Backstory: I’ve had uncharacteristic altitude sickness problems upon my last two Colorado trips, so this time I was pulling out all the stops to solve this problem and make sure that didn’t happen, including an insane pre-hydration regimin, Oxygen bottle.
Day A: We (my adult son and I) drove from home (Manhattan, KS) to Colorado Springs. We (and 1,000,000 others) had a nice leisurely hike on the Barr Trail to the top of the Incline (around 9,000 ft) and went down. We enjoyed flights at Cerberus brewery, had dinner with old family friends who were my “2nd Mom and Dad” growing up (they are elderly now), and camped for the night at a lovely private CG with showers near Cheyenne Mountain. We’re sleeping at about 6,500 ft.
Day B: We had a lovely breakfast at Coyote Coffee Canyon in Penrose (highly recommended), and drove to the trailhead for St. Charles Peak in the Wet Mountains. It’s about 4.5 miles and nearly 3,000 ft to the summit (about 11,700), so this was a great acclimation hike. We spent the rest of the afternoon in Westcliffe and make our way to the Music Pass (Grape Creek) trailhead,. We slept at about 9,000. That’s two carefully-planned days of climb high, sleep low before we being our BP.
Day 1: ca. 7 miles, ca. 2,500 ft. gain.
We came about as close as everyone can come to a perfect day. We hiked along the road up to the 4WD trailhead, then paced a short trail to Music Pass, where we soaked in the first of many amazing vistas during this trip. We dropped toward the Sand Creek Valley floor. As I was feeling good, altitude-wise, we decided to eschew the crowds and continue up-valley trail, making our camp just below the headwall below the top level of Sand Creek basin. This is my fourth visit to the Sand Creek. It’s a very popular location, and there will always be company, partners, but everyone tends to camp at the two lakes or on the valley floor within the lush meadows. If you go down Sand Creek a little, or (as we did), continue past the spur trail to the upper lake within the main valley, solitude is very likely to happen. (It is assured if you drop further down Sand Creek.)
We were able to make camp before the mild storm came up, which we both napped through. We wandered up to the upper lake in the early evening(about 1.5 miles away), in light rain, which stopped when we were by the lake.
Day 2: ca. 6 miles, 2,700 ft. gain
Today is the big day we crossed uber-exposed Milwaukee pass at about 13,500. We started at about 7:30 under clear skies with a chilly breeze. The route took us into the upper basin of Sand Creek, which is the Sand Creek/S. Colony saddle has jaw-dropping views of Crestone Needle and the S. Colony basin. From there, the trail to Milwaukee Pass is one of the most dramatic and airy trails ofColorado. It begins by switch backing improbably up a super steep slope, crossing a notch to the west side of the ridge, then traversing to the pass that is really just a notch below the summit of Milwaukee. (The NPS calls this Cottonwood Pass.) We made the pass at about 10:30, which allowed for a fairly leisurely down slope over the abandoned but still evident route down to upper Cottonwood Creek basin.
I think one would find solitude here pretty-much on any day of the year. As you descend toward the trees, the basin floor becomes quite brushy and soggy (unpleasant experience), and the old trail disappeared entirely until a few miles down-valley, but there were some nice camps (with dry ground, if you are lucky) right at the treeline at about 11,800 which is below the impressive summit of Pico Aislado. We planned to visit a lake just a little ways down-valley after making camp and resting, but the storm finally came up at about 5:00 and thwarted that plan. The biggest barrier of the trip was cleared, and still no altitude sickness.
Looking Back Down Sand Creek
The Critical Turn on the Trail to Milwaukee Pass
Camp in Upper Cottonwood Creek Basin
Day 3: ca. 5 miles (all off-trail), ca. 1,800 ft. gain.
It was more socked in and windy as we hiked across the brushy, wet basin floor toward the Crestolita/Broken Hand saddle. Once we clear the brush and start up the grassy ramp system, hiking became more pleasant. The crux move is where you shift from an east-to-west traverse to a steep grassy ramp that leads almost straight north to the upper basin under Crestolita and Broken Hand. With careful route finding, you can limit this to one or two class-three moves. From the upper bowl, it’s a relatively more gentle climbing to the saddle with it’s million-dollar view of Crestone Needle, which was unfortunately still almost completely socked in. Our plan was to traverse from here (ca. 12,800) to Broken Hand Pass (about 12,900), but cliffs and spires forced us to go down to the valley floor and then follow the climbers path up from Cottonwood Lake to the pass.
This was the first part of the trip that was fresh to me. (I had climbed Broken Hand from the Crestolita/Broken Hand saddle before.) There was a well-built climbers’ path from Broken Hand Pass down to S. Colony Lakes, but it is pretty steep on scree and talus. This route is spectacular but difficult and dull with full packs. (It is usually traveled by climbers with summit packs hiking for the Crestones from S. Colony Lakes.)
We made camp at a well-used but lovely spot next to Lower S. Colony Lake, near treeline, at around noon. We enjoyed a few more hours of beautiful weather before it stormed intensely at around 3:30, followed by sun until around 6:30. We had dinner and headed up to the upper lake. The next wave of heavy rain began when we were leaving the upper lake. We hurried back to our camp, dove into the tent, and were never able to emerge again that evening. It rained prettty heavy much of the night.
The S. Colony basin is gorgeous: surrounded by 14ers, with Crestone Needle as the key attraction. Even the 4wd road now permanently closed then, it is only 5 easy miles from the trailhead, and you will not find solitude here ever but not in summer or fall, anyway. But there are lots of places to pitch your camping tent. In spite of always having company, I found a private nook of one of the side lakes near our camp to bathe both afternoons we stayed there. If you visit this area, please choose an established camp and practice Geertop: it has been loved to death over the years.
Descending Super Steep Route from Broken Hand Pass
Descending Super Steep Route from Broken Hand Pass
Broken Hand Pass
Crestone Needle from Campsite at South Colony Lake
Strange Light After the Storm