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On Walkabout On: La Plata Peak via the Northwest Ridge

Basic Information

  • Name: La Plata Peak
  • Range: Sawatch
  • Where: Leadville, Colorado
  • Max Elevation: 14,336 feet
  • Distance:  9.35 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 4,300 feet
  • Time: 6-8 hours round-trip
  • Difficulty: Easy ModerateHardDifficult
  • More Information: 14ers.com

Route Up La Plata Peak

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Topographic Map of La Plata Peak Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Elevation Map of La Plata Peak

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Narrative

During my hike up to the summit of the 14,433 foot Mt. Elbert via its Southeast Ridge I had some great views of the fellow 14er La Plata Peak which rises adjacent to Mt. Elbert.  La Plata is 14,336 feet in elevation which makes it the fifth highest mountain in the Rocky Mountains.  However, visually La Plata just looks so much more impressive than many other peaks in the Sawatch Range, especially because of its famed Ellingwood Ridge:

However, for my first ascent of this great peak I decided to stick to the standard trail up its Northwest Ridge which recently reopened after being closed for weeks due to a bridge repair.  Plus I strained my lower back earlier in the week and was not up for anything too challenging this weekend.  So what ended up being a 9.35 mile climb with 4,300 feet of elevation gain was something I could handle.  I left Colorado Springs at 1:00 AM in the morning and arrived at the trailhead at 3:50 AM.  The trailhead is easily accessed off of Highway 82 that runs between Leadville and Aspen.  Coming from the Leadville side, the trailhead is located 14.5 miles up the highway:


View 14er Trailheads in a larger map

It was pitch dark out, but here is a picture of the trailhead sign from later in the day:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

The trailhead was packed with cars and I was able to get one of the few remaining parking spaces. Here is a picture of the parking situation at the trailhead from later in the day:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Obviously the reopening of the trail had brought a lot of hikers to the peak this weekend.  After parking and getting geared up I was able to start down the trail at 4:00 AM.  It was absolutely pitch dark out when I left the trailhead.  However, the following pictures I took on the way back show the beginning portion of the hike.  I first had to cross the new concrete bridge that was put in over the North Fork of Lake Creek:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

After crossing the bridge I had to walk down the dirt road that is surrounded by private property for a quarter mile.  On the left side of the road I saw the sign designating the trailhead in the darkness warning hikers about the private property in the area:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Here is what the trailhead looks like in the daylight:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

As walked through the darkness it was actually a little hard to stay on the trail because of all the social trails running in different directions.  Some reflective tape on the trees though helped to stay on the main trail.  In less than half a mile after exiting the road I found myself at this bridge crossing:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Since it was dark out I could not see the creek the bridge crossed, but I sure could hear the roaring water down below.  After crossing the bridge I stayed on the main trail by taking a sharp right and continuing to walk through a dark forest again.  I then came to another creek crossing.  This one had no bridge and instead just a few logs put across the creek:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

My trekking poles came in very useful here to keep my balance on the small and slippery logs.  I made it across the creek without incident and continued to follow the trail along the creek.  Whoever has been doing the maintenance on this trail I thought has done a good job of up keeping it.  There were a lot of good wooden steps that had been installed to help with the ascent through the forest:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

I did continue to have issues with the social trails though.  I nearly went off the main trail by ascending a hillside that was marked with reflective tape.  I consulted my 14ers.com app and could see the route description did not match the direction the social trail was going.  So I went back to the creek and continued to follow the creek.  My trusty 14ers.com app saves the day again!  For those hiking this trail in the darkness I recommend checking the route description periodically to make sure you are staying on the main trail.  I would find out later it is much easier to avoid social trails during the daylight.  Anyway as I walked through the dark forest I had my bear repellant system on which is otherwise known as playing the AC/DC Live album on my iPhone.  It seems to work because I have never had any wildlife encounters when walking through the dark on these remote forest trails.  As I walked through the darkness though I was a bit surprised when I saw a light suddenly appear in front me.  It ended up being a tent.  I quickly turned down my bear repellant system hoping I didn’t wake them up with it.  As I continued to hike through the upper section of the forest I noticed that it was actually cold enough that morning for frost to form on the tips of the trees:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

After a couple of hours of hiking I found myself rising above treeline and also had enough daylight to begin taking some pictures.  Here is a picture of the valley below me that I had just ascended:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Above me was a steep gully that the trail was switchbacking up:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

To the South I could see some aspen glow on an un-named peak that dominated the view in that direction:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

To the West I had these 13-thousand foot peaks dominating the view in that direction:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

As I reached the upper portion of the gully I could see the ridgeline that would take me to the summit:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

There are some nice steps that have been constructed on this section of the trail to aid with gaining the ridge:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

There are also signs that have been put in closing off an old trail section that has now been closed for restoration due to the construction of the stone steps:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Here is view I had once I reached the ridgeline that leads to the summit of La Plata Peak:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Across from me on the ridgeline I could see the famed Ellingwood Ridge:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

This ridgeline is considered one of the great mountaineering challenges of Colorado.  This long ridgeline is named after one of the most famous mountaineers in Colorado history Albert Ellingwood who first completed the two-mile long traverse of this ridge back in 1921.  This is pretty impressive considering the peak was first climbed in 1873 by members of the Hayden Survey who gave it its name “La Plata” which is Spanish for silver in honor of all the mines in the area.  So for nearly 50 years no one had been able to successfully complete this traverse until Ellingwood did it.  Even more impressive is that a successful winter traverse of this ridge did not happen until 1974.  According to the book “A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners: Twentieth Anniversary Edition on January 12, 1974, Craig Koontz, Gary Kocsis, Chuck Tolton, and John Lafferty began a traverse of the ridge.  What they planned to be a two day traverse turned into a four day marathon traverse which they completed on the afternoon of January 15, 1974.

Also from the ridgeline I had a nice view looking at the peaks across the valley to the West:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

I could also see the 13,500 foot Red Mountain B in the distance:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

The reddish color of this mountain is very noticeable and made me wonder if this was due to past volcanic activity?  Even across the valley from me I could see a section of the ridgeline that was turning a orangish color:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

The color reminded me a lot of the 13er Cronin Peak in the southern Sawatch Range that received its color from past volcanic activity that can still be experienced at the nearby Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort. After taking in the views I continued my hike up the now rocky ridgeline leading to the summit:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

There was a lot of talus rock to deal with, but for the most part there was a trail to follow though social trails did get me off course a few times, but I quickly regained the main trail:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

I then came to a less steep section that led to the final summit approach:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

There were a few snow fields remaining on this section of the mountain, but they were all easily avoided.  I followed a good trail up a steep section of rock until I saw the false summit in front me:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

I hiked up to the top of the false summit and could see the real summit in front of me:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

I reached the summit of La Plata Peak at 7:50 AM making this a 3 hour and 50 minute climb.  Considering the route finding challenges in the dark I was happy with my time.  The weather was just terrific on the summit with hardly any wind.  The sky was a little bit overcast due to the impending storm that was supposed to sweep through the mountains around 11:00 AM.  Here is the view looking North where the highest peak in the Rocky Mountain, the 14,433 foot Mt. Elbert could be seen on the far right and in the distance the 14,421 foot Mt. Massive could be seen as well Ellingwood Ridge:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

To the Northeast I could see the high peaks of the Mosquito Range that bracket the other side of the Arkansas River Valley:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

The Mosquito Range has a collection of five 14ers which I have all hiked.  You can read about all of my prior hikes up these mountains at the below link:

To the East I could see the Buffalo Peaks and even further out in the distance the 14,110 foot Pikes Peak:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

To the Southeast I could see every 14er in the central Sawatch Range except Mt. Columbia which was obscured by Mt. Harvard:

Central Sawatch Range

You can read my prior trip reports from these mountains at the below links:

Even further in the distance I could see every 14er in the southern Sawatch Range:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

You can read my prior trip reports from these mountains at the below links:

Looking directly below the summit of La Plata to the Southeast I could see this scenic lake as well:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

To the South I could see the beautiful 14,003 foot Huron Peak which is my favorite mountain in the Sawatch Range:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Here is a closer look at the triangle shaped Huron Peak with the rugged Three Apostles rising to the right of it:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

You can read more about my prior hike up Huron Peak at the below link:

To the Southwest I could see a number of other rugged peaks that are part of the Sawatch Range:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Here is a panorama picture I took looking towards the South from the summit of La Plata:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

To the West I could see the rugged Elk Range:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

The two 14ers, the 14,092 foot Snowmass Mountain and the 14,130 foot Capitol Peak were the most noticeable peaks in the Elks out in the distance:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Here is a panorama of the view looking towards the West and North:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Here is an even wider panorama view from the summit of La Plata Peak:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

I ended up spending an hour on the summit of La Plata because of how nice the weather was and the good company spent with the other hikers that later came up the mountain.  I even met a group of trail runners that came up, with one of them being the ultra-marathoner that recently ran up and down the Manitou Incline 22 times in 24 hours.  Considering the Incline is roughly one mile in length with 2,000 feet of elevation gain this is an really incredible feat.  I decided to start heading down the mountain at 8:50 AM because thunderstorms were forecasted to roll in around 11:00 AM which I did not want to get caught up in.  The initial descent from the summit went by pretty quick.  Here is a look back towards the summit during the initial descent:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Here is a panorama view which shows the  Ellingwood Ridge visible on the left and the summit of La Plata Peak on the right:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

I found the walk down the lower slopes of La Plata above treeline to be quite scenic due to all the wildflowers:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

It is no longer peak wildflower season in the high country, but there are still plenty of them to see on La Plata:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

As I descended the mountain I kept finding myself stopping to take pictures of more wildflowers:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

The most scenic wildflower in my opinion is the Colorado state flower, the columbine:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

These colorful flowers are just beautiful and worthy of being the state’s flower:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Even the butterflies were enjoying the columbines on La Plata:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

La Plata Peak is just covered with columbine flowers, so for anyone looking for some place to see these beautiful flowers La Plata is a great place to check out:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

While descending down La Plata I had something really cool happen.  I had accidentally dropped my Oakley sunglasses in the darkness on the way up the mountain.  I had not realized I had dropped them until the sun came up and I tried to put my sunglasses on.  As it turns out the couple who were staying in the tent along the trail happened upon them and asked me if they were mine as I was descending the mountain.  I was very happy to see they had picked up the glasses and returned them to me.  This just goes to show what awesome people can be found hiking the mountains here in Colorado.

Here is the view looking West towards the 13-thousand foot ridge of mountains across from La Plata:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

The below picture shows the view looking down towards the valley below where the trailhead is located.  For those that look closely Highway 82 is visible in the below picture:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Here is the  view looking back towards the upper slopes of La Plata Peak:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Here is another view looking down towards the valley below:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Here is a panorama view of the valley below:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Oh, and here is some more wildflowers for everyone!:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Yes, I love seeing the columbines:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

As I switchbacked down the trail towards treeline I saw many people heading up the mountain despite the threat of storms obviously rolling in:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

I bet there was about a hundred people on La Plata Peak this day with the 80% of them still heading up the mountain as I was descending.  I next came to a rock slide area that I had not noticed on the ascent due to the darkness:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Looking up the hillside where the rock slide came from it appears this slide happened within the last few years considering how small the trees were that were regrowing in the slide area:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Across from me I could also see an avalanche chute which just goes to show how the forces of nature continues to carve these mountains over time:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

It was a nice feeling once I reached the valley floor because walking for long distances on level ground was a welcome relief for my knees that were aching from the steep descent:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Here is a look back from the valley floor towards La Plata Peak:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Here is an even closer look towards La Plata where the false summit bump is visible:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

On the valley floor the trail followed a scenic creek that during the ascent I could only hear, but now I could see how lovely it was:

Creek Below La Plata Peak, Colorado

As the trail began to descend, the creek next to it began roar due to all the water flowing down it:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

During the descent I also got a chance to see all the logs that have fallen on the trail that I had to cross earlier in the morning in the dark:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

By the way I also got to see more wildflowers:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

I next walked through a nice aspen forest which is also where I began to feel a few rain drops:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

I then crossed over the log bridge again which I found to be much easier during the daylight hours:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

I then walked through yet another stretch of beautiful forest:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

I then came to the bridge which meant I was within a mile of the trailhead:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

From the bridge I could see the roaring waterfall that I could only hear earlier in the morning:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

The color of the water in the creek was tinted slightly yellow probably because of some rocks it is cutting into:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

I soon found myself walking on the dirt road back to the trailhead parking lot:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

On the bridge near the parking lot I had a view of La Plata Peak which now was surrounded by dark clouds:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

I hoped everyone still on the mountain would be safe from any lightning strikes.  Something else I noticed from the bridge was that the ridge of 13-thousand foot peaks to the West of La Plata looked like a couple of cat ears:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Here is a closer look at these cool looking mountains:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

As I walked into the parking lot I could see cars parked anywhere there was room to fit something in:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

As I packed up my gear in my truck I saw more cars parking with hikers heading over to the trail.  I do not know what people are thinking when they willingly walk into a thunderstorm?  Anyway here is the view from further down Highway 82 as I headed back to Colorado Springs of the thunderstorm brewing above La Plata Peak:

Picture from La Plata Peak, Colorado

Conclusion

As I drove towards Buena Vista it was down pouring with thunder and lightning.  The weather report for the day ended up being very accurate.  I did not see anything on the news though of anyone getting struck by lightning on La Plata Peak, but recent news has shown fatalities from lightning strikes in Rocky Mountain National Park this summer.  I am always very careful about selecting what days to hike on and when to depart to avoid thunderstorms.  This caused me to get quite an early start on La Plata, but it was worth the piece of mind to get off the mountain without worrying about the weather.  In total it took 7 hours and 30 minutes to complete the hike of La Plata Peak.  It took me 3 hours and 50 minutes to ascend La Plata, 1 hour on the summit, and 2 hours and 40 minutes to descend.  I really enjoyed the hike because of the good trail, beautiful views, interesting history, and great people I got to meet.

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