Cumberland Mountain is an accessible and friendly mountain and is a wonderful walk for hikers of all abilities – including out-of-town visitors.
Located west of Durango in the La Plata Mountains, Cumberland is visible from the Fort Lewis College Rim. The hike features ancient Engelmann spruce, a spectrum of superb wildflowers along the Colorado Trail and the spectacularly perched Muldoon Mine ruins.
You will need a vehicle with decent clearance and sturdy tires to reach the trailhead up beyond the Animas Overlook. Begin on the north side of the road and an elevation of 10,400 feet. On an excellent path, allow yourself to be wound up and around on gentle switchbacks through deep woodsy glades and luscious wildflowers. In consort with receding snow are a bounty of glacier lilies, goofy little flowers with their heads pointed down. Other common woodland flowers crowding the trail include: Jacob’s ladder, elderberry, native honeysuckle, golden banner, red columbine, and orange sneezeweed.
Groves of old-growth Engelmann spruce are the finest anywhere in the region. These pot-bellied specimens are easily 250 years old and may be positively ancient at 850 years. Giant elders rise to 200 feet in observance of visitors since the Middle Ages.
At 1.2 miles, emerge from the forest. Here, the Colorado Trail shares the trackway with the Sliderock Trail for 0.6 mile. In years past, this segment was thin, exposed and duly respected by local mountain bikers. It has been tamed by widening the treadway, but it is easy to see how it can be overrun by rocks peeling off the carmine columnar cliffs directly above. Green gentian and kittentails hang onto the ever-shifting slope.
At 1.8 miles – 11,740 feet – a post marks the junction with the Muldoon Mine trail. Turn left/south and travel on the historic mining track beneath the east face of Cumberland Mountain. After big winters, a snow sheet tends to linger in a gully between the junction and the mine. Crossing can be treacherous, and the safest option is usually to drop below the snow before regaining the track.
The mine ruins and relics are perched on a terrace dug into the mountain. The porch of the living quarters takes advantage of the drop-away view. The railroad track is interspersed with divinely fragrant phlox and snow buttercup while it clings to the precipitous edge. A bright yellow generator sits just inside the door of the workshop. A two-seater outhouse lists precariously over oblivion.
From the mine at 2.1 miles – elevation 11,820 feet – climb the broad and open east ridge to Cumberland’s summit. There is no trail; just stay on the ridgecrest. The ascent yields startling and revealing views of Lewis Mountain. What appears to be a hulking eminence when seen from Durango is actually an almost 3-mile curved knife edge.
Crest Cumberland Mountain – elevation 12,388 feet – after 2.4 miles and 2,150 feet of climbing. The panorama from the top affords an unmatched perspective on the neighboring peaks in the La Plata range. Flung all over the crest are dwarf phlox, dusty maiden, snowball and dotted saxifrage, sky pilot, purple fringe and old man of the mountain.
Descend the northwest ridge on a social trail trampled into scree and dirt. Our route hooks back shy of the Kennebec Pass Trailhead but it would be a simple diversion to walk there. Typically, four-wheel drive vehicles are parked at the terminus of the La Plata Canyon Road.
As the ridge dissipates, cut north to rejoin the Colorado Trail at 2.9 miles. Turn right/east and stroll 0.3 mile to Kennebec Pass. In mid-summer, wildflowers along this segment are dazzling. The tundra is covered with hybridized Indian paintbrush of variegated hues, and there are big splotches of the uncommon frilly pink queen’s crown coupled with deep dark king’s crown. The marshy area is choked with laughter-inducing marsh marigolds, and beside the streamlet are odd-ball magenta Parry’s primrose. The grand display will be prize-winning all summer long given our copious spring moisture.
At 11,750 feet, the pass is the low point between Cumberland Mountain and Peak 12,101. If you are running low on time or weather threatens, simply follow the incoming route back to your vehicle.
Two years ago, this column featured Peak 12,101, informally named Kennebec Peak. Readers deserve to be reminded of this glorious, repeatable walk on a gently rising ridge to the northernmost point on the east massif with a see-forever San Juan Mountain vista.
To pursue this option, upon reaching the pass, turn left/north and begin the 15- to 30-minute, 0.7-mile, 350-foot climb to the summit. Follow a social trail west of the ridge through a brief, rocky section, returning shortly to the curve-top. Alternatively, scramble up the stone-jutting nose directly on the ridge. Be sure to continue a few paces past the summit to a stone bivouac. Look north across folds of green velvet and yawning space to the San Juan Arc extending from Lone Cone to Mountain View Crest.
Return to Kennebec Pass at 4.6 miles. It is a fast 2-mile trek back to the trailhead.
http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.