The beautifully engineered Sharkstooth Trail is a section of the Historic Highline Loop. It was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1979 because of its extraordinary scenic value. Traverse high basin country spanning two passes nearly identical in height. Peaceful and easy, this trail of solitude is surrounded by luxuriant, shoulder-high wildflowers and Engelmann spruce. Luscious water is everywhere, with little waterfalls above and rivulets to hop across.
Kennebec Pass Trailhead, elevation 11,600 feet, is located at the head of La Plata Canyon and near the northern terminus of the La Plata Range. The Colorado Trail, having just traversed Indian Trail Ridge, passes through the parking lot on its way to trail’s end in Durango.
Walk west on the Colorado Trail, which holds the contour to Taylor Lake. Mid-summer, corn husk lily, little sunflower, delphinium and osha are tall bloomers. American bistort, rosy paintbrush and Coulter’s erigeron are bountiful.
At 1.2 miles, there is a well-signed junction. Leave the Colorado Trail and take the left branch onto the Sharkstooth Trail. It is a few steps further to oft-visited Taylor Lake.
Walking south is an ever-evolving vista of the La Plata Mountains. At 2 miles, the trail switchbacks and starts uphill while swinging west around the southern end of Indian Trail Ridge.
Beside the trail, a historic sign warns of unstable rock. And yet everything is in its place on this remarkable treadway, a testament to the heyday of trail building. It maintains a dirt surface as it threads through a substantial talus field, home to pikas. Whipple’s penstemon and fireweed grow in stone cracks. Informally named Bear Creek Pass is tucked in a grassy, flowery hillside.
Surmount the pass at 2.5 miles, elevation 11,920 feet. It is on the divide between La Plata Canyon and Bear Creek Basin. Seen to the west is our goal, Sharkstooth Pass, a mere 16 feet higher. The mountains at skyline are Mount Moss, Lavender Peak, Hesperus Mountain, Centennial Peak and Sharkstooth Peak. Switchback into the basin on an impeccable trail with stones piled up on either side. At the base of the talus passage, the trail turns southwest, descending to 11,000 feet.
In spite of all the markers, it is easy to lose sight of the trail in the basin. When it disappears, scrounge around for it in the foliage. Blazes carved long ago and large cairns lead the way.
The basin is lush with water everywhere; we counted 17 stream crossings. Pass left of two tarns on a suspended bench. The trail occasionally goes through spongy bogs. Cascades tumble over walls. Thirsty monkshood grows beside brooks; arrowleaf senecio is in full flower.
The path initiates an uphill grade at 4.2 miles. It crosses a burbling stream hidden under rock and elegantly cuts through talus run-out zones. Bear Creek Trail joins from the right. We saw an exotic amanita mushroom at this junction. Plow through another humongous boulder field on carefully laid stones reminiscent of a patio. In August, arctic and alpine gentian bloom beside the path.
The headwall climb initiates at 11,450 feet. Switchbacks mitigate the incline through flower heaven, the slope covered in columbine. I can’t think of another pass with a trail this smooth and a climb this easy.
Arrive on Sharkstooth Pass after 6.2 miles. A weathered sign lists the official elevation as 11,936 feet. Passes always reveal a whole new world, and Hesperus Mountain dominates the window to the west.
Two mountains tempt from the saddle. Centennial Peak is but 0.8 mile away to the south, adding 1,126 feet of vertical. The climb is pleasant and straightforward but a rugged contrast with the hike thus far. A shorter add-on is Sharkstooth Peak. It is only 0.4 mile with 526 feet of elevation gain. However, the mountain is deceiving, even dangerous. Rock is at the angle of repose and large talus tends to get rolling underfoot, pummeling climbers.
Returning, marmots scamper in rock piles. Deer forage in the woods. One August I saw a herd of elk 100 strong in Bear Creek Basin. Regain the pass and the familiar eastern block of the La Plata Range takes over.
Beyond Taylor Lake, repeat the pleasurable traverse through the wonderland of flowers. If you have energy left to burn, once back at the trailhead, Cumberland Mountain is a short climb away. Or, walk up the four-wheel-drive track to The Notch.
http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.