There must be something extra special, even magical about Colorado’s 54 peaks above 14,000 feet. They sure do command the attention of admiring throngs. Two of the popular giants are relatively close to Durango: Redcloud Peak, 14,034 feet, and Sunshine Peak, 14,001 feet. Hike 12 miles on an excellent trail and climb 4,800 vertical feet and you’ve got two fourteeners in the bag.
Redcloud and Sunshine are connected by a high, smooth ridge. Completing the curvilinear divide is Point 13,432’, unofficially named Sundog. The most delightful of the three mountains, Sundog is often neglected because of an accident of altitude. Falling shy of 14,000 feet, this ignored treasure has fallen prey to the fourteener shadow effect. As Pythagoras said almost 2,600 years ago, “Everything is number.”
Experienced hikers can turn the standard out-and-back into a circuit by adding Sundog, ranked No. 300 among Colorado’s peaks. The distance is shorter but the route is off-trail and the terrain somewhat demanding with light scrambling on a steep ridge.
Redcloud and SunshineIt is imperative wilderness practice to begin this long hike early to minimize exposure to dangerous weather. From Silver Creek Trailhead, elevation 10,400 feet, gently ascend northeast through a mature aspen and conifer forest on a soft trodden trail busy with people. In 1.7 miles, the South Fork of Silver Creek comes in on the right. This is where our three-peak tour meets back up with the main track at the end of the circuit. Upon emerging from the woods, Silver Creek remains on hiker’s right while the track bends around the billowing skirts of Redcloud.
The trail hooks southeast through tundra to a pass, elevation 13,020 feet. It will take about two hours to cover the first 3.5 miles while gaining 2,620 feet. Redcloud is an hour away with roughly 1,000 feet of climbing remaining in the next mile.
The footpath switches steeply up the north slopes of Redcloud. The grade decreases when the trail turns south to take a direct ridgecrest shot at the carmine cloud house.
From the weathered cone, the panoramic sweep encompasses fourteeners to be described in this column in summers to come including Mount Sneffels, Wetterhorn Peak and Uncompahgre Peak. Hikers on the summit of Handies Peak are visible with the naked eye.
Sunshine Peak resides 1.5 miles south. The trail mimics the tight turns of a skilled slalom skier while losing 500 feet to the saddle. Topping out at 14,001 feet, Sunshine just makes the cut; it is the lowest of Colorado’s fourteeners. Climbing two fourteeners in one day is a celebratory accomplishment. The overwhelmingly popular choice is to turn around at Sunshine, returning as you came, climbing Redcloud once again.
SundogHikers who enjoy scrambling off-trail are encouraged to venture on to Sundog. Retrace your steps 250 vertical feet to a cairn marking the junction with an old rocky trail that switches down the west slopes of Sunshine into the upper reaches of the South Fork Basin. Do not return to the Sunshine-Redcloud saddle; the trail west from there is closed.
Pitch down to 13,300 feet, leave the trail and continue westward to the broad ridge between Sunshine and Sundog. Walk down the divide to Saddle 13,100’. It takes about 25 minutes to reach the crest from there.
The initial climb up Sundog’s backbone is steep with three sections of scrambling. Go straight up the secure grey rock, avoiding the blood-red stone. Soon the ridge levels out but gets a bit narrow. Sundog has several false crests and, while the summit block looks sinister, it presents little trouble.
To complete the loop, follow an intermittent social trail down the north ridge. Portions are loose and rocky. At about 11,600 feet, leave the ridge, turning right to descend roughly 100 feet to the creek. Things are a little tangled up and messy in the drainage, but cross it and find the trail that leads to the confluence of the South Fork and Silver Creek. Cross Silver Creek and go up a short incline to connect with the main trail. Turn left for a fast walk back to the trailhead.
http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.