An iconic, ridge-lover’s fantasy, The Catwalk is an 0.4-mile-long knife ridge located north of the Cinnamon Pass Road, east of Animas Forks. The constriction links Animas Forks Mountain and Point 13,708’. The pinch was named by locals in Durango on their first traipse across the spine.
This classic, off-trail loop incorporates the best of Colorado in just five miles without the usual massive elevation gain. Climb three mountaintops and traverse three distinctive ridges, including the airy Catwalk. Most of the hike is highly elevated above 13,000 feet, affording spectacular views in every direction. A small scare factor adds excitement. The hike finishes with a gentle descent through the tundra.
The standard loop route rotates clockwise from the parking pullout at 11,760 feet. Walk up the road a few paces and find a good place to penetrate the green slope on the left.
The initial climb between the road and the first prominence is the most physically challenging part of the day. In just over a mile, gain 1,944 feet. Climb northwest on footstep-size tundra platforms. Gain the south ridge at about 12,550 feet.
Tundra concedes to talus at 13,100 feet. From here on, the hike is enveloped in a world of stone. There’s nothing tricky and no serious scrambling. There are mesmerizing views of the Weminuche Wilderness throughout the circuit. Stare at these whacky spikes all day and the puzzle remains disassembled and the wonder undiminished.
At 1.13 miles, reach Point 13,704’, and garner your first glimpse of The Catwalk. Relish the bumpy, playful ridge running east to Animas Forks Mountain, elevation 13,722 feet – a ranked summit. This highpoint is not named on any map so locals gave it a place-appropriate moniker.
When the soil is moist, the north ridge plunge is soft and effortless. When dry, gravelly ball bearings slide off resistant soil and the descent can become difficult. Drop to the southern end of The Catwalk at 1.4 mile.
The star of the show is a topographical squeeze. It is such an obvious feature on the Handies Peak quadrangle, I’m not sure how it remained in obscurity for so long. Actually, except for a handful of friends in Durango, this stellar circuit is largely undiscovered.
The first half of the knife ridge is the narrowest. Expect to put a hand down for stability. Those who love a constricted pinch will find the traverse pure joy. If you are at all afraid of heights, avoid what some have nicknamed The Spine of Death.
There are a few fairly level, built-in sidewalk segments. The taper widens to offer options, some daring, others tame. The Catwalk is as playful as you make it. To traverse across the thinnest slice of earth is a rare privilege.
At 1.9 miles, reach Point 13,708’, the second legal summit. Not every point numbered on topographical maps is ranked peaks. In Colorado, there is a consensus that for a summit to be legal, it has to rise at least 300 vertical feet above the low point between it and the next ranked peak.
Drop off the crest on your eastward way. In this unlikely place, stumble on a social trail on the south side of the ridge. Trust the track to lead directly to the saddle, elevation 13,300 feet, at 2.4 miles.
The divide leading to Wood Mountain is the most visually appealing of the loop. Rock is drenched in deep earth cinnamon, paprika and rufous. Brilliant strings of sawtooth sentinels warn of desire mixed too intimately with danger. Eschew the trail and cling to the ridge as it mounts to a subsidiary overlook.
The final ridgecrest is a rapturous thrill but not harrowing. Erosive forces, as artistic as any sculptor’s knife, have sheered off the north face to reveal the interior characteristics of the mountain’s heart. Summit Wood Mountain, elevation 13,650 feet, the third peak on the loop, is at 2.8 miles.
Looking north, off the Alpine Loop, are two fourteeners: Wetterhorn Peak, 14,015 feet; and mighty, incomparable Uncompahgre Peak, 14,309 feet.
Turning south, Handies Peak, elevation 14,048 feet, is literally within walking distance. Cinnamon Pass is just beyond our final ridge goal, Point 13,122’. Do a gravel glissade down the southeast slopes. Watch for big chunks of quartz crystals. Walk out to the dark knob at the end of the ridge. Retreat a few steps and then glide southwest down the tundra, alongside Cinnamon Creek.
Parry’s primrose drink directly from the stream, marsh marigolds bloom where snow melted 15 minutes ago, purple candytuft carpet the turf, and the alp lily charms according to its sweet nature. This hike could not be more perfect.