Trail Report - La Plata Peak - Colorado

August 11, 2018

Written by Paul van Valkenburgh

Showing Small Pictures    

La Plata Peak! Colorado - 14,336'
Southwest Ridge Route
11.3 Miles Round Trip
4100 feet of elevation gain



La Plata Peak From Independence Pass


La Plata Peak! At 14,336 feet it is Colorado's fifth highest peak! Staying in Buena Vista, it seemed closer to me to reach Winfield to attempt the Southwest Ridge route than to head towards Independence Pass to attempt the standard route. Both are class 2, and the Southwest Ridge route is even shorter, so I figured why not take the route less traveled.


Winfield Trailhead


The 2WD road to Winfield is easy and there is plenty of parking there as lots of people camp around there. It is also the 2WD trail head launching point for a bid of 14er Huron Peak. As opposed to many other 14ers, the trek to the 4WD trailhead was easy. While it is 4WD, the 2-mile trip is basically flat, while most roads to 4WD trailheads are UP!


One you arrive at the 4WD road / trailhead, then the actual trail begins to head through alpine areas.


Alpine Areas To La Plata Peak


After a short way, you begin to enter the lower basin headed towards the saddle between La Plata Peak's Southwest Ridge and the ridge to 13er Sayres Benchmark. This basin is gorgeous and I only saw 2 people in the basin all the way to the saddle. The views to the left and right are really cool with the right-side (East) views becomming really craggy!


Arrive At Basin Leading To SW Ridge


Views Left Side Of Basin


Views Right Side Of Basin


Views Close Up Right Side Of Basin


Views Looking Back In Basin


Next is the nemesis, and what might be the crux of the entire route, the sketchy, loose dirt wall that ascends from the top of the basin to the saddle. I'm a former skiier and skiing dirt and grass hills is old hat to me. But man this hill was raunchy and slippery!! Sometimes you know it's just gonna be a slip fest and you basically have to run / jump to the next rock up the hill just so you don't slip back. But it's all a part of the fun getting the the saddle where the views become even more gorgeous!!


Approaching The Dirt Headwall


Another Look Back From Start Of Dirt Headwall


Having A Great Time La Plata Peak


Looking Down From Saddle Above Dirt Wall


I ran into some hikers above the saddle and asked them the obligatory 'how much further?' question. The answer to my surprise, was not good. It was getting late (maybe 11AM) and while the sky was clear, it is a well known fact that storms can hit anytime in the Summer in the afternoon in the mountains in Colorado and you never want to summit much past Noon. The hikers told me I had 2-3 MORE HOURS to get to the summit!! The reason is there is this huge rock wall you see above the saddle... it LOOKS like it could be La Plata Peak but no such luck! It takes a good while, maybe 30 minutes to reach the lower wall, then a good 45 minutes to an hour to climb it, and then probably another hour to tackle the upper ridge above the false summit to reach the actual summit!


At this point, I needed to decide to keep going or not. I made the irrational decision that because I had some hikers behind me still heading to the peak that I could continue on. And the sky didn't look bad and the forecast had a very minimal rain possibility (but not zero!).


Slope After The Saddle


Above Saddle Looking Towards 1st Rock Wall


Looking Back Towards Sayres Benchmark


Beginning The First Rock Wall


Lookin gUp First Rock Wall


The top of the first rock wall admitedly took a while. It's just a long talus rock hop. But when you get to the top you see that you still have a good ways to reach the peak!


The weather was holding about the same so I figured I'd go for it.


Above First RockWall Towards Summit


Gorgeous Scenery Near Summit Of LaPlata Peak


Gorgeous Scenery Near Summi tOf LaPlata Peak


Summit Of La Plata Peak


Another Summit Shot


Summit View La Plata Peak South


Summit View La Plata Peak North


Summit View La Plata Peak Southwest


Summit View La Plata Peak West


Upon arriving at the summit there were two guys who took my picture... then they left. It hadn't rained and there were a couple of clouds but nothing looked too frightening. So, I was hamming it up taking some selfies enjoying the views, and BAM!! A quick lightning strike flashed over the summit... granted it seemed to be a very non-powerful flash that was real quick with no thunder... but still, this literally FREEKED me out!! I was like 'what am I gonna do as I'm on this summit with 45 minutes to even the false summit (which is still obviously exposed to any lightning and way above tree line)?' ... suddenly I was REALLY scared. What to do? TAKE OFF and get down as quickly as possible.


This panic induced strategy is not a good one, and anyone reading this can try to take away from it. Of course it was the right idea to get down. But to let my heart start racing and to move too quickly across the talus back to the false summit was just plain risky. I made it fine, but practically running over talus is a recipe for disaster ... had I tripped and snapped an ankle I would have had HELL and LOTS OF MONEY to pay!! Lesson learned : panic is the worst thing you can ever do on a mountain! Even if you are at some increased risk, it is only going to benefit you to keep your wits about you and still work through whatever you have to do methodically as you can.


After getting to the false summit, the clouds cleared and there was no more danger. The hike back down the saddle was fine. Now, the dirt section again!! I basically ski'd part way down it but made it no problem.


Here is a video of me skiing on the dirt!!


Arriving in the basin, I ran into a real nice guy Fred from Atlanta who was actually coming off of his 3rd summit of an attempt at the Nolans 60 hike. That's where crazy people try to do like 12 14ers in 60 hours. Anyway, Fred and I walked for an hour together back to the car and traded emails and had a great chat. I always seem to make friends in the mountains. Must be cause everybody there is really cool and out to have a good time.


Nonetheless, this is a great route!! A bit long at about 11.3 miles and 4100 feet of gain... with the rock hopping involved, and average to slow hiker might complete it in 7-8 hours or so. It took me 9 hours but that was pretty leisurely as I stopped and chatted quite a bit. But the scenery is fantastic!!


Overview Of Upper Portion Of SW Ridge Route


Hope this has been enjoyable and / or helpful to anyone reading it!!


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