Hesperus Mountain marks the northern boundary of the traditional homeland of the Navajo. It is the Sacred Mountain of the North. Colorfully banded and the highest peak in the La Plata Range at 13,232 feet, Hesperus is the mountaineer’s dream.
There is no easy way to summit. All routes present navigational challenges and demanding climbs.
The allure prevails.
Hesperus must be climbed via its west ridge. I have explored four approaches successfully, one from the south and three from the north. Two reasonable northern routes follow, both beginning from the same trailhead.
From the parking area at 10,900 feet, go south toward Transfer Campground on West Mancos Trail No. 621. Eschew the heavily traveled Sharkstooth/Centennial Trail heading east. Walk across a bucolic, flower-filled, tree-rimmed meadow. From here, our mountain beckons in clear view.
In half a mile, cross the creek scurrying from the Sharkstooth/Centennial saddle on a thick log. Then span the Sliderock Basin drainage on a sturdy, five-log bridge. The streams join below the trail to form the North Fork of the West Mancos River. Plow through native honeysuckle and a delphinium forest seven-feet high. Arrowleaf senecio and mountain bluebells compete for sun in this flower fantasyland.
Take special note of the “Two Spruce Portal” at 0.85 mile. If the trail starts diving down, you missed it.
Just paces beyond the twin spruce at 10,800 feet, turn south/left on a social trail. In 2015, this wildcat path was almost obliterated by flora. The seldom-used route is helpful, but you are still going to do some thrashing until you break out of the woods. It won’t be elegant. Take heart, it is just one mile from here to the ridge with 1,500 feet of climbing. The route bears essentially south.
The social trail takes advantage of a gully and emerges at a small talus field. Cairns lead the way to a stand of conifers on a knoll. Get your bearings here, where you can see route options. The standard, Black-Line Route is obvious. It goes directly to the ridge up a shale slide.
Locate a grassy rib. Either climb the short pitch and walk on its top, or stay close to the base, connecting with the bottom of the slide. In mid-summer, this region is bejeweled by a range of columbine 500-feet long. Nowhere else are so many state flowers in one place.
It is steep and laborious scaling the soft, coal-like granules on the slide. You may wish to go for firmer territory on either side.
The Blue-Line Route provides a gentler approach, gaining the ridge just west of Point 11,891. It is a half-mile longer but almost as quick. From the conifer knoll, walk southwest through the trees and scale the green slope. Walk east on the ridgetop to meet the Black-Line Route.
Both approaches conclude at 12,300 feet. The summit climb is 932 vertical feet over half a mile and takes about 45 minutes. The ascent looks imposing, but this is the best segment of the journey. Hold to the north edge of the ridge, surmounting the rising stone staircase all the way to the crest.
If you prefer, a social trail leaves the ridge and makes for the south side of the mountain avoiding the cliff bands. You may use this trail but it is a side-hill nuisance until it rejoins the ridge proper at 13,000 feet. The ridge, on the other hand, leads the scrambler playfully up the mountain.
Begin climbing just left of the initial dark rock outcrop. Experience the alternating cliff-slope structure of the mountain while ascending through Mancos Shale to the base of the next cliff band. Hesperus is part of the La Plata Mountain laccolith. The dark layers are baked sediment, and the light layers are congealed magma or hornfels.
The second cliff presents a Class 3 scramble on good rock. Some slabs are not well anchored, so test all holds. This is the only pitch with exposure, assuming you stay away from the continuous, precipitous north edge. This crux can be bypassed safely 100 feet to the south.
The mountain rounds off to reward those whose perseverance and desire propels them past the many obstacles.
Hesperus Mountain is the heartbeat of the La Plata Range. It is the tallest eminence and is perfectly located for a comprehensive view.
Centennial Peak, 13,062 feet, is the red banded mountain northeast. Skilled climbers have traversed the ridge from Centennial to Lavender Peak and on to Hesperus. Southeast is the infamous Knife, a slice of stone connecting the three Babcocks and Spiller Peak.
On a clear day, you can see beyond the curve of the world into Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. You are standing on the Sacred Mountain of the North. The eastern cardinal point is Sierra Blanca Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range; in the south it is Mount Taylor in New Mexico; and in the west, Humphreys Peak near Flagstaff, Arizona.
Down-climb as you came. No matter which route you used to scale the mountain, the easiest, quickest, and most thrilling descent course is the shale glissade, the Black-Line Route. It is located at the base of the summit ridge, just east of a patch of orange rock at about 12,300 feet. Divert from the ridge to the north/right.
At the bottom of the escalator, walk down the run-out and then turn northeast, taking direct aim at the treed knoll. Sporadic cairns mark the route back to the trail. You should hit it just west of the Two Spruce Portal. Turn right. A 200 foot hill-climb takes you back to the trailhead.