In Durango, Grizzly Peak has garnered a considerable mystique. As viewed from U.S. Highway 550 south of the Cascade bend, it appears somewhat dark and daunting. It may be seen for a fleeting moment in the center of a sky wedge which makes it all the more alluring. Standing on the tapered top is altogether surreal. It is like being inside a spinning kaleidoscope. Twirl yourself to see ridges rippling off in all directions and mountains flying by, each a jazzy splash of color.
Grizzly Peak is rightfully the object of many a quest. Some relish the challenge, some climb to strike a Colorado bicentennial off their list, and others seek beauty and renewal. The mountain is remote; the long and rugged drive dissuades. While a trail escorts you to “Grizzly Meadows,” a hanging glacial bench, from there you are on your own to find the way.
From the north end of the parking area, elevation 11,200 feet, walk on a well-defined spur for 0.1 mile and intersect the Colorado Trail. Note this unsigned junction for the return. Turn right (toward Denver!) and descend to a creek stained alabaster white from aluminum hydroxy-sulfate precipitate.
At 0.7 mile, leave the cross-state treadway, veering left (north) on an unmarked social trail. It makes a rising traverse and bends around the base of Point 12,695’ while crossing a rock glacier. Grizzly Peak comes into view, an opportunity to orient yourself to principle landscape features. Locate, most especially, the prominent pinnacle on the south ridge and the climbing couloir.
The trail tracks above Grizzly Meadows at 2.1 miles, but you may easily walk down to explore a myriad of ponds and a richly flowered and grassy turf. The wetlands are on a broad terrace with glacial erratics strewn about. The land falls away dramatically on the east into the Cascade Creek canyon. White Creek Falls plummets down the opposing wall. The contrast between peaceful pools and the hovering southwest ridge of dominant Rolling Mountain could not be more startling.
Several game trails spin off the main path as it plows up the scree field and disappears in the tundra. The next one mile to Grizzly’s south ridge is a crucial navigation challenge. I have tried many alternate routes. Following is the most pleasant.
First, visually locate the access couloir. Now, find the glacially polished moist slabs on the east-facing slope a couple hundred feet above you. You may dodge them on either side. The green ramp on the left works but it is considerably steeper than the boulder strewn slope to the right. That is where tundra euphoria is sure to infuse you with propellant.
Granitic boulders at the couloir’s entrance are solid and stable. I favor the northeast wall, but the entire gully is accepting. As the pitch increases, groups should guard against tumbling talus. Toward the top, material is smaller, and there are slick braids in the soil.
The couloir terminates on the south ridge at elevation 13,400 feet. Turn north for a relatively easy 0.3 mile ascent to the summit on a social trail. Tuck down amongst protective stone cubbyholes on the spherical crown.
Radiating colorful ridges splay from the summit toward vibrant, variegated neighboring mountains. Vermilion Peak, 13,894’, is the tallest and brightest, the definitive headwall of the Ice Lake Basin. San Miguel Peak is the hump-shouldered granite-scape 1.6 miles away to the north. Engineer Mountain appears to cap a wall of slabs on Grizzly’s southeast ridge. At last count, there were a dozen fourteeners visible from the summit.
South Ridge Descent RouteRetrace your steps through the couloir for the proven way home. Alternatively, the fun factor on the south ridge is extreme, an option for hikers experienced with Class 3 rock and mild exposure. Pass by the couloir entrance and proceed south. Scramble to the base of the free-standing minaret. Go around the spire on the east and return to the ridge. Bypass subsequent towering slabs on the west side.
Prior to reaching the saddle with Point 13,139’, at about elevation 13,040 feet, abandon the ridge and descend east through the basin. Work down through, or bypass, cliff bands keeping a bead on the largest lake in Grizzly Meadows. Watch for golden eagles soaring and weasels scampering.
Stay to the right of two large boulders at 12,160 feet. You can’t miss them; they are miniature replicas of Engineer Mountain. Intersect the upcoming route. From the trail above Grizzly Meadows it is less than an hour to the parking area, assuming you do not mistakenly continue on the Colorado Trail all the way to Durango.
http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.