyond the white tower and continued toward Twin Sister South.  The ridge started out smoothly before hitting some rough stretches with steep drops.  I diverted to the left side of the ridge to find easier footing.  Twin Sister South's summit features a sheer drop on the side I was approaching  As I got closer to Twin Sister's South summit I skirted below the peak and headed toward the ridge connecting it to Bushnell.

Heading toward the white tower
Bushnell Peak on the left and Twin Sister South on the right
Looking up the ridge toward Twin Sister South
The terrain gets rugged on the north side of the ridge
Looking into the Stout Lakes Basin near some cliffs
As I neared the Bushnell-Twin Sister South connecting ridge, I realized I added some difficulty to my route.  It isn't necessary to gain the ridge by aiming for the white spire.  Climbing toward the ridge from the highest pond would have involved less scree and steepness.  As I skirted below Twin Sister South, I encounter brief bits of  easy class 3 scrambling.  With some elevation gain or loss, the class 3 could have been avoided.

Skirting below Twin Sister South
Bushnell Peak on the left
There is a little bit of route finding as I
bypassed Twin Sister South
Looking back along Twin Sister South's east ridge
The ridge approaching Bushnell started out fairly easy.  I was able to follow stretches of grass and avoid much of the rock to start.  This was a relief from the tough rock and scree I encountered to this point.  The relief didn't last as the ridge began its steep approach to Bushnell's summit.  Staying just below the ridge avoided the sketchiest exposure but didn't avoid the rock.  As I got I higher, more scrambling was required.

Finally past Twin Sister South
A good mix of rock and tundra along the ridge
Back into the rocky terrain as I start to climb again
Nearing Bushnell's summit
About 4 hours after I started, I reached the summit of Bushnell Peak.  At 13,105', Bushnell Peak is the highest summit in the county I live in, Fremont County.  It is also the highest summit in the northern portion of the Sangre de Cristo Range north of Hayden Pass.  Bushnell is Colorado's 565th tallest mountain.  That may not sound too impressive.  Despite its unimpressive ranking in elevation, the mountain is among Colorado's 50 most prominent peaks with more than 2400' of prominence.

Looking south into the Sangres
It's lackluster elevation ranking  is a good thing for those hiking it.  I climbed it on a nice Sunday in summer and didn't see another person my entire route.  The scenery is also easy on the eyes.  The lakes in the basin are beautiful.  The summit sits well above treeline with the Sangre de Cristo's long ridge from the Blanca group to Salida visible.  The vast San Luis Valley stretches below with the Pleasant Valley around Howard and Coaldale on the other side of the range.  The peaks in the southern reaches of the Sawatch Range sit just across the valley with Antora Peak and Mt Ouray most prominent.  Further to the north the Collegiate Peaks are easy to pick out.

The vast San Luis Valley
Mt Ouray
North from Bushnell, the Sawatch Range in the distance
Since much of the route is off trail, I don't know the exact distance to the summit of Bushnell but it approaches 7 miles.  With undulations, I climbed at least 5000 vertical feet.  My last hike. I climbed 14er Humboldt Peak.  This route to Bushnell was much more challenging than the climb of Humboldt.

After refueling and hydrating,  I retraced the ridge back toward Twin Sister South.  This time I didn't go around the summit.  Despite the sheer face I approached earlier, this approach to the summit was quite tame.  From Bushnell, it took only 30 minutes to reach the 12,730' summit of Twin Sister South.  I stopped just long enough for a few picture before heading to Twin Sister North.

Starting to descend from Bushnell Peak
Approaching  Twin Sister South
Bushnell Lakes Basin from the ridge
The last few feet to the summit of
Twin Sister South
Stout Lakes Basin from Twin Sister South
Twin Sister North's summit sits at 13,012' and has the honor of being the lowest 13er in the Sangre de Cristo Range.  I am drawn to the peak because it sits so dominantly near my house.  When viewed from the valley in Howard, Colorado, the Twin Sisters stand prominently in front of the main Sangre de Cristo crest.  They are named for their similar appearance to each other.  The names are deceiving.  For starters, despite their pointy appearance, you aren't looking at summits, but rather the ends of ridges.  What appears to be the left sister, to the south, is actually Twin Sister North.  The "Right Sister", what appears to be Twin Sister North from the valley, is actually an unnamed ridge.  The actual Twin Sister South is a smaller ridge barely visible from the valley between Twin Sister North and Bushnell.  It sounds confusing, but when you are actually on the mountains, it is much easier to see.  I guess the map makers never actually saw the area when they put the names on the maps.

An early season photo of the Twin Sisters from the valley near Howard, CO
The  prominent left peak is Twin Sister North, (true summit is hidden).
 The right peak is actually an unnamed ridge.
Twin Sister South is visible just to the left of Twin Sister North.
A wider shot from March with Bushnell Peak's ridge on the far left.  The
peak on the far right is Red Mountain.
Twin Sister North was actually the most tame of the three peaks.  From the south summit, it is a fairly easy traverse over large sections of tundra and only a few mandatory sections of rock.  A cornice still held a fair amount of snow on the east side of the ridge.

The routed ahead toward Twin Sister North
Looking back at Twin Sister South
Along the ridge between the two Sisters
Easy travel toward Twin Sister North
I descended Twin Sister North directly toward the Stout Lakes Basin.  The descent is fairly short over moderate rock with a few sections of grass.  In the basin, above the highest Stout Lake, is a large plateau of grassy tundra. The tundra would make a nice spot to camp with fine views of both Twin Sisters and close proximity to the upper lake.  I descended to the still frozen upper lake to take a few photos.  As I descended toward the next lake I passed through a few snowy sections that are avoidable with a little bit of climbing.

Stout Lakes Basin from Twin Sister North
Looking back at the route from Twin Sister North
Still above treeline, I descended from the second highest lake and finally intercepted the Stout Lakes Trail.  Once on the trail I, travel was quicker.  When I was on the trail a few weeks earlier, it was covered with snow at treeline, this trip I only stepped in snow a few times.  There are a few waterfalls in this section but most of the streams were covered in snow and the falls hidden.  Further down the trail, I spotted a waterfall that looked similar to the bigger one between the Bushnell Lakes.  Thick trees made access to the falls difficult though and I was unable to get a clear shot to take a photo.  At the only crossing of Stout Creek, I passed two backpackers, the only others I saw the entire day.  I was within two minutes of the trailhead when it started to thunder.  I enjoyed watching the lightning as I left the trailhead.

Large plateau of tundra in the upper Stout Lakes Basin
Looking back from the plateau
Looking toward Twin Sister South from the plateau
The two highest of the Stout Lakes
View across one of the upper lakes
Looking down to one of the lower lakes
 A last look back

I made it back to the trailhead a little after 1PM.  Because of a long stretch of off trail travel, I don't know the exact distance of the trip but it was somewhere in the 14-15 mile range with well over 5000 feet of climbing.  Like any trip in the Sangre de Cristos, this hike required travel over steep terrain on rocky footing to reach the summits.  Since the mountains are low 13ers that are somewhat obscure, the peaks don't see much traffic and make a great destination if you seek alpine solitude.  The lakes in either basin see slightly more traffic but chances are you will have the summits to yourself.

Since this area is my backyard, I'm sure I will revisit this area many more times.  The lakes in either basin are worthwhile destinations without climbing the summits.  I have lived in this area 10 months and I wish I had climbed the peaks sooner.

For the blog post a few weeks ago with the bighorn sheep on Twin Sister North Click the link below.
Bighorn Sheep in the Stout Lakes Basin


  1. Looks great Tom, Ive got a place on Forrest ln in Howard. Plan on doing this next weekend!

  2. Hi Trevor, Are you planning on both peaks? Let me know how the waterfalls are flowing, I'd be curious to see if they are still impressive this late in the season. Have fun, it's a nice hike and doesn't see many people.

  3. Really great journalism Tomcat, thanks for sharing this with less experienced back packers so we can see what we are getting into before hand.
    MM Howard, CO