Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Beatin' the Heat at 12,000 Feet

It's been hitting 90+ in Durango so we headed into the La Plata Mountains for relief at 12,000 feet. I'd researched the Indian Ridge Trail while we were staying in Mancos and now was the perfect time to head up high.

We'll now pause for a short commercial...I just want to say how pleased we have been with our 2013 Chevy 3500 HD 4x4 truck! This is our only vehicle and it serves as daily driver, hauls our home wherever we want to go, and has performed admirably on 4 wheel drive roads in recent weeks. And kudos to Hans for his excellent driving on some rough terrain!

Our access point for the La Plata Mountains was La Plata Canyon Road off highway 160, near Hesperus, CO. The first several miles back into the canyon was nice paved road, then a few miles of very nice dirt road, then a few miles of pretty rough, rocky road. Then we turned off onto Kennebec Pass Road and started really climbing and the road got worse. We saw a good parking area about 3/4 of a mile from our destination and decided to hike the rest of the way. Glad we did, as the road got even worse just past our parking spot! Our truck probably could have made it, but a Jeep-type vehicle would be a better choice for the last leg of this road.

As soon as we turned the corner hiking up the road we came upon this dwelling. It was a small cabin perched atop a metal container, equipped with solar panels, wind turbine, satellite dish and even a sauna (the small round building on the left)! Quite the homey little place at about 11,000 feet!

Soon we reached a large, round valley at the treeline with old mining equipment dotting the meadow. La Plata Canyon had been a hot bed for mining from 1874 - 1883.

At this point we decided our hike destination would be to climb to that small notch you can see in the upper left of the photo below.

Old mining equipment in the middle of an alpine valley.

This marmot seemed to have made his home inside,
he was watching us both times we passed by.

Below is another view of the round valley, our notch destination in the center of the photo. We would follow a faint animal track up the green hillside to the gravel road near the top of the slope on the left. This meadow had a few flowers blooming now, but it should be covered in at least dozen types of flowers in a few weeks.

From partway up the slope a view of the opposite side of the valley. You can see the mining debris in the center.
We are in the middle of the La Plata Mountains.

We had to stop and catch our breath often during the ascent,
it was steep and we were over 11,000 feet!

Another breather once we reached the gravel road.

Once we reached the top, Hans had a signal so we could check our elevation: 12,027 feet!

Looking North (I think) we could see where the road we had originally hiked up reached the parking area at the pass. That was the access point for the Indian Ridge Trail which goes along the flat, treeless ridge in the distance. We could see for what seemed like hundreds of miles up here!

The road leads to the Kennebec Pass parking area.
Kennebec Pass itself is just around the hill on the right.

This is the view South East from the notch.
It dropped straight down into a deep canyon (Junction Creek perhaps)
and in the hazy distance we could see Southern Durango.

Amazingly, beyond the notch, the gravel road continued down the other side of the mountain!
We lost sight of it in the trees so I don't know if one could make a loop drive on it...
I wasn't about to find out!

We hung out on the top for quite some time taking in the amazing scenery around us.

This is a zoomed photo of the view North, lots of colors
and I couldn't figure out what the tower was on the right!

I love how the mountainside changed from sharp rock to tilted meadow,
to talus slope for no obvious reason at all.

We saw lots of marmots all day long.
Looking up the scree covered slope from the gravel road.

Mountains to the West.

Observing an old mine shaft, Hans is dwarfed by the mountains surrounding us.

We made it back to the truck and back down the mountain with no problems at all, stopping along the way to check out some of the old buildings left over from the old La Plata city circa 1874 - 1883.

This was a fantastic day with off road adventure, historical debris and buildings, amazing views, gorgeous meadows and mountains, wildlife, streams and waterfalls. This canyon is definitely worth a return visit to hike the trails accessible from Kennebec Pass and to explore Columbus Basin, another rough road off of La Plata Canyon Road.

There are numerous forest service campgrounds on the good portions (paved and dirt) of La Plata Canyon Road, some looked suitable for big rigs.


  1. What a beautiful hike! Glad to hear the pickup is being a good off road choice for you. We're in Bend, where it was 46 degrees this morning. Too bad we can't average out your temps and ours.

  2. Wow, Stunning and spectacular views. I m not sure if we have hiked that high. But the vistas is pretty awesome.

  3. Lisa, this was a fantastic day for sure! You hit the jackpot with all the various activities. Glad you found a way to beat the heat:) We definitely need to return to CO for a long visit.

    1. We were wishing you were here with the Jeep! I think you would have loved the area.

  4. I just want to say that I really enjoyed your travels in La Plata Canyon and the fabulous views. It's such wonderful country. I've been hiking around on Google Earth in this area, mostly searching for a mine where my grandfather was an assayer around 1934-1939. Anyway, pretty sure I've found the mine and the tram lines reaching it. The fireplace that you see is below the Gold King Mill that was on the other side of the creek. (burned down in 1995) The fireplace was in the tram house that ran the tram from the mill up to the Gold King Mine. The mill originally belonged to the Bonnie Girl Mine which is up that tributary. Long story short, my mom lived in that tram house when she was about 5 with her family while my grandfather was working at the mine. I wish I had photos of the tram house, but so far have found none. Anyway, it always warms my heart when I come across photos of the "chimney" as I know my mom is there with her parents close by where we spread their ashes across a meadow on the mountainside.

    1. How cool that you found this post and recognized these sites! While we were hiking in this beautiful area we did see a jeep tour pass through. If you are in the area and do not have a vehicle that can take you up there you should be able to find a jeep tour to get you there.

      Thank you for sharing your family history of the area, and thank you for reading the blog!