13,898 Feet (72nd highest in Colorado)
13,348 Feet (Unranked)
13,405 Feet (Unranked)
Northeast Ridge Route From Horseshoe Gulch, 12,300 Feet
October 11th, 2007
Approximately 8 Miles Roundtrip
Approximately 2,800 Feet Elevation Gained
Horsin' Around in the Mosquito Range
October can be the most outstanding month for hiking in the Rockies. Clear blue skies and cooler weather make the experience much more enjoyable than hiking in the summer's thunderstorms and sweltering heat. The weather outlook for this week was excellent, but the forecast called for rain and snow for the weekend. I didn't want to miss out on the good weather, so I took a personal day and headed for the high country.
Horseshoe Mountain is one of the many fascinating sights along US285. Its familiar cirque makes it one of the best-known peaks in the Mosquito Range. Horseshoe's status as a Centennial Peak and its well-developed Class 1 trail system make it a popular destination for hikers. Its proximity to several other 13ers makes it possible to summit several peaks in a single day. Hiking this long, high ridgeline seemed like a wonderful way to spend my day off.
The familiar cirque that gives Horseshoe Mountain its name
There are several approaches to Horseshoe Mountain, but the easiest route is from the northeast. In the winter, hikers can park at the junction of Fourmile Creek Rd. and Forest Service Rd. 603, about 0.9 miles west of the ghost town of Leavick. When the road is clear, it is possible to take FS 603 all the way to the base of Peerless Mountain. This shaves about two miles off of the round trip. FS 603 is a fairly rough dirt road, but it is accessible to carefully-driven 2WD vehicles.
It wasn't necessary to get an early start for this relatively short hike. I drove up to the first switchback on Peerless Mountain, and started hiking shortly after 9:00. I started up the old mining road on Peerless, and almost immediately found evidence of the mountain's mining history. I passed an open tunnel mine, and about two or three switchbacks later I passed a tipple and some dilapidated mine buildings. Peerless Mountain had a vein of silver-lead ore with traces of lead. It was named for the Peerless Mine, which was close to the summit.
Tunnel mine near the base of Peerless Mountain
Ore tipple and mine ruins on the slopes of Peerless Mountain
The lower part of the trail was in fine shape, and would have presented no difficulties to a stock 4WD vehicle. Some short stretches were covered with snow, but the snow cover was minimal.
Lower trail on Peerless Mountain
Peerless Mountain is not particularly tall, and it is not particularly scenic. Although it is 13,348 feet tall, it is an unranked 13er because it does not rise 300 feet above its saddles with Mt. Sherman or Horseshoe Mountain. It is, simply put, just a pile of rocks. However, the summit views are not too shabby. To the east, there is the scenic Horseshoe Gulch. To the north, there is a good view of Mt. Sherman. To the west, one can look over Empire Gulch and see a long swath of the Sawatch Range. It was a great view for a minimum of effort.
Peerless Mountain viewed from the east
Peerless Mountain viewed from the South Ridge
Summit cairn on Peerless Mountain with Mt. Sheridan in the background
After my brief visit to Peerless Mountain, it was time to move on to the main attraction: Horseshoe Mountain. The trail from Peerless to Horseshoe was easy enough to find, but it grew faint in one stretch than ran through some abandoned open pit mines.
Horseshoe Mountain viewed from Peerless Mountain
The narrow path up Horseshoe Mountain's Northeast Ridge
Some portions of Horseshoe Mountain's summit pitch were steep, but most hikers would consider it an easy-to-moderate hike. It was a short hike from the Peerless Mountain's summit to the top of Horseshoe Mountain.
Horseshoe Mountain's summit cairn. Immediately above the cairn is Peerless Mountain, which is connected to Mt. Sheridan by a saddle. Mt. Sheridan is connected to 14er Mt. Sherman by a saddle; Mt. Sherman's snow-covered summit is in the center of the image
There was a million-dollar vista to the east. The broad Horseshoe Gulch narrowed down to a V, and South Park stretched for miles beyond the gulch. A shallow pond (Leavick Tarn) was immediately below the cirque.
Leavick Tarn, Horseshoe Gulch, and South Park
I could see the heart of the Sawatch Range to the west and southwest. Mt. Massive, Mt. Elbert, La Plata Peak, Mt. Harvard, Mt. Princeton, and several other peaks dominated the horizon. Leadville was visible to the northwest.
Twin Lakes and the northern Sawatch Range
Looking to the north, I could see Peerless Mountain, Mt. Sheridan, Mt. Sherman, and White Ridge.
Looking over the north arm of the cirque at Peerless Mountain, Mt. Sheridan, Mt. Sherman, and White Ridge. Much of the mining road on Peerless Mountain is visible
There is an old mining cabin just a few feet below the south side of the summit. The South Ridge goes on for several miles, never dipping below 13,000 feet until it hits Weston Pass. It looks like it would make a first-rate ridge walk.
I still hadn't reached my goal of 3,000 feet elevation gain for the day, and I still had some gas in my tank. Finnback Knob was close, but the route looked pretty wicked. I decided to give it a shot.
Finnback Knob viewed from Peerless Mountain
I picked a line towards the saddle and bailed over the edge. The upper west side of Horseshoe Mountain was the steepest, loosest talus slope that I've ever encountered. There was no trail, so I just switchbacked down following my own line. It was too steep to just head straight down the slope. I descended more than 500 feet to the low point of the saddle.
Horseshoe Mountain's gnarly talus slope viewed from the low point in the saddle with Finnback Knob
When I reached the low point in the saddle, I could see a false summit.
False summit on the saddle between Horseshoe Mountain and Finnback Knob
From the false summit, I could see Finnback Knob's rocky and inhospitable true summit.
Finnback Knob's summit resembles a stony fortress
Summit cairn on Finnback Knob with Horseshoe Mountain in the background
From Finnback Knob's summit, I had an interesting view of the Empire Amphitheater. I stared at the sheer cliff and wondered what it would be like to attempt to climb it. There actually is a trail on the less-steep southern end of the ridge. Behind the cliff, I could see White Ridge. Mt. Sherman's summit stood to the left of White Ridge; Centennial 13er Gemini Peak was visible between Mt. Sherman and Mt. Sheridan.
The weather was still beautiful, and I hoped that it would remain that way until I was safely off of the mountain. First, I had to regain Horseshoe's summit. I thought of Ed Viesturs' famous line "Getting to the top is optional; getting down is mandatory." Well, in this case, getting to the top was mandatory. About 100 feet shy of the summit there was a trail that avoided the summit by veering to the left and joining the saddle between Horseshoe Mountain and Peerless Mountain. The trail was on a very steep slope and it was covered in snow. I didn't want to risk slipping on any ice, so I stuck to the talus slope and caught the saddle just below the summit. I struggled on the talus, and my head was pounding by the time I reached the top. I breathed a sigh of relief when I gained the saddle; it was downhill all the way from there, and the trail was not particularly long.
On the way down Horseshoe Gulch, I was treated to an interesting sight; three elk crossed the road directly in front of me. They were nearly as big as horses. It's difficult to comprehend exactly how large an elk is without seeing one at close quarters. They were anxious to get back to their herd, which was further down in the gulch. I found a high spot so I could watch the elk for a while, and then I brought the journey to a close.
Elk herd in Horseshoe Gulch. I could see two bull elk and one calf in the herd
The hike was all that I had anticipated it would be. It was a bluebird day, I took in some exquisite scenery, and I got an intense workout.