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.
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.
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.
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.
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: debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com.