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With Steve out of commission for at least a few days, Eric and I were free to do a hike both of us had been thinking about the past few years. Sunshine Mtn rises to nearly 13,000ft in elevation in the Lizard Head Wilderness, northwest of Lizard Head Pass. It is easily visible for a long stretch of drive along SR145 where it looms high above the San Miguel River. There are several ways to reach the peak, the shortest perhaps being a steep climb up the peak's East Ridge from the Wilderness boundary at the river. We chose a longer route from Lizard Head Pass that would utilize about 3.5mi of trail with a final two miles of cross-country. We'd gotten a GPX track from John Kirk off LoJ and would use it loosely, but there was no real reason to follow it closely as there are many variations that will do since the cross-country travel is fairly open.
We started from Lizard Head Pass around 6:30a with clear skies and fine temperatures. The trail spends the first two miles traveling northeast on a gentle gradient, mostly through forest with few views. An old trail once shortcutted these two miles with a steep pitch up from Trout Lake, and some still do this though the trail no longer exists. We figured those first miles would make a good warm-up and it was only upon our return that we'd wished we'd figured out the shortcut. Eventually the trail turns northwest and begins a series of short, steep switchbacks up to a pass between Black Face to the south and Peak 11,302ft to the north. We met a bowhunter here and stopped to talk with him briefly. He'd seen a herd of 20-30 elk in Wilson Meadow the previous evening, but as it was after sundown it was illegal to hunt at that time. He'd spent the night camped near Peak 11,302ft and was setting out to look for the elk when we crossed paths. He was quite friendly and didn't seem to mind our presence though we would undoubtedly scare off any elk we came near. We would see plenty of elk signs - fresh poop, muddy tracks, grassy resting spots, but never saw a single one all day - they obviously are very at good at hiding when their survival depends on it.
We continued on the trail down to Wilson Meadows and it is here that the beauty of this area comes to life. The meadow area is large, about a quarter mile across and more than a mile in length. It was a beautiful green, with long tree shadows stretching across it from the early morning sun. Lizard Head and Sunshine anchored the rocky ridge behind the meadow on each end, south and north, respectively. The topo map shows the meadow as a swamp and earlier in the summer one can imagine it being more troublesome. Even in September it was very green and still wet in places, making it a little tricky to get across with dry boots. The tall grasses we walked through on the trail, ladden with dew and rain from a small storm the previous night, had already left our boots saturated, so keeping them dry wasn't much of a priority. The trail ends at the southeast end of the meadow and from there we headed northwest in the general direction of Sunshine, taking some time to find our way across the shallow but wide stream flowing down the center of the meadow. Once on the other side, we headed for higher ground where we found drier conditions. Once back in the woods, we found all sorts of elk signs. The most helpful to us were the many trails they created that criss-cross the area. We followed one of these up a dry side stream for a while, eventually breaking out of the forest for the more open alpine terrain above. As we turned north to aim for Sunshine's SE Ridge, the slopes grow progressively steeper and our progress slowed accordingly.
Eric and I split briefly as we each found a different way to reach the SE Ridge. Mine was more direct but steeper, Eric's a little indirect but easier, getting him to the SE Ridge about 100ft lower down. I was resting on a rock slab, taking in the fine views while I waited for Eric to catch up. The upper part of the ridge was no slouch either, with equally steep slopes to those we'd just climbed. It would take another 40min for me to make my way up the ridge to the summit, Eric about 10min longer. There are two short class 3 steps in the ridge, neither of which I though would be too challenging for Eric. Rather than wait for him at the steps as I'd done previously on similar terrain, I figured it would be good for Eric to figure them out on his own. And he did, though not without relaying his short moments of terror when he caught up with me at the summit.
There are pretty colorful views of the Wilson Group from the top looking southwest and Lizard Head (taunting me) to the south, and other fine views as well. A 1952 benchmark was found but no register. Or maybe there was one, but we didn't bother with it - can't say I remember much in that regard. After about 15min about the summit we started back down, using much the same route with some variation (we found a better use trail to descend the steeper slopes encountered once off the SE Ridge). Eric did a good job of navigating us back to the trail using the track he'd saved on his phone's peakbagger app, and from there it would take us another hour and a half to get back. Eric was flagging in the last mile and a half, as hard a workout as we'd had in the last week, and harder, he thought, than our week of doing 14ers in the Sawatch Range. It was really those four miles of cross-country that made the difference, a mode of travel he was unused to. It was not long after 2p when we finished up back at the Lizard Head Pass TH, and a good time to head back to Telluride to join Steve for the afternoon's more passive activities...
This page last updated: Wed Sep 18 17:54:13 2019
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