Three trails penetrate the Hermosa Cliffs running west of U.S. Highway 550 between the town of Hermosa and Purgatory Resort: Mitchell Lakes, Goulding Creek and Elbert Creek.
Of these, the Mitchell Lakes Trail is not only the closest to Durango, it is typically free of snow by late April. Begin this hometown hike from County Road 250 at the bottom of Old Shalona Hill and ascend westward. Segue onto the Pinkerton-Flagstaff Trail and climb to Hermosa Ridge, the divide between the Animas River and Hermosa Creek watersheds. Top out on Point 9,564’ where views extend from the valley floor to Missionary Ridge, and from the La Plata range to the San Juan Mountains.
Travel: From Durango, travel north on U.S. Highway 550. Pass the town of Hermosa and drive over four rollers, the “Four Sisters.” Pinkerton Hot Springs (“Bubbling Rock”) is at the top of the Fourth Sister. Continue for 0.2 mile and turn right on La Plata County Road 250. The road makes a sharp hairpin to the right then hooks back left. It splits just before Riverside KOA, 0.2 mile from the highway. Make a sharp left (while watching for bicyclists!) onto "Old Shalona Hill.” In 0.1 mile, park in a wide turnout on the left. The Mitchell Lakes Trail goes west up Forest Service Road 740, a technical track not suitable for four-wheel drive vehicles.
Distance and Elevation Gain
Point 9,564': 8.2 miles, 2,850 feet of vertical
Mitchell Lakes: 7.4 miles, 1,900 feet
Total Time: 5 to 6.5 hours
Difficulty: Trail; navigation easy; no exposure
Map: Hermosa, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad, or Apogee Mapping
I think of this as one of Durango’s finest early-season fitness hikes. For those who make it to the highpoint, the mileage and elevation gain is equivalent to the workout on the more popular Haflin Creek Trail.
Moderate hikers may stop shy of the ridge and explore Mitchell Lakes. The trail system is open to hikers, equestrians, mountain bikes, dirt bikes and OHVs. Traffic increases as the season progresses.
Mitchell Lakes Trail
There is no trailhead sign for Mitchell Lakes at the parking pullout, elevation 6,780 feet. Forest Service Road 740 is labeled on a post. Private land surrounds the road for the first 0.4 mile. Walk through a tunnel under U.S. Highway 550 and pass the Fume Wall, a sport climbing destination. The wall is composed of Leadville Limestone. It is surprisingly the same formation as the Redwall Limestone in the Grand Canyon.
The cement fortresses you see are intended to protect homes from floods and debris flows emanating from the 416 Fire burn scar. The fire started on June 1, 2018, just up the tracks from the Forest Service Road 740 crossing. It was contained July 31 after burning 52,778 acres. While the fire swept through the entire region, destruction was spotty. Some ponderosa and aspen groves survived. Caution! The trail passes through stands of incinerated trees. Do not hike on a blustery day.
Cross the tracks, hop over a creek and enter the San Juan National Forest. The road degenerates and the grade varies from nearly level to super steep. To be honest, some locals avoid this trail for its steepness and rubbly footing.
Almost a mile up the initial northwest traverse, a spur takes off to the left. Continue on the main road which makes a hairpin to the southwest at 1.1 miles.
Cross a series of shallow, boulder-choked ravines scoured out from fire-enhanced debris flows. The sandstone is a member of the Hermosa Group found on this east-facing slope. The repetition of sandstone, limestone, shale and siltstone record sea level rise and fall and glaciation in the Pennsylvanian Period 300 million years ago.
At 1.8 miles – 8,000 feet – the trackway strikes north across a broad bench. It is a pleasant interlude through a woodland of Rocky Mountain and Utah juniper, ponderosa and gambel oak. In the spring, mahonia (Oregon grape) flows over the ground splaying bright yellow blossoms. After the idyllic reprieve, the trail pitches radically before swinging west to approach the base of the east ridge of Point 9,564'.
Pinkerton-Flagstaff Trail to Point 9,564'
Arrive at the signed junction with the south end of the lengthy Pinkerton-Flagstaff Trail (PFT) at 2.7 miles. To reach Hermosa Ridge, transition onto the PFT, a multi-use singletrack.
The trail is named for James Harvey Pinkerton, a La Plata County judge in the 1870s (no relation to the Pinkerton Detective Agency). The judge, Ann Eliza and their seven children homesteaded in the area now known as Pinkerton Hot Springs. The family raised dairy cows and sold butter to Silverton miners.
The trail climbs swiftly as it ascends the south flank of the eastward lateral ridge. Old-growth ponderosa that survived the conflagration part to reveal sightings of the Mitchell Lakes cluster on the bench below. The treadway makes a couple of switchbacks through a lens of gray limestone. A gorgeous slab of blue polka dot shale rests on the trail. Climb constructed sandstone steps and transition between the Hermosa Group and red Cutler Formation as you near the divide.
Intersect north-south-running Hermosa Ridge at 3.9 miles, elevation 9,420 feet. The field of vision from the divide is mesmerizing, but climb just a little further and it is spellbinding.
To summit Point 9,564', stay on the PFT as it turns northwest. Enter the Hermosa Creek Special Management Area (SMA). The Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection legislation, passed by Congress in 2014, created both the 37,236-acre Hermosa Creek Wilderness and the SMA. After a few paces, watch for a ridgeline trail to the crest of the highpoint at 4.1 miles.
Find the summit register tucked in the branches of a limber pine. The lookout provides an astounding vista to all compass points. In the west, the La Plata Mountains rise substantially above Barnes Mountain and Cape Horn. North is Engineer Mountain, Snowdon Peak and the Twilights. Northeast is Mountain View Crest, Shalona Lake, Old Shalona Hill and U.S. Highway 550.
While this hike turns around here, other exit strategies exist provided you set up a short shuttle. Continue north on the PFT and intersect the Jones Creek Trail in 0.6 mile. The lower Hermosa Creek Trailhead is about five miles south. Or, continue north for about 3.2 miles on the PFT to the Goulding Creek Trail and descend three miles east to the trailhead off U.S. Highway 550.
For a more leisurely hike, explore the three lakes and forego the little mountain. When the PFT takes off at 2.7 miles, stay on the Mitchell Lakes Trail. Big timber, a pocket of aspen, grasses – it is pretty and peaceful. Follow the two-track up and over a low ridge and onto the three-lake terrace, a glacial cirque.
The first lake has nearly completed the age-old Earth process of turning into a grassy meadow.
The next pond is hidden from view to the northwest over a low rise. The reedy tarn is teaming with Boreal Chorus Frogs. Their cheerful springtime cacophony fills the hollow with song. Walk due south to the third lakelet. A witness tree stands sentry over pleasing blue water.
Leave No Trace
Our trails are pristine and free of micro-trash because locals have a high regard for wild places. Thank you for cleaning up after yourself and others. In the spring, it is important to stay on established trails, no matter how muddy. Be kind to yourself and all living things: people, wildlife, plants…rocks too!
http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.