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Alone at the Top

Tired of the crowds on the popular peaks? We suggest you try these lesser-known gems for a bit more solitude and space.

If you’ve spent any time hiking in our sweet state lately, you know that people are getting outside in greater numbers than ever before. We like that. Enthusiasm for the outdoors is a wonderful thing because it means folks are taking care of themselves and (we hope) finding a newfound respect for conservation. However, more crowds cause more impact on the lands, and many mountaintops now feel like more of a social event than a chance to commune with nature. So, we present these lesser known peaks as options for evading the party crowds—just be respectful of other hikers looking for solitude. Spoiler alert: There are no Fourteeners on this list!

West Spanish Peak (13,626 feet)

The Adventure: Arguably the most distinctive landmarks of southeastern Colorado, East and West Spanish Peaks rise more than 6,000 feet above I-25. In the 19th century, these peaks, unobstructed by foothills, acted as markers for pioneers traveling the Santa Fe Trail. Today, they offer a respite for hikers seeking a path less-traveled. Best accessed via the Cordova Pass Trailhead (11,248 feet), this eight-mile round trip adventure follows a pleasant forested path to tree line, where the trail becomes less distinct as it climbs over talus and loose scree along the peak’s southeast ridge. Reaching the top after tackling the last mile, which is quite steep and rocky, your efforts are rewarded with 360-degree views that encompass the Culebra Range, East Spanish Peak, and the Great Plains. No technical climbing or mountaineering is required in mid-summer or fall, but pay attention for cairns and other signs above treeline where the trail changes to Class 2 and becomes less defined. 

Getting There: From Denver, drive south on I-25 to Walsenburg. Exit here and follow U.S. 160 west for about 13 miles, then veer left to head west on CO12 to the town of Cuchara. Continue another six miles on CO12 to Cuchara Pass. Turn left (east) here to follow CR46, a decent dirt road, an additional 6 miles to Cordova Pass, where there is limited pay-for parking and a small campground.

Almagre Mountain (12,367 feet): 

The Adventure: The second highest peak in a skyline doesn’t usually get a lot of attention, but that’s a huge reason you’ll love Almagre Mountain, the only peak other than Pikes that rises above treeline when viewed from Colorado Springs. Even though there’s a rough road that intrepid four wheelers can drive to get somewhat close to the summit, Almagre gets very little use by Colorado standards. This 12-mile round trip adventure with 3,000 feet of elevation gain (from the two-wheel-drive trailhead) combines multiple trails that ascend steeply up a peaceful canyon following North Cheyenne Creek. Breaking free from tree line, the trail becomes faint, even disappearing at times, as it climbs out of the canyon, switchbacks over alpine terrain, and reaches Stratton Reservoir. Climb over the saddle and onto the summit where great views of Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs, Mt Rosa, Cameron Cone, Cheyenne Mountain, and many others await.  Wander around this broad summit to discover all the varied views. 

Getting There: From Colorado Springs, head south toward Pikes Peak Ave. Follow South Nevada Ave. to West Cheyenne Mountain Blvd. Take Old Stage Road and Upper Beaver Creek Road to the intersection of Gold Camp Road and Forest Road 379. There is a parking area just past FR 379 on the left. This is the two-wheel-drive trailhead. Four-wheel-drive parking is farther up the very rough road. 

Vermillion Peak (13.894 feet)

The Adventure: Taking on this peak, the tallest in a series of rugged thirteeners surrounding this stunning piece of the San Juans, offers countless options for backpacking and peak bagging. Climbing Vermillion–named for the reddish-orange glow when the sun hits it right— requires a a 10.2-mile round trip with 4,100 feet         of elevation that includes a Class 2+ section near the top and a scenic climb through Ice Lakes Basin, a popular and worthy destination in and of itself full of stunning alpine lakes, wildflowers, and views.  Leaving behind most other hikers, you’ll rise well above Ice Lakes to reach Fuller Lake at 12,600 feet (a good camping option if you’re spending the night) where the ascent of Vermilion begins in earnest. After reaching the 13,500-foot Vermillion-Fuller saddle, the trail undulates along the ridge to reach the notch above the Vermillion Dollar Couloir. The push to the summit includes climbing a short gully with loose rock, scrambling up loose talus to the narrow, exposed summit, and a walk across a short catwalk to the summit (Class 2+). Breathtaking views, including those of the Wilson Group and all the Ice Lakes Basin, are your reward.

The southeast ridge route is the standard and easiest route on Vermilion Peak. Many people choose to backpack into Ice Lakes Basin, this way being able to incorporate climbs of Golden Horn, Pilot Knob, US Grant Peak, or Fuller Peak–the other high thirteeners in the area. 

Getting There: Take US Highway 550 north towards Red Mountain Pass from the US 550-110 intersection. After two miles, take the turnoff for the South Mineral Campground on the left side of the road. Follow this good-quality dirt road for 3.5 miles until you arrive at the South Mineral Campground, where you can park on the right side of the road. The approach hike can be shortened by taking a right off of the South Mineral Road towards Clear Lake and park at the first switchback (thre isroom for only a few cars).

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