Sunday, July 30, 2017

Climbing Hunts Peak with Cactus Mutt

There are numerous peaks that stand out where I live that I have the urge to climb.  Slowly I've been getting to these peaks.  The one that I've been putting off for a long time is Hunts Peak.  Hunts Peak is the northern most 13,000 foot peak in the Sangre de Cristos.  It features a distinct summit that stands out among the surrounding peaks.  From the north, its prominent summit is visible from a fair distance.

Hunts Peak from UN 8759' (AKA Puma Peak or Howard Mtn) 

Hunts is the highest peak left of center, taken from
the Arkansas Hills Trails just above Salida

Hunts Peak in the middle taken above Wellsville

I see Hunts Peak daily.  The summit is framed nicely from my driveway and isn't too far away as bird flies.  From the east side of the Sangres, Hunts Peak is a challenge to climb.  There isn't any easy access.  The shortest routes with legal access involves at least 10 miles of one way traveling along the  Rainbow Trail from Bear Creek or Kerr Gulch.

Hunts Peak from my driveway after the hike

I put off climbing Hunts Peak long enough.  Rather than tackle it from the east, I decided on climbing it from the west.  The peak can be accessed from the San Luis Valley, just south of Poncha Pass.  The shortest route is accessed from the Rock Creek Trailhead and involves around 6 miles of roundtrip travel and 3400' of elevation gain.

With monsoon weather patterns looking pretty consistent most of the week, I decided to climb Monday, July 24th since it looked like the least threatening day of the week.  The west slopes from Rock Creek looked relatively tame compared to most peaks in the Sangres.  The upper slopes appeared to be grassy with not too much in the way of rock.

Given the shorter distance and relatively mild terrain, I thought it would be a good opportunity to take my dog Choya with me.  Puma and I got Choya at the very end of last year from the local Humane Society.  He was overweight when we got him.  To slim him down, I started walking with him almost immediately.  We started out about 20 miles a week walking from the house.  Soon we began to go on hikes.  He graduated to runs.  Since we got him, Choya has walked, run, and hiked more than 400 miles.  He dropped from 60 lbs in early December when they found him as a stray down to a slim and strong 40 lbs.  He has hiked over 10 miles with no difficulty and has been over 11,000'.  He seemed ready to climb a 13er and Hunts Peak seemed like a good place to start him.

His name is Choya.  He is named after the cactus, cholla.  To avoid confusion, we spelled his name phonetically.  Since he is named after a cactus, Puma and I often call him "Cactus Mutt".

The Rock Creek Trailhead is a little tricky to find.  It is accessed from an easy to miss dirt road off of Highway 285.  I had good directions and found the trailhead without difficulty.  I made it to the last junction before the road became a little too messy.  There is a nice unofficial but established campsite here that makes a good place to park.  According to the sign I was a mile from the trailhead.  According to the directions on I was .7 miles short of the trailhead.

I began my hike just after 7AM.  I walked the last little bit of the road to the trailhead.  The trail begins at a wooden fence.  The trail is an old road that nature has taken back.  It's still a doubletrack at places, but overgrown.  It's still easy to follow even though the tread is intermittent.  The trail stays close to South Rock Creek.

Fence at the start of the trail

Not too far from the start on the trail

Choya on the trail

Fireweed is pretty prominent in the Ox Cart burn area

Eventually the trail passes through the scar of the 2013 Ox Cart Fire.  Most of the trees are skeletons.  Some charring is visible on the trees still but it seems like most of the burnt bark has since fallen off the trees.

Less than two miles along the trail, it takes a sharp left turn.  The trail dead ends shortly after this turn.  A few hundred feet past the turn, the trail cuts across a steep slope.  This is where I left the trail. If you don't turn here, you will reach the dead end in a few minutes. The steep slope travels through the burn scar.  The slope forms a broad ridge. The ground is pretty bare through here even though quite a few patches of flowers were growing on the slope.

Heading up the ridge in the burn

More fireweed in the burn along the ridge

Traveling on the slope is pretty straightforward.  Veering too far to either side will drop you off the ridge.  The steepness finally relents and the trees become more sparse.  As you reach treeline the route reaches a more defined ridge that is narrower and more rocky.  The first good views of Hunts can be seen from here as well as the rest of the route to the summit.

Thinning forest higher on the ridge

A look into the South Rock Creek Basin

Hunts Peak at the edge of treeline

Hunts Peak
Crossing one of the few stretches of talus

Looking at the high point along the ridge

Choya along the ridge

Choya climbing the ridge

The rocky ridge tops out around 12,100'.  The route then drops slightly before climbing directly toward Hunts.  There is about 1000 vertical feet to climb to reach the summit.  As far as peaks in the Sangre de Cristos go, this is one of the gentler routes I've seen. Although fairly steep, majority of the route travels over nice grassy slopes with only small stretches of rock.  We made the summit pretty quickly.

The ridge south of where we climbed

Choya around 12,100' near the high point along the ridge
A good look at our route
At the saddle between Hunts and PT 12,100

Choya running up the slopes

A steeper section of Hunts slopes

As expected, the summit of Hunts did not disappoint.  There are far reaching views south into the Sangres with the section from Bushnell Peak to Methodist Mountain seeming very close.  The southern Sawatch peaks from Antora Peak to Mt Princeton are easily identifiable.  Antora, Ouray, and Chipeta are the closest.

Anotra Peak

Ouray and Chipeta

Hazy view toward Shavano, Antero, and Princeton

The northern end of the Sangres

I enjoyed the view to the east side of the ridge as well as I live not too far below Hunts.  Unfortunately is was pretty hazy and difficult to get a clear view. Immediately below Hunts is the Hunts Lake Basin  The Pleasant Valley around Howard, Co sits just below Hunts beyond the forest.  The features were hard to identify in the haze.  Beyond Howard are the Arkansas Hills that I have often explored.  Big Baldy, Wellsville, the Badger Creek drainage, Puma Peak, Jack Hall Mountain, and Burned Timber Mountain are all easy to see.  East of Big Baldy, Salida is visible and the "S" of  "S" Mountain can even be seen.

Hunts Lake

Looking south from the summit

Looking north, Salida is the open area right of center
beyond the mountains

Choya relaxing on the summit

Looking toward Salida


Choya looking into the Hunts Lake Basin

At the summit I took a few minutes to enjoy the scenery.  Choya seemed to enjoy the hike so far.  I gave him some water and took a few summit photos of him before heading back down.

Choya on the summit

Choya enjoying the view

The trip down the mountain passed by quickly.  We retraced our route down the ridge and regained the trail.  We made it back to the car right around 4 hours from start to finish. We didn't see another person on the entire hike.

Looking down at our route

Choya checking out our route
Choya with the South Rock Creek Basin below

Looking back at Hunts from the saddle

Choya with 13ers Aetna and Taylor beyond

The brown trees are part of the Ox Cart burn

Ouray and Chipeta on the descent


Mt Princeton far right in the distance with
Antero and Shavano right to left

Working our way through the rocky
stretch on the ridge

Starting at the campsite near the junction, the roundtrip distance of this hike is somewhere between 7 and 8 miles.  The route gains 3400 vertical feet.  This is a pleasant hike and fairly easy compared to most 13ers I have climbed, particularly in the Sangres. If you're looking for an alpine summit with a good chance of solitude, Hunts seems like a great choice. It was also a great hike to take Choya along.  There is nothing too rough for a well conditioned dog to handle.

Choya with sun beams shining on him with Hunts behind him

Another shot of Choya in front of Hunts

Close up from the summit looking toward Red Mountain,
The Twin Sisters, Bushnell, and beyond

Hunts Lake with Howard and the Pleasant
Valley in the distance below

I will likely hike Hunts Peak again.  After looking into the Hunts Lake Basin, I am intrigued and would love to check out that area.  The lake sits right above treeline and has large cliffs along the south side of the basin.

Another shot looking south from the summit

The northern San Luis Valley

The southern Sawatch

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Hunts from the edge of treeline

Mountain Thistle




  1. Nice! Been wanting to do this one since the day I first entered Howard.

  2. gotta get up there, looks like serious bang to buck ratio.

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