Apache Peak – 13,450

RT Length:  13.66 miles

Elevation Gain:  4127’

I’m not a fan of the timed permit system, and once again, I was reminded why (feel free to scroll down to avoid the drama/whining, just be sure you have ALL the correct passes you need when you purchase online). 

The night before this hike I was able to secure a dropped permit.  I was looking up available permits on my phone, saw one for tomorrow, and snatched it up.  It was an overnight parking permit that started the day of the hike.  Usually I start hikes around 3-4am, and this permit started later, but at least I’d get into the park.  Since it was an overnight permit it would give me a long time to hike, and I figured I’d just end my hike later than normal.  With any luck, no one would be at the gate that early and I’d sail on by.

No such luck.  The attendant checked my paperwork and told me I had to wait until 8am to check in.  So, at 8am I was back at the gate, checking in.  The attendant looked at my overnight pass and asked me where I was spending the night?  I said I was just day hiking, but it was the only parking permit I could get.  She got upset with me, and told me I ‘stole’ this permit from someone else who already had an overnight camping permit, and I needed an overnight camping permit to use this pass. 

Wait, you need 2 separate permits to be here?  “Yes”, she replied, “sometimes 3, and you made it difficult for someone else to stay that already has one of the other two permits, which they needed to order moths ago.” 

I refrained from letting her know I’d picked up a permit at the last minute, so I hadn’t ‘stolen’ it, and how crazy it was to need multiple permits to hike in one area, and asked her what my options were?  She was ready for this question, as she gets it All. THE.  TIME.  In fact, she already had permits printed and marked up for this exact purpose.  The website verbiage creates a lot of inconsistencies, so most people she talked to had the ‘wrong’ permit when they arrived at the Brainard Lakes entrance.  The website also gives out passes with similar names to other parks (such as Maroon Bells), but the permit names mean different things to different parks.  She gave me a day permit and told me I needed to be out by 5pm.  This wasn’t ideal, but I was getting in, so I took it, thanked her, and was on my way. 

Once they let me in, I had to park in the specific lot they gave me a pass for.  I parked in the Long Lake parking area.  The parking spaces were further labeled according to pass (overnight versus day), and there were rangers stationed at the trailheads, checking permits on vehicles.  This means no parking at the Brainard Lake area if you have a Long Lake Trailhead permit.  Plan on hiking (not driving) if you want to see other areas of the park.

Ok.  Rant over. The weather was scheduled to be perfect today, and I was ready to hike!

I was on the trail at 8:15am.  The trail starts at the west end of the parking area. 

This is a well-marked, class 1 trail

After about a quarter mile of hiking I came to a junction and followed it to the right, following the Pawnee Pass Trail

At the next junction I once again went right

And continued following the class 1 trail

At the third junction I went left, following the Isabelle Glacier Trail

This part of the trail had me skirting the north side of Lake Isabelle

From here you have a good view of Navajo and Apache Peaks

I continued following the trail west

After hiking for 3.5 miles the trail headed south/southwest, through the willows. 

The trail here was muddy, and full of bugs.  I choked on a gnat.

After about 4 miles of hiking, I continued west.  Here’s a visual of how I made it to the last little lake (unnamed).  The rock crossing would be slippery if wet.

Here’s a visual of the route to the upper basin.  I skirted the lake to the right, crossed South St Vrain Creek, and ascended the scree into the upper basin.

Here are some step by step pictures.  The creek was flowing, but I was able to cross without getting my shoes wet.

I then headed south to the ridge

Once I reached the tundra, I followed it west into the basin

This is where I had a decision to make.  I’d initially wanted to hike both Navajo and Apache Peaks today, but since I now had time constraints, I didn’t think I’d have enough time to do both.  I’d wanted to start with Navajo and see the plane wreckage, then head over to Apache.  But I ‘needed’ Apache before Navajo (Apache is taller, and a tricentennial, so higher on my list of peaks I want to climb).  I decided to head over to the plane wreckage, then skirt the mountainside above the waterfalls and ascend Apache’s east ridge.  On the way down, I took a more direct route.  Here’s a visual of the loop.  The plane wreckage is circled in red.

I headed south to the plane wreckage.  

The C-47 went down on January 21, 1948.  It was en route from Denver to Grand Junction, and crashed during bad weather.  Most of the wreckage is up high on the Niwot Ridge (nicknamed “airplane gully”), but some of it can be seen in the basin as well.  This site is considered a historical aviation archeology site, so the wreckage cannot be removed.   

From the plane wreckage at around 12,200’ I headed southwest, aiming for the base of the snow

Once there I turned right and headed northeast on the scree.  I was aiming for the green patch of tundra.  When I hit that, I planed on turning and heading west to the ridge.

Getting to the tundra proved a little tricky.  There was a fun slab to maneuver (there were small cairns here, circled in red)

I then aimed for the greenery, and followed it to the ridge

This is choose your own adventure.  I followed the larger rocky areas up, and the scree down.

There was a wind shelter at the top of the ridge.

I turned right, and followed the ridge northwest to the summit of Apache.   This was a straightforward ridge hike on large shale.

I summited Apache Peak at 11:45am

Apache Peak:  

I left a summit register, and headed back down to the saddle.  I could see Navajo Peak to the southeast

Once back at the saddle I looked at the time.  I knew I didn’t have time to hike Navajo today, but I decided to follow the ridge for a bit and see what it (and Dicker’s Peck) looked like from the end of the ridge.  So, I continued following the ridge southeast.

I climbed to the top of both highpoints along the ridge, made friends with a crow, and got a good view of Dicker’s Peck.  It looks like it has a new anchor at the top.

I continued on to the edge of the ridge, got one final view of Navajo and Dicker’s Peck (the route is snow free from the ridge), and turned and headed back to the wind shelter.

I took a more direct route down this time, following the scree

I made it back to the rock slab, and navigated down.

I then followed the scree down the basin

Here’s looking back at my descent route

And some pictures of the route back to Lake Isabelle.  It looked like a trail crew was putting in a new trail on the north side of the creek here.

A look at Lake Isabelle.  The trail out goes to the left of the lake

From Lake Isabelle it was an easy, class 1 walk out

I made it back to the Long Lake parking area, where park employees were stationed, ready to check passes.

I hopped into my truck and turned on the air conditioner.  It was 4pm, making this a 13.66 mile hike with 4127’ of elevation gain in 8 hours.  I’ll be back, but I think I’ll wait until the timed entry system expires for the year…

Buckskin Benchmark – 13,370 and PT 13039

RT Length:  18 miles

Elevation Gain: 5800’

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  I’m NOT a fan of the permit system. Even though I was on their website exactly when permits were released, I wasn’t able to get an overnight permit for Maroon Bells on a date I could go, so I had to get three back-to-back permits instead.  When I pulled up at the gate my paperwork confused the attendant.  He didn’t know what type of a parking pass to give me, but settled on an overnight pass that expired in two days time.  He then asked me to park in the further lot, as the closer lot was intended for day use. 

I balked at this:  I’d wanted a 2 night pass, but because of the reservation system I couldn’t get one.  Instead, I paid 3 times what those who were able to score a longer permit were paying for the same amount of time in the park.  I felt if I was paying that much more, the least they could do was give me a better parking spot.  Also, while annoying, the main reason I don’t like the permit system isn’t because of stuff like this:  it’s because it encourages bad decision making among people who feel they need to hike/continue when dangerous because it’s difficult to get a permit, etc.  One of the reasons I left California in 2006 was because of the permit system, and all the fees associated with said system. I hate seeing it brought to Colorado.

Ok, rant over.  I was on the trail around 5:30pm.  It was my intention to camp around 11,000’ and start early the next morning.  For those of you who haven’t hiked the Maroon Bells area before, the trail is obvious:

I followed the trail west, staying right at the junction for Crater Lake

And continued up the hillside to my camping spot at 11,100’.  I was surprised no one else was camping here, as it’s the perfect spot. 

I’ll spare you the details of the next day’s hike, as I came back to this spot, spent the night, and started from here the next morning.  I’d gotten to bed early after a long day of hiking, and woke up to sunlight.  I looked at my phone and it showed 5:30!  Ack!  I initially thought I’d slept through my alarm, and started rolling up my sleeping bag.  About 30 seconds later I realized I’d only been sleeping about an hour, so I happily went back to bed and slept soundly until 3:30am the next morning. I left my new water filter bag inside my tent and was on my way.

I was on the trail by 3:45am, heading northeast along the well-defined trail through Minnehaha Gulch. I crossed a stream and continued along the trail, not really ‘feeling it’ today.  I was more tired than I should have been, and wasn’t feeling very motivated.

I followed the trail all the way to Buckskin Pass

Once at Buckskin Pass, I turned right and headed north towards Buckskin Benchmark

This was an easy, class 2 hike, mostly on tundra

Towards the top it got a little rocky, but stayed class 2.  I saw several ptarmigans here, and a few crows

Right about now the sun was starting to rise, along with my motivation. 

Here’s the last bit to the summit.  It stays class 2 if you keep left

I summited Buckskin Benchmark at 6am

Buckskin Benchmark: 

The benchmark

The views from up here were amazing!  My spirits lifted, I actually ate a snack, and headed back down to Buckskin Pass. 

On my way down I made some mountain goat friends (those are Snowmass and Capitol peaks in the background)

My next peak was PT 13039

It was a tundra walk back to Buckskin Pass

And a trail hike up to the point circled in red

This is where it got interesting.  I wanted to go straight up and over the face, but it seems as if there have been several slides in the area, and nothing went at class 2.  This was supposed to be a class 2 hike, so I looked for a better way. My advice here is NOT to go directly up one of these gullies (you probably can, but they all looked sketchy/prone to slides).

Instead, dip down to the left.  This area stays class 2. 

Here’s what my route looks like from below

Once I was past this area, I turned right and headed southwest to the ridge (still class 2).

Then I followed the ridge south.  I could clearly see the cairn indicating the top of 13039

At the edge of the ridge is where it got spicy.  It turned form a class 2 hike into a class 4 climb.  I looked around for an alternate route, and realized the only way up to the summit was to climb the 30-40 feet or so up the chimney/gully to the summit block

I was a little disappointed because I’d left my helmet back in my tent.  I debated if I should continue or not, and in the end I figured I did enough class 4 climbing yesterday without incident and was warmed up:  I should be fine today.  Also, I’d recommend wearing a helmet.   I dropped my gear and headed up with just my camera.  Here’s the route I took

I made it about halfway up the chimney, and once again had second thoughts.  I continued on however, because I knew the worst was behind me and either way I’d have to downclimb that area again. Here’s another angle

I summited PT 13039 at 7:45am

PT 13039:

Here’s looking back at Buckskin Benchmark

From the summit you can see where I left my gear. 

I turned and exited the way I came

The initial downclimb was steep and committing.  I turned and faced the rock for this part.

I made it about halfway down and realized I hadn’t taken a picture of myself on the summit, but I wasn’t willing to re-summit again.  I figured I’d just get a photo at the bottom. 

I made my way back down the ridge

And back to Buckskin Pass

From the pass it was an easy, class 1 hike back to my campsite.

Side note:  there are also good camping sites at 11,500’.  Once at my campsite I was disappointed to find my water filter had leaked water all over the bottom of my tent.  I dried it out the best I could, packed up my gear, and headed down.

Also, the wildflowers were on point today

Here are some pictures from the trek out

Once I made it back to the Crater Lake area I started seeing tons of people on the trail.  They travelled in groups, and were spaced about 15 minutes apart (I’m guessing this is due to the bussing times). I met one lady who asked me how fat it was to Crater Lake, and when I told her it was another mile or so she looked like I’d just told her it was another 20 miles.  She was exhausted, and I’m pretty sure she turned around (the round trip hike to Crater Lake is about 4 miles).  There were several groups being led by guides, which leads me to believe guiding companies may be buying up the permits.

I made it back to the parking lot, cleaned up, and headed out.

I had another entire day of hiking yesterday, so my stats are estimates based on CalTopo math:  Today’s hike was 18 miles with 5800’ of elevation gain.