Peak(s):  Summit Peak  -  13,300 feet
Date Posted:  07/20/2021
Date Climbed:   06/19/2020
Author:  bangerth
 Waterfalls and vistas   

My wife and I are looking for very different things in hikes. She enjoys walking through forests along creeks and, in particular, waterfalls. I enjoy the big vistas from above treeline, ridges, and summits. These things are hard to reconcile, so it was with great joy that I discovered a mountain that would provide us both with what we like, when we were on vacation for a week in Pagosa Springs: The uncreatively named Summit Peak. The trail and the mountain definitely delivered -- a nice little gem in a rarely visited part of the state. Going there has the additional benefit that we got to do this trail while one still can: 80 or more per cent of the trees in the drainage one climbs up in are dead from beetle kill; they're mostly still standing, but you can bet that they won't be forever and getting through that forest when they're all down is going to be nearly impossible. Given that this is no organized trail and that there is no group that would go out there with chain saws, the ascent on the usual route will be painful and slow in a few years.

In the meantime, though, taking the trail to the summit is really a joy! Getting to the trailhead not so much. I had hoped that County Road 667 and East Fork Road from north of Pagosa Springs on Highway 160 would allow one to cut over to a place called Elwood Cabin, and then take FR 380 down to the valley where one meets Fdr 243 to go west and to the trailhead. I called the forest ranger district and was told that that was a bad idea unless I was driving a 4-wheeler or some kind of lifted car -- which I do not; my Honda Civic would have to take the long detour going north almost to South Fork and then take the right onto 380. That makes the trip from Pagosa Springs to the trailhead around two hours. On the upside, 380 is actually quite a decent road, even in a Civic. The last couple of miles on 243 is a different story: This was slow going. One gets some nice first views of the mountain, though:

First views of Summit Peak on 243.

Regardless of the travails necessary to get there, once there this is definitely one of the nicer 13ers and, given how remote it is, having to deal with other people anytime during the day is distinctly unlikely. The trail starts steep along the north side of the creek, and it delivers right away with an incredible sequence of half a dozen or more waterfalls that delighted not only my wife, but me as well! I only took pictures of two, but they really are quite neat:

One of the many waterfalls.
Another one.

Eventually, the trail peters out. We took that as our cue to cross the creek and the find-your-own-trail part of the trip starts. We made our way from clearing to clearing and around areas of deadfall. Eventually, the trees become a bit lighter and one finds cliffs on the left, which are easily bypassed on the right (north) before one finds steeper terrain that leads to more open, tundra areas above treeline. This also opens views towards the north and west:

The drainage we came out of, and the view across the valley to the north.
Looking west to the Unicorn (left) and Montezuma (right).

Somewhere in this area, a trail also starts again, which one can follow in a southerly direction, and eventually one gets to see Summit Peak:

First views of Summit Peak's impressive north side.

The north side is not the way to go up on casual hikes, and instead one angles for the left end of the mountain to bypass it on its east side, and then attack it from the opposite, south side. Somewhere at the left edge of the mountain, the trail also joins the Continental Divide Trail for a few hundred feet, but after a short time these directions split again and the target should be to go right and along the base of Summit Peak instead. This is where the view starts to get less rosy and a bit discouraging: An 800ft tall, steep grassy slope one has to ascend.

Around the corner and one is greeted with a steep grassy slope. The cliffs on the right form the eastern edge of the mountain, and the summit is in the extension of the elongated snow field in the middle of the grassy slope.
My wife slowly making her way up the grassy slope. It is substantially steeper than it looks.

This was going to take an hour or more to get to the top. I thrive on these sorts of pointless tasks that just require grinding it out; my wife doesn't enjoy the monotony and this wasn't her favorite part of the hike. Eventually, though, one reaches one of the gashes in the ridge with great views to the left and right, and then the summit:

At the top of one of the gullies, looking back into the drainage we had come from.
Looking west from the summit.
Another view from the summit. The trailhead is down in the forest at the right edge of the picture.

The wind was cold that day, and we didn't linger at the summit and instead found ourselves a cozy place just below the ridge a bit west of the summit for a snack. The hard part of the day was over, and what remained was to figure out how to get back down. Taking the same steep slope back down was unappealing, but it looked like one could follow the ridge a bit going further west, and then cut back on gentler terrain. (See the gpx route below.) This turned out to be an excellent idea, and I wished that I had seen that possibility on the way up; as often, my focus had been too much on getting to the top, rather than finding a less tough way to get there.

With this knee-preserving detour, we eventually found our way back to the CDT and then the social trail that heads back towards the drainage we came from. The social trail eventually disappears and one is left to one's own devices to find the right direction into the forest. Not paying enough attention, I kept us too high and we ended on top of the cliffs above the forest, before having to double back around the west end of the cliffs. Rather than taking the same route through the forest, we descended more directly to the creek this time, and were rewarded with several more waterfalls while hiking along its edge down into the denser areas of the forest. We came by a large herd of elk in the process and finally also got back to the more established trail on the north side of the creek that leads down the steep part (and past the same waterfalls as on the ascent) to the trailhead.

We both really liked this trail. It has something for everyone, and it isn't even particularly long: Not even 7 miles, which took us 6h15min at a leisurely pace. Go get it while you still can and before all of the dead trees block passage!

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
07/26/2021 11:29
I spent a couple nights in a cabin in South Fork recently and was thinking of other peaks to tackle in the area (want to stay in the cabin again). Didn't know that this could be approached via 2wd roads from the South Fork. Thanks for the info!

Yes, easy peasy
07/26/2021 20:40
Go for it. Also easy to combine with Montezuma and the Unicorn if you're into this kind of thing.

380 was pretty easy last year, and the worst that can happen is that you have to walk the extra 2 or so miles if you don't want to do 243. I think I'm reasonably proficient with the Civic on rough roads, and don't know how others feel about that road. But just take it easy and you'll be ok!

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