Some of the finest jewels in the natural world are innocently overlooked. This is surely true of Little Cone.
While it is located only 15 miles west of Telluride, its small stature of 11,981 feet and relative isolation have left it largely unknown to the local hiking community. It lives quietly in the shadow of dramatic Lone Cone, the westernmost outpost of the San Juan Mountains.
Visiting this peak in autumn will immerse you in a yellow aspen forest lit from within. Emerging in the final moments from the forest, a fun scramble reveals its exposed linear crest and surprising position amongst the surrounding giants.
There is no route information to be found and the area offers only limited public access. We spent an entire day on our first attempt just driving the many dirt roads looking for a place to start the hike. More time was spent wandering into fences trying to find a way around all the private holdings.
On our second trip, we discovered how to access the peak legally on a pleasant trail suitable for all hikers. The final approach is off-trail but even then the mountain is accessible.
From the Hughes Ditch trailhead at 9,500 feet, go around the gate and walk northwesterly on a service road on the east side of the ditch. Follow this track through a thick conifer forest with generous interludes of aspen. Keep your eye out for the slim opening through which you can see the south ridge route to Little Cone.
Farther along, an unobstructed view of the San Miguel Mountains opens. The fourteeners El Diente Peak, Mount Wilson, and Wilson Peak will be visible for most of the hike.
At 1.8 miles, the road is blocked by a gate posted private property, no trespassing. Retreat about 75 feet and cross the ditch on stones. Go up the embankment and onto a trail. Equestrian travel keeps this path viable. While the trail is not indicated on maps, it appears to be maintained. Deadfall was freshly cut and cleared.
Climb through a spruce and aspen mix. In 2.2 miles, the trail encounters a grassy slope and disappears. We got good and lost here the first time, so we named this Maze Meadow. Locate the trail as it reappears kitty-corner on the other side of the clearing by walking northwest in a diagonally rising traverse. Aim for the place where the tree crowns take a dip. Rejoin the trail in just a tenth of a mile.
The path continues northwest before turning briefly southwest. It comes close to a fence line at 2.6 miles and turns west to skirt the fence. The grade steepens as the treadway dodges massive aspen. Snowberry and low forest plants echo the crowns of the trees and everything simply glows. This is grouse territory. They seem to favor the thin band of fir trees at 10,600 feet.
The footpath crosses several small clearings before emerging onto a large grassy slope. At 3.8 miles, 11,040 feet, spruce separate to create a spacious opening with a clear view of Dolores Peak and Middle Peak. This is the broad south ridge of Little Cone, our climbing route. Leave the trail and turn right/north into the woods.
Plow through trees and forest clutter. Reach a small steep talus field at 4.1 miles, 11,400 feet. Scamper up the short span of rock. Then enter a grove of scattered trees slightly west of the ridgecrest. Climbing is fast and easy.
At 11,600 feet, 4.2 miles, the ridge thins and the land constricts at an obvious lookout. The shy mountain finally shows itself. The approach is over. The summit ridge is strikingly beautiful. Ascend on large, stable climbing talus. Mount the stone stair steps that hover atop the curvilinear ridge. Stay near the mildly exposed edge for the greatest pleasure.
Crest the summit at 4.5 miles. It is long and flat. Walk 0.1 mile past multiple cairn edifices to the abrupt north edge. Lift your eyes above the mesmerizing variegated yellow sea, for this humble peak is graced with an astonishing vista.
I like to think that Little Cone and Lone Cone, just 10 miles west, have a mutual understanding. They share a unique location on the western edge of the San Juan Mountains and are of similar geological composition, extrusive igneous volcanics. Despite its conical appearance, Lone Cone is not a volcano, and neither is Little Cone.
Sweeping around you will see the Abajo Mountains, La Sal Mountains, Grand Mesa, West Elks, Mount Sneffels Wilderness, Sunshine Mountain, the Wilson group, and the Dolores Ridge dominating the south. Only in Colorado is there a horizon of infinite protrusions.
Descend the summit ridge as you came. Regain the incoming trail and turn left. Aspen leaves cling to spruce branches like ornaments. The young white-trunk aspen are lean and elegant, while the old ones are regal and dignified. Lower branches shed to leave delicate leaves quaking in the slightest breeze at the tastefully decorated crown.
Little Cone barely emerges from treeline, but it is mighty and beautiful just the same.