West Spanish Peak - 13,626 feet
West Spanish Peak - 13,626 feet
|Spanish Castle Magic|
Route: The West Peak Trail
The West Peak Trail is accessible from Cordova Pass (11,248 ft.). Elevation gain is 2383 ft. from trailhead to summit, and 7.9 miles round trip. Note that there are no water sources on this hike, so bring what you need. The route is level to gently sloping for most of the way to treeline. In fact, it descends in a couple of stretches for 80-100 feet. You probably won’t notice until you have to drag your tired carcass uphill on the return trip. Much of the elevation gain below treeline is attained in 2 series of switchbacks. Above treeline the trail climbs 1600 feet in the final mile to the summit, and it steepens and unravels into 2 (or more) possible routes, each marked with cairns. It can be hard to choose the best possible option through the variety of pebbly scree, bricks, blocks, and assorted slag. Once the trail attains the summit ridge, the grade eases off for the final 150 feet to the summit.
Trip Planning Notes
West Spanish Peak is a unique, beautiful mountain with interesting geologic features and dramatic topography. The steep drop-offs on the north and south slopes give the hiker a sense of stupendous height. Along with East Spanish peak, it is visible from Raton Pass on the New Mexico Border and as far north as Colorado Springs. I first discovered West Spanish Peak in December of 2017, when I was researching potential peaks of interest in Colorado, and have wanted to climb it ever since. The elevation gain and round-trip mileage are modest by Colorado standards. It seemed like the perfect hike for my daughter and I to ‘get our feet wet.’
We are 'noobs' to hiking in Colorado. In our case, the best preparation was our prior attempt on West Spanish Peak last August. We had to abort at 12,800 ft. when thunderheads started rolling in, but we gained important intel on the route and learned some valuable lessons.
In addition, we stepped up our game by improving our physical fitness, and especially core strength. Although this won’t prevent altitude sickness, it will make the hike seem less grueling.
We live in Connecticut, so there are hurdles to overcome before we even set foot on the trail; specifically, getting there and adjusting to the altitude. This was a 4-day trip, with the express purpose of climbing West Spanish Peak. We spent the first day flying out to Colorado, obtaining a rental car, and buying some food for the trip. We stayed in Denver the first night to ease the transition to a higher altitude. Day 2 was a three-hour drive to Cuchara (Elevation 8468 ft.), which is about a 35-minute drive from Cordova Pass. We opted to stay in Cuchara to be close to the trailhead and get an early start, in addition to its being at a good intermediate altitude. Day three was the actual hike, and Day 4 was the three-hour drive back to Denver and the flight home.
My daughter (age 13) and I arrived at the trailhead at 5:35 am after making the 35-minute drive from our motel in Cuchara. We were on the trail at 5:41 am, 4 minutes before sunrise. Our intent was to make it to the summit and be well into our descent ahead of any bad weather. The forecast called for a 30% chance of showers and thunderstorms; however, we were taking no chances with a late start. The weather was cool and comfortable, and the sun became more prominent throughout the day.
The hike to treeline was a pleasant amble through alpine meadow and high altitude pine forest.
We arrived at treeline (~11,900 ft.) at 7:40 am.
After a quick break, we started up the bare open slope. After about 400 ft. of elevation gain, I started to feel the steepness of the slope combined with the altitude. With 1300 feet of elevation left, I employed a strategy of setting small goals to keep from getting discouraged. Make it to the next cairn. Then the next. Then the next. And so forth. The wind became more pronounced as we went higher. At times, it was strong enough to rip the hats off our heads.
By 8:40 am we had bested last year’s high point of 12,800 ft., and by 9:00 am we were just above 13,000 feet – an important milestone for us flat-landers. Another 40 minutes and we were just below the summit ridge at the base of a small snowfield that stretched up and onto the crest. It only took a minute to sidestep the snow and gain the ridge
From there, it was 7 minutes of easy walking up a small bump in the ridge, and we arrived at a pile of rocks with nowhere higher to climb. The views were sublime: from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico (visible as patches of white in the haze), to Culebra, Trinchera, Blanca, the Crestones, Mt. Mestas, Greenhorn Mountain, East Spanish Peak, as well as the wide open plains to the east.
After the obligatory summit photos, another hiker arrived at the summit. We chatted a bit, and took readings on a pulse oximeter I brought. My reading was 83, which is a bit hypoxic. The other hiker –a resident of Colorado Springs – had a reading of 88. He had taken some pictures of us from below, and I gave him my email so he could send them.
I returned the favor by taking pictures of him as we descended. It was partly sunny, windy and cool, but the wind-chill made it uncomfortable to remain for an extended time. We started down after about 15 minutes on top. On the descent, I stopped at a small windbreak a couple of hundred feet below the summit to have lunch. I set my GPS down and forgot about it; that is, until we had moved on and were 150 feet below. I had no desire to climb back up and get it, and decided to leave it there. I hoped that our fellow hiker from the summit might see it and retrieve it. I’d ask him about it when he emailed the pictures.
We continued our somewhat-laborious descent and observed a line of upper elementary school-aged kids in yellow T shirts from a Christian camp, heading up the slope. One boy (aptly named ‘Will’) ascended with such tenacity that no one could catch him. I joked with one of the counselors that Will had ‘found another gear.’
As we descended into the lower reaches of the scree slope, our fellow hiker from the summit overtook us, and I asked him if he had come across a yellow Garmin GPS at a windbreak higher up. He reached into his pocket, retrieved the GPS and handed it to me.
We reached treeline at 12:30 pm and found a shady spot a little way down to refuel and get out of the sun. At this point, I had run through my 2 bottles of water, and was subsisting on the dregs of a bottle of iced tea. I utilized my trekking poles for the remainder of the hike, and we kept a steady pace. We arrived at Cordova Pass at 1:45 pm.
The hike went almost exactly as expected, and aside from running low on water, there were few problems. We were able to avoid issues with the altitude. Our outing was timed to coincide with the best weather (aside from early Fall), in between the retreat of the snow and Monsoon Season of July and August. We started early, summited early, and were below treeline by 12:30 pm. I got to climb the mountain I wanted, and was able to share the experience with my daughter. It was a great hike!
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