Durango, Colorado

Peak of the Week: Hiking Castle Rock


, by Greg Heil

View from the top of Castle Rock. Photo: Greg Heil

The thin air, jagged rocks, tiny tundra flowers, and million-mile views found in the high alpine nourish the soul, excite the mind, and inspire the challenging athletic achievements it usually takes to reach this hallowed ground. Whether I reach the high alpine on the back of my mountain bike, on skis or a snowboard, or in just a pair of hiking boots, I enjoy every second of my time spent above tree line.

I’ve always loved peak climbing, but over the past several years, my efforts have all been laser-focused on mountain bike objectives. Sure, I managed to bag a handful of peaks last year, but these were mostly completed as an afterthought. Even so, those big hikes leading to the top of an epic peak were some of the most memorable highlights of the summer.

So this year, I’m setting a new goal: I’m going to try to climb one peak a week for the entirety of astronomical summer. While I know that just one peak every week is a meager effort compared to some of my friends (and many of the world-class athletes on Strava), if I personally manage to climb one peak every week for 14 weeks in a row this summer, it would comprise a totally new personal achievement.

Now, what exactly qualifies as a "peak" will be left open to interpretation. I’m not solely concerned with high points and 14ers. Instead, I’m excited to climb obscure summits that see very little traffic. Also, the challenge will be sport agnostic. I have a few peaks that I would like to ride on my mountain bike as well, and I'm definitely going to count those. Lastly, while I’m not sure if this will be possible, I hope to climb one unique peak every single week with no duplicates. While this would be the ultimate achievement, it might not be entirely feasible—we shall see.

First up? Castle Rock.

Castle Rock peeking through the trees. Photo: Greg Heil

The San Juan mountains in Southwestern Colorado were slammed with heavy snowfall all winter long, creating a deep snowpack that lingered late into the summer. As I prepared to tackle my first peak of the challenge on June 24th, I read the latest condition reports and realized that the high mountains still held deep snow, especially on the northern aspects. While snow isn't necessarily a showstopper, I had foolishly left all of my snow gear in my storage unit four hours away and was entirely unprepared for a snowy summit climb. So to get started with the challenge, I chose a short but aesthetic peak with a trail that I hoped would be dry: Castle Rock.

Rising to a modest height of 10,441 feet, Castle Rock is a high point along a ragged cliff band known as the "Hermosa Cliffs," which tower above Highway 550 north of Silverton. The ragged line of cliffs is beautiful from below, and for hikers who ascend to the top of the ridge, it yields even more stunning views from the top.

The hike's stats are pretty achievable in the world of peak climbing: just 5.5 miles round-trip with 1,745 feet of elevation gain. As a result, the effort-to-view ratio found on this climb is superb, making it a popular outing. As I enjoyed the hike on a perfect June day, I passed many other hikers going both directions who all seemed to have the same idea.

The climb begins from a trailhead directly off the highway, heading up through a towering grove of aspen trees. The trail soon begins to ascend the mountainside, switching back and forth to gain elevation. As I climbed, I caught glimpses of Castle Rock towering high above, beckoning me onward in pursuit of my goal.

After some steep climbing on the front of the face, the trail mellows out a bit as it climbs to a beautiful meadow. On the edge of the meadow are two historic cabins which aren't open to public access but still provided an intriguing spot to stop, take a breather, and poke around.

The cabins at the meadow. Photos: Greg Heil

After passing through the meadow, the route takes a right turn onto an unsigned but heavily-traveled trail toward the top of Castle Rock. From here, the climbing got dramatically steeper, with a few steep pitches and some loose, sliding dirt. As the trail wound around to some shaded, heavily-wooded, north-facing slopes, I hit a couple of small snow patches. While these were quite easy to negotiate, hitting snow at 10,000 feet indicated that I had definitely made a wise decision to not head up any higher in elevation.

Lingering snow drifts. Photos: Greg Heil

After passing through the dark timber, the trail popped out onto the top of the ridge, traversing along the top of the cliff band to the ultimate viewpoint at the Castle Rock outcropping.

From the outcrop, the view of the valley below was absolutely stupendous! I enjoyed my lunch and soaked in the incredible vista for a while before reluctantly turning around to head back down.

View from the top of Castle Rock. Photos: Greg Heil

In terms of difficulty, this hike was undoubtedly only a prelude to more difficult endeavors to come, but goals aren't necessarily all about difficulty. Rather, the point of this goal was to get me out the door to experience a new trail and a spectacular landscape that I might not have otherwise enjoyed. And for that, I was so grateful!

Will I eventually get higher into the mountains, or will snow and the travails of life keep me away? What peaks will I choose to climb, and will any turn me away in defeat? To find out, you'll have to follow along with the future installments in the series!

Note: We'll be publishing an ongoing "Peak of the Week" series here on Strava Stories, but not all of these articles will focus on my personal "One Peak a Week" goal. Instead, we'll be featuring other writers and athletes from around the world to hear about the incredible peaks that they've climbed as well!

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