The Highest Point in Archuleta County: A 20-mile Pilgrimage
If you're a local, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen the highest point in Archuleta County but didn’t know it. Unlike the familiar faces on our skyline, Summit Peak sits 3 ridges back and is surrounded by a sea of shark's teeth Yet at 13,307 feet, Summit Peak stands above them all.
Summit Peak sits squarely on the Continental Divide within the South San Juan Wilderness and its significant snowfields sustain our streams throughout the summer. The Alamosa River, a tributary to the Rio Grande, emerges from the east side. Quartz Creek and the Blanco River, both tributaries to the San Juan River, originate on the western side. The best place to see Summit Peak is from the far southern or northern fringes of the Archuleta County or the top of Wolf Creek Ski Area.
I’ve wanted to climb Summit Peak since the turn of the millennia, but I had yet to climb it for 2 reasons. Summit Peak doesn’t stand out on the skyline so I don't get the same daily reminders that I get from the frontline peaks. And since Summit Peak isn’t a frontline peak, it’s fairly far away! For over 20 years, Summit Peak took a backseat to more accessible, conspicuous peaks.
To access Summit Peak from Pagosa Springs, you can drive 50 winding miles through 3 neighboring counties for nearly 2 hours to get closer to its base (Elwood Pass is a shortcut, but you have to have a serious 4WD vehicle). If you want to avoid the drive time, you can trek over 20 miles on foot instead. As a resident of fo Archuleta County, I decided the most appropriate way to climb to the highest point was to begin my pilgrimage from Archuleta County.
Since it's safer to run 20 miles and climb 6,000 vertical feet with company, I scrolled through my shortlist and landed on Silas' name. Silas is a former PSHS soccer player turned skyrunner. He was back in town and happened to be in great shape thanks to all the extra running he'd done during the COVID-19 shutdown.
Our journey began in late June just before 7 AM at the Little Blanco trailhead east of Pagosa Springs. We abruptly awoke our legs and lungs with the strenuous 3-mile, 2100 vertical-foot toll required to enter the spectacular passage through Quartz Ridge. After a grueling 45-minute climb, we said goodbye treeline and left the protection of the forest for the rest of the run. As we passed through the snowy saddle, we entered and an emerald world of glacially-scoured, wind-swept tundra.
Not far from the saddle, the well-worn Quartz Lake trail departs north from Little Blanco Trail. I'd passed by the un-signed trail junction on my way to Quartz Lake a half dozen times and never noticed the faint path marked by tombstone-like cairns. The faint trail gets very little foot traffic as it heads east toward the Continental Divide along a ridge that forms the watershed boundary between Quartz Creek and the Blanco River.
Not far from the trail junction, the ridgeline becomes too jagged and the trail drops steeply into a ravine and crosses a stream. Clinging to a cliffside on the other side of the stream is a feat of backcountry engineering that was constructed nearly 5 miles from the nearest trailhead! As the trail climbs out of the streambed, it clings to a sheer cliff face thanks to the support of 1-inch diameter rebar driven into the bedrock. I’d love to know the story behind that section of trail...when was it built, who carried in the heavy metal, and how did they transport it!
The trail traverses the headwaters of Quartz Creek, gains a saddle, and then contours along a bench above the headwaters of the Blanco River. The trail has been consumed by the lumpy alpine bunchgrass which led to a minor ankle roll on my part. As we got closer to Summit Peak, a deep notch on the summit ridge came into view interrupting the formally mellow-looking route to the top. My old school map and Silas’ fancy phone app lacked the scale to determine if the cliff was connected to the summit ridge.
Instead of charging straight for the summit, we avoided the jagged notch by joining the faint Continental Divide Trail, which was still partially buried by snow. The path contoured around the eastern flank to a steep grassy slope that led to the summit ridge. We shuffled up the summit's spine, which separates the sentinel's impressive, crumbling north-western side from its opposite grassy, swooping, Sound of Music side. Expending for nearly 3 hours above 10,000 feet had depleted our reserves and we were operating in the red. Just as my watch indicated our 10th mile, we reached the South San Juans’ ceiling where we eagerly balanced our oxygen and energy budgets.
The return on our investment consisted of expansive views of O’Neal Park to the west, Montezuma Peak and Wolf Creek Pass to the north, the Summitville Caldera, and the Sangre de Cristo Range to the east, and V-Rock and Archuleta Mesa to the south. The north side drops so steeply that it seemed like I could toss a rock into an unnamed lake 1000 feet below. Fortunately, the weather was perfect for soaking up the hard-earned views. Seven miles away, we could also pick out the narrow passage through Quartz Ridge through which we would return.
Our run was only half over, but fortunately, much of it was downhill. Leaving the peak behind us, we could see that the sketchy notch that we’d avoided was not connected to the ridgeline, which allowed us to stay on the ridgeline and save time and energy. Our downhill coast was interrupted when we reached the stream crossing at the bottom of the engineered section. The 500-foot climb back to Quartz Ridge from the stream crossing was grueling at that late stage in the run, but we stayed motivated knowing that we had 3 miles of downhill once we reached the narrow passage.
As we crested Quartz Ridge, my cell phone buzzed with notifications signaling that our backcountry adventure was nearly over. Shortly thereafter, we saw other potential COVID-carriers for the first time. I can’t say the last 3 miles downhill felt great since slowing down my tired frame on steep terrain was only slightly less painful than steep uphill. Silas’ young legs had more spring left and he disappeared into the first trees. A few minutes later, I staggered past trailhead sign having completed one of the longest summit ascents I’ve ever attempted in one day!