Four classic Crestone area hikes
by Thomas Cleary*
The ultimate classic Crestone hike is Willow Lake. To find the trailhead, go east on Galena Ave. for 2 bumpy miles. The trail heads east out of the parking lot for a few hundred yards then bears right leaving the South Crestone Trail, and immediately crosses the creek. After a meadow it switchbacks up a ridge for a mile and 1000 feet elevation, then drops into Willow Park at the lower end of Willow drainage. There are some primitive camps at the east end of this park; please practice a Leave No Trace ethic, lnt.org. Within a mile and a half and 1500 feet, and after passing below a wonderful waterfall, you will gain a flat-ish bench with breathtaking views. Try to make it at least this far! The lower lake is another half mile farther on, and the upper lake is 1.5 miles beyond that.
South Crestone Creek Trail
For the same trailhead described above, and again heading east from the parking lot, you can continue on the South Crestone Creek Trail. This is another classic hike that provides nice views of the Valley, after about 1.5 miles and 1200 feet elevation gain. But the route to get that far is beautiful as well, taking you alongside the creek, through a deep evergreen forest, and a lush hillside meadow. At the 2 mile mark you crest a ridge, and leave the views behind, but regain the creekside travel for much of the remaining 2 miles and 1500 feet. Again there is a steep headwall that must be gained before the terrain flattens into a bench. In South Crestone Creek, the last half mile of trail up the headwall was washed out and temporarily(?) rebuilt but is “not suitable for horses”. Once the headwall is surmounted the lake appears at your feet for a well-deserved, but frigid, swim.
North Crestone Creek
Next on the hit list is the longest hike to a lake: North Crestone Creek. This hike is more gradual for the first 2.5 miles, gaining only 1200 feet by the time you reach the Three Forks trail junction. The remaining 3.3 miles rises 2000 more feet, with the bulk happening at Brock Falls and a final steep headwall. By the way, this is the site of the recent Paul Winter recording. From Three Forks other hiking options include a Venable and Comanche Peaks loop. There is camping in the Three Forks area.
Liberty Postal Road
The last entry on the list is a neo-classic: Liberty Postal Road. While only open to the public for a few years, people who travel this northern access to the Great Sand Dunes National Park love the vistas of the Sangres, Blanca and the Dunes. At the bottom of the first long hill, bear right at the fork after crossing the dry creekbed. After 3 miles and 300 feet elevation loss from the trailhead hikers are greeted with the lush but fragile riparian zone of Deadman Creek. Leave No Trace principles remind us to camp at least 200 feet from surface water and roads and trails, to walk and camp on durable surfaces, and to minimize campfire impacts. See lnt.org for details. This may be the only water for miles in either direction so prepare accordingly for your hike. Duncan and Liberty townsites are two and three miles farther on respectively and are interesting windows to our rich local mining history. If you kept on walking you would eventually have to climb up and over the dunes and some 20 miles further would get to the south side of the dunes. It’s a hike I strongly recommend if you have a few days this summer.
I have described these four hikes above and south of Crestone but there are so many more. Hiking details can be found in a Colorado Gazetteer, Trails Illustrated map, or USGS 7.5 minute maps. Around here you can literally pick any drainage and find a trail up it. So, don’t take my word for it, go for it! Hike smart, be happy, drink water, breathe, enjoy.
*Originally printed in the Crestone Eagle Newspaper
Crestone Peak is Colorado’s 7th highest mountain, and one of the most challenging fourteeners to climb. Although not the highest of the Sangre De Cristo range, Crestone Peak is clearly the reigning monarch in terms of character. For those who have climbed it, it is often referred to as “The Peak.” Among the last of the fourteeners to be scaled, along with Crestone Needle, this remote and rugged mountain was once thought impossible to climb. The easiest route is not the shortest or most direct. 800 feet of elevation must be lost and regained, another 2,000 feet must be climbed up the sustained Red Couloir to the summit, and all climbing is rated at least Class 3. Considerable climbing experience is recommended before attempting this formidable mountain.
Crestone Peak has two summits, both equal in power, each the highest point in their respective Saguache and Custer counties. The western summit is 34 feet higher. At one time, there was considerable conversation as to which summit should qualify as THE top, despite the higher western summit’s elevation. However, the controversy is now over as the western summit is inarguably the highest. When you reach the summit, you can be your own judge, and for some this is a matter best left between you and the mountain.
Adding to the difficulty of the climb is getting there. The Crestone group of mountains is one of the more difficult to reach from any direction. Early in your research you will find a great commitment is required to claim Crestone Peak or any of its lofty neighbors. Go prepared for a challenge and the experience of a life time!
The best time to climb Crestone Peak in optimal dry conditions is July to August. September can be a good time to climb, but early snows can increase difficulty of these routes dramatically. Climbing October through June will be in winter conditions. Steep snow and ice will be encountered. The Northwest Couloir may have snow and ice year round.
Info from SummitPost.org