Lizard Head, a vertical pillar of crumbling unstable rock, is Colorado’s most difficult and dangerous summit climb.
Albert Ellingwood and Barton Hoag made the first multi-pitch technical ascent in 1920. Hikers may stand directly under the 400-foot tall volcanic neck visible across vast distances. Extend the trek to the summit of Black Face and then thru-hike to Lizard Head Pass. Most of the sojourn is within the 41,486 acre Lizard Head Wilderness, designated by Congress in 1980 with the passage of the Colorado Wilderness Act.
Cross Mountain TrailThe Cross Mountain Trailhead, elevation 10,040 feet, is located in one of Colorado’s most expansive and beautiful meadowlands. Sign the trail register, cross Lizard Head Creek on a narrow bridge and rise up out of the valley – the Dolores River watershed.
The first 2.5 miles are thickly wooded with interspersed clearings. The packed earth and weathered stone path maintains a consistent gentle grade. Enter the Lizard Head Wilderness at 1.9 miles.
Upon arrival in the capacious world above the trees, the highest peaks in the San Miguel Mountains are but a breath away. Walk under the gaze of Mount Wilson (14,246 feet), Wilson Peak (14,017 feet), and Gladstone Peak (13,913 feet). The Cross Mountain Trail ends at a signed junction with the Lizard Head Trail at 3.3 miles, elevation 11,940 feet.
Lizard Head PlatformA cliff band encircles the earth pillar. However, there is a weakness in the armoring that allows passage. Turn left on the Lizard Head Trail and walk about 0.4 mile until you may quite easily cut up to the west ridge.
A faint climber’s trail will soon materialize. The unmaintained track makes short switchbacks in broken gray rock up the steep and narrow spine. Having seen Lizard Head from widely dispersed mountains over the years, it was a gripping and powerful sensation to approach the base of the monolith – it exudes a forceful presence.
Mount the platform at 4.1 miles, 12,780 feet. The terrace is sloping and covered with stones of every size that have flaked from the tower which rises vertically overhead. Lizard Head is notorious for exfoliating in the presence of humans. Do not tarry long beneath this beautiful structure.
Earlier on one extraordinary day, July 29, 2018, we heard a victory whoop and spied two tiny figures on the zenith of Lizard Head. So, upon reaching the base, we rounded the corner to the south face and watched a father and son team rappel a 115-foot chimney to alight safely back onto the platform.
It was a rare and chance privilege to share this celebratory moment. We were delighted to discover the climbers were Durango’s own David Marvin and Seth Marvin-Vanderryn. Seth, age 19, son of David and Judith Vanderryn, is a sophomore at Michigan State University. The pair camped out the night before and began their climb at 4:30 a.m. David said it was a special experience to share his love of climbing with Seth and see him cultivate his own interest and growing competence scaling mountains. They were not aware of the startling statistic: there are more successful ascents of Mount Everest than Lizard Head.
Black Face, 12,147’Backtrack to the trail junction. By now, 4.9 miles are put away and most hikers will contentedly return to the Cross Mountain Trailhead. However, for those who haven’t been on a hike unless they climb a mountain, Black Face is less than three miles afar. Turn left/east on the Lizard Head Trail.
Black Mancos shale blanketing the southern slopes of the spire contrasts sharply with bright green elfin timber in the krummholz. In a third of a mile, gain the southeast ridge of Lizard Head, a well-loved and significant vantage point.
The trail gives up more than 500 feet in the next mile. It crosses open tundra and then does a long sweeping switchback to bypass a rocky slope. Bottom out in a saddle at 11,500 feet. Enter a healthy conifer forest and start climbing.
At elevation 11,900 feet, emerge into the big open, the peak visible straight ahead. Thru-hikers will walk for two full miles on a smooth trail above tree limit along this spectacular ridge. Shortly before the summit, notice a dark outcrop for which the peak is named. It is a thrilling side trip to cross a short and safe ridge and then scramble to the top of the suspended buttress.
Reach the highpoint of the Black Face ridge at 7.6 miles. The summit vista is beyond dramatic. While the solitary monumental column and the towering San Miguel fourteeners command primary attention, the lookout north and east is riveting, as well. It is almost disorienting to view the west side of peaks typically reached from Ice Lake Basin: Pilot Knob, Golden Horn and Vermilion Peak.
If you wish to return as you came, it is six miles from the crest back to the Cross Mountain Trailhead.
Lizard Head PassFor thru-hikers, it is four miles to Lizard Head Pass. Descend the east ridge on a trail so buff you can walk and ogle at the same time. The path heads off onto the north side of the ridge and switches steeply down through the shady company of Douglass fir.
Reach a signed junction with the Wilson Meadows Trail at 9.3 miles. The Lizard Head Trail loses elevation rapidly, the strong presence of spruce surrendering to feathery fir. Trout Lake is visible through an opening in vertically-shafted aspen.
The track makes a sharp turn southwest as it leaves the Lizard Head Wilderness. It barges through talus yards, undulating gently. In autumn, red is on the ground and gold in the air. Spent geranium and fireweed leaves flame and baneberry clusters are the color of rubies.
Walk through a wall of trees and onto an open hillside. The east is brilliantly lit with the colorful and unfathomable shapeliness of mountains in the Uncompahgre and San Juan National Forests. At this time of year, beside the soft path tall grasses are at seed and amongst them are patches of golden eye and groves of cow parsnip.
Finish your hike on Lizard Head Pass. If you left a bicycle at the trailhead, it is a screaming two mile descent down the highway to close the loop. If you are on foot, walk down the access road and watch for the former bed of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad going south. It is a scenic downward 2.3 mile stroll to the Cross Mountain Trailhead.
http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.