Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Nearly Snowless Pikes Peak Winter Climb

Pikes Peak may be the best known mountain in Colorado.  Most non-hikers are familiar with the mountain.  The mountain is visible from a long distance for travelers to the east.  The mountain is a popular tourist attraction with easy access from Colorado Springs.

The 14,110 foot summit is developed.  In addition to hiking trails, the summit can be accessed by a road and cog train.  Mt Evans is the only higher 14,000 foot summit in the state with road access.

The mountain is quite impressive.  It stands alone, away from other high peaks on the edge of the plains.  The mountain towers over 8000 vertical feet above downtown Colorado Springs, just twelve or so miles away.  The peak is easily distinguishable when views from other Colorado summits.

Pikes Peak dominating the skyline during a climb of Tanner Peak
in the Wet Mountains, just above Canon City

Despite Pikes Peak's impressive stature, it wasn't a high priority for me to climb the mountain. The fact that it's a tourist attraction brings more people to the area than most other 14ers. The road and train make the summit accessible to many that would otherwise not climb it.  It's easy access from Colorado Springs also increases traffic.  The summit has buildings, including a gift shop and cafeteria.  These are things I don't seek in the mountains.  This is reminiscent of New Hampshire's Mt Washington, which I climbed a handful of times.  It also is accessed by road and trail with numerous summit buildings.

This winter has been quite warm and has seen little snowfall.  Even though the calendar shows January, mountain condition are more on par with early October in much of southern Colorado.  I saw this as a good opportunity to get a winter ascent of a 14er.  I was looking for something that I hadn't climbed before.  Despite the tame conditions, road access was limited for most of the closer 14ers that I hadn't climbed.

I decided to check out Pikes Peak.  I was interested in climbing the Northwest Slopes route.  This is a more direct route and doesn't involve travel in Colorado Springs or Manitou Springs.  The route begins at the National Forest Service's Crags Campground near the town of Divide.  Usually the trailhead access is closed in winter.  Because of minimal snow, the road remained opened as of January 18th. The other route to the summit, The Barr Trail Route is accessed from Manitou Springs.  It climbs around 7500' and is around 25-26 miles round trip.  I didn't have any interest in that long of a  hike to a summit with a road and cafeteria.

I headed to Pikes Peak on January 18th.  Despite tame conditions, it was winter and a Thursday.  I was expecting to avoid any crowds.  Colorado Springs was calling for highs near 60 with tame winds.  The summit forecast looked promising.  I began my hike just after 7AM.  According to my car's thermometer, it was 4F.

I was the only car when I arrived at the trailhead.  Crags Campground is on the northwest side of the peak.  The trail immediately crosses a bridge.  The small creek was frozen solid.  There was no more than two inches of snow on the ground.  The trail however was well packed.

Icy Fourmile Creek

Nice trail in the forest

The trail is easy to follow.  There are a couple of junctions that are well marked.  Follow the trail marked Devil's Playground.  The hike below treeline is quite pleasant through the forest.  The snow never got any deeper as I climbed.  There was one bridgeless stream crossing.  The water was frozen solid and easy to cross.  There are a few glimpses of the terrain above treeline as well as a good look at the Crags, the cliff that the campground is named after.

Icy trail crossing

A peak above treeline

The Crags

I reached treeline fairly quickly.  Once in the alpine zone, what little snow that there was, melted or blew away.  I was following dirt.  Initially, the trail gets fairly steep after it emerges from the trees.  The trail isn't too hard to follow but is a little more obscured in the steeper section.  Generally, continue upward over the rock and dirt, and stay out of the grass.  The trail becomes better defined as the steepness eases.

Breaking treeline

Slightly more snow on the north slopes

Nice looking terrain

After the trail levels off, it travels to an area called the Devil's Playground.  The trail itself becomes much wider near here as it travels below Devil's Playground Peak.  In this section, there was  more snow but it was mostly avoidable.  The actual summit comes into view here as well, more than two miles away.

Snowy trail below Devil's Playground

Nice view of distant peaks

The trail passes through a rocky notch before it reaches the Pikes Peak summit road.  The trail crosses the road.  From this point, the trail travels just above the road.  At a few switchbacks, the trail passes right next to the road.  Generally the trail is far enough away that the road isn't annoying.

The summit visible beyond the notch

Apparently the road is kept clear and open most of the winter if conditions allow.  Since I was traveling well out of the high season, I saw only a few cars.  With the wind, you can't really hear the cars.  In July or August I imagine this would be more annoying with constant traffic.  At times the road isn't visible due to terrain, particularly when traveling by "Little Pikes Peak".  Don't be tempted to walk along the road.  If the road is open, walking along it is not allowed.  Of the handful of cars that I saw, several were rangers, or whatever officials patrol the area.  Apparently they will ticket or fine you if you are on the road.

"Little Pikes Peaks"

The summit in the distance

Reservoirs to the north

The trail is well worn and mellow in this stretch.  I was walking on dirt majority of the time.  The only place where the snow was more than ankle deep was the north side of "Little Pikes Peak," which doesn't seem to get any sun.  There was also snow where the trail met the road's switchbacks.  I think this was snow from plowing.

Mild terrain

Flat stretch

Looking back at distant peaks 
Looking back as I entered rockier terrain

During the last push to the summit, the trail becomes less obvious.  The route becomes steeper and much rockier as it climbs away from the road and heads to the summit.  Cairns mark the way in this stretch as the route becomes obscured in the jumble of rock.  Near the summit, the trail meets another switchback of the road.  A building comes into view.  I'm not sure what this is but it is property of the US Army and probably should be avoided.  Once at the Army building, the rest of the summit comes into view including the summit building with the gift shop and cafeteria.


Rougher terrain approaching the summit

Talus on the final push

View from near the summit toward the reservoirs

A  rocky shoulder just below the summit

It was almost exactly three hours from trailhead to summit.  It seems like every source uses a different mileage, but it's somewhere between 6.5-7 miles one way to the summit from the Crags trailhead.  The route gains about 4300 vertical feet.

Summit (I list the summit at 14,110'.  Figures vary between
14,110-14,115' depending on which survey is referenced)

Given the time of year, the summit was quite dead.  Since it's not too common for a heated structure on a mountaintop, I went into the summit building.  There was no more than a few other people there that drove to the summit and a few workers.  I browsed the gift shop while eating a few snacks and hydrating before beginning my descent.  Although not as bad as most January days at 14,000 feet, it was still cool and breezy, so I enjoyed the rare opportunity to warm up on the summit.

Not many people in the summit building
besides this happy sasquatch

At 14,110', Pikes Peak is Colorado's 30th highest peak.  As I mentioned before, it stands by itself and is quite prominent.  Because of this, the views are far reaching.  I wasn't too interested in the views to the vast plains or the Colorado Springs area to the east.  Many of the larger mountain ranges of Colorado are visible from the summit as well as the upper alpine area of the mountain.  The Front Range, parts of the Tenmile Range, Mosquito Range, Sawatch Range, Sangre de Cristos, and numerous smaller ranges are all visible from the mountain.  Many other 14,000' peaks are visible and easy to identify.  The portion of the Sangre de Cristos that rise just above my house are easily identifiable.

The northern Sangres.  This section of the Sangres
is just above my house

Mt Ouray

Mt Princeton

Mt Bross is the larger mountain on the left with
Mt Silverheels on the right

Naturally the descent was a little easier on the lungs.  I returned the same route on my descent.  I enjoyed the descent.  The views in reverse were much better as it looked at all the mountain ranges in the distance.

View on the descent

"Little Pikes Peak" is the slope to the left

A look at the road on the way down

I made a brief detour and climbed Devil's Playground Peak near the road crossing.  Devil's Playground Peak is a quick climb with little gain to a 13,070' unranked peak.  Even though it is unranked, it is the high point of Teller County.  Pikes is the high point of El Paso County.  I figured I would tag two county high points while I had the chance.  According to a sign along the road, the area gets the name Devil's Playground due to the lightning that visibly bounces between the rocks in the area during thunderstorms.

View from Devil's Playground Peak

Another look from Devil's Playground Peak

Looking back to the summit from the Devil's Playground area

I enjoyed the scenery while I remained above treeline.  Once the road is behind for good at Devil's Playground, the scenery is quite nice.  Further down on the descent, there are good views of the Crag from the trail as well. It became quite warm, at least for January, as I descended.  I passed two other hikers below treeline while I descended.  I reached the trailhead just after 1PM, about 6 hours from when I started.

Gully below Devil's Playground Peak

One of the few unavoidable snowy sections

Nice stretch of tundra

Snowier north slopes 
Nearing treeline

I wasn't sure I would like Pikes Peak with the other infrastructure on the mountain.  It was actually a pleasant hike.  I'm sure the minimal amount of hub bub on a midweek January day helped.  In summer, I would have probably been annoyed by the crowds that can be on the summit.  But that's why I chose to hike it in the off season

The last stretch before heading back in the trees

The Crags

Another brief snowy stretch below the Crags

This outcropping is the lowest part of the Crags.  I liked
the view of the mountains with this rock.

The trail in the forest as I approached the trailhead

Although this technically qualifies as a winter climb, I almost feel guilty taking credit for a winter ascent.  I've seen worst conditions in September on lower mountains.  I never need my gaiters or any kind of traction.  Knowing the conditions were pretty tame, I used low shoes for the hike with no problems.  I'm also under the impression that once the gate is closed below the trailhead, this route isn't really accessible any more.  Previously, parking was allowed at the gate, but now "No Parking" signs are in place pretty much anywhere there is a spot along the road.  I picked a good time for this hike.  Just a few days later, the area got a significant snow.  I haven't heard otherwise, but there is a good chance the road closed.

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