I had several destinations in mind for my next trip, but decided on exploring in the the Sangre de Cristos. I live at the base of the Sangres and they have always been the constant background since I moved to Colorado. I thoroughly enjoy exploring this rugged range.
My last trip to the Sangre de Cristo high country was last autumn on Columbus Day. I departed the Gibson Creek Trailhead and hiked to the Lakes of the Clouds basin. Once at the lakes I climbed three 13,000 foot peaks that surround the basin. On that trip, like any trip to high summits, I got a good view of the surrounding mountains, while concocting future trips. To read about that trip, click on the link Climbing the Peaks of the Lakes of the Clouds Basin
On that trip, Rito Alto Peak constantly towered to the south. Standing around 13,800', Rito Alto is an impressive peak. There are no higher mountains to the north in the Sangre de Cristo Range. It's lofty vantage point offers fine 360 degree views of the Sangres.
On the south side of Rito Alto, a rough jeep road leads to 13,000 foot at Hermit Pass. Most people seem to drive high up this road and make short work of Rito Alto. Traveling on a jeep road has no appeal to me. From the Gibson Creek Trailhead, the North Taylor Creek trail leads to a high alpine basin at Megan Lake. Megan Lake sits more than 2000 feet below Rito Alto's east face. Some more ambitious hikers will use this as a launching point to climb Rito Alto with Peak of the Clouds and Spread Eagle Peak. I was hoping to climb Rito Alto from Megan Lake, then continue south and climb Hermit and Eureka Peaks, just to the south.
Because of forecasted thunderstorms I got a fairly early start. My drive to the trailhead was a good start to the day. I saw two very large bull elk along the road as well as a few pronghorn close to the trailhead.
|Pronghorn near the trailhead
Although there is a road leading to the start of the North Taylor Creek trail. I started at the Gibson Creek Trailhead. Most dirt National Forest roads are rougher than I like to subject my car to. I began hiking about 645AM. I followed the Rainbow Trail to start before reaching a section of dirt road that led to the actual North Taylor Creek Trail.
|Columbines were abundant
|Wild roses along the Rainbow Trail
North Taylor Creek doesn't seem to get much traffic. The vegetation is quite thick at places. Evening storms the night before left this vegetation wet in the early morning. The trail crosses its namesake creek a few times and is usually within earshot of the creek. The creek is rushing with spring runoff and one crossing was quite tricky. I had to travel upstream to find a decent crossing.
|Makeshift bridge at a wider crossing
|Small waterfall on North Taylor Creek
The trail was quite faint at a few places in its upper reaches. Although traveling through the woods most of the route, the trail offers some nice alpine views as it gains elevation and passes through a few meadows. After 2.5 miles on the trail, I reached Megan Lake.
|Higher up on the North Taylor Creek Trail
|An open meadow below treeline
Megan Lake sits at the edge of treeline around 11,500'. From the lake, Rito Alto Peak towers more than 2000' above. Peak of the Clouds is also visible from Megan Lake. The view from the lake is pretty enough, but was further enhanced by ribbons of waterfalls cascading above the lake from heavy snow runoff.
|Rito Alto Peak above Megan Lake
|Peak of the Clouds in the distance above Megan Lake
My original plan was to climb a couple hundred feet higher to a smaller lake called Jeanne Lake. From Jeanne Lake I would climb to the saddle of Peak of the Clouds and Rito Alto before climbing Rito Alto's north ridge. Now off trail, I made my way toward the still hidden Jeanne Lake. Making my way to the lake was much harder than I anticipated. The entire area was covered in head high, nearly unpenetrable willows. I would stumble but catch myself by grabbing at branches. My bare shins took a beating. I lost a lot of time but finally made it to the lake.
|Looking back down the valley
|Waterfall above Megan Lake
|Meadow above Megan Lake
|Peak of the Clouds above the meadow
|I chose to travel up this small waterfall rather than the soft snow
From Lake Jeanne, I looked the terrain ahead. I didn't want to wallow through more willows. I assessed the terrain and although quite steep, the northeast slope of Rito Alto looked like a passable route without getting into too much difficulty.
|Jeanne Lake was small and very shallow
I began climbing directly up the northeast face. The steep terrain was a mixture of grass and solid rock. I made fairly quick time up the initial climb. In this section, a fairly relaxed ptarmigan seemed curious to have a person in its rugged territory. After a quick 1000 feet or so of climbing, I reached a grassy meadow before the main bulk of the climbing.
|Ptarmigan trying to figure out what the odd creature
was staring at it
|Looking back down at Megan Lake
|On the flat section of tundra before climbing
the rest of Rito Alto Peak
The last 1000 feet or so of climbing went quickly. Majority of my route maintained a mix of grass and solid rock. Although steep, the terrain remained class 2, possibly a brief section of 2+. Within the last few hundred vertical feet of the summit, the terrain steepened and required a little more route finding. I was now getting to the point where I needed to scramble and use my hands. At this point I was getting into some short class 3 pitches that were unavoidable. I finally crested the face about 50 feet from the summit proper.
|I traveled just to the right of the lingering snow
|The slope became rockier as I climbed
|Wildflowers clinging around 13,000' on Rito Alto
|Getting into the scrambly terrain
|Getting into class 3 terrain just below the summit
As I summited, I took notice to the sky. The morning had been cloudless. As I climbed, a solitary but benign cumulus cloud lingered above. From the summit, I had a good look at the sky and noticed a few more clouds lingering just above, starting to build. With a couple more summits in my sights, I didn't linger and headed down Rito Alto's south ridge. The sky was clear to the west and the breeze seemed like it should push the potentially threatening clouds away from my position. As I traveled down the ridge I lost my view of the clouds. I passed a pair of hikers on the ridge making there way toward the summit from a campsite near Hermit Lake, the only others I would see until I was on the Rainbow Trail near the trailhead.
|Silver Peak, Peak of the Clouds, and just barely in frame
is Spread Eagle. I think Gibbs Peak is the point distant
peak in the middle.
|Peak of the Clouds and Spread Eagle Peak
|Unnamed 13,000 Peaks to the west
|East toward ridge above Megan Lake
|Megan Lake and North Taylor Creek drainage
|Hermit Peak, Eureka Peak, and distant Crestone Group
|Crestones and Kit Carson Group
|Crop circles in the San Luis Valley
|Remains of the old cornice heading south along
Rito Alto's ridge
|I think this is looking toward Rito Alto Lake
I soon reached Hermit Pass. I had a better view of the sky and noticed a bigger buildup of the clouds with some darkening. At this point they seemed to have drifted a little further to the east. The west still looked safe. Hermit Peak was about a 1/4 mile away and a mere 300 vertical feet ahead. I quickly hiked up to its summit and examined the sky.
|Hermit Peak from Hermit Pass
|Hermit Peak's south ridge toward Eureka Peak
|Rito Alto from Hermit Peak
|Cotton Creek valley
|Hermit's west ridge toward a group of unnamed 13ers
Traversing to Eureka Peak would require spending more than two miles above treeline. A quick escape from weather would put me quite a bit further from my trailhead. At this point, the darkening clouds above weren't moving much, and more clouds were building nearby. It was only 1030 or so but I decided to descend back to the valley and play it safe.
|Rito Alto, Peak of the Clouds, and Spread Eagle Peak
|Rito Alto from Hermit Pass
|Rito Alto from Hermit Pass Road
| Peak of the Clouds living up to its name while
descending a beautiful grassy slope toward
|Peak of the Clouds and Spread Eagle Peak on the descent
toward Megan Lake
|Unnamed lake above Megan Lake
|Waterfall draining into the lake
Despite challenges, the travel below the upper lake was enjoyable. Much of my route traveled close to the upper lake's outlet stream. The outlet stream's course followed the steep rocky terrain in a series of cascades that traveled hundreds of vertical feet to the lower basin at Megan Lake. Because of heavy snowmelt, the cascades dropped dramatically. This made for quite a scenic descent.
|Megan Lake from the upper lake
|Waterfall draining upper lake
|One of the longer drop in the long cascade
|Waterfall cascading in rocky section
|Waterfall in narrower section
Eventually the steep slope entered sections of willows. Once in the willows, travel became quite challenging. The willows often hid rock drops. Other places the willows were thick enough to nearly halt forward travel. To add to the frustration of dense vegetation, much of the ground was boggy and slick from the snowmelt.
|Looking at the willows above Megan Lake
I eventually made my way to the bottom of the steep slopes. Only a few hundred feet stood between me and Megan Lake. Unfortunately, this stretch contained some of the densest willows. To add to the frustration, a network of small streams covered the ground under the willows. These streams usually weren't visible until I stumbled upon them. I had to force my way through the mess trying to find the paths of least resistance. Usually my shins took the brunt of the willows. My last obstacle to the lake was the inlet stream that descended from Lake Jeanne. Quite a few cutthroat trout were visible darting in the stream. I finally reached the lake.
|The view from inside the tangle of willow, they're about 6 feet high
and shred exposed shins
|Looking back at the waterfall over the willow-whack
|Another look at the falls from below
|Looking back at the sea of willows
|Traversing the narrow shoreline of Megan Lake
|Looking back at Rito Alto and the waterfall from
the shoreline of Megan Lake
The remainder of my trip, I was back on the North Taylor Creek Trail. Traveling downhill, I made quick time. Despite intermittent showers, I never did hear thunder or see any lightning. The trail was fairly slick with the fresh rain but my descent was uneventful. I was back at my car about 130PM.
I don't have exact mileage because a chunk of the trip was off trail, but this hike was somewhere in the 13-14 mile range and gained about a mile of elevation. As I said before, Rito Alto and Hermit Peaks are usually climbed from Hermit Pass Road. Even though it's a rugged jeep road, following a road doesn't have much appeal to me. I really enjoyed my route despite rough willow-whacking in a few sections. North Taylor Creek and the lakes in the basin offer a real feel of wilderness that can't be had traveling a jeep road. The lakes and trail are actually within the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, whereas the road is not.
Even though I have done a couple of hikes to alpine peaks in the past month, I particularly enjoyed this trip. I couldn't find any info about ascending Rito Alto by my direct route or descending to Megan Lake from Hermit Pass. It's satisfying picking a route on the fly. Although I could have done without the willows, I had quite a bit of fun on the rest route. I wish I could have hit Eureka Peak as well, but I didn't want to take a chance getting caught in lighting for an extended period above treeline, especially since the past several days saw a lot of thunderstorm activity.
Although it may seem inviting driving high above treeline on Hermit Pass Road to bag a few peaks, I would recommend hitting Rito Alto and Hermit Peaks from Megan Lake, especially if you are comfortable with routefinding and off trail travel. From the overgrown stretches of trail, and faint tread at times, I don't think this area sees too much traffic. Solitude is much more attractive than ATVs and Jeeps passing by any day in my opinion. The trip to Megan Lake is worthwhile by itself just to visit a secluded idyllic alpine lake. This trip can be cut shorter by several miles by driving directly to the North Taylor Creek Trailhead. I think any vehicle with decent clearance could drive it as it wasn't nearly as bad as most National Forest roads. I think my Outback would have been fine.
|Crestones in the distance from high on Rito Alto's
south ridge along the cornice
|Another close up of the Crestone Group
|The final look back over Megan Lake toward Rito Alto