Mapping The Mt. Huron Trail with GPS

3 Sep 2006 - by Michael Ciccone (view roster page)

Several months ago I recieved an interesting e-mail from the Colorado Mountain Club, stating that Backpacker Magazine had a project to map all of the Colorado 14ers using GPS. After some research I choose to map Mt. Huron (elv. 14003). The mountain appeared to be easily accessable within a 2 hour drive from the Denver area, and was only slightly more difficult than my first 14er (Quandary Peak). As I did not have my own GPS unit, but have experience using GPS from my Geology Degree, I asked if I could borrow a unit. Within a week or so I recieved a Garmin Vista C etrex portable GPS unit in the mail. It was several weeks before I could make the time to try the GPS unit, and attempt summiting Huron Peak.

The First attempt was made in early August 2006. I got a very late start and arrived at the parking area for vehicles without high clearance at 2PM. This parking area is approximately 1.75 miles from the Huron Peak Trailhead (about 12 miles up a moderately rough dirt and rock road). I did not get very far before I heard the first distant claps of thunder. The road to the trailhead is used by ATV's and as I walked toward the Trailhead I noticed many hikers and ATV's returning from the trailhead. The road crosses a small creek (a few inches deep and about 6 feet wide and follows the headwaters of Clear Creek. Throughout the approach hike the gurgling of the creek to the right could be heard. The first mile of so is in a pine forest, but then the road opens up to reveal panoramic views of a beautiful alpine valley, and a large Peak. I later found out that this peak is not Mt. Huron. It is the peak that appears to the left, and is deceptively small (due to a false summit). As I got within 1/2 mile of the trailhead I felt the first drops of rain hit, while the thunder grew louder and echoed through the mountains. I continued to hike and take notes on the condition of the approach road, as well as GPS waypoints. I had driven 125 miles and was reluctant to turn around if it was not absolutely necessary. I hoped the storm would not last long or would miss me. Unfortunately, the thunder booms, began to turn into cracks as the lightning got closer. By now I had my rain jacket on, and it was raining moderately. I reached the trailhead, and made the decision to turn back. This initial hike was 3.5 miles round trip. All was not lost, however, as I still had some questions for Kim with Backpacker Magazine about exactly what she wanted (# of waypoints, trail descriptions, etc.) On the hike back to the car the nearby mountains began to vanish in white sheets of torrential rain. I put the GPS unit away and concentrated on getting back to my car as quickly as possible. By the time I arrived back I was cold, and soaking wet.

I could not attempt to climb Mt. Huron for a month after this first attempt due to scheduling conflicts and lack of money in my budget to buy the gas necessary for the 250 mile round trip.

Finally, my opportunity came on the four day weekend my new employer gave me for the Labor Day Weekend. On Sunday September 3, 2006 the weather was perfect. My job had also put me in a location closer to the mountains as I now lived in Wolcott, Colorado the drive was only 80 miles each way. I had plenty of experiance with the GPS unit and was ready to go. At 12:44PM I arrived at the parking area for cars (elevation around 10,200'). With a temperature near 70 degrees and not a cloud in the sky I had the feeling this time would be different. In about 45 minutes to an hour I walked the 1.75 mile approach to the trailhead. The sunlight sparkled on clear creek like wine on this fine autumn day as the first of the aspens glimmered a shimmering yellow. There was a faint smell of pines as a crisp autumnal breeze blew. On the way to the trail I noticed a few black squirrels in the pine Trees. On the way up, I had to move off the road many times for passing trucks and ATV's. It seemed that everyone was taking advantage of this perfect opportunity to climb a 14er in near perfect conditions.

The Trailhead for Mt. Huron begins at an elevation around 10,610'. Near the Trailhead was another parking area used by trucks, ATV's, and other vehicles capable of running through creeks, and over boulders. I snapped a photo, and wrote my first trail description. I turned the GPS on, set it to track my route, and took a waypoint. The trail is quite steep for the initial 2000 feet of elevation gain. There are frequent switchbacks, and in one place I crossed a fallen log. About 1/2 mile onto the trail around 10,800' elevation the view opened up revealing an incredable panoramic view of mountains and a massive u-shaped glacial valley. For a while the aspens and pines intermingled before the predominant vegetation turned to spruce. Around 1.6 miles onto the trail the last of the trees vanished revealing a large flat alpine plane. There were small shrubs, and an occasional stunted spruce clinging to a rock. The view was an incredible 360 degree panorama. The true summit of Mt. Huron also became visible as a 2000' pile of gray rocks. Just before the trail steepened toward the summit for the 12,000' elv. meadow there was a shallow lake, and some hikers sunbathing on a car sized boulder. About 2.25 miles into the hike (4.00 miles from my car) the trail steepened toward a ridgeline. At 12,583' the trail made a hairpin turn avoiding a boulder field. Shortly afterwards a deep rocky chasm appeared to the right. By now I was hiking quite slowly and huffing and puffing. It was 4PM, and the temperature had cooled to a crisp 55 degrees. Just above 13,000' elevation a large conical rock cairn appeared. It was the only one along the trail. At a distance of nearly 3 miles up the Mt. Huron Trail and an elevation of 13,500' the trail reaches a ridgeline. There is very little vegetation on the rocks except for a sparce blade of grass, moss, and various colored lichens. To the left (looking beyond the ridgeline) there appeared to be a large rock glacier which had advanced through a spruce-pine forest. Toward the 10 O'clock position I noticed several other possible rock glaciers. I snapped 2 pictures at this point, and noticed that the sky was partly cloudy in the late afternoon sun. At this point the trail turned into a steep climb over talus and boulders to the summit. Previously, I thought I was the last person summiting Mt. Huron for the day, but I noticed a shirtless man with a cowboy hat slowly making his way up the trail. He got ahead of me while I was taking notes near the ridgeline. Around 13,750' I noticed mountain goats near the summit! Just before reaching the summit, the other hiker yelled down that there were 4 mountain goats on the summit and he was 20 feet away from them! I began to hike faster, which was not very fast due to the rarefied air. When I arrived at the summit, I too saw the mountain goats. They were now about 40 feet away but showed no fear of humans as they crept along the steep rocks. They were quite large and looked at us for a while as they made their way down the other side of Mt. Huron. The other hiker introduced himself as Drew. He made a recording of his experience at the summit, while I snapped photos, took notes, and the final GPS waypoint. I signed the summit register "mountain goats on the summit!" We stayed at the summit for about 20 minutes, before heading down.

It took over 4 hours to get to the summit (an elevation gain of 3500' over 3.5 miles) but we made quick progress down. I put the GPS and notebook away and talked to my new aquaintence. I learned that he was an experienced climber, logging Mt. Rainier, several large peaks in California, and at least a dozen or two of Colorado's fourteeners. I think this was his second fourteener of the day! Before I knew it we were back in the pine forest, and switchbacking our way back to the approach road. I think the sun set right as we reached the trailhead. This was sometime after 7PM. There was still another 1.75 mile walk back to our vehicles. After walking about 0.4 miles or so, two guys who we had talked to near the trailhead caught up with us on their ATV's. Drew suggested we ask them for a ride back to our cars. I had never ridden on an ATV before, but these strangers gladly let us on the back as they sped toward the parking lot. I held on very tight, and could not believe how long the ride on the ATV took (about 15 minutes). It would have been quite the walk. We bumped over rocks, and fortunately slowed down at the stream crossing. The air was cooling rapidly in the 10,200'+ alpine valley to the left, and it was nice to stay dry. Around 7:45PM we were back at our cars. Drew had plans to camp overnight in the parking lot before climbing 3 more 14ers the next day! I was quite tired and headed back to Wolcott, with no intentions of doing anything big for a while. The trip had been a rewarding experience, and stood in stark contrast to my first hopeless attempt to summit Mt. Huron. Drew informed me that Mt. Huron was not one of the easier 14ers. That made me feel great, as not only had I summited my 2nd 14er, but I also did a harder (lesser climbed one) that was class II all the way up.


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