When I booked a room in Salida for Labor Day weekend, for some reason it didn't dawn on me how close I would be to Crestone. I should have done this hike/run on Sunday, when I was staying overnight locally. Ah, well.
However, I resolved to take a shot at climbing Challenger Point and Kit Carson from the west on Labor Day even though I'd have to drive home 4 hours afterwards.
As I drove towards Crestone around 7 AM, there were scattered rain clouds.
But weather in the mountains is fickle, and I decided to let things play out.
The drive from town up to the Willow/Crestone trailhead was sandy and only slightly bumpy. There was a set of deep (i.e. foot and a half?) ruts at one point and I backed downhill to park next to the road. It was only 1/2 mile to the real trailhead.
The first part of the trail is sandy soil. Hence the dunes. It gradually ascended into pine forest and the sand gave way to sandy soil and pine needles.
There was a meadow (right) in a hanging valley above the first "hill", which it seemed might be a fantastic place to camp.
The trail up to the lakes was pure bliss. Great forest terrain, great rocks everywhere. After all, I was running in the Crestones!
In fact, if I had to decide on a theme for the Willow Creek approach -- and the area in general -- it would be the rocks. Other trails have great forest, great aspens, meadows, creeks, etc. This area had rock, and lots of it.
Looking back down, with the meadow in the middle:
Looking uphill, with huge rock faces looming:
Unlike some areas of Colorado, where the mountains are just rocky hills with trees on them, I looked upwards here, as I wound my way around huge boulders and rock faces, and thought: I don't think I could climb uphill here! It's awe-inspiring terrain.
There are three main steps up into the valley, including a rather larger rock wall similar to that north of Mount of the Holy Cross. However, there are well-formed trails and switchbacks that take you up and over them, and they are scenic and threaded with waterfalls. Finally you reach Willow Lake, with a waterfall in back.
Looking back west from near the waterfall:
This was the last time I'd be near water for a while, so I filtered enough to fill my bottles, and promptly slipped into a pool of water lined with muck. Damn! There went another 5 minutes to shake out my shoes and wring out my socks.
I then started the steep, dirt and scree-laden climb up to Challenger. That's Kit Carson Peak in the middle, and Challenger somewhere on the right:
These two shots are from the top of the climb, with the summit of Challenger only a short hike to the south:
And as you can see, the rain clouds had disappeared.
It took about an hour to ascend from near the waterfall below to the summit of Challenger Point, at 14,081 feet. From there -- to paraphrase Gerry Roach -- I pondered my future on Kit Carson (left):
But even at this point I was pretty psyched to find that the rain clouds had vaporized (for a while) and that I had attained a summit in this great area of the Sangre de Cristo Range! I was high as a kite, and naturally.
Mileage up to this point was around 7.8 miles, time 4:00, elevation gain around 5,400 feet. The fun had just begun.