Trip Report: Redcloud PeakJul 05, 2020
During the last weekend in June, 2020, William and I decided to tackle our first 14’er of the season, so we headed down to the San Juans to climb Redcloud Peak (actually our original goal was to climb both Redcloud and Sunshine, but more on that later).
The hike begins at the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch Trailhead on County Road 30. You can approach the trailhead from Lake City along a dirt road that has a couple of rough & rocky points and a mile & a half of narrow shelf road carved into the base of Sunshine Peak with a large drop-off on the other side. Most vehicles can make it to the trailhead via this route with some careful driving, but having a high-clearance vehicle is helpful (be aware the road gets really rough right after Grizzly Gulch; I would advise at least having something like a Subaru with high-clearance and AWD if you’re planning on driving up to American Basin).
Alternatively, you can access the trailhead from Ouray by driving over Cinnamon Pass along the Alpine Loop. This option definitely requires a high-clearance 4wd vehicle (Ouray has plenty of Jeep and side-by-side rentals if you need one!).
We drove down on Saturday, June 27th, and found a killer campsite about 150 yards away from the crowded trailhead that provided gorgeous mountain views.
It rained a bit while we were setting up camp, but that’s par for the course on a summer afternoon in the mountains. We didn’t see any lightning or hear any thunder (nor was any forecasted), so we still felt good about setting out to climb early the next morning.
We woke up at 3am and groggily got ready to set out on our hike. After stumbling around in the dark for forty-five minutes making sure we had everything we needed, we finally headed out.
Our headlamps guided us through the woods up the Silver Creek Trail for the first couple of miles. There were a couple of portions of the trail that were affected by avalanche damage, but it was still easy to follow, even in the dark (we passed some folks with Colorado Fourteeners Initiative working on the trail on our way back so conditions are probably even better now).
Right as we reached tree-line first light started making its way across the sky. We were treated to pink clouds and some gorgeous alpenglow on Handies Peak behind us, which made the early wakeup call so worth it!
Once the sun was up, the elevation and lack of sleep started getting to me, so our pace slowed down considerably as we made our way up the basin at the base of Redcloud towards the saddle. From the saddle, the climb up the ridge from 13,000 ft. to a false summit at 13,900 ft. was the most challenging part of the hike in my opinion.
There are plenty of switchbacks to make the elevation gain less daunting, but there are a few steep, loose sections that turn things up a notch. There was one brief patch of snow to cross, but the trail is well-trafficked enough that there were solid footprints to follow and I didn’t feel a need to take out my microspikes. From the false summit, it was an easy push up to the actual summit of Redcloud at 14,034 ft.
We summited just before 8am, which means it took us about 4 hours to hike approximately 4.5 miles with 3,700 ft. of vert, so it was pretty slow going but not completely terrible for our first high-altitude hike of the year!
Once we stopped moving to rest and grab some food, it finally hit me how cold I was. I was wearing a baselayer, puffy, windbreaker, ear warmer, and gloves, and yet I couldn’t stop shivering. Once my fingers went from feeling cold to burning in pain I knew I needed to start moving & get down to a lower elevation where temperatures would be slightly warmer. That’s when we decided to forgo the easy traverse over to Sunshine Peak and begin our descent instead. Shortly after we began the descent my fingers went totally numb for about 15 minutes, so I’m grateful we began heading down when we did (lesson learned: always carry hand-warmers!).
After that minor debacle the remainder of the hike was easy sailing (shoutout to my trekking poles for saving my knees!). Since we started earlier than most of the other people camping at or around the trailhead, we passed a number of parties during our descent, but the mountain certainly wasn’t crowded by any means, especially for an “easier” 14’er.
Once we got back below treeline we finally had an opportunity to see all of the avalanche debris we had passed in the dark. It’s possible to do both Redcloud & Sunshine as a loop, opting to ascend or descend Sunshine’s Northwest face, but be aware if you choose this route you’re going to have to navigate through some of the avy damage to get back to the main trail (from what I’ve heard this route isn’t the most enjoyable either because you have to traverse a considerable amount of loose scree, which is why ascending Redcloud, then crossing the saddle to summit Sunshine and going back the way you came is recommended).
We finally made it back to our campsite at about 11:15 and enjoyed a feast of Sour Patch Kids and my new favorite snack, Nacho cauliflower crackers from Real Food From the Ground Up, before heading home. Our pace was MUCH slower than usual, but that’s to be expected when you’re climbing a fricken’ mountain!
Even though we didn’t make it both Redcloud and Sunshine on this trip, the approach and summit of Redcloud were SO gorgeous, I definitely don’t mind having to come back to do it all again!
Distance: 9 miles (just Redcloud); 12.25 miles (Redcloud & Sunshine)
Elevation Gain: 3,700 ft. (just Redcloud); 4,800 ft. (Redcloud & Sunshine)
Difficulty (1-10): 9. Not for beginner hikers, but makes for a good beginner 14’er if you’re an experienced hiker. The route is rated as Class II, which means there isn’t any scrambling, but there may be some exposure, loose rocks, & steep scree. You may also need to use your hands for balance.
Dog Friendly: Technically, yes. The hike is within the Redcloud Wilderness Study Area, so dogs must be under control at all times (i.e. leashed or under voice command). While I don’t recall seeing any signage requiring dogs to be on-leash, consider leashing them above tree-line as a courtesy to other hikers and to prevent damaging the fragile alpine tundra.
Since the hike is long, steep, and exposed to the elements, consider leaving your pup at home unless they’re regulars in the mountains. We opted to leave Becket home because while he certainly could have completed the hike, we knew he probably wouldn’t have had a good time hiking in direct sunlight above tree-line with no water sources. Also be aware portions of the trail are quite rocky and may hurt your pup’s paws, so consider carrying booties or Musher’s Secret with you!
Special Considerations: The combination of altitude & exposure to the elements makes climbing any 14’er much more challenging than a typical hike. Be prepared for changing conditions and carry sun protection, extra water, and extra layers.
Also know how to recognize early signs of altitude sickness- headache, nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness, loss of appetite, fatigue. If you or anyone in your party begin to feel any of these symptoms (particularly a bad headache, along with dizziness or confusion) get back down to a lower elevation as safely as possible. Failing to treat earlier signs of altitude sickness can lead to High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), which are both life threatening conditions.
Afternoon thunderstorms are also very common in the mountains during the summer. A good rule of thumb to avoid them is to get an alpine start so you’re off the mountain (or at least back below tree-line) before noon. And always remember, your life is more important than reaching the summit!
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