.:Getting to the trailhead:.
From Denver, getting to the Sangre de Cristo range is a long drive for any of the eight 14ers included in the range. The most direct route is to take US 285 southwest over Kenosha Pass and through the flat, expansive South Park region (watch for speed traps around Fairplay and Jefferson!) to the intersection of US 285 and US 24 just two miles south of Buena Vista. Go south from here just about 20 miles to the intersection with US 50. Turn left on US 50 and continue through Poncha Springs and over Poncha Pass, and the even flatter, more expansive San Luis valley. Keep heading down US 285 past Villa Grove and take a left turn at the junction of US 285 and CO 17. Follow CO 17 for just about 14 miles through the town of Moffat. Take advantage of the arrow-straight road to check your alignment, and watch for flying saucers!
Just about 1/2 mile south of Moffat, you’ll see the left turn signed for Crestone. There's a defunct new-age crystal shop on the corner there that's pretty hard to miss. Crestone itself is 12.5 miles further east. As you enter Crestone, the road swings north, and you'll turn right (east) on Galena St. (just after the new post office). From there, the edge of town is about 100 feet, the forest boundary is about 1 mile, and the trailhead is at about 2.3 miles. The last mile is pretty rough, but it seems that some maintenance has been done, as the massive washouts I remembered from a year ago weren’t quite so bad. Any solid car or truck can make it without much difficulty, and turnouts are plentiful if you see something you'd rather not drive across.
After an aborted attempt at Kit Carson from the South Colony Lakes approach, I figured it would be a good idea to try the climb from the other side of the mountain, from the west. And that meant touching Challenger Point along the way!
It was 6:00pm when we pulled into the trailhead parking lot, with just a few other vehicles present. The weather for the day called for storms to be moving in in the afternoon, so we started out at a brisk pace towards our objective. From the trailhead, go about 100 yards and turn right (you want to be on the Willow Lake trail, NOT the Crestone Lake trail), and cross S. Crestone Creek across some wobbly fallen trees. The first mile of the well-marked and maintained trail rises from the sandy, scrub-pocked foothills into the Sangres proper. At just about a mile you'll reach a ridge that gives the first good views of the high peaks beyond. Kit Carson's summit and Challenger Point can't be seen yet, but the 12,000+ subpeaks are spectacular.
This approach hike is almost too beautiful to put into words - certainly the most impressive approach hike to any 14er that I'm aware of. As you drop down a bit and pass Willow Creek Park (the big open meadow below you on the right), the vista in front of you just gets more and more impressive. The trail climbs gradually via switchbacks to the steep valley head to the east, and all the while the sound of rushing water is your companion. Depending on the time of year, you'll encounter two, three, or a dozen spectacular waterfalls, and some of the crossings can be a bit tricky (long-jumpers will do well here). For those of you who follow Roach's guidebook (as most of us do), he totally undersells this hike. Incredible!
After about 4 miles you'll crest the valley head and approach Willow Lake. The trail winds around the north end of the lake, which is also a setting that almost defies description. In one direction, the towering peaks of the Crestones, and in the other direction, endless miles of flat valley floor in the distance. In the middle of it all, this pristine mountain lake. Once you actually get to the lake, you'll finally get a view of Kit Carson's summit, just over a mile to the southeast at ~3,000 feet up! And at the east side of Willow Lake, a huge waterfall that the trail winds above.
The east end of Willow Lake is about 5.3 miles from the trailhead, and we managed the hike in just about 3 hours. At 9am, the skies were still clear and it was pretty warm for a Sepember morning. Looking at Kit Carson, it looked like a very, very localized storm had come in and dumped snow right on the peak and surrounding ridges, and then left. Before long we'd end up in wintry conditions!
To get to Kit Carson from the east side of the lake, the first task is to climb the steep slope to the south and gain the ridge at about 13,700'. This grunt from 11,500' in less than a mile should not be underestimated! Most of the route is solid and stable, but after the gradual climb to the lake, this section is friggin' STEEP! Be sure to pace yourself and rest as often as you need to. Again, the climb here is solid and the exposure is minimal.
Once you get to the ridge, you can finally see the immediate goal - Challenger Point. Just a few hundred yards to the east along the ridgeline, which is a fairly straightforward walk. You can stick to the top of the ridgeline, or if the steep drop to the south makes you nervous, it's just as easy to drop a few feet off the ridge to the north (climbers' left). There are a couple hand-and-foot scrambles on the way to Challenger Point, but again the difficulty never exceeds Class 2+.
I should amend that to say it never exceeds Class 2+ in summer conditions. We encountered a couple feet of early-season windswept snow as we neared the ridge top, and the scrambling was a little tricker in places as we had to bypass some ice here & there. Still nothing harder than Class 3, though.
Walking the ridgeline to Challenger Point was a surreal experience. The weather develops and gathers in the Crestones faster than anywhere I've ever seen it, and the speed at which clouds were forming over the ridgeline was amazing. A few miles to the south and west, the bright, clear San Luis valley was enjoying a warm late summer day. At 14,000', the winds were whipping and the wind chill dropped way below zero. Clouds continued to form and gather. Finally, right at noon we attained Challenger Point. For those who don't know, this 14,081' summit (often debated to be it's own 14er) was named in honor of the astronauts who died in the shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. There is a small brass plaque affixed to the summit, a simple monument to fallen heroes. Having worked in the industry for a number of years, I took a few moments to pause in silent reflection.
From Challenger Point, the summit of Kit Carson is barely a quarter-mile distant as the crow flies, but the crow doesn't have to hike, which is a bit longer. The remaining distance involves basically circumnavigating the huge summit block clockwise along ledges and then climbing a Class III gulley from the east side. Judging by the snow conditions, the fact we were 6 hours into the day, and the rapidly gathering storms, we decided that Challenger Point was as far as we were going today.
We took a few minutes to rest and admire the views. Just beyond Kit Carson was the scary-looking northwest face of Crestone Peak - looking extremely formidable. The Blanca massif and the Great Sand Dunes were plainly visible to the south (through the occasional cloud), and looking far off to the west, the San Juan mountains, including the unmistakable bulk of Uncompahgre Peak.
And then it was time to head down. The only difficulty there was not stumbling down from the ridge to the east side of the lake. Talk about tired legs! By the time we had reached the lake, the cloudcover was thick and dark, and the temperature dropped noticably. We wasted little time in trekking around the lake (and yes, they call it "Willow" Lake for a reason - lotsa willows to hike through!) and back down towards the trailhead. The last two miles had us caught in a steady, light rain that was chilly even with a rain jacket on. It was right about 4:00 when we reached the trailhead, where a dry change of clothes was one of the best rewards of the day. We bounced down the road, through Crestone and back to the main road. Looking back to Kit Carson & the Crestones, the weather had obviously moved in for the afternoon, and dark storms hung low on the peaks. A driving rain accompanied us out of the San Luis valley, and we even encountered fresh snow in the Fairplay area, so we just beat the front.
In order to get Kit Carson, chances are that a camp at Willow Lake will be in order -- maybe next summer!