Colorado: High in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Kim Fenske tackles a couple of summits in the southern Rockies

At the apex of the Sangre de Cristo range.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

A few miles north of Great Sand Dunes National Park and east of Moffat lies the tiny community of Crestone. Taking a right turn on the main street of Crestone leads to a rough, dusty Forest Service Road lined with pinion pine that rises east into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. As the water diversion ruts become deeper, a sign at the entryway to the Rio Grande Forest warns to not enter with low-clearance vehicles. The Willow Lake Trailhead is a mile beyond this sign at 8,400 feet.  Far above, the looming summits that shade the plains below are Challenger Point, 14,080 feet, and Kit Carson Peak, 14,165 feet. In different terms, the hike to the summit is about 6,000 vertical feet.

A pika along the trail to Kit Carson Peak.
Kit Carson from the slope up to Challenger Point.

From Willow Creek Trailhead, the path crosses to the south side of Crestone Creek and ascends along a mile with a dozen switchbacks. The trail emerges from a conifer forest to an open ridge at 9,800 feet that is surrounded by an aspen covered slope with an open meadow below. This is the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area.

After two more miles of ascending east on an easy grade, the trail seems to be swallowed by a fortress wall of smooth stone at 10,900 feet. The secret to climbing the stone wall is a flanking maneuver across Willow Creek. Switchbacks begin again as the path continues south of the creek in a steep field of rock.  Another mile of climbing beside the waterfalls and rumbling rapids of the creek leads to Willow Lake at 11,650 feet, in a bowl covered with krummholz and willow thickets.

A marmot enjoys the alpine zone in the Sangre de Cristos.

Using the basin as a base camp, a pre-dawn ascent of Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak begins with a brief climb up the rock field north of the lake along any of several fluid trails. Above a waterfall spilling over the cliff at the east end of Willow Lake, the trail crosses south to the base of Challenger Point. The pathway continues ascending almost in a straight line beside “The Rib,” a low wall of smooth rock that leads to an array of small ledges on the steep slope to the ridge.  y staying between “The Rib” and a narrow chute east of the field of ledges, the southern ridge of the valley can be reached, about one and a half miles from Willow Lake.

A silhouette of Challenger Point at dawn.

The ridge, about six miles from the trailhead, reveals vast expanses of surrounding mountains and plains.  To the south, The Great Sand Dunes point to the outskirts of Alamosa.  To the east, Challenger Point is a couple of feet higher and less than a half-mile away, with Kit Carson Peak as a backdrop.  A narrow ledge called “The Avenue” wraps around the mid-section of Kit Carson and leads southeast to a steep chute of loose rock that gains the last few hundred feet to the summit of the fourteener.

Still beauty in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Great Sand Dunes National Park from Challenger Point.
Challenger Point from the Avenue on Kit Carson.
Crestone Peak, southeast of Kit Carson.
Grazing at Willow Lake.
Author Kim Fenske enjoys the 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.”

More stories by Kim Fenske:


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