In the hills and mountains which surround the San Luis Valley, each canyon, each drainage, each curve is an adventure. Follow a creek, follow a ridge, make a summit, swim in a lake, stir up the grouse, breathe the fresh air, marvel at the quiet, the stillness, the magnificence.
With a cursory inspection, the San Luis Valley could seem like a dry, inhospitable, place. And people often find that which they have convinced themselves to find. And there is much more ... For starters, an immediate contradiction to the dryness of the valley is the incredible aquifer of water just beneath the surface of the valley. The water is the lifeblood of the farmers and ranchers. The water springs warm (often from deep wells) to soothe the soakers at the hot springs. The water runs cold and clear from the high mountain lakes. Such is the theme for discovery here, the paradox of life, manifest in everything. Incredible wonders are hidden to the eye who does not rest long enough to see. And for those who take the time to stay, to stand still, to quiet their mind and to come to know, experience and appreciate, the San Luis Valley is place of subtle and unique treasures...
The specific focus of this article will be on the treasures of the mountain trails, mostly, those in the Crestone / Baca area, with mention of a few other favorites around the valley.
1. North Crestone Creek - Crestone Colorado
2. Willow / South Crestone Creek - Crestone Colorado
3. Spanish Creek - Crestone, Colorado
4. Cottonwood Creek - Crestone, Colorado
5. The Dunes Summary
Sangre de Cristo, the blood of Christ, the name of the Rocky Mountain Range that runs to the East of Crestone. So named by Spanish for the mountains jagged resemblance to a crown of thorns drenched in blood with the setting sun. The description is passionate, as in the Passion of Christ. The description is spiritual. The description is ominous. No doubt, such a combination is inescapably - meaningful.
This, the west slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is one of the steepest in all the Rocky Mountains. The trails described herein follow suit with steep ascents and well groomed but arduous trails. In the Crestone Area we have 3 major trail heads and 4 major trails: North Crestone, Willow / South Crestone and Cottonwood Creek. All of these trails, except Spanish, lead to lakes. On the average, the trails begin at about 8,300 to 8,800 feet. Hikes to the lakes are a full day commitment and full safety precautions for the frequently experienced inclement weather, provisions for water in surplus, sunscreen, excellent foot gear, and head lamp or flashlight in case caught after dark are strongly encouraged.
These trails leads only into the Rio Grande Wilderness Area, so motorized vehicles, mountain bikes, hang gliders, etc. are forbidden. Access is by foot and horseback only.
1. North Crestone
The trail offers excellent possibilities for extended backpacking or just a good day hike from the campground. The trail is well marked and regularly maintained. Attractions include fishing in the creek and lake, excellent scenery, waterfalls, and the possibility of encounters with bighorn sheep, bears and mountain lions.
North Crestone Lake Trail head (forest service trail 744) is located just north of the town of Crestone. There is a paved road to the National Forest boundary. Immediately inside the Forest a beautiful creek-side camping / fishing area accommodates drive-up campers. The trail head itself is another mile up the gravel road, deep within the pines of the canyon.
The trail leads eastward into the mountains, within the North Crestone Creek drainage. A fair distance along this trail (at about 9,760 feet) are branching trails which lead to Groundhog Basin, Venable Pass, Phantom Terrace and North Crestone Lake, in the valley between Fluted Peak and Mount Adams.
Further along the North Crestone Trail is the North Crestone Loop Trail, (number 746), which begins somewhere around 9,750 feet, gains 2,960 feet to reach a maximum of 12,720. The trail exists as a connector between Comanche Lake and the North Crestone drainage. The trail completes the circuit from the North Fork Crestone Trail and Phantom Terrace. The trail offers spectacular viewing near Phantom Terrace.
Directions to North Crestone Creek trail head: Highway 17 to Moffat. County Road T to Crestone. From Crestone, find the only paved road that continues to the North and follow this to North Crestone Campground. The trail begins at the end of the road at the east end of the campground.
2. Willow and South Crestone Trail Heads
Of the area trails, certainly the most popular is the Willow Lake Trail. Simply from the context of attainable gratification, the Willow Lake Trail is the penultimate of spectacular views interspersed with periods of side hill forest hiking as the trail winds steadily uphill through varying degrees of natural paradise.
From the parking lot, described below, the trail has a spur to the south after a few hundred yards. To continue North, past the sign-in area, leads to South Crestone Lake. Crossing the South Crestone Creek, and heading down the spur to the south from the sign-in area, the trail on the other side of the creek leads to Willow Lake.
Willow Creek Trail #865 leads to Willow Park, Willow Lake, thence to Adams Summit or Challenger / Kit Carson Summit.
Willow Park is attainable in 30 minutes (very fast) to 2 hours (easy pace). The trail is easy to follow and well maintained. It switch backs through the trees for a thousand feet of elevation change until you emerge onto a view of Willow Park and the headwall which holds Willow Lake. Challenger Point dominates the sky to the south-east. Kit Carson Summit hides behind its mass further to the south.
Willow Lake (see photo page 37) is about a 9-10 mile round trip hike from the trail head. If you carry on to the lake, make sure that you have enough time, water and energy to continue. This is a spectacular yet arduous hike. The lake is surrounded by 13,000 and 14,000 ft. peaks, with a waterfall at the east end of the lake. Hike along the north edge of the lake to the top of the falls for an incredible view. Willow Lake is also good fishing for cutthroat and brook trout.
This trail is access for the summits of Kit Carson and Challenger Point and Mount Adams. A campsite just below the lake provides a haven for overnight stays. Remain bear - savvy by not leaving out any accessible foods. This is also a precaution against the bighorn sheep who will graze through your trail mix like a kid in a candy store.
South Crestone Lake trail
The trail leading to South Crestone lake is less traveled and a bit more rugged in spots in comparison to Willow. The hike to the lake is a full day 9-10 mile round-trip that begins at 9,000 ft. and ends at 11,800 ft.
The hike to the South Crestone lake spends more time in the sun down low than does the hike to Willow Park, but then it dives back into the woods and winds along the creek, through thick areas of trees and switch backs up steep sections of the hill. The exposed field, side hill trail just below 10,000 feet offers sunny views of the valley and, during the spring bloom, fields of flowers. Although, prancing through the fields is likely to lead to a precipitous tumble down hill with certain crown breaking and subsequent dousing with pails of water, etc...!
The trail head for South Crestone / Willow can be accessed by going to Crestone downtown, turning uphill at the intersection of Galena by the 21st Amendment Liquor Store and following the road east and uphill to the end where parking is available.
3. Spanish Creek & 4. Cottonwood Creek Trail
From the Saguache County Board of County Commissioners:
On Friday, April 20, 2007 it was agreed that the County, Forest Service, Park Service, NAT, spiritual centers and Manitou Institute will collaborate to post signage to discourage hikers from trespassing through private property to access Forest Service land East of the Baca.
For 2007, North Crestone Creek is the only legal access.
Even representatives of the CO Mountain Club are going to help get the trespass access points removed from climber websites they have connections with.
5. Great Sand Dunes
The Great Sand Dunes are an impressive natural deposit of airborne sand collecting in this corner of the valley. So impressive is this collection that no dune in the United States is higher. Although climbing the dunes can be quite difficult due to the soft footing, heat and wind, it is an experience to be amongst the great field of sand and take in the magnanimity of this natural formation. If you are not so inclined to climb the dunes, a trip to the visitors center and the approaching drive should suffice. As visitors to the dunes are not necessarily preparing for the kind of harsh environment they have before them, there are increased frequencies of headaches, dehydration, fatigue, rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath while exploring the dunes.
Visit the dunes in the morning or evening hours when it is more likely to be calm and cool and when the low sun casts dramatic, photogenic shadows. The mid-afternoons can be windy and therefore uncomfortable. Of course, high winds can occur any time of the day and throughout the year.
Directions: Highway 17 to Mosca. Turn East at the Sand Dunes sign and follow.
A few points to consider during your adventuring:
Please check with local forest authorities for the most current information about camping, campfires, fishing and use of animals on the trails.
Carry water. Drink water. Altitude demands water, and to dehydrate is to endanger yourself. Drink water.
Take care of your feet - wear good foot gear. Your feet got you there. You'll need them to get you out.
Expect the weather to change and be ready for it: bring warmer clothing for rain and sudden temperature drops. Hypothermia can happen in the summer.
If traveling in a group, stay together as a group. That may reduce your chance of becoming stranded. Many rescue calls were made last year in response to separated parties both on the peaks and the lower approaches.
Follow the standard descent route or trail. This may reduce chances of becoming stranded in steep terrain. Sometimes it looks like a short cut. Sometimes it is.
Make a plan and keep the plan. Let people know where you are going and when you expect to return. It is, at the very least, courteous.
Personal Judgment and first hand knowledge should supersede anything written herein. The responsibility is yours to be safe. Mountain trails and the like are not for everyone. Be certain that you are prepared for the adventure, lest you create an epic.
And did I say, drink water? Drink water!