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Trail Report: Culebra Peak, Colorado

Basic Information

  • Name: Culebra Peak
  • Range: Sangre de Cristo
  • Where: San Luis, Colorado
  • Max Elevation: 14,047 feet
  • Distance:  4 miles one-way
  • Elevation Gain: 3,200 feet
  • Time: 2-4 hours one-way
  • Difficulty: EasyModerateHardDifficult
  • More Information: 14ers.com

Route Up Culebra Peak

Culebra Peak Route

Topographic Map of Culebra Peak Trail

Culebra Peak Topo Map

Elevation Map of Culebra Peak

Culebra Peak Elevation Map

Narrative

This summer I have been highly focused on hiking up 14ers in the Sawatch Range.  I have now decided to move on and try to complete some 14ers in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains this summer as well just to change things up a bit.  The Sangre de Cristos are not unfamiliar to me considering I have hiked in portions of the range in Northern New Mexico as well as in the Culebra Range section of these great mountains.  Being familiar with the Culebra Range I decided to climb my first 14er in the Sangre de Cristos by climbing the lone 14er in this section of the Sangre de Cristos, Culebra Peak:

This peak has long had a reputation of being a “forbidden mountain” due to land access issues.  It is the only 14er in the country that is on privately owned land.  Before 2004 the peak was mostly inaccessible to climbers when it was owned by Jack Taylor.  In his book, Halfway to Heaven: My White-knuckled–and Knuckleheaded–Quest for the Rocky Mountain High, Mark Obmascik provides a good history about the history of the ranch.  Taylor who is from North Carolina bought the land in 1960.  The ranch became a source of much controversy because Taylor would not allow locals access to the property under the unique communal grazing system that is a legacy from the Spanish colonial times.  The village of San Luis in the valley below Culebra Peak is the oldest town in Colorado with a rich Spanish and Mexican heritage.  They fought the Taylor Ranch owners both in the courts as well as physically on the ground for decades.  Fights and even gunshots were not uncommon occurrences.  Things finally got out of hand in 1976 when Taylor was shot in the foot at home by snipers.  He was rushed to the emergency room by armed ranch hands.  This caused Taylor to leave the ranch, but not before making racial statements against the Mexican-American residents of San Luis in the New Yorker magazine.

Taylor Excerpt1

After Jack Taylor died in 1988 his son Zachary Taylor took control of the property.  Things got even worse when he decided to begin extensive logging on the property.  The locals in the area were concerned that the logging would cause damage to their communal irrigation system called an “acequia”.  Environmentalists then converged in San Luis as well to stop the logging and violence ensued.  By 1999 the Taylor family finally had enough and decided to sell the ranch.  The Colorado State government tried to buy the ranch for $20 million to turn it into a State Park.  The Taylors decided to sell to the highest bidder, the Enron executive Lou Pai for $23 million. The crooked Enron executive would prove to be worse than the Taylors when he hired an army of security guards to defend the ranch.  After Pai lost a legal fight in 2002 in regards to the communal grazing policy he opened the ranch to some paying hikers probably in an attempt to sway the appeal on the case.  By 2004 Pai had completely lost the court battle and decided to sell the ranch for $40 million to Texas businessmen Bobby Hill and Richard Welch.  They renamed the ranch the Cielo Vista (Heavenly View) Ranch.  The new owners vowed to responsibly share the land with nearby residents and develop it for recreational purposes such as hiking.  Fast forward now ten years later and I have to say that the owners have lived up to their word because Culebra Peak is open for hiking now, but on a reservation system with a $150 fee.  This fee has been a source of consternation with some people, but after having paid to hike up Culebra Peak myself, I have to say the Cielo Vista Ranch has used that money to really keep this property in pristine condition.

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

The ranch takes reservations for hiking during a two month summertime window which can be seen on their website.  Each week during this window they only allow hiking for 30 people on Fridays and Saturdays only.  Considering the limited window and number of reservations the ranch is not getting rich off of hikers by charging this fee.  The ranch does not max out the number of hikers during the open days; if they did have 30 hikers in one day that would mean $4,500.  If they maxed out every two days for every week they are open they would get a total of $72,000.  Since they do not max out every day I bet the ranch brings in about $50,000 a summer from hikers.  Considering this is a $40 million ranch that amount of money is nothing to the owners and is likely just use to help maintain the road and pay the ranch hands for the weekends they are working to run the hiking program.  It is pretty clear the owners are not running the hiking program for profit and are doing it to be the responsible land owners they promised to be when they bought the property.

Before I could experience the rich history of this mountain I first had to make a three hour drive from Colorado Springs down to San Luis on a Friday night after work.  As I pulled into town here is the view of the sunset on Culebra Peak I was able to witness:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

The views of the Sangre de Cristos from San Luis are quite exquisite.  I even saw this really cool storm cloud as well:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Hikers have the option of either camping at the entrance gate to the ranch or staying at the lone motel in San Luis.  For those that want to camp the ranch has a designated camp spot next to the gate:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

The camping area even has a lone porta-potty for campers to use:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

I decided to stay at the San Luis Inn in town because my wife and kids came with me.  While I went hiking they were going to walk around and check out San Luis.  San Luis we would find to be an interesting little village with a strong Mexican heritage that can be seen in the architecture throughout the town:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

San Luis is also known for being home to the walk known as the Stations of the Cross.  This is a hiking trail that has statues that depict the crucifixion of Jesus as it leads to a church on a hill above the town.  The lone motel in San Luis is located behind a gas station in the middle of town.  It is easy to find though because of the big sign it has:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Here is a picture of the motel:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

I had to knock on the door of the motel owner’s house to get him to check us in.  He lives right across the parking lot from the motel.  The owners name is Augustin and he is an elderly gentleman who is a Korean War veteran.  I got to speak with him for a while during my visit.  He opened the motel 15 years ago at the urging of his kids who felt the town needed a motel.  He told me the motel pays for itself and it keeps him busy.  Augustin is also very involved with Korean War veterans groups and has a number of pictures and memorabilia on the hotel’s wall of himself and other Korean War veterans who have stayed at the motel to include a number of Medal of Honor recipients.  I found him to be a very interesting man to talk to during my stay.  At the motel there was also a number of other hikers staying there that I got to speak to who were also climbing the mountain.  The next morning I woke at 4:30 AM and was in the parking lot and ready to go by 5:15 AM.  I could see the other hikers in the parking lot as well getting ready to go.  It is only about a 20 minute drive to the front gate of the ranch from San Luis and the directions are easy to follow even in the dark.  Here is a picture of the gate from later in the day:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

When I arrived at the gate I could see a few other people parked out front waiting as well.  After speaking with some of the other hikers for a few minutes, the ranch hands arrived shortly before 6:00 AM to check people in and open the gate.  The ranch employee who checked us in was a man named Ron who looks like someone who stepped right out of the Old West.  After check in we all followed Ron in his pick up to the ranch headquarters.  Here is a picture from the dirt road looking towards the ranch from later in the day:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

If you are wondering, yes this is a working cattle ranch with cows on it along the road:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Besides ranching and hiking, the ranch also has fishing and hunting businesses as well.  I heard hunting is a big money maker for the ranch by charging people that can afford it $10,000 per elk.  Anyway the dirt road to the ranch I found to be bumpy, but easily passable by a two-wheel drive car.  At the ranch headquarters Ron brought us all into a small office in the main cabin.  He checked everyone’s paperwork which was a legal waiver and proof of payment.  The legal waiver is printed off the ranch’s website and payment is also made on the website via PayPal.  I found the booking and payment on their website to be quite easy.  After checking everyone’s paperwork Ron gave us all a safety briefing.  We found out that just a few weeks ago that the ranch had to coordinate a flight for life rescue helicopter to evacuate someone from the peak who ended up having a blood clot in their lungs.  The helicopter was dispatched from Colorado Springs and successfully evacuated the person from above 13,000 feet and ultimately saved the person’s life. Ron also asked if anyone had a Spot GPS tracker on them.  I informed him that I had a Delorme In-Reach that could be used to call for search and rescue if anyone needed it.

They also checked vehicles to see if they could drive up the road to the trailhead.  The only vehicle they had concerns about were my Ford Escape since everyone else had sturdy four-wheel drive vehicles.  My Escape is an all-wheel drive hybrid, but they felt it should be able to make it up the road.  In all the paperwork check and briefing took less than 15 minutes to complete.  The road up to the trailhead begins at the ranch headquarters.  Here is a picture from later in the day of the road:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

I waited to go up the road last due to the concerns about my truck.  Just passed the ranch headquarters there is a sign pointing out which way to go to reach the trailhead.  Here is a picture once again from later in the day of this sign:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

I found the road to be steep and bumpy in some sections, but overall it was well maintained:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

My Escape went right up with no problems.  I even stopped at a meadow to take pictures of the sunrise over the 14,345 foot Blanca Peak which could be seen in the distance:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

There are two trailheads for the hike up Culebra Peak.  The first trailhead is known as Four Way and is where people who want to hike over 3,000 feet in altitude stop to hike from.  The next trailhead is the Upper Four-Wheel Drive Trailhead which is a mile further up the road.  From here the hike is only 2,800 feet in altitude.  I would estimate that the vehicles were evenly split between the two trailheads.  I began the hike from Four Way because I wanted to make sure this was counted as an official ascent by gaining 3,000 feet:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

From Four Way I had a nice view of the sunrise over the southern section of the Culebra Range:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

From Four Way I began to one mile hike up the road to the upper trailhead:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

I made quick work of this section as I passed everyone that had started before me and reached the upper trailhead:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

From the upper trailhead this is where people make a decision of which way they want to go.  Most people take a faint trail from the upper trailhead to the lower ridgeline.  I instead walked down to the upper trailhead, crossed the creek, and continued south on the dirt road.  I then spotted a trail on my left and took it up to a small ridgeline:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

The ridgeline lead to this rock outcropping:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

From the rock outcropping I had nice views looking back down the mountain where I could see San Luis way down below:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

I also had a view of the peaks in the southern Culebra Range as well:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Down below to the north I could see the upper trailhead and hikers taking the faint trail up the ridgeline:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

The word “culebra” is Spanish for “harmless snake”.  Some people believe the name came from the winding creek that waters the farms in the valley down below.  However, others think the name came from the long curving ridgeline that leads to the summit of Culebra Peak that looks like a snake.  For hikers that take the faint trail to the ridgeline it becomes a long 3-mile ridge walk to the summit.  From the ridgeline I was on I had a straight shot to the 13,000+ foot section of the ridgeline that would eliminate some of the mileage:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

This panorama picture shows the ridgeline I followed on the right while the standard ridgeline can be seen on the left:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Here is a wider angle panorama of the view:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

I planned to take this more direct approach to the summit while descending using the main ridgeline most people were using.  This more direct approach was of course very steep and I had to work my way around some rocks:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Going up this hillside was comparable in steepness of the Manitou Incline, but instead of railway ties I had grass and rocks to step on.  It actually felt kind of weird to be walking on the alpine grass, but this is actually what the owners want hikers to do.  They encourage hikers to spread out in order to not leave permanent trails on the mountain.  Here is the view looking down the steep slope towards the ridgeline where the rock outcropping can be seen below:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Once I reached the top of the ridgeline I was at about 13,200 feet and had some nice views of the peaks of the northern Culebra Range as well:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Off in the distance I could see Blanca Peak and its surrounding mountains:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Here is the view looking back down towards the Cielo Vista Ranch and San Luis to the West:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Here is the view looking towards the Southwest:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

From the top of the ridgeline I also had my first views of what is actually a false summit of Culebra Peak:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

As I walked along the grassy ridgeline I could see a large cairn up ahead:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

This cairn ended up being the largest cairn I have seen on a Colorado mountain before:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Pass the cairn the trail becomes much rockier which required me to watch my footing:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

The trail eventually became even rockier which required some simple scrambling to get across:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

This rock cropping actually descends down into a saddle before continuing the ascent up to the false summit:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

The serpent like ridgeline has a few spots to where altitude is lost and has to be regained with this being the largest one.  At the bottom of this saddle is where I spotted my first of many friendly marmots I would see during the day:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

These guys were every where around the trail squeaking at me.  It almost felt like they were my own personal cheerleaders.  As I began the ascent from the saddle the trail became quite rocky again:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Scrambling through these rocks I found to be actually quite fun since they were solid unlike the talus hell I went through the prior week when I did the Mt. Harvard to Mt. Columbia traverse.  Here is the view from this rocky section looking back down on the ridgeline I traversed where the various saddles can be seen:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

From the top of the false summit I could see for the first time the true summit in front of me:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Ascending the true summit required a little more fun rock scrambling.  It was here where I caught up to people who started from the upper trailhead.  Soon enough I found myself on the summit enjoying expansive views of the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  Here is the view from the summit looking West towards the false summit:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Here is the view towards the Northwest where Blanca Peak and its surrounding mountains could be seen:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Here is the view looking to the North where the 13,517 foot Trinchera Peak can be seen in the distance:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Here is a closer look at the mountains to the North with Trinchera Peak visible on the left:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

To the Northeast the beautiful Spanish Peaks dominated the view:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

West Spanish Peak is a 13er that I have climbed multiple times before.  You can read about my prior hike up this mountain at the below link:

To the East I could see the 9,631 foot Fishers Peak and Trinidad Lake below it in the distance:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Here is a closer look at the view:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Here is a panorama picture looking North that shows the Coneros Basin below Culebra Peak with Blanca Peak visible in the distance on the far left, the Spanish Peaks in the center, and Fishers Peak barely visible on the far right:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

To the Southeast the view was dominated by the 13,908 foot Red Mountain:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

To the South I could see the high peaks of the southern Culebra Range which included the 13,723 foot Vermejo Peak and the 13,676 foot Purgatoire Peak:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

These peaks are also part of the Cielo Vista Ranch property and can be hiked through prior coordination with the ranch.  Here is a panorama picture of the view looking towards the South:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

All these high peaks in the Culebra Range are little known in Colorado due to being overshadowed by all the much larger 14ers the state is home to.  However if this range was located about 10-15 miles further South, they would be the crown jewels of New Mexico hiking.  Many of the peaks in the Culebra Range are higher than the highest peak in New Mexico, Wheeler Peak which is 13,161 feet high.

After taking a number of pictures from the summit I sat down with the other hikers to eat a snack.  They ended up being a a good group to spend time with.  Since you have to pay to hike this peak, this tends to cause serious hikers to come out and climb Culebra.  So it was fun to spend time talking mountains with people who are just as interested in them as I am.

Considering how few hikers this mountain sees over the course of a year, we found the marmots on Culebra Peak to be quite friendly.  They will literally come right up to you in search of easy food:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

After spending about 45 minutes talking to the group of hikers on the summit I bid my farewells to the group because I planned to hike over to the neighboring Red Mountain.  As part of the $150 fee hikers can also climb Red Mountain which is one of the Top 100 highest peaks in Colorado:

Picture from Culebra Peak, Colorado

Conclusion

Overall I found the climb of Culebra Peak to be much funner than I thought it was going to be.  This really is a different 14er experience due to the small group and camaraderie built by meeting other hikers and sharing the peak experience together.  It was also unique to not have a trail to follow and everyone just taking their own path to the summit.  So in my opinion there is a lot to like about Culebra Peak and I was next going to find out if there was just as much to like about Red Mountain.

Next Posting: The Traverse to Red Mountain

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