#83 Holy Cross Ridge – 13,831 & Point 13,248

 

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RT Length: 13.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 4863’

After 2 hours of sleep I woke up at 9:30pm to drive to the Halfmoon/Tigiwon/Fall Creek Trailhead.  My kids think I’m nuts, but starting early when hiking above treeline really has its advantages.  I was afraid of encountering afternoon thunderstorms, as there was a 50% chance after noon, and while I didn’t know if I’d be encountering any snow it was likely and would soften up during the day so I wanted an early start.  The 2WD dirt road in was a little rough but easy to navigate. I arrived at the trailhead at 2:15am and took one of the last available parking spots.

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There’s a ton of signage at this trailhead and multiple routes up to the same peak(s). I chose to take the Fall Creek Trail, heading south.

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This trail is well established and well maintained. The first half mile or so was dry

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And then the trail was completely covered in several inches of water. I took off my boots to cross the waterfall area (about 1.5 miles into the trail)

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At 2.4 miles I came to a trail junction for Lake Constantine and Notch Mountain Trail, taking Notch Mountain Trail west.

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This trail switchbacked up the side of the mountain for another mile or so, and where there wasn’t water there was snow

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At 11,750’ I came to the base of the slope up to the ridge, and needed snowshoes

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In the dark I could only see a few feet in front of me and there was a lot of snow, so here I lost the defined trail and just hiked straight up the ridge. Snowshoes were very helpful here!  It’s also steeper than it looks

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About 150’ from the ridge the snow stopped and I was able to follow a snow free trail to the ridge

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The sun was beginning to rise, and I love sitting and watching sunrises, so as soon as I reached the ridge I ascended a small (and unranked) slope to sit and enjoy the view

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The sunrise didn’t disappoint!

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The best view was behind me though, of 14er Mt of the Holy Cross. Wow!  It’s beautiful in the morning light.

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After enjoying the sunrise I walked over to the ridge shelter and was excited to find it unlocked (well, it had a lock but the lock wasn’t securing the door).

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The shelter’s actually quite roomy, with a fireplace (not that there’s any firewood above treeline) and a great view of Mt of the Holy Cross. This would be a nice place to shelter if a storm hit the ridge.

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From the cabin I could see much of the rest of the route: Up Point 13,248, over to Point 13,373, and across to Holy Cross Ridge

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The hike over to Point 13,248 was full of large rocks and hollow snow: the kind where you step on it and sink in a hole between the rocks up to your waist.  After the first few postholes I stuck to the rocks

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I summited Point 13,248 at 6:20am

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Point 13,248

Here’s looking back at the shelter

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And here’s the route before me. It didn’t look like the sun wanted to peak out above the clouds this morning

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Here’s where I got a little nervous. The ridge looked like it was covered in more snow than I’d anticipated.

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But when I made my way down there (losing about 600 feet in elevation along the way) the ridge was snow free enough to walk across. Well, not really walk, but more like scramble up and down on the rocks.  Sticking to the ridge worked well.

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I was a bit worried about the large patches of snow I saw, hoping they weren’t hollow like the snow I’d encountered higher up on the ridge. Luckily, the snow here was solid

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This is also where the crux of the route began. The solid line is the route I took up, and the dotted one is the route I took on the way down.

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On my way up I went straight across the slope and then up the ridge

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If I were to do this again I’d take the route I took down up as well. I didn’t initially because the rocks looked loose and unstable, but on my way down I found them to be stable and easy to climb through.  I needed my ice axe and crampons for this part (on the way up and down) because the snow was steep.  The traverse across the slope on my way in was sketchy, as every few feet or so I’d hit an air pocket and sink to my waist.  I went slowly, seriously worried at some point I was going to slip and fall.  Once I’d traversed the slope I needed to gain the ridge.  This was steep as well.  I couldn’t have done this without my ice axe and crampons

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I breathed a sigh of relief when I finally gained Point 13,373. That had been more difficult than anticipated.  I took a look back at Point 13,248

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And at the rest of the route before me

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I descended a bit, and then traversed a flat area before ascending once again. The last few hundred feet go up and down in elevation quite a bit, creating a few small false summits.  My advice is not to go straight up the ridge, but circle the mountain to the left (west), gaining in elevation as you go

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There were several large patches of snow to traverse here as well, and just my luck, the sun started to peek out from behind the clouds, making these crossings tricky as well

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I summited at 8:30am

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Holy Cross Ridge:

 

Here’s looking back on the route I took along the ridge

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Ok, the sun was really warming things up and I was debating how safe the route back down Point 13,373 was going to be with soft snow. The ridge to Mt of the Holy Cross looked quite easy, and I considered just making this a loop, but I really wanted pictures of the route I took in, meaning I was going back the same way.  Time to head back.

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This time instead of going directly over the top of Point 13,373 I skirted the mountain to the right (east)

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This put me at a great place to descend, so I once again put on my crampons and got out my ice axe and garden tool

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The snow had indeed softened up, but was now perfect for kicking in steps. I felt much more comfortable traversing down than I had up, and the best part was the rocks I thought had been loose were really much larger and stable than they’d looked from across the ridge.  Here’s the route I took down

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And now the fun part: re-ascending point 13,248

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I skirted the summit of this one as well, sticking to the left and then heading back to the shelter

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Once at the shelter I met a couple eating lunch and taking a break. They’d intended on hiking the ridge today as well but were turning back due to weather/conditions. I thought this was a great idea, and noted it did look like we were indeed going to get some thunderstorms today after all.

I made it back to the switchbacks and when I came to snow put back on my snowshoes. This section looks short, but it’s actually a long and steep descent (which is made ‘easier’ with the switchbacks I couldn’t see under the snow, so I just headed straight down).

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The sun had warmed up the snow, and what had been solid on my way in was now the consistency of a slushie. Each step I took I sank in the snow past my knees, and my trekking pole and ice axe were useless.  I was sliding everywhere, and finally gave up and glissaded down.  The couple behind me kept getting their feet stuck in the snow between rocks.  The conditions were terrible, and I mentally high-fived myself for an early start:  I wouldn’t have been able to descend Point 13,373 at this time of day.

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Oh, and I saw a ptarmigan. I love those guys!

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Snow stopped at about 11,700’ and everything was wet again, including my feet. The slushy snow had gotten inside my boots and my feet were soaked through. Changing socks wouldn’t have helped because my boots were wet as well. I didn’t even bother taking off my boots for the creek/waterfall crossings because they were already soaking wet

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I made it back to my truck at 1:30pm, making this a 13.5 mile hike with 4863’ in elevation gain in 11 hours.

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#36 & #37 – Mt Belford – 14,197 & Mt Oxford 14,153

1RT Length: 11 miles

Elevation Gain: 5967’

I’ve been saving this hike as a practice hike for winter conditions, since the route is relatively straightforward and it has a 2WD trailhead. Unfortunately I don’t have much time in the winter to actually hike, so it had to wait until early spring.

I woke up at 3am and drove to the Missouri Gulch trailhead. There were a few easily manageable mud puddles to avoid, but nothing anyone would get stuck driving through.  I made it much faster than I thought, as I was honestly waiting for daylight for this hike.  After seeing a herd of elk on 390 I made it to the trailhead at 5:45am.  There was one other vehicle in the parking lot, and it looked like it hadn’t been there long (no frost on the windows, etc).  This would make my family happy, knowing there was someone else out on the trail today.  They hate that I hike alone.

I usually love hiking well before sunrise, but today for several reasons I decided to sit in my truck for a bit and wait:

  • I’m not a fan of hiking by graves in the dark. Does anyone else think it’s weird the baby’s grave is so far away from all the others? I mean, it’s across the street and up the hill and everything…
  • I really didn’t want to play ‘leapfrog’ with whoever was already hiking on the trail. I figured I’d give them some time to get far enough ahead of me so we wouldn’t need to pass each other/hike together the whole time.
  • I’ve heard reports there’s a mountain lion that frequents the area, and I’d rather not run into one in the dark. (side note: I’m not afraid of mountain lions, in fact I’d love to see one while hiking, I’d just rather it be in the daylight)
  • But seriously, that baby grave in the dark freaks me out.

I debated for a while which hiking boots to wear (my regular ones or my winter ones) and whether or not to bring my snowshoes. There wasn’t a recent conditions report in the past week or so, and the last one said none were needed.  I left the snowshoes in the truck and headed out at 6:15am in my snow boots and winter gear.  It was still dark.

I made it about .25 of a mile when something told me to turn around and go back and get those snowshoes. It’s tough to head back after you’ve already started, but the feeling was strong and I thought how mad I’d be at myself if I made it up the trail 3 or 4 miles and needed to turn back because I didn’t have the proper gear.  So I hiked back to my truck, pulled them out, and was on my way again.

The trail was covered in slush that quickly turned to packed snow. As I looked on the ground I could see clearly defined mountain lion tracks (noted by size and lack of claw marks) on the trail.  Cool!  I also saw trails made in the snow that were obviously from a large animal (the mountain lion?) that detached from the main trail and went off into the hillside.  The tracks were going the opposite direction, but that didn’t stop me from looking all over for signs of animal life/more tracks.  After about 1.5 miles in the tracks disappeared.

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20 minutes into my hike I passed the couple belonging to the truck. They didn’t look like they had snowshoes and I felt a bit foolish for carrying mine.  The trail was pretty hard packed here, and snowshoes didn’t seem necessary.  I briefly asked them if they’d seen the animal tracks, they had, and I was on my way.  I never saw them again.

I crossed a small stream and decided the snow was thick enough to put on those snowshoes I’d been carrying.

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The snow got thicker, but luckily others had been here in the past few days because there was a pretty good trench all the way to the cabin.

4 AM Trenches

I made it to the cabin much faster than I’d anticipated. I took this trail on my way to Missouri Mountain last summer, and from what I’d remembered it had been a long slog full of switchbacks. But for some reason today it didn’t seem to take me much time at all.  The cabin was surrounded in snow.

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From here on out snowshoes were mandatory. There was no trail from the cabin through the willows/gulch area, so I had to make my own trail.  Luckily I kind of knew how the trail went, since I’d hiked this area before.  It was really cool to be breaking my own trail, and doing so successfully!  This was the first real time I’ve broken trail: I hiked Humboldt Friday and broke a little bit of trail, but mostly followed others’ tracks.  In fact, this was only the second time I’ve ever been snowshoeing, and I kind of liked it!  It was so cool to be 5 or more feet above the trail in the snow, traversing over willows instead of around them.   There was no way I could have done this a year ago, and I was proud of my route finding.

When I turned around I saw the alpine glow of the sunrise

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I stayed by the creek and headed towards the Elkhead Pass/Belford Summit Junction.

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The sun was really starting to come up, and the view of Missouri Mountain was fantastic!

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This is where the wind really started to pick up. It was relentless for the rest of the day, hovering around 35mph.  It looked like all that snow in the gulch was directly blown down from the mountains.

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I looked at the route before me up Belford, and as I was ascending thought not for the first time how grateful I was to have gone back for those snowshoes.

10 Belford AM

The hike up Belford took forever. It just kept going and going and going up, up, and up.  And that wind!  Without the sunlight that wind was chilling.  I just kept moving, pretending it was the Manitou Incline, and trudged up that mountain wearing those snowshoes, breaking trail.

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There were several false summits to Belford, which were a bit annoying but anticipated.

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Finally (and I mean finally, as I was exhausted) the real summit of Mt Belford came into view and I thought to myself: 4500’ in snowshoes for 4 miles was exhausting!

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I was frozen, but set up my gorillapod and camera and took a summit photo.

14 Belford

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and just because it was there (they usually aren’t) a photo of the summit marker

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I took a look around. The view was magnificent!!!

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I didn’t take out my instructions/map, but remembered the route to Mt. Oxford would be clearly visible from this location. It was just 1.5 miles away. I followed the clearly defined path with my eyes and my jaw dropped.

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No way! There was no way I was doing that today in these conditions!  That’s when I took a closer look, realized I was looking at Mt. Harvard (which I’ve already hiked), breathed a sigh of relief and looked east.  There I saw the second summit I was after today:  Mt. Oxford.

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It looked doable in today’s conditions. That is until I made it to the ridge.  The ridge down from Belford to Oxford was covered in snow.  There weren’t any tracks to follow (either no one had taken this trail in the past few days or that relentless wind had covered the tracks with snow).  As with any hiking/climbing challenge, I don’t make a decision to hike/climb until I’m right up next to the obstacle.  I often find it’s easier than it looks when you’re up close.  I decided to just take this ridge one obstacle at a time, and if I felt uncomfortable gave myself permission to turn back.  This was supposed to be an easy winter 14er, so I should be able to do this, even in these conditions.

I looked for the areas with the least exposure and least snow, and began my descent. It was really cool making tracks!  I carefully made each foothold by drawing a line with my trekking pole and stamping it down with my boot, making sure I had a firm stance before traversing.

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It was more than I’d anticipated running into today, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Microspikes/snowshoes weren’t needed.

I made it down to the saddle and looked back up at Belford, and then up at Oxford. Wow.

21 Back at Bel up at Ox

The saddle was dry and came with absolutely amazing views! I stowed my snowshoes and was off.

22 Saddle Views

To the north there was a small cornice that provided interesting views as well.

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I looked ahead of me at the route up Oxford. Piece of cake.  And it was.

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The summit was actually closer than I’d anticipated (the first outcropping, not the second). I took a summit photo.

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And another one of the summit marker (because it had one too!)

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I turned around to see what I’d accomplished thus far today. What a view of Belford!

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I started back, ready to tackle that ridge again head on, and this time uphill. I gathered my snowshoes and kept an eye on the weather, since it was supposed to snow after 3pm (it was currently around noon).  While all morning it had been windy and clear the clouds were now starting to form.  I hiked back up the ridge using the footsteps I’d made on my way down.  It took a while but I was successful!

At the summit of Belford the second time I stopped for a bit to really take in and enjoy the view. Since now the hardest part of the hike was behind me, I felt I could afford to rest for a bit.  I sat down at the summit marker and took a deep breath.

After a grueling and extremely windy 6000 feet in elevation gain in 6 miles (in snowshoes) I sat at the summit of Mt Belford, my 3rd 14er Peak today (out and back, so 2nd time here today). Suddenly the wind stopped and all was still. This is what I saw.

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Immediately tears came to my eyes. It was like God knew I was the only person in the world with this view and he wanted to show off just for me. I was absolutely mesmerized by the intense beauty before me. It’s the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had.  All the hard work of the day and the frozen extremities that came with it was worth it!  I sat there for 5 minutes before he picked up the wind again and reminded me to get my butt off that mountain: a storms coming in.

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Of course I took another photo, trying and failing to capture the beauty around me.

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I walked over the summit and took a look at the rest of the route down to the gulch. It looked like the sun had melted some of that earlier snow.

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I was making good time, so I decided to have a little fun and use my remoteness from any other human being to practice some winter skills without embarrassment. Much of the earlier snow was gone, so I was able to safely practice glissading and running down the snow without worrying about sliding too far or out of control.  I did this for most of the hike back down, laughing as I went.

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Back down at the gulch, this was my view back down towards the cabin and back up at the route I’d come. As you can see, clouds were just beginning to form for that storm anticipated for tonight.

33 Missouri Gulch Front and Back

I put my snowshoes back on, crossed a frozen river of ice, and waiting for me on the other side was a ptarmigan. I knew he was a male because he had a red stripe over his eye.  He just stood there, looking at me, and then slowly turned towards Missouri Mountain and looked over his shoulder, as if he was beckoning me to follow.

34 Ptarmigan

I took several pictures, thanked him for being so cooperative, and followed my snowshoe tracks back through the gulch and down the mountain. It looked like several people had actually hiked up to the gulch today, as around the cabin there were several new ski and snowshoe marks, but no people to be seen.  The trench was also a bit more compact than it had been earlier.

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The hike back down seemed longer than the hike up, and I kept my snowshoes on for most of it. Somewhere along the way I lost my beanie which was unfortunate (I’ll make another one).  As I was nearing the end of my route I kept looking for signs of a mountain lion (nope) or any other form of wildlife (again, nope).  As I approached the area with the grave in the daylight I realized I was ‘told’ to get those snowshoes exactly as I passed the grave… Hmmm.

I crossed clear creek and my days hike was over.

36 Clear Creek

On my drive home I thought about the details of today’s hike, and how this is something I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish a year ago. I was glad I’d saved these ‘easy’ 14ers for winter-like conditions, as it allowed me to apply the knowledge I’ve learned thus far (snowshoeing, traversing ridges covered in snow), while giving me time to practice more intense skills in a safe environment (glissading, self arrest, running down a snow field).

Here are some summit videos. The views were amazing!

Video of Mt. Oxford –

 

Mt Esther 9505’

While there are a few twists and turns through the back
roads of Chipita Park to get there, this hike has a very obvious trailhead but
very little parking.  I had to drive a
quarter mile down the road to find a driveway to turn around at so I could park
my truck alongside the dirt road.  

The first 1.3 miles of the trail begins with some steady
elevation gain and a lot of switchbacks.

I noticed as I was hiking there had been a lot of tree clearing/cutting/trimming
lately.  I saw dozens, if not a hundred
of these piles lining the trial.

Once you arrive at the top of the switchbacks you come to a
nice meadow and a trail junction.  Stay
right at the junction.  I state this
because many people have told me they mistakenly went left, which takes you on
a long loop to nowhere.  (OK, it goes somewhere,
but not directly:  you’ll need a topo map
as there are several possible trails you can take, leading in many different
directions:  just go right).

After crossing the meadow and a very small trickle of a
stream you enter an aspen grove

and then start following a forest road.  While I was hiking here I heard the loud
rustle of feathers ahead of me, looked up, and saw 2 ptarmigans jump/glide from
the forest floor to the top of a pine tree.
I was able to get a picture (and video) of them, but didn’t want to
disturb them so I didn’t stay long/didn’t get great photos.

The forest road starts to follow power lines from this point
on.  

This forest road will take you all the way to the Crystal
Creek Reservoir, but what fun is that?  I
looked at my topo map, and figured the power lines were a straight shot to
where I wanted to go, while the road twisted and turned but eventually ended up
in the same place.  It’s part of the Ring
the Peak trail system, which they made wide enough here to accommodate 4
wheelers.  I’d rather hike.  So I turned left and followed the faint trail
under the power lines (hey, there was little chance I could get lost this way,
right?)

Once I reached a saddle I could see the Crystal Creek
Reservoir, so I knew Mt. Esther must be to my left.  

Quite a bit of tree maintenance had been done here as
well.  

My directions told me to look for a cairn indicating a faint
trail, but there was no cairn, and no trail.
So I turned south and just headed towards the summit.  This is what it looked like:

I headed south and up the mountain for about a third of a
mile before reaching a boulder filled summit with great views of the reservoir!  

I had fun bouldering a bit (and jumping from rock to rock where
feasible).  I took a few summit selfies
to prove I’d made it, one with a view of Pikes Peak and another of the Crystal
Reservoir (which I’ve taken a paddle boat out in with the kids!  Fun!)

Pikes Peak looked beautiful today, as it does just about
every day

This was a fun, quick hike (7 miles in 3 hours including
stops to watch the Ptarmigan and boulder for a bit).  I’ve heard it described as ‘difficult’, but I
think that’s exaggerating a bit.  Yes,
the initial mile of switchbacks probably would turn many away, as well as the route-finding
at the end if you intend to summit Mt. Esther, but the hike itself is quite
pleasant and easy to follow!

7 miles

1500’ Elevation gain

I followed the red Ring the Peak route, and then kind of made my own trail.  This topo shows where the trail should be.  I followed this, even though there was no actual trail off the Ring the Peak trail.  

Summit View (It was WINDY)

Ptarmigan