Before writing this column, I checked in with Betsy Petersen. She has been climbing McMillan Peak near Red Mountain Pass on various routes for 20 years and has introduced the mountain to more than 200 people while leading annual excursions for Durango’s hiking club, Seniors Outdoors! Betsy took a small COVID-19 bubble of friends up McMillan this summer at age 84. For Betsy, McMillan Peak is a treasure that deserves to be shared and enjoyed by young and old alike.
For those who have hiked but have never summited a mountain, McMillan is an excellent place to start, according to Betsy. The climb is a half day ramble up immense spans of unfettered tundra to a spacious summit with an enthralling 360 degree panorama. If you can’t tear yourself away from the wonder, make it a two-peak day by scampering up neighboring Ohio Peak.
U S Basin to McMillan Peak, 12,804’The hike begins at tree limit where healthy spruce stands concede to the alpine. From the parking pullout, elevation 11,760 feet, walk up the road a few paces to intersect an old trail running up into U S Basin. If you can’t find it, no worries. This is free-range hiking at its best. Just favor the south side of the basin, staying clear of willow patches. Cross the Big Horn Gulch headwater stream at half a mile.
The basin is famous for its wildflowers mid-summer. When we visited in August, multitudes of domestic sheep were munching the flowers as if they were ice cream, and few remained. In autumn, direct your attention to spent seed pods and leaves – beet-red fireweed, crimson geranium, and scarlet alpine avens.
The navigation objective is simple. Visually locate the low point in the north-south running ridge while ascending southeast. Gain the divide in just under a mile at about 12,360 feet. A well-trodden social trail flanks Point 12,652’ on the west. I prefer to stay right on the ridge top because the view from the roller is spectacular. Let your eyes sweep vertically from Silverton to the Grenadier Range. Plot your route to McMillan Peak, discernible by the microwave repeater on its summit. A friend in telecommunications said the repeater reflected signals for long distance phone calls back in the landline days. A trail works down through a rock band on the north side of the point.
The climbing is a little steep for the last 200 feet to a secondary crest. The slightly higher summit is a few more paces east at 1.7 miles. Sprawl out and play the age-old, name-the-peak game. Start with the astounding array of thirteeners to the west of U.S. Highway 550 and see if you can locate Grizzly Peak and Golden Horn. Find the serious four-wheel drive tracks winding up into Porphyry Basin and over Black Bear Pass. Continuing clockwise, the fourteener Mount Sneffels looks like a dark triangle. The three Red Mountains showcase their everlasting brilliant display. The eastward drop to Cement Creek is abrupt. Gladstone is the Gold King Mine reclamation site on the canyon floor, and Handies Peak is the flat topped behemoth on the horizon.
North Loop ReturnThe most direct route back to the starting point begins with a descent on the north ridge of the subsidiary summit. A helpful trail will get you started. At about elevation 12,600 feet, leave the track and curve west and then southwest back into U S Basin, keeping an eye on your vehicle. The only obstacles on the relaxing descent are willow patches. From above, plot a course that weaves around and through the restraining foliage. Cross the creek in the center of the basin and rejoin the trail.
South Loop ReturnThe South Loop provides adventuresome rock play. Return to the saddle at the head of U S Basin and continue south for 0.3 mile to the westward ridge that rims the bowl on the south. Go right up the face of Point 12,596’, a short, moderately steep climb. There’s a little slot in the rock band you can squeeze through.
Scramble down a rocky spine (or go around), run out the ridge to County Road 14 and turn right. At first, the road is pointed west instead of toward the vehicles, but it soon cranks around in the right direction. The road segment is 0.4 mile with 50 feet of uphill.
Ohio Peak, 12,673’ It is only a mile from the saddle at the head of the basin to Ohio Peak, but the climb requires some light scrambling and exposure tolerance. Pass the South Loop option and locate a cairned social trail traversing west of two small knolls. Head the defile at the top of Minnesota Gulch and then descend on sheep trails to the base of Ohio’s north ridge. A miner’s shack constructed with sheet metal and wooden planks stands in the saddle, 400 feet below the summit.
A short escarpment on the north ridge presents the toughest obstacle of the hike. There are several braided trails west of the cliff with resistant soil that pitch steeply. Return to the ridge line at first opportunity. From there, it is a mellow, rocky ascent up and over a false summit to the peak. The soft red dome at the south end of the divide is Anvil Mountain. Silverton is nestled below Anvil’s formidable south slopes. The fastest return route is through U S Basin.
After publishing nearly 80 hiking columns for The Durango Herald over six years, this summer I’ve been admonished for (inadvertently) sharing secret places with the public. Some readers believe these articles are to blame for the exponential growth in backcountry visitors. I take your concerns seriously.
My intention from the beginning has been to share the joy of walking in nature, not to generate sorrow or distress. From conversations on the street, I’ve learned the majority of readers are not hikers; they read to learn about the wild corners in our backyard. Those who do hike find solace and renewal in what’s proved to be a rough summer for all of us. Therefore, rather than giving up the column completely, my concession is to close the season early with this story about McMillan Peak.
Next summer, I will be even more judicious and simply feature classic mountains nearby and Mount Elbert, Colorado’s tallest summit.
http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.