Wednesday, January 6, 2016

New Years Day Hike of Curley Peak

The past few weeks have been snowy and cold.  As a result, it has been a while since I have had a big mountain adventure. I had New Years Day to myself so I wanted to get in some sort of physical activity in the mountains. 

My original plan was to attempt a climb of 14er La Plata Peak.  I had my gear ready to go and an early alarm.  When I woke up, I checked the weather readings at the stations close to my destination.  The closest stations ranged from -13F to -26F and there was still a couple more hours of darkness for the temperature to drop.  It was already below 0F at my house and I'm not exactly in the coldest location in the area.  The idea of spending hours in an exposed environment at those temperatures didn't sound too sane so I went back to bed with a new plan.

I decided to head east to the lower and warmer Wet Mountains.  In my last blog post I wrote about a hike to Tanner Peak in the northern end of the Wet Mountains.  I wanted to explore more peaks in the range and this seemed like a good opportunity. 

This time my destination was Curley Peak.  Curley Peak is the next summit south of Tanner Peak and the highest summit in the northern part of the range at 9600'.  I was told that the views were better than Tanner Peak and trails were in better shape.  Most of the hike to Curley Peak is on the warmer, eastern side of the range so I expected a pleasant hike.

There are a few ways to reach Curley Peak.  I started my hike from the East Bear Trailhead on the Tanner Trail, the southern end of the trail that ultimately reaches Tanner Peak.  I've also seen this called the Bear Gulch Trail.  After a drive up an interesting, hairpinned dirt road with nearly sheer drops and no guardrails, I reached the trailhead a little after 10AM.  This was much later than my usual start times but this wasn't a terribly long hike.  It was also a balmy 18F at the trailhead, much better than the 0F at my house when I left.

The trailhead is just over 10 miles outside of Canon City.  Since Canon City is usually considerably warmer than most place in Colorado, I was expecting much of the hike to be snow free.  The trailhead sits around 7400', about 2000' feet above Canon City, also the same elevation of my house.  While there was less snow than at my house, the shady areas along the road near the trailhead had patches of snow.

The trail started out with some interesting scenery.  Right from the trailhead, the road and trail passed under large sections of cliffs.  Part of the year, the cliffs are closed to climbing due to a nesting population of peregrine falcons.  The trail travels through Bear Gulch for the start of the hike.  Traveling through the gulch is interesting enough as it passes under the large cliffs that were visible at the trailhead the majority of its route.

Cliffs visible from the trailhead
The trail started with minimal snow cover near the trailhead.  As I climbed, the snow steadily increased.  Bear Gulch is extremely sheltered and from the looks of it never sees the sun.  It quickly became noticeably colder as I traveled further up the gulch.  While the snow was never more than a few inches in the first part of the gulch, a fresh dusting on the existing snow made every rock and root extremely slippery and much worse to travel over.  Finally the trail climbed out of the gulch and I had a short stretch of dry ground.  The trail turned again into the shadows and took me through the deepest snow of the day, maybe 8 inches or so.  It was deep enough that I finally put on my gaiters.

Traveling beneath cliffs
More trailside cliffs
Snowy trail in the gulch
The deeper snow last only a few tenths of a mile and I was soon on the crest.  As soon as I reached the crest, I began to get partial views of the Sangre de Cristos.  The snow was also more intermittent since sections of thin forest allowed the sun to do its work.

First look at Sangres over snow covered trees
I traveled through a mix of forest and open meadow.   The narrow trail ended and became a doubletrack where ATVs use was permitted.  Majority of the route had at least shallow snow that seemed to settle in the trail. 

A rare mostly snowfree section of trail
Typical snow cover on the crest
Travel wasn't too tough in the snow but an inconvenience.  The line that one would normally walk, had loose, ankle deep snow.  The tuft of grass between the doubletrack was not as deep.  I tried walking on this but this was slippery and seemed like an ankle rolling risk.  I think if there were more seasonable temperatures the last week, most of this snow would have been gone.

The trail passed by several meadows
Snowier section under heavy tree cover
I soon came to a meadow that had a rocky peak sticking out above the trees just ahead.  I assumed this was the first of Curley's summits.  Curley's peaks require a scramble up rocks.  I read that the summits were easier to obtain by climbing from the saddle between the peaks so I traveled past the first peak.  When I reached the Stultz Trail, I headed off trail toward the peaks.

Sangre views are common in the meadows
The first summit of Curley barely visible ahead
The first summit just barely poking above the trees
I reached the first summit of Curley Peak, the one visible from the meadow.  I had a fairly straightforward bushwack followed by a short scramble to the top.  A couple spots were a little tricky since snow made the climbing slippery.

Looking down the rocky summit toward
the trail I hiked
As promised, the views from the summit were excellent.  The long line of the Sangre de Cristos stands out across the Wet Mountain Valley.  Much of the Wet Mountains are visible to the south.  Pikes Peak towers to the north.  To the east are the plains with parts of Pueblo visible.
Just a short distance away were other summits of Curley Peak.

Looking down the Wet Mountain Range
The Sangres with Humboldt, Colony Baldy, Crestones,
and Kit Carson to name a few
The Crestones framed by Humboldt
and Colony Baldy
Pikes Peak in the distance
Pikes Peak
View into the plains
Cliffs of one of Curley's other summits
Long stretch of the Sangres over the cliffs
I left the first peak and returned to the trail.  I followed it north a short distance and turned onto a trail marked Trail 1333.1.  I followed this trail briefly before veering off into the woods.  I reached a small rock outcropping and climbed it.  From the top, I got a better lay of the land and could see another peak of Curley was just a short bushwack away. 

I downclimbed the small pinnacle and headed to the other summit.  Reaching the top required a little bit of class 3 climbing from the side I approached.  The views were similar to the first peak.  The first summit had better views to the south, this peak had better views to the north.  Below I could see the cliffs that were visible from the other peak.  I'm not sure which of these is the the true summit.  I didn't linger too long before returning to the trail.

Sangres north of Hayden Pass including
13ers Bushnell, Twin Sister North, and Hunts
Southern Sawatch including Shavano naer the right
Low mountains below Curley
For those not wanting to bushwack and scramble to the summits, there is an option to avoid this.  Continuing just a couple tenths of a mile on Trail 1333.1 will give you great scenery with a little less effort.  The trail ends in a large meadow.  The mountain drops off and offers a fine overlook with unobstructed views toward the northern Sangres and southern Sawatch Range.

My return hike followed the same route.  I did manage to fall trying to walk on the strip of grass between the doubletrack.  For traveling over flat terrain at the time, it was a relatively hard tumble, but nothing serious.

One last look of the Sangres from a small outcropping
before dropping back into the gulch
The last bit of the route brought me back into Bear Gulch.  As I descended into the gulch I noticed how much cooler the air was in the sheltered gulch.  I think the temperature was in the single digits in the coldest part of the gulch.  The gulch was incredibly dark.  I was traveling through it around 1PM on a bright sunny day.  I had to take off my sunglasses.  It felt like I was traveling just before sunset.
Just to the left however, the sun brightly illuminated the cliffs above. As I left the most sheltered area of the gulch I could feel the temperature warm.  I didn't really get back into the sun until I reached the trailhead.

View into Bear Gulch.  This picture is early afternoon and a clear day
and you can see how dark the gulch is.
The signage on this trip was in disagreement.  The total distance on this hike was somewhere around 8 miles. To reach the peaks of Curley Peak however, there is well over 2000 feet of elevation gain.  Curley Peak is the highest in the northen Wet Mountains with an impressive 1800' of prominence.  If I didn't have to face the unfavorable snow conditions, this seemed like it would be a fairly pleasant hike.  I think with more average temperatures returning since my outing, this trip would make a nice retreat from the higher elevations of Colorado which are much snowier right now.  Besides Bear Gulch, which will probably hold snow for a while, much of the upper reaches will probably melt quite a bit.

Another look at the Sangres over the cliffs of Curley

Close up view over the cliffs

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