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Colorado: Climbing La Plata Peak

Exploring Colorado’s 14ers

Mount Elbert and Mount Massive are visible north of La Plata Peak’s summit.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

Piercing the sky like a giant sundial over the Arkansas River Valley, 14,336 -foot La Plata Peak has an impressive knife ridge pointing southward toward Mount Oxford, Mount Belford, Missouri Peak, and Huron Peak.

La Plata is the fifth highest peak in Colorado, joining its slightly taller neighbors Mount Elbert, 14,433 feet, and Mount Massive, 14,421 feet, as leading skyscrapers of the Central Mountains.

The La Plata Peak Trailhead is a few miles west of Twin Lakes on the road to Independence Pass.  The trailhead parking area is a small pad beside the highway. La Plata Gulch, the valley at the base of La Plata Peak, is accessible by a road crossing Lake Creek on the south side of Colorado Highway 82. The trail registry and entry into the forest is on the left side of the road.

A ptarmigan on La Plata Peak begins to change to summer colors.

The central avalanche chute is the summer standard trail to reach tree-line. Ice in the avalanche chute to the north created a fast slide to the boulder patch below.

The trail continues east on a wooden bridge crossing a grotto waterfall. After winding a mile through the woodland at an elevation of about 9,900 feet, the trail passes over a crossing of downed trees dropped across a stream, then turns and sharply ascends a thousand feet up La Plata Gulch.

Base camp, 11,000 feet, was a beautiful, table-flat expanse, rare in the steep valleys of Fourteeners.

After scouting the trail to 13,800 feet the week before, I decided to establish a base camp near the willow thickets at 11,000 feet where the valley flattens and widens.  Backpacking from the trailhead to a flat meadow campsite at the base of La Plata Peak took an hour of the afternoon, allowing a few hours to set-up a tent and prepare a large pot of seasoned pasta with a blend of cheeses. The spring evening was pleasantly warm, providing a sound night of sleep.

In the morning, I headed up the west face of La Plata Peak before the sun rose over the mountain. Leaving the trail to avoid the standard route up a wide avalanche chute, I tried ascending a boulder field farther north on the face of the mountain. Turning south, I encountered another avalanche chute covered in a thin layer of rough ice about fifteen feet wide. I started out on the steep slab, kicking a narrow track across the chute. Mid-way across the chute I lost traction on some firm, smooth ice and started sliding down a couple hundred feet of frozen ice. Fortunately, the ice was rough and gritty. I rolled across the chute and arrested my descent by crossing into softer ice at the far side of the slide.

Proceeding across a long stretch of boulders and regaining fragments of trail uncovered by the daily melting of snow above tree-line, I crossed the broad snowfield on the west side of La Plata Peak.  After three hours of effort, I ascended on switchbacks to the ridge at 12,500 feet.

From the ridge, La Plata Peak reveals a broad vista including the summits of Mount Elbert and Mount Massive north of the Lake Creek Valley. I gained the final two thousand feet to the summit within three hours by scrambling over barren boulder fields west of several steep, hard-baked snowfields to the relatively flat final snow-covered scree field to the summit east of the main ridge. From the summit, I enjoyed a clear view of Mount Huron, Missouri Peak, Mount Belford, and Mount Oxford across the Clear Creek Valley to the south.

The trail follows the ridge for about three miles to the summit.

Typical of mountain descents, I split the six-hour ascent from the trailhead to three hours of descent, dismissing the time of eating a quick meal and packing-up the base camp.  I arrived at the trailhead before sunset and fell into a glowing stupor over the end of a good little bit of exercise on the easy day hike up La Plata Peak.

A porcupine grazes on marsh grass near the La Plata Peak Trailhead.

A curling cornice decorates the summit of La Plata Peak at 14,336 feet.

At the summit.

Ascending a snowfield on La Plata Peak, Colorado’s fifth-highest summit.

Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.

Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”

Kim’s winter 14er series:

Autumn hikes:

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2 Responses

  1. I love these hiking articles. They explore the essence of what we all love about Colorado and prove that the natural environment and the availability of solitude in Colorado is abundant and easy to access. Please keep up the good work!

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