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Hematite Basin: Lake, Flowers and Peaks

Hematite Basin provides satiating views, peak climbs

Submerge yourself in a riot of flowers while hiking to Arctic blue Hematite Lake. A few miles east of Silverton, this trail will present a superb wildflower tour through mid-August.

Satiated by the floral extravaganza, most hikers will turn around at the lake. However, there is an off-trail option to ascend two thirteeners and traverse one of the sweetest ridges in Colorado. A climber’s delight, gain 4,000 feet in 3.7 miles.

Hematite Lake, 11,916 feet

While the lake is a common destination for Silverton and Durango locals, you may enjoy complete solitude. From the wide pullout on San Juan County Road 2, elevation 9,640 feet, look across the road and locate a two-track. It soon narrows to a trail running up a grassy slope heading toward Hematite Gulch. Marking this slope is a rusted out, bullet-riddled getaway junker with a 12-foot-tall aspen growing inside the engine compartment.

Hearty miners constructed this consistently steep track through difficult terrain to access mines in Hematite Basin. Trekking poles are helpful, as the path claws its way up the draw. The trail stays west of the cascading gorge while making a series of steep switchbacks through young aspen.

The climb is forgotten while plowing through the immersive floral experience. Step across “Bluebell Creek.” The verdant slope is awash with some of my favorites. Rocky Mountain penstemon is peaking, deep-night purple monkshood grows in wet areas, prehistoric green gentian send up creamy blossom spikes, little sunflowers are really tall, clusters of columbine abound and Silverton wallflowers astonish. These clumps of robust mustards are supposed to be bright yellow, but in the Silverton area (only!) they are purple.

Wildflowers are at peak bloom beside the steep trail to Hematite Lake.

You will know you are gaining on Hematite Basin when the trail weaves around a willow patch and is dispersed amongst marsh marigolds. Ice-scoured Hematite Lake resides in a circular bowl, or cirque. Reach it at 2.0 miles after a respectable 2,300 feet of climbing. In August, the lake is just now emerging from its extra thick snow blanket. Pools of iced turquoise reflect cerulean, ethereal heavens.

Macomber Peak, 13,222 feet

Adept off-trail climbers may wish to add another segment or two to the hike progressively increasing the level of difficulty. First, climb Macomber Peak on the west side of the basin. Locate a social trail leaving from the platform above the lake. The scrabbly, multi-threaded path passes a mine shaft and then pitches southwest. Footing is a little rough. A big cairn marks the intersect with the southeast ridge of Macomber at 12,200 feet. Take careful note of this location for your return trip.

The ridge kicks up swiftly. The lake recedes while echoing the brilliant face of Colorado sky. The “Green Wall” is grunt-steep, sure to slow you down before summiting at 2.9 miles.

[image;3]Macomber is a subsidiary peak of Tower; nevertheless the vista is far-reaching. To the immediate northwest, skiers will recognize Silverton Mountain’s Velocity Peak, and climbers will be enthralled with the daunting profile of Storm Peak.

Tower Mountain, 13,552 feet

The tough climbing is over. It is a one-mile traverse from Macomber to Tower Mountain. The rock on the descent ridge extending north of Macomber is good, and many people will hardly take notice of the mild exposure. But if thin ridges are new to you, it does take some getting used to landscape moving disconcertedly in your peripheral vision.

Climb another 500 feet and crest Tower Mountain at 3.7 miles. Now, the panorama is truly unstoppable. The mountains ringing the Ice Lake Basin rest on the southern shoulder of Velocity Peak, Mount Sneffels claims the horizon over the Reds, Handies completes Half Peak, Sultan Mountain rules over Silverton and Macomber is tranquil while the wonder-inducing peaks in the Weminuche Wilderness wrangle audaciously for attention.

Thomas Ward and Forester Tesche take a break in the saddle between Macomber Peak and Tower Mountain.

Based on experience, I strongly recommend that hikers call it good and retrace their steps to the trailhead. Reclimbing Macomber will cost you less than 200 feet.

Southeast Ridge Loop

I expect that a few readers are going to attempt the full circuit, so here are some helpful pointers. Agony and ecstasy are perfect descriptors for the blue-line loop descent from Tower Mountain on the southeast ridge. Navigation is tricky. It is a quad-burning, knee-jarring plunge, and it takes longer than returning as you came. This route should be undertaken only by hikers with big mountain experience.

East of Tower, the ridge has three knobs that must be wrangled. Rock is loose and friable, the pitch steep. That dispensed with, bliss out in tundra ecstasy for one mile. Look over the north edge at the three lakes stepping down Cataract Basin.

It is a challenge to drop off the ridge to the Hematite Lake trail no matter how you tackle it. I have tried half a dozen routes, and all of them have been troubled with rock at the angle of repose and cliff bands. My best suggestion is to stay on the ridge to elevation 12,560 feet. Resist the temptation to descend the south ridge with its cliff armoring in the lower reaches. Instead, locate a south-facing swale that is free of large obstacles and plunge 1,800 feet in less than 0.8 mile. The swale finishes with a curving talus field. Cross Hematite Gulch and rejoin the trail at 10,760 feet. It is a fast and flowerful mile back to the trailhead.

http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.

Travel basics

Travel:

From Silverton, drive up Greene Street to the north end of town. Make a soft right onto San Juan County Road 2. The road turns to a smooth, dirt surface in 1.9 miles. Park on the right at 3.6 miles, 0.1 mile before the Animas River crossing.

Distance and Elevation Gain:

Hematite Lake, 4.0 miles roundtrip with 2,300 feet of vertical; Tower Mountain out-and-back, 7.4 miles with 4,200 feet of gain; loop is 7 miles with 4,000 feet of climbing

Time:

Hematite Lake is a half-day hike; 5½ to 7 hours to Tower Mountain and back

Difficulty:

Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; mild exposure

Map:

Howardsville, Colorado 7.5’ USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping

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