This is now my fifth year of hiking 14ers. I've managed to complete all of the Front Range and Mosquito/Ten-Mile Range 14ers, as well as a fair number of Sawatch peaks, however I hadn't yet explored the San Juans. For the first summit of the year, Shari, a close friend that is frequently part of my hiking excursions, planned a trip down to the Silverton area to tackle Redcloud, Sunshine, and Handies...in two days.
So it was set - we assembled a group of the usual suspects: my wife Lisa, Shari and her husband Brad, Lonny, and Tracy (our standard hiking/skiing group of people), packed up the cars, and headed down to the southwest corner of Colorado on June 30th. Of course, me being the utterly paranoid individual that I am, I scoured the 14ers.com trip report forums to try to figure out what the conditions of those trails would be so early in the year. A few in early June concerned me due to the amount of snow on the trail, but, as everyone assured me, if there was snow on the trail, we'd deal with it once we got there. As a precaution, we threw our snowshoes in the car just in case (which turned out to be completely unnecessary).
Brad loves to explore the great "shortcuts" that this state has to offer via 4WD mountain passes, so our itinerary was to drive down to Lake City (via Gunnison), head up to the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch trailhead (located on the Cinnamon Pass road before it requires 4WD). We'd camp there, hike Redcloud and Sunshine, camp another night, break camp in the morning, then go tackle Handies from the American Basin trailhead up the road. Afterwards, we'd drive up and over Cinnamon Pass, and stay in Silverton for two nights.
We left Denver around 9am on Saturday, stopped for lunch in Salida, and arrived at Lake City and the start of Cinnamon Pass by 4pm that afternoon. The road was in great shape, and the shelf road was comfortably wide with lots of pullover passing spots. We reached the trailhead about 40 minutes later, and saw a few tents pitched already. At the trailhead are the ruins of two old mining cabins, plus a rare luxury of camping these days: pit toilets. We meandered around and found a great camping spot perched up a small hill, above a pile of mine tailings (37.93884°,-107.46177°, 10,457 ft). It required a small trip from the car to the campsite, but it was set back far enough from the road that the ATV and jeep traffic didn't seem too noticeable. There were plenty of other places to camp.
We awoke around 5:30am the next morning, and after a slow start of getting ready, hit the trail around 6:50am. The trail ascends pretty rapidly, and by about 7:30am we'd gained around 700 feet, had emerged from the forest, and started to hike along side Silver Creek (whereas before, you could hear it roaring in the canyon far below). We reached a large cairn with an old coffee pot on it by 7:40, marking the South Fork drainage trail merge.
The trail continued to ascend gently alongside Silver Creek for about another hour, at which point the trail started climbing into the lush green basin below Redcloud peak. Glancing behind us during this ascent, Handies peak became more and more prominent at the other end of the valley - up Grizzly Gulch. On the ridgeline above us, we could see a few climbers ahead of us, making their way towards the summit.
By about 8:40, we'd gone roughly three miles and were starting to ascend out of the green basin, now on the lower northeastern slopes of Redcloud. The trail switchbacked up to the shoulder of Redcloud at about 13,000 ft, and as we climbed, Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre started to appear just above the ridgelines to the north of us. We were out of the basin by 9:20, treated to spectacular views of the Bent Creek basin on the other side of the ridge. We could now see the summit of Redcloud off to the left of the shoulder ridge we were ascending.
The trail up to this point has been Class 1. Once out of the green valley, Redcloud greeted us with nasty scree. As we started to ascend, a few distinct trails were visible. One jogged off to the right and appeared to be a lengthy switchback, the other just ascended straight up the ridge. Not appreciating how unpleasant the scree was, we chose the route straight up. It turned out to be not so fun. Mind you, I've been on far worse scree before (Mt. Columbia comes to mind), but given the choice again, I'd recommend the switchback route instead.
The steep ascent lasted for about thirty minutes. If you followed the worn trail, the dirt had a tendency to slip out from under you; if you opted for the larger chunks of scree, the rocks just shifted under your weight. This was, by far, the most unpleasant part of the hike. It helped to have hiking poles for balance. Eventually, the "shortcut" route reconnected with the switchback route, and the hiking became much easier, leading us more gently up to the shoulder of the ridge.
From here, the summit was clearly visible, and all it required was hiking over stable scree and talus towards the summit. We reached a completely empty summit at about 10:25am. We stopped for a break and some food before starting our trek towards Sunshine at 10:45am. The descent was fairly straightforward, and the trail was borderline Class 1+ down to the saddle between Redcloud and Sunshine. The ascent up Sunshine was a little more difficult - snow obscured some of the trail, so we had to hike around on the talus, occasionally doing a little route finding. From the saddle to the summit was definitely more Class 2, which slowed our pace a bit. While ascending we passed a number of the hikers that were ahead of us as they headed back towards Redcloud.
We reached the summit of Sunshine by noon, again completely deserted. Since the skies were completely clear, we decided that we could relax a little on the summit. A timid pika stuck his head out of the wind shelter to investigate what was going on while we were eating. We left the summit at 12:40 to re-tackle Redcloud. As we descended towards the saddle, we passed a few people that had started later than us. It was a surprisingly warm day (my thermometer read 75° at the summit!) so Lonny took the opportunity to sit in a snow drift for a minute to cool off!
After reading Roach's book, 14ers.com, a number of trip reports, and a sign posted at the saddle, we had all decided that the only real way to descend from Sunshine was to re-summit Redcloud. Our pace was a little slower on the ascent, plus we were all fooled by the false summits on the re-ascent of Redcloud (even though we had hiked past them an hour or two before...it didn't help that one of them had someone standing atop it for a few minutes, making us think maybe it was the summit). We were back on top of Redcloud by 1:50pm, still with no clouds in the sky. It was a fantastic Colorado day. Of course, since it was such a hot day, some of us ran out of water. On the summit of Redcloud, we redistributed some of the water we had, enough to last us until we reached the streams below where we could filter more.
On our descent, we stayed with the more solid switchbacked trail, rather than descending the steep slick route we had ascended. The longer switchbacked trail still wasn't perfect, but it provided much better footing than our ascent had. We were back in the green basin by around 3pm, and we had all decided that some of the lingering snow fields offered a good glissade opportunity. All of us took the opportunity to slide down about 150 feet of snow, which provided a nice cool off, and a little break (although hikers still managed to pass us, so I don't think it saved much time, if any...probably because we were all laughing too much).
We rejoined Silver Creek at about 3:45pm. Lonny, Lisa, and I all stopped for about ten minutes to give our legs a break and refill our Camelbacks from the stream. We all reached the trailhead around 4:50pm, making this about a 10 hour hike for us, round trip. Everyone was feeling pretty tired and hot, so a handful of us wandered over to the stream across from the trailhead to cool off a bit.
While we were hiking, Lisa counted the number of other hikers we encountered (since we passed virtually all of them due to the double summit of Redcloud). There were 12 hikers ahead of us, and 12 behind us, so 6:50am is a pretty average time to start. Had the weather not been as fantastic, I would've been more anxious about being above treeline that late after noon. Of course, I'm probably just gun shy since I was chased off of Shavano around 10am by lightning.
This hike would truly be easy if it weren't for the loose scree on Redcloud and the sheer length. If you were to just do Redcloud by itself, it wouldn't be bad - but the two peaks together make for a fairly long day, especially when you consider that you're really hiking three peaks (since you must re-summit Redcloud). All things considered, however, we all thought that Oxford and Belford (which requires you to summit Belford twice) was slightly more exhausting than this hike.