Wanting to bag one more 14er before leaving the San Juans, we headed northeast to the Redcloud Peak Wilderness Study Area, nestled between Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, to hike Redcloud Peak. With gales forecasted for the entire week we were attempting to hike, it was difficult to find a day with favorable conditions. Eventually, though, we got a day where the winds were expected to top out around 35 mph near the summit, and jumped on the opportunity.
Similar to Uncompahgre, the trailhead was quite a haul from Durango, clocking in at around four hours. That said, the road to the trailhead was in unexpectedly good condition and most four-wheel drive vehicles with decent clearance should be able to make it. The Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch Trailhead is about 20 miles southwest of Lake City via Highway 149 and County Road 30.1 If you’re interested in bagging 14ers while you’re in this area, there are three peaks that are easily accessible. A two-night camping trip would allow you to hike Redcloud, Sunshine, and Handies in just a couple days (Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks can be combined).2
From the parking area, the Silver Creek Trailhead heads northeast toward Redcloud Peak. Across the lot, the Grizzly Gulch Trailhead takes you southwest to Handies Peak. The trail to Redcloud begins surprisingly moderately, rising gently along the banks of the mineral-rich waters of Silver Creek. It’s easy to see how the small stream earned its name, as the milky current has totally whitewashed the rocky creek bed with precipitated deposits of mineral salts. It’s really quite striking.
After traversing a stretch of barren, alpine meadows beyond the creek, the trail finally begins to gain some meaningful elevation. As the path switchbacks steadily up the hillside, the views of the San Juans become sweeping. The muted hues of the rugged peaks looked like a watercolor painting, contrasted by the brilliant blue late-October sky.
After about three miles, the trail becomes steeper and more exposed as it climbs to the summit, gaining over 1,600 feet in about 1.5 miles. One short, quarter-mile section of loose scree proved to be particularly frustrating. With slick, ankle-deep dirt and stone that slid with each step you took, it kind of felt like you were at war with each switchback. Luckily, the surface was much more compact and stable after that one short section. As the path again skirted the edge of peak, the barren terrain transformed into a deep, rusty red hue, ostensibly for which Redcloud was named.
The trail continued to hug the northeast ridge of the mountain as it approached a false summit. From here, the path zigzagged up one final pitch to the summit. Redcloud’s 14,034-foot crown is surprisingly small, and its precipitous edges make you feel like you’re standing on top of the world. The panoramas from the top were incredible, with layers of mountains disappearing into the horizon. Looking north, we could make out Uncompahgre’s slanted summit towering above all the other San Juan massifs. To the south, we could see the trail continue across the windswept saddle to Sunshine.
When we arrived at the highpoint, the winds were over 30 mph, with the occasional gusts now a more constant breeze. We met one other seemingly seasoned hiker at the top who’d just returned to Redcloud from Sunshine via the saddle to the south.3 He said the round-trip over to Sunshine took him significantly longer than expected, and that the winds blowing across the saddle were considerably stronger than at the summit. While we were hoping to hike over to Sunshine and grab two 14ers that day, we ultimately decided against it. The winds were increasingly strong and steady, and neither of us felt comfortable tackling the gusts. Even though we didn’t nab two summits that day, we were totally pleased with our hike up Redcloud.
Total distance: 9.0 miles
Elevation gain: 3,642 feet
1 County Road 30 forms part of the 63-mile Alpine Loop National Backcountry Byway. Much of this road is for OHVs, and not recommended for standard four-wheel-drive vehicles. It is also important to note that this road is closed seasonally due to snow and avalanche hazards, so check with the local BLM if traveling outside the summer months (June to September). From Highway 149, County Road 30 heads south and west past Lake San Cristobal and a couple of campgrounds. Beyond the campgrounds, the road gets a bit rougher as it heads to the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch Trailhead. About three miles past the trailhead, the road becomes suitable for OHVs only as it heads over Cinnamon Pass toward Animas Forks.
2, 3 Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks can be combined for a 12-mile out-and-back hike via Redcloud. It’s also possible to hike the pair as a loop via Sunshine’s northwest face, though this is a significantly more difficult route. The two peaks are typically hiked via the former option – by summitting Redcloud, following the saddle south to Sunshine, then returning and descending Redcloud. For detailed information on routes up both peaks (or other 14ers), check out https://www.14ers.com/routes_bydifficulty.php.