RT Length: 11.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 5110’
I got a bit of a later start on this one that I’d intended, as when my alarm went off at 12:30am I hit snooze and slept another hour or so (I’d already summited 7 peaks in the past 2 days and was a little tired). I made it to the Hot Springs Trailhead after first being led by GPS to the Hot Springs (which the sign indicated clothing optional: it was also closed due to Covid-19 fears).
The drive to the trailhead is easy 2WD on a dirt road.
There was 1 other vehicle parked there when I got there, which I thought was odd. It was a newer VW and didn’t look like it had been there overnight. I tried to be quiet in case someone was sleeping in their car but thought to myself “Great! Someone else is trenching the trail for me!”
The trail is a loop, and I was surprised to find out it was actually an established trail. The morning was getting better and better!
Just as an FYI, you cannot see the peak from the parking lot, but it was dark so that didn’t matter anyway. I signed the trail register (which was difficult due to the cold temperatures and ballpoint pen available). I wanted to summit Cottonwood Peak first, so I took the trail clockwise, starting to the left
The trail starts off wandering through chaparral
Here the trail was clearly marked and easy to follow.
I rustled a sleeping ptarmigan as the trail switched to scrub oak
Once I entered the aspens the trail started to deteriorate. What I’d been pleased to discover was a good trail became a trail in much need of maintenance. I was navigating over fallen trees for the rest of the hike, and it became increasingly obvious no one had used this trail since the Fall and no one would be trenching for me today.
Around 2.4 miles there was a great spot for a campsite (10130’)
What I found disturbing were the number of dead animals I encountered on this hike. There were deer remains everywhere (I’m pretty sure it was more than one deer, spread out over a few miles) and a lot of bird feathers. It let me know there was a predator in the area, I just wasn’t sure which kind?
I encountered the first real snow after about 2.6 miles. It was still early in the morning so I didn’t need traction, but I did posthole from time to time. Here the trail was difficult to see, as it was both covered in fallen trees/branches and snow.
Here things got interesting: I came across bear tracks! They looked like they were from the day before, and since there was only one set of prints I knew it wasn’t a mama, and that it was just passing through. I followed prints along the trail for about a mile
Since the trail was difficult to follow and the snow was getting softer I found myself straddling the ravine and following the small stream around the mountain
It became increasingly apparent I was the only one to use this trail in a long time. I circled around to a gully, which would have been challenging if there’d been more snow. Instead it was a steady climb up, and when I had the option, I took the gully to the right, also easy to navigate
The second gully ended near treeline, and I became excited as I thought I could see the peak.
Of course in my mind I knew I was too close to treeline for that to be the peak, but surely it had to be just behind it? As I continued on I saw another peak behind the first one and figured that was the summit
Up, up, and up I continued, doing my best to avoid the snowy areas.
Imagine my surprise (and dismay) when I finally reached the top of the second peak and noticed I wasn’t anywhere near the summit: it was still quite far away
Not only was I still a good distance from the summit, but I would need my ice axe and snowshoes. Luckily, I had both. I sighed, broke down, and put them on. There was no way I was turning back now. The weather was great (the best day I’ve had all year) and while I’d already done 30 miles this weekend with 15K of elevation gain and was physically exhausted, I wasn’t quitting this close to the summit. I left my trekking pole here and continued on, ice axe in hand. The only way across the ridge was to walk directly on top of the cornices. Luckily the snow here seemed firm
The last bit to the summit was easier than expected
I summited at 9:30am
There was even a summit tag on top
This hike is traditionally done as a loop along with Unnamed 13123B, so I went over to get a good look at the route
Hmmmm…. The route didn’t look that difficult. Actually, the ridge looked better than the one I’d just traversed, but it was a really nice day and the snow was warming up fast. I knew I could summit 13123, but I was unsure of the snow conditions on the route back below treeline if I were to make this a loop. I didn’t want to re-summit Cottonwood because a) I’d already done 5000+ feet of elevation today and b) the snow was getting softer by the minute on this side as well.
In the end I decided to go with the safer route and descend the way I’d summited, figuring that while the conditions wouldn’t be ideal, at least I knew what to expect.
I turned and headed back the way I’d come, first over a pretty cool cornice
And then back down the ridge
My favorite part was toe-heeling it across the cornices
Here’s the route back
I decided to keep my snowshoes on, and this time stuck to the areas with snow.
The snow was a terrible mush and I was glad I’d decided to return the way I knew, even if it meant postholing and navigating felled trees
I kept my snowshoes on for longer than needed, but they came in helpful when I hit the boggy areas where there was no discernable trail but a lot of willows/snow/downed trees
They were cumbersome in areas such as this:
On the way back I scared the same ptarmigan as this morning and saw a cactus in bloom
I made it back to my truck at 12:30pm, making this an 11.5 mile hike with 5110’ of elevation gain in 7 hours, 15 minutes. The VW was gone.
I was really happy with my decision not to make this a loop today, and look forward to trying the trail counter-clockwise next time, when there’s less snow…