The great west block traverse of the La Plata Mountains

Friday, June 8, 2018 4:35 PM
Rich Butler powers up the summit ridge of Gibbs Peak. Look south to review the long chain of mountains on the traverse.
Hike generally west on the Snowslide Gulch Trail to the east ridge of Parrott Peak. From Parrott, hike north cresting Madden, Star, and Gibbs. Descend on the east ridge of Gibbs and intersect Gibbs Road. Return to CR 124 on the Madden Creek Trail.

Located at the southern end of the great western block of the La Plata Mountains exists an extraordinary and sustained ridgeline traverse.

Summit four named peaks and three prominences while taking advantage of the divide’s evolving panorama. South and west, a vast field of open space melds into the blue distance. Challenges on this mostly off-trail adventure include steep slopes, loose talus, a lot of climbing and some notoriously skittish footing getting onto and off of Gibbs Peak.

Snowslide Gulch Trailhead to Parrott Peak, 11,857 feetThis uncommon point of access offers the most direct route to Parrott Peak. The trail is not maintained and takes concentration to detect. I removed all the loose debris recently, but downed timber remains.

From the parking area at elevation 8,760 feet, cross the road and walk 60 paces north to an opening in the aspen. Search around for the path which begins a few feet west of the road. The thin dirt trail passes by a National Forest sign mounted on two orange posts and then initiates a series of small switchbacks.

Friends converse on Parrott Peak, the first mountain on the traverse. It is located at the south end of the west block of the La Plata Mountains.
Courtesy of Thomas Hold Ward

At times, the trail is perched on a slope high above the creek; elsewhere the two practically meet. The sound of rushing water will alert you to opportunities to peer through aspen to cascades below. The footpath makes several hooks to the right. If you find yourself off the subtle trail, back up and relocate it.

At one mile, elevation 10,160 feet, the track makes a switchback in a conifer grove and soon becomes undecipherable. Hold your northeast bearing and gain the ridge at 1.2 miles, approximate elevation 10,360 feet.

Off-trail, climb northwest on or close to the ridgetop. There is a talus field at 10,800 feet. Skirt most of the rock on the left before regaining the rib. Actually, there are some helpful game trails a little south of the ridgeline below the big and lovely trees.

Dave Peters, Jodie Petersen, Rich Butler, and Janna Ranson relax on a broad span of ridgeline. Mesa Verde and Sleeping Ute Mountain are in the west.
Courtesy of Thomas Holt Ward

At 11,700 feet, the east and south ridges merge. A simple and dramatic talus climb takes you to the summit. Crest Parrott Peak at 2.35 miles after 3,100 feet of climbing. Any time you gain more than 1,000 feet per mile, it is a strenuous effort. Parrott is the southernmost peak on the western massif, so it rewards with a unique perspective on the range. Look across the La Plata River to the east block peak chain. Unbounded views of the Four Corners reveal Mesa Verde, Shiprock, Sleeping Ute Mountain, the Blues and the La Sal Mountains.

North to Madden Peak, 11,972 feetThere is some cliff structure on Parrott’s north face. Locate trail fragments through loose talus slightly west of the summit cone leading down to the saddle.

Hikers sign the Madden Peak summit register. In the north is the ridge walker’s ever-present visual pleasure: Hesperus Mountain, Spiller Peak, The Knife, West Babcock, and Middle Babcock.
Debra Van Winegarden/Special to the Herald

Climb 400 feet up Madden’s broad and pleasurable southern back on well-seated stone blocks and plates. The mountain is extraordinary for its unbroken simplicity which serves to highlight the immense span of yawning space beyond the range.

Star Peak, 11,761 feetDrop over 500 feet to the Madden-Star saddle. I especially favor the flattish rocks on Star’s south incline that sound like plates breaking underfoot. Crest the roller at 3.5 miles. It is a curiosity that Star is singled out and named, for there are three additional numbered prominences, two higher, between it and Gibbs.

Gibbs Peak, 12,286 feetThe finest span of ridgeline is between Star and Gibbs. Drop an inconsequential 40 feet and then climb the south slope of Point 11,870’. Pause and locate Lone Cone on the horizon, the westernmost peak in the San Juan Mountains.

The scree on the north side of Point 11,870’ makes a delightful tinkling melody. Approaching Point 11,931’, the highest roller, transition from grass and climb the rocky knob.

Hikers gather on Gibbs Peak after 4,850 feet of climbing. The northern terminus of the traverse, Gibbs is the highest and most difficult of the ascents.
Courtesy of Thomas Holt Ward

The spine constricts just enough to be exhilarating. Soon, a cliff bars further passage along the divide. Move west then scramble up skittish and rotten rock to regain the ridge. There is mild exposure on the sliding scree.

The summit ridge is glorious. It is wide enough to provide security and beaten down from use. Crest Gibbs Peak, the highest and most difficult mountain on the hike at 5.4 miles after a whopping 4,850 feet of vertical gain. Look south to review the entire traverse. Heart-stopping drama is provided by the northern backdrop of severe and imposing peaks.

Madden Creek Trail Work carefully down the east ridge of Gibbs searching out dependable holds amongst the “Gibby crumbles” while being mindful of the exposure. After 150 feet, the grade eases and a social trail develops.

Stay on the spine until you intersect an old mining track 0.3 mile off the top at 11,780 feet and turn left. Be sure to nail this useful trail. It does one switchback and then spills out onto Gibbs Road. Turn right. Ignore branches to the right and left, staying on the main road.

At 7.1 miles, 10,700 feet, our route leaves Gibbs Road at a hard right turn. The secondary rocky track bears northwest and then turns south. Pass though a meadow, the abandoned road succumbing to dandelions and grass. At 8.0 miles, 9,920 feet, a glade of aspen is covered in historic arborglyphs. Make a left here onto the Madden Creek Trail.

The maintained dirt path descends through a forest of healthy and stately aspen. The trees make this trail an especially beautiful experience and a perfect finish. As you approach County Road 124, turn around to locate a trailside arborglyph. She is the namesake of this “Naked Lady Trail.”


Because of the strenuous nature of this hike some readers may prefer to enjoy it vicariously from home. For descriptions of additional lateral routes and bailouts please consult:

Travel basics

Travel: A 1.5 mile shuttle is required. From the U.S. 160/550 intersection in Durango, travel 11 miles west to Hesperus. Turn north on La Plata Canyon Road, County Road 124. The hike begins at Snowslide Gulch, 5.3 miles from the highway. There is a large parking pullout on the east side of the road. A no camping sign by a large boulder marks the spot. Drop the shuttle vehicle just north of signed Madden Creek, 6.8 miles from U.S. Highway 160.

Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.0 miles; 4,900 feet of climbing

Time: 6½ to 8½ hours

Difficulty: Mostly off-trail; navigation challenging; steep slopes; mild exposure and garbage rock on the south and east ridges of Gibbs Peak.

Maps: Hesperus; La Plata, CO 7.5’ Quads or Apogee Mapping