“Eastward the dawn rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into guess; it was no more than a glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of the memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.” – J.R.R. Tolkien
Enabling the movement of animals and people on foot through the ages, Indian Trail Ridge is the great alpine connector, linking the San Juan Mountains with the La Plata Range. Some landscape features are so inviting that the attraction is irresistible and a trail is inevitable.
Walking along this timeworn path has never been easier now that the Colorado Trail makes a linear dash across the length of the ridge. Our journey begins in the La Plata Mountains at the Kennebec Pass Trailhead and follows the immaculate Colorado Trail for 5.7 miles to the Grindstone Trail. Because this is an out-and-back route, turn around at any time. Finish with an optional loop through the “Boulder Ridge Playground” at the southern terminus of the ridge.
A tangle of four-wheel-drive roads and trails pin-wheels off from the Kennebec Pass trailhead at 11,600 feet. Take a moment to be certain you are heading west on the Colorado Trail toward Taylor Lake. The lake, a popular destination, is a relatively flat 1.2 miles away on a groomed expressway of a trail.
Round the first corner and Diorite Peak appears on the left. The southern end of Indian Trail Ridge cradles the lake platform. Approaching the lake, the trail splits at a wooden sign. Turn right, staying on the Colorado Trail.
Skirt the north side of the lake and begin a 0.6-mile, 520-foot climb up the east-facing stone wall to gain the ridge. Don’t be discouraged by this initial effort. The lake quickly recedes, while the east massif of the La Platas rises to steal the show.
Upon reaching the ridge, the trail turns abruptly right/north and passes over Point 12,258. It is simple and a great pleasure to leave the trail briefly to experience the next four prominences as indicated on the map. The 2,620 feet of elevation are gained by touching these ridge crests while traveling north and staying on the trail for the return. The ridge is studded with stone boys, massive cairns, but even without them, it would be impossible to get lost on the restricted divide.
Cross a squeeze on the way to Point 12,338, the loftiest rise of the day. The Lone Cone to Lizard Head view wedge is but a small slice of the horizon’s unfettered circle. The highpoint affords a unique perspective on the west massif of the La Plata Mountains. The arc swings from Diorite Peak to Sharkstooth Peak. Banded Hesperus Mountain, elevation 13,232 feet, is the tallest eminence in the range.
The diversity and abundance of wildflowers are as big and bold as the continuous panorama. The flora on this hike are so rich, 90 percent of Colorado’s wildflower inventory is in bloom. Point 12,078 is where old-man-of-the-mountain (alpine sunflower) grows in absurdly opulent conditions. He keeps house with aromatic phlox, tasty geyer onion and mountain parsley, his feminine companion, rosy paintbrush, and chiming bluebells. Osho must have been standing right here when he wrote, “It is simply unbelievable how happy flowers are.”
Beside the trail, horizontal slabs of stone are strewn about. Linger among a stretch of rocks scattered carelessly like piles of books. The floral arrangement in early summer is arnica mollis.
Miles slide by in such a hurry on the Colorado Trail. All the while, the San Juan Mountains draw dramatically closer. Engineer Mountain dominates the earthline across the Hermosa Creek rift.
In a breeze, the sign for the Grindstone Trail appears. While our hike turns around here, there are options. The Colorado Trail continues north and just keeps on going all the way to Denver. For the Highline Loop, take the Grindstone west to abut the Bear Creek Trail, then south to reach the Sharkstooth Trail, then east to Taylor Lake and Kennebec Pass, for a total of 21 miles (not a mere 17, as the sign at the lake indicates). The Highline Loop was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1979 because of its extraordinary scenic value.
To walk south toward home is to walk into the fold of the La Plata Mountains. To be a La Plata devotee, cypher and memorize the names of the peaks marching through the viewfinder.
Be on the lookout for the place where the upcoming trail joins the ridge. If you’ve had enough, simply turn left/east and return to the Kennebec Pass trailhead. If you are game for a frolicsome adventure, by all means pass through Boulder Ridge Playground. Leave the trail on the east side of a willow patch, drop to the saddle at 12,080 feet and continue south.
Hop along on stepping stones with resistant, crystalline veins. Cross a swath of boulders then climb gently for 170 vertical feet to the final roll of the ridge at 12,250 feet. Pass two towers topping the point. Where the ridge splits, descend the southeast rib.
Enormous boulders teeter-totter underfoot. Scramble and clamber down through the stone slabs to the runout of Indian Trail Ridge. Intersect the Sharkstooth Trail at 11,600 feet. Turn left/north and walk 0.5 mile, passing Taylor Lake to link back with the morning’s incoming trail. Turn right/east and retrace your steps 1.2 miles to the Kennebec Pass Trailhead.
In 2014, I did this hike with a sizable group of friends, and we frightened off the fauna. On a solitary trek, I witnessed ravens, swallows at speed, tiny tweety birds foraging on snow patches, a curious ermine, marmots, mountain lion tracks imprinted in the muddy trail, deer and large herds of elk in both the Hermosa Creek and Bear Creek drainages.