RT Length: 18.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 5640’
I arrived at the Cataract Gulch trailhead the day before, after summiting Point 13,832. I was pleasantly surprised to find a well stocked and clean bathroom, as well as plenty of open parking space. Mine was the only vehicle in the lot, despite it being 4th of July weekend.
Also, apparently this is a Lynx recovery area, which I found interesting.
I’d ended my hike early and desperately needed to catch up on sleep, so I went to sleep around 2:30pm and only woke up twice: once because it was too hot in my truck (the sun was going down but at exactly the right angle to heat up my vehicle drastically in just a few minutes) and another time I around 10pm. I still had over 4 hours of potential shut eye so I took a melatonin with a shot of whiskey and fell back asleep. I didn’t wake up again until my alarm went off after 2am, so I consider it a successful night of truck camping (I notoriously sleep terribly at trailheads).
I fished around in my backpack for my flashlight and couldn’t find it. I was sure I’d placed it in the small pocket the day before, but it was nowhere to be found. Luckily, I always carry a spare as well as extra batteries. Immediately I remembered why I didn’t like this flashlight: it was TOO bright. That sounds like a good thing, but when hiking in the forest in the dark I’d actually rather not see every detail. This flashlight was too good. I was going to have to replace it when I got home.
On this hike I was armed with a topo map, a compass and some beta from the campers I met last night, as well as a rough route description. I started on the Cataract Gulch trailhead around 2:45am, crossing Cottonwood Creek on a well built bridge over a swiftly flowing creek
And then I crossed the creek twice more on well placed log bridges I had to hunt for in the dark because they weren’t on the main trail. I was seriously worried I’d have to ford this creek multiple times before discovering the log bridges, which were (as usual) easy to spot in the daylight.
This trail had a trail register (Woot! More noise!) and was easy to follow up to the first avalanche area
The avalanche area was very small and well packed down
I didn’t have any difficulties until I made it to the waterfall area. There had been a small avalanche and it looked as if the trail wanted me to cross the waterfall. I took out my topo map and it looked too early to cross yet, which meant I’d have to follow the waterfall up for a ways first. There was no trail so I bushwhacked in the dark up the mountainside, paralleling the creek.
Here’s when I came to the crux of the waterfall. It was still dark out (I’m guessing it was around 3:30am) and the waterfall was raging. I could feel the spray of water on my face, even though I was standing several feet away. I went right and left looking for a better way up and encountered very large boulders blocking the route in every direction. I could tell I just needed to ascend 15 feet or so (maybe less) and I’d be where I needed to be to cross the waterfall. It took some fancy footwork and a class 4 move, but I was able to work my way up the side of this boulder, up and over to flat terrain. (Side note, apparently I made this too difficult and there’s an easier way I was unable to find in the dark. Check out Angry’s conditions report for a class 2 route over the waterfall).
There was a camping area directly above the waterfall, and I was able to pick up a trail again. I was already considering today a success: the campers I’d talked to the night before hadn’t made it this far. The trail rounded a corner and brought me to a creek crossing above the waterfall. I had 2 options here: either balance my way across the log and potentially fall in the water (I was carrying a full pack) or take off my shoes and wade across. In the dark I took off my shoes and put on my water shoes (hurray for new gear and dry socks!). Yes, I’m sure some could have walked across the log, but I decided to use the log for stability and wade across, keeping my feet dry in the long run.
The well established trail picks up directly after the creek crossing
And brings you to a boulder field
Just after the boulder field there’s another creek crossing. Unfortunately, the creek was running quite high here and I became frustrated trying in the dark to find a passable route. I noticed some cairns to the right and followed them to what looked like a goat trail through the willows. This led me to a snow bridge that looked ready to collapse any day now, but it would get me across the roaring creek.
Check out the snow bridge. I was so excited to come across this in the dark. There weren’t any footprints from here on out, so I crossed my fingers I’d be able to find my way.
I didn’t find many pictures of this route, and to be honest route finding was difficult in the dark due to the snow, so I’m going to do my best to post some details. I followed the well defined (when there wasn’t snow) Cataract Gulch Trail. Just after the last creek crossing I headed south and rounded a large boulder
The (still snow free) trail brought me to a ravine
(In case anyone wants to see what the trail looks like at 4am…)
Here the snow picked up, covering the trail about 80% of the time. This was both good and bad: It was nice to see a trail every once in a while, but it was covered so much it was difficult to follow and became frustrating to someone like me who hikes on established trails when available. Just head south until you reach Cataract Lake. It feels like you’re hiking forever, but I promise you it’s there. My tracker showed it at 4.9 miles from the trailhead.
Here the birds started waking up. This is one of my favorite part of early morning hikes! I also saw a herd of Elk in the meadow.
Continue past the lake and you’ll come to a trail junction. Continue heading South
You’ll pass a small pond on your right and head towards Cuba Gulch, which is also the East Fork Middle Pole Trail (another well defined trail when there’s no snow).
Follow this trail west as it hugs the side of a mountain, unfortunately losing a little bit in elevation in the process. Here’s the general idea of where you’re headed
And some close ups. There was quite a bit of snow here, obscuring the trail.
Here I rounded the small basin and headed to a small saddle
This section is steeper than it looks, and snowshoes were helpful.
Turn right at the saddle and follow the trail towards Point 13,164. The dotted line is the suggested route to summit this ranked 13er, but I didn’t like the angle of the snow, so I continued on the trail until I found a better way to summit.
This is the route I took to gain the ridge of Point 13,164: I needed snowshoes and an ice axe here
At the top of the ridge I wound my way north to the summit.
From there it was an easy walk up a tundra slope to the summit with a rather large cairn and a great view of Half Peak
I summited at 7:10am
Also, the San Juan’s still have a lot of snow!!!
Ok, back down so I can get started with Half Peak. Here’s the view of the way I went back down and then gained the ridge to hike up Half Peak.
Side note: If you’re not interested in summiting 13,164 here are the coordinates along the trail you turn east at to gain the ridge of Half Peak
This is a long but gentle slope with no defined trail.
The crux of this route comes just before the summit at around 13,500’. There is a narrow ridge to navigate.
There’s a lot of exposure but I agree with Roach’s assessment this can be kept class 2 with careful footwork. I found the best strategy was to stick to the ridge in most places, dropping down 15 feet or so only when necessary
Here’s a picture looking back. The ridge reminded me of the catwalk along the ridge to Eolus.
From here it’s an easy walk to the summit
The summit is large and pretty flat
I summited at 8:30am
Here’s a look back on the route up the slope
I’d initially planned on hiking Quarter Peak (a bicentennial) today as well, but in the morning I’d gotten a look at Half Peak and the decent route off Half and towards Quarter had a lot of snow. I didn’t feel ready to commit to the descent in this warm weather. However, looking at Quarter from Half the ridge up to the summit of Quarter looked dry enough to summit without tackling snow
Oh well, time to head back down. The snow was softening up, and the snow below the saddle required snowshoes once again (more necessary this time). In this picture you can see a river flowing underneath several feet of snow
Here’s a look at the route back from Cataract Lake
I was almost back to the river crossing with the snow bridge when I looked over at the basin and saw 3 Bull Moose enjoying lunch together in the willows! Very cool!
I crossed the snow bridge, following my previous tracks. Here I started seeing people on the trail. I warned those with unleashed dogs about the moose up ahead and gave some people advice on how to find the snow bridge so they could hike to the lake. Actually, the park ranger/mom in me talked to everyone on the way down, but mostly just to see where they were headed. Today was such a beautiful day to hike!
I crossed the stream above the waterfall, descended the waterfall the same way I’d ascended, and made it back to my truck at 12:45pm, making this an 18.5 mile hike with 5640’ in elevation gain in 10 hours.
Here’s a topo map of my route