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Trail Report: Sunshine Peak via the Silver Creek Trailhead

Basic Information

  • Name: Sunshine Peak
  • Where: Lake City, Colorado
  • Max Elevation:  14,001 feet
  • Distance:  12 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain:  4,775 feet
  • Time:  6-8 hours round-trip
  • Difficulty: EasyModerateHardDifficult
  • More Information: 14ers.com

Route Up Sunshine  Peak

Sunshine Route

Topographic Map of the Route

Redcloud to Sunshine Peak Map

Elevation Map of the Route

Sunshine Peak Elevation Map

Narrative

Last September I attempted to summit both Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks in one day and was unfortunately only able to summit Redcloud Peak due to a major snow storm that hit.  You can read about this hike at the below link:

This year I wanted to complete the traverse from Redcloud and summit Sunshine.  So I loaded up my family and drove to beautiful Lake City, Colorado where we rented a cabin at.

While I went climbing my family could check out this charming town.  This year instead of a fall ascent I decided on an August ascent that would assuredly provide great weather, right?  Well, as I checked the weather reports the day before I started my hike I found out a cold front was coming in that would drop snow on the San Juans, yes in August.  This same thing happened to me last year when I did the hike up the 14,309 foot Uncompahgre Peak in August and was hit by a snowstorm. Fortunately that storm hit the night before my hike and left a dusting of snow on the mountain:

You can read about that hike at the below link:

It seems to be my fate that whenever I decide to go climbing in the San Juans I have to deal with snow.  According to the weather reports I did have a brief good weather window early in the morning.  The snow would not start to fall until around 9:00 AM.  So I decided if I took the alternate route up Sunshine Peak via the Mill Creek Trailhead I could summit and be off the mountain prior to the storm if I left the trailhead at 4:00 AM in the morning.  So I made the easy 30 minute drive to the Mill Creek Campground from my cabin in Lake City on County Road 30.  The trailhead for Sunshine Peak is located across the dirt road from the campground.  The trail at first is actually very easy to follow, but after little less than a mile it completely disappeared.  In the darkness I could not see where to go next.  I spent about 15 minutes trying to find the trail and could not find it.  So I made the decision to turn around because I did not want to break brush in the dark on a steep mountain side.  That was asking for trouble.  I also figured I would have an outside chance of climbing up Sunshine Peak if I hurried over to the Silver Creek Trailhead and take the standard route up.  So I literally ran down the trail back to the Mill Creek Campground.  From there it was about a 30 minute drive in the dark to reach the Silver Creek Trailhead.  I started up the standard trail at 5:45 AM.  I knew I was going to have to move extremely fast to be able to summit Sunshine Peak before the storm hit.  I have never walked so fast up a trail before.  It seemed like before I knew it I was above treeline seeing the sun rise on the upper Silver Creek Basin:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

I could see ahead of me the remainder of the basin I would have to cross before completing a steep ascent to gain the ridgeline towards the summit of Redcloud Peak:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

As I hiked up the upper basin I noticed that one other hiker was ahead of me:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

I would eventually catch up to her and we spoke a bit about the weather hoping that it would hold like it had been so far.  Here is a view looking back down the upper Silver Creek Basin:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

After spending a couple of minutes talking to the fellow hiker I then proceeded to power up to the ridgeline.  Here is a panorama from the top of the ridgeline with the summit of Redcloud Peak visible on the far left and the upper Silver Creek Basin down below:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Here is a panorama from the top of the ridgeline looking in the opposite direction with Redcloud Peak on the right and another large basin down below:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

From the ridgeline I could see clouds starting to brew in the sky above Redcloud Peak:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

I knew I was going to have to power up the switchbacks that lead to the peak’s summit as quickly as possible:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

As I powered up the switchbacks I was actually surprised how good I was feeling.  Getting good rest before climbing a 14er really does make a huge difference.  I am used to getting up at 1 AM in the morning to make the early morning drive to most 14ers.  Since I stayed in Lake City I got more sleep since I woke up at 3:00 AM.  Just that bit more of sleep definitely made a difference.  As the final summit stretch came into view I felt great and powered up it:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

On the top of Redcloud Peak there is a rock pile with stick marker in it designating the summit:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Unlike last year, there was no snow on the ground so I could actually very clearly see why this mountain is called Redcloud Peak because of the bright red volcanic dirt that composes its summit.  According to the book, “A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners: Twentieth Anniversary Edition“ this mountain was likely first climbed by miners, but the first official ascent was by members of the Wheeler Survey in 1874.  At the time the mountain was unofficially known as “Red Mountain”, but the team’s topographer J.C. Spiller suggested the name “Redcloud” which has stuck to this day.

From the summit of Redcloud, I looked back towards Uncompahgre Peak in the distance and I could see dark storm clouds heading for me:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

I could tell it was going to be a race to the summit of Sunshine Peak.  I had left the trailhead at 5:45 AM and reached the summit of Redcloud at 8:00 AM for a ascent time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.  Last year in comparison it took me 5 hours and 20 minutes to reach the summit of Redcloud.  Also when I reached the summit last year I was exhausted, while this year I felt great in comparison.  This all gives a good indication of how much more difficult these mountains become when dealing with snow conditions.  With the dark clouds looming around me I only spent a total of 5 minutes on the summit of Redcloud taking a few pictures and drinking some water before heading out to do the 1.5 mile traverse to Sunshine Peak:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Sunshine Peak had its first recorded ascent via the Mill Creek the same year Redcloud was first climbed in 1874.  However, instead of the Wheeler Survey climbing Sunshine it was members of the Hayden Survey.  Topographers A.D Wilson and Franklin Rhoda were credited with first climbing the peak.  They wanted to do the traverse over to Redcloud which would have also made them the first to climb that peak as well, but were turned away by bad weather.  This is what allowed the follow on Wheeler Survey team to get the first ascent of Redcloud a few months later.  However, Wilson and Rhoda must not have been too inspired by their climb up Sunshine because they just used it as a triangulation station and named it “Station  12”.  As prospectors flooded into the area in 1877 the town of Sherman was built below Sunshine Peak.  The town had one good silver mine that probably supported a population of up to 300 people.  The town people called Sunshine, Mt. Sherman.  Sherman was abandoned in 1893 due to the silver market crash and the fact the town would be regularly flooded by the Lake Fork River below.  Sherman is nothing more than a ghost town today and its naming of Mt. Sherman was lost with it.  For an unknown reason the US Geological Survey in 1904 named it Sunshine Peak and it had the distinction of being Colorado’s lowest 14er at 14,001 feet:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

As I stood on top of Redcloud Peak I did not have much time to ponder the history of these mountains due to the impending storm, so I started jogging across the ridgeline in an effort to get to the summit of Sunshine before the storm.  Trying to jog on a nearly 14,000 foot high ridgeline with a full pack and increasingly blowing wind was quite tiring. To the east of me I could see the snowstorm moving in towards me:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

As I neared Sunshine Peak the wind began to really pick up as the snow storm closed in on me.  I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about the snow because I was, but fortunately I knew I could tackle whatever the elements through at me due to all the cold weather gear I had in my pack.  Plus if it got too bad I knew what escape routes I could take off the mountain to quickly drop altitude.  However, this sign along the traverse points out which escape route I should not take:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

I had used so much energy getting to Sunshine Peak that by the time I reached its steep final summit approach I was exhausted:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

However, with the snow blowing around me I knew I had to hurry up and get up this peak.  It wasn’t so much because of the snow, but because of the fear of lightning.  Early morning lightning is very rare so I had that going for me.  Also I had heard and seen no lightning while the storm was moving towards me.  If I had seen or heard anything I would have immediately descended.  I also did not feel any static electricity in the air so I felt pretty safe.  Regardless though I dug deep and continued to put one foot in front of the other to power up to the summit of Sunshine as quickly as possible.  At exactly 3 hours after setting off from the trail head I reached the summit of Sunshine Peak at 8:45 AM:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

It had only taking me 40 minutes to do the traverse in less than ideal conditions.  On the summit it was a snow flurry with blowing wind.  I had on some really good cold weather gear so I wasn’t cold except when I would take off my glove to take pictures.  From the summit it appeared the views would have been quite stunning without all the clouds.  Here is the view looking towards the various 12 and 13-thousand foot peaks to the south where the old ghost town of Sherman resides in the valley below:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Here is the view also towards the south where the 13,841 foot Half Peak can be seen in the distance through the storm:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Further to the southwest the 14,048 foot Handies Peak could be seen as well:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

You can read about my prior climb up the beautiful Handies Peak at the below link:

Here is the view looking west down towards the Silver Creek drainage that I followed up towards Redcloud Peak:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

There is actually a route up Sunshine Peak from this basin below me that has some loose rock sections that I did not want to chance going up or down in inclement weather thus why I stuck with the standard trail up and over Redcloud Peak.  Considering the good time I made ascending these peaks I think it was a good decision.  Here is the view looking north back towards Redcloud Peak:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Here is the view towards the east where the mountains around County Road 30 leading back to Lake City can be seen:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

The above picture shows the approach I would have taken up Sunshine Peak from the Mill Creek Campground that is located near the small ponds visible below the mountain.  Here are views of the mountains to the southeast which had these large and expansive alpine plateaus:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Every time I take in views of what appear to be endless mountains of the San Juans I am always impressed by what a incredible wilderness area this is:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Here are panorama photos I took using my iPhone 5S.  This first one shows the summit on the far left with the pictured center looking towards the east:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

This next photo shows the summit on the right and is centered towards the northwest:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

This final panorama photo I took just before beginning my descent back to Redcloud Peak which can be seen directly ahead of me in the photo:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

In total I spent just 5 minutes on the summit taking these photos before deciding to descend and hike back to Redcloud.  In the future I will probably hike up this mountain again just so I can spend more time checking out the views, but on this morning it was best to get moving again.  So I moved as quickly as possible again across the traverse.  During the traverse I ran into the hiker I passed earlier who was I was glad to see was looking strong despite the weather.  I spoke for a little bit again which gave me time to take this panorama picture from the traverse looking towards the east:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

This picture shows what laid ahead of me still to re-summit Redcloud Peak:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Here is another view from the traverse looking down in a basin below the traverse to the east:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

As I began the ascent portion of the hike up Redcloud Peak I was quite tired and took frequented pauses before continuing on with the traverse:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

The farther across the traverse I got actually better the weather became.  It was still cloudy out, but the snow flurries had stopped and the wind had died down:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

I ended up re-summitting Redcloud 4 hours and 10 minutes after starting my hike which meant the time was now 9:55 AM.  The strangest thing happened to me once I re-summitted Redcloud; the clouds parted around the mountain leaving me with blue skies and a clear view looking south back towards Sunshine Peak:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

I wish I would had this weather happen to me while I was still on Sunshine Peak so I could have gotten some better photos!  On the summit there was a group of four other hikers I ran into that I shared the views with.  I ended up spending 20 minutes on the summit talking with them and taking in the views.  Here is another view looking past Sunshine into the vast wilderness of the San Juan Mountains towards the south:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Here is the view looking towards the southwest towards the 14er Handies Peak:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Here is the view looking west where down below the Silver Creek Trailhead and County Road 30 can be seen which leads to the famed American Basin.  Also in the distance the 14,150 foot Mt. Sneffels can be seen:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

To the northeast the 14,0015 foot Wetterhorn Peak could be seen in the distance on the far right:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

I was actually planning to climb Wetterhorn the next day, but as it would turn out it would snow again during the afternoon and night leaving the peak covered in snow the next day.  There was no way I was going to climb Wetterhorn which requires some Class rock climbing in icy conditions.  So ended up not hiking up it.  Looking to the north Wetterhorn and the 14,309 foot Uncompahgre Peak could both be seen:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

This next picture shows the view looking northeast at the ridgeline of mountains that leads back to Lake City:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

This view looking east shows Redclouds’ ubiquitous red dirt in the foreground and the Lake Fork River valley down below:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Here are the panorama photos I took with this first centered looking west with Sunshine Peak visible on the far left, Handies Peak towards the center, and Wetterhorn on the far right:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

This next panorama is centered on the north with Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre Peaks visible in the distance towards the center:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

This final panorama is centered towards the east with Uncompahgre Peak visible on the far left:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

After saying goodbye to the hikers I met on the summit I began my descent back down Redcloud:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

The 20 minute rest and improved weather really re-energized me because I was feeling better after being quite exhausted on the summit.  However, I was not really making good time because I kept stopping to take pictures due to how nice the weather had become.  Redcloud Peak was just so photogenic with its amazing red and orange colors:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Redcloud Peak really is a one of a kind 14er in Colorado because none of the other 14-thousand foot peaks have the incredible colors of Redcloud:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

When I wasn’t taking pictures of the scenery the descent down Redcloud’s northern face was steep, but quite easy:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Here is a view looking down the north face where the trail that leads back into the upper Silver Creek Basin is visible to the left of the ridgeline:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

By this time I had seen a few more hikers heading up Redcloud Peak.  I encouraged them to hurry up with their ascent and take advantage of this good weather while it lasts:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

As I looked back at Redcloud Peak I wondered if anyone had ever tried to climb up its eastern face because that just looked extremely difficult to climb due to its steepness and loose rock:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

The north face as this picture from the ridgeline shows is composed of solid rock and quite easy to climb up:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

On the ridgeline I spoke with a few more hikers about the conditions ahead:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

I was surprised by how many people were now heading up the mountain.  I estimated I spoke with about 15 hikers heading up Redcloud Peak pictured on the far left of the below panorama photo:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Even as I hiked down into the basin it was well past 11:00 AM people were still heading up the mountain:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

My rule of thumb is to be heading off the mountain before noon, not heading up it.  Anyway once I got further into the basin I saw no other hikers and my only company was all the marmots I saw:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

As well as a few pikas:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Here is a panorama of the trail as I crossed the upper basin with Redcloud Peak visible in the center:

IMG_5896

As I walked through the upper basin I kept stopping to take photos of all the different and colorful wildflowers:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

IMG_5885

Despite August not being the peak wildflower season there was till plenty of them to see in the Silver Creek Basin:

IMG_5893

There were even a few of my favorite wildflowers, the columbine that could be seen as well:

IMG_5891

Not only were there plenty of wildflowers to see, but these Easton Thistle plants as well:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

I then walked passed this neat little pond located in the upper basin:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

After the pond I began the descent down into the lower basin:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

There is a section of this descent where the trail crosses a massive rock field:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Here is a view looking up at the mountain composed of loose red rock that the elements over the centuries has been cutting away at causing rock to roll down the side of the mountain and continue to build this rock field:

IMG_5900

There is also a section of the trail that crosses the debris from an avalanche that happened last year:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

So much snow had piled up in the basin from this avalanche that it was not able to all melt during the summer.  It is because of the avalanche threat that the standard trail from Silver Creek is not recommended during the winter months.  Speaking of Silver Creek I was now walking along it and was wondering how safe this water is to drink?:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Due to all the minerals in these mountains the water had a grayish look to it and the rocks around it were all discolored in a variety of colors:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Before descending into the treeline I came to this large cairn which designates the alternate and shorter trail up Sunshine Peak which I decided not to do due to inclement weather I would have faced trying to ascend loose rock:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

After the cairn I was engulfed by the thick forest:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

Occasionally the trees would open up and I would have a view of Handies Peak to the south:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

I would also have views looking up the lower slopes of Sunshine Peak as well:

Picture from Redcloud & Sunshine Peaks

After 12 miles of hiking and six hours and 30 minutes after starting out, I found myself back at the trailhead:

IMG_5904

Here is a panorama view from the trailhead looking south:

IMG_5905

This next panorama is looking west up County Road 30 that leads to American Basin:

IMG_5909

Conclusion

At the trailhead I could feel a few raindrops coming down which signaled to me that I needed to drive down the rough dirt between the Silver Creek Trailhead and the Mill Creek Campground before it down pours.  After Mill Creek the dirt road is graded an easy to drive.  So just past noon I left the Silver Creek Trailhead and began the drive back to Lake City.  Despite my initial challenges early in the morning and lack of sunshine, the hike up Sunshine Peak ended up going well and I had another great day in the mountains.  I would still like to try to hike up Sunshine from the Mill Creek Trailhead some day, but now I know to hike up that trail during the daylight hours because of how faint it is.  Maybe that is why the US Geological Survey gave the mountain its name Sunshine because if you are going to climb it from Mill Creek you need some sunshine to see the trail.

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