Tuesday, August 27, 2013

La Plata Peak

On Saturday, August 10th, I set out for the southwest ridge route up La Plata Peak, with Judy and Andrew. We stayed in a cabin in Buena Vista Friday night then headed north on U.S. 24 from Buena Vista toward Leadville for about 14 miles, then took the dirt Chaffee County 390 road west. Andrew and I had been down this road two years ago when we did Mount Belford and Mount Oxford. We stopped at that trailhead again, for a bathroom break (7.5 miles down 390), then continued on 390 for another 3.8 miles to Winfield, a very small town consisting of a few cabins. In Winfield we took a right fork and then took a very bumpy dirt road another 1.8 miles to the trailhead (justifying our rental of a Jeep Liberty and turning Judy green in the process - she doesn't like bumpy roads). 
La Plata Peak, center, viewed from Mt. Massive
Closer view of same picture - the southwest ridge comes up from the right. The northwest ridge is in the center of the picture.
Jeep Liberty along the dirt road.
The standard (and far more heavily used) route up La Plata is the northwest ridge. It is accessed by a trailhead just off paved Colorado 82. Aside from much heavier traffic, it is 2.5 miles longer (9.5 miles roundtrip) and involves 1,120 more feet of elevation gain (4,500 total). By comparison, the southwest ridge is 7 miles roundtrip and involves 3,380 feet of elevation gain. We arrived a little before 10:30 a.m. and found about five other vehicles at the trailhead. 

La Plata Peak is 14,336 feet in elevation and is the fifth tallest peak in Colorado (after Elbert, Massive, Harvard and Blanca). Like La Plata, Elbert, Massive and Harvard, which I've done previously, are in the Sawatch Range. La Plata is rated by 14ers.com as the 27th most difficult of the 58 14ers in Colorado. 

The trail follows a small stream, surrounded by forest, uphill. Eventually a plateau is reached with a broad valley situated at over 11,000 feet in elevation. The valley has a few small ponds in it and is full of swampy ground and willows. It looks like ideal moose country, although unfortunately I did not see any. The trail meanders through the willows, quite muddy in spots, over to the south edge of the valley to get on firmer ground, then heads east toward La Plata which is partially visible at the head of the valley. Toward the head of the valley, the trail veers north across the valley, on slightly firmer ground, and then goes steeply up the side of the valley wall. The trail through this section gets very loose. I found a small mine opening, where I took a short break (about 12,500 feet in elevation), and marveled at the fortitude of the miners who worked these kinds of mines so far out of the way and so high in elevation.  
Trail - almost to the valley.
The La Plata massif is visible in the back, center. The peak is not visible.
Looking back at the valley. Willows and swampy ground visible.
Toward the head of the valley. Route up the wall is about center of the picture.
Bottom portion of trail is visible. It eventually reaches the top at the low point in the ridge, just left of center.
Mine opening.
View of the valley below from the mine.
View of the valley from the top of the ridge.
At the top of the valley wall, about 12,800 feet, the trailed veered east and up some rock until a gradual incline met a rather formidable looking 1,000 plus foot steep pile of granite rocks, stacked on top of each other. Negotiating the rock up that wall was by far the hardest part of the hike. There are numerous routes marked through the rocks by rock cairns (rocks stacked on top of each other), but when you are going up, the trails just seem to stop, then pick up somewhere else, with no seeming rhyme or reason to them. I did find that on the way down the routes were much easier to follow, the result of a better vantage point. I knew from talking to several other hikers that the summit was about 35 to 45 minutes once I got to the top of the wall.
Trail just above the valley wall.
La Plata massif ahead.
Over 1,000 feet of granite rock to get to the top of this hill. The hardest part of the hike.
The top of the wall is about 14,000 feet and the summit is up a hogs back ridge, the last of three humps. Instead of sticking to the ridge, I took a more direct approach which involved some elevation loss which I had to regain. Possibly a mistake. I could see a number of people standing on the summit and several other people on the hump before the summit, but I had the summit all to myself by the time I got there, the second day in a row that happened.
View back down the mountain from the way I'd come. The trail is visible near the edge or the rim.
Mt. Massive in the distance - center.
Zoomed in on Mt. Massive - 2nd tallest mountain in Colorado.
Summit of La Plata Peak visible from the top of the hill. Picture taken at about 14,000 feet.
Zoomed in on the summit (back right). People visible.
Summit rocks.
View from the summit.
Self-portrait on the summit.
I found the most courageous pika I've ever seen in the dip between the last hump and the summit and got quite close for some head-on pictures. At the summit I found a large marmot that did not seem too concerned with me. I did not spend long before turning around and heading back down.
Cute little pika.
Only found at high elevations. Very difficult to get a good look at them.
Marmot letting its kin know I'm in the area.
The hike down the granite was substantially easier than the hike up. As indicated earlier, the trails were easier to follow and gravity created most of the inertia.
Backward glance at the La Plata massif on the way down.
The upper valley in afternoon light. Thankful for the good weather.
Andrew and Judy did not have as much success on the mushroom front as they did the day before at Quandary Peak. But if was a pleasant day after the rain and hail of the day before. 


  1. We had more mushrooming success close to the parking than on the trail itself. We still managed to gather enough for dinner.