Climbing
Non
Alpine climbing NCCS rating
Grade I
Elevation Gain
7,000.00 ft (2,133.60 m)
Distance
17.00 mi (27.36 km)
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Challenger Point and Kit Carson Mountain, situated in the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains, provide a great adventure for those willing to do the drive down into the San Luis Valley. The Sangres are, in general, a less heavily traveled range than the more central ranges in Colorado, which can make them feel more remote. They're are also made up of a looser conglomerate-style rock that can come off in big chunks and makes things a bit spicy. In other words, the Sangres are a bit chossy. But they're definitely worth exploring, and Challenger and Kit Carson are right in the heart of the range. When you're at Willow Lake, looking up at the peaks and valley above, you'll know you're in the middle of nowhere.

This trip report will cover the standard (easiest) approach and routes up both peaks. There are tougher routes if you want to challenge yourself more!

 

Notes

  • Seasonality: Colorado can be extremely tricky when it comes to climbing season, as it's often plagued by unexpected early and late-season snowfall that can really mess with plans. However, this route will generally melt-out sometime in mid to late July and will generally get snow again in October. Don't take this as gospel though, as snowstorms can come at literally anytime.
  • Gear: If you climb in May through early July, you'll almost certainly need crampons and ice axes. If you wait until mid-July, you may be able to get by without traction, though you should read up on trip reports from the area to verify. Every fall, the snow comes at different times, so you'll just need to watch the weather, though it's generally pretty clear until late September.
  • Thunderstorms: There are afternoon thunderstorms most afternoons in July through mid-August, so make sure you're not in the alpine when these roll in, otherwise things get very dangerous.
  • Number of Days: This is totally a personal call - some will crush this trip in a single day, while most will do it in three, spending two nights at Willow Lake and climbing the 14ers on the middle day of the trip.
  • Checking the conditions: You'll set yourself up best if you know what conditions you're getting into, so make sure you're watching the weather, gathering the beta you need, and checking 14ers.com, which has a ton of great info on hiking 14ers in CO.
  • The Road: Most vehicles can make it to the trailhead, but you'll be happier with a higher clearance vehicle. If you don't have one, just be careful and go slow!

 

The Trip

You'll begin at the hot and dusty Willow Lake Trailhead. Begin up the trail, snaking through a few well-signed junctions before beginning the climb proper. If you're not acclimated to 8,800 feet, you'll immediately start feeling the altitude, though if you're a Colorado native, you may not notice it as much. The trail crosses through aspen groves and meadows before getting into tighter coniferous forests.

The trail continues up and up, endlessly switchbacking across and along Willow Creek. Luckily, there are generally good bridges and logs so you shouldn't have to get your feet wet. As you climb your way up, the views will get better and better. After just under 5 miles, you'll get to the main camping area just below Willow Lake where there are a lot of campsites. Pick your favorite spot, and then rest up for the big day ahead!

You'll want to wake up early the next morning so you can get off the high peaks before the thunderstorms start rolling in after noon. You'll skirt along the north side of Willow Lake before getting into the alpine proper. Follow the rough trail across the small waterway east of Willow Lake before beginning the big climb. You'll climb up 2,100 feet over 1.5 miles, and every foot of this is basically straight up loose-ish rock/dirt. Take your time on this climb and recognize that it's going to be pretty burly. The views make up for the climb!

Once you finally get to the ridge and the notch, it'll stop being so steep. You'll scramble along the relatively low-angle ridgeline of Challenger, before getting up to the summit mound (which is not super distinct, but marked by a USGS marker). Enjoy the view, but don't take too much time if you're still planning on climbing Kit Carson.

When you're ready to continue, head east down the ridge to the gap between the two mountains, passing a sign that warns you of the danger of this area. From here, you'll need to find the "Kit Carson Avenue", which is quite obvious and brings you across the west face of Kit Carson. You'll round a corner, pass by "The Prow", and continue down the Avenue, which will help you get across the south face of Kit Carson. Now you'll pass through a notch, and then swing around into a big gully. Before you do, make sure you take note of what this section looks like! If you miss this turn on the descent, you will have a bad time! Once you're in the gully, the climb is pretty straightforward. Head straight up, angling left when appropriate. After a final 400' climb, you'll finally be on your second summit of the day.

Revel in the views all around you - if it's clear you might even be able to see over to Pikes Peak to the north, to the San Juan Mountains to your west, and to the huge sand dunes to your south. Don't linger too long though, you have to get out of the alpine before the thunderstorms roll in, and the descent is not straightforward (as you well know, it's the same as the climb).

You're in the clear once you're down at Willow Lake, now enjoy the rest of your descent, and take a dip in the lake if it's still warm out!

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Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Summer
Fall

Congestion

Moderate

Parking Pass

None

Open Year-round

Yes

Days

3

Pros

Fun summit scrambling. Alpine valley.

Cons

Loose and steep trail. Long approach.

Pets allowed

Allowed

Trailhead Elevation

8,800.00 ft (2,682.24 m)

Highest point

14,200.00 ft (4,328.16 m)

Features

Backcountry camping
Waterfalls
Big vistas
Wildflowers
Wildlife

Access

Hike-in

Typically multi-day

Yes

Permit required

No

Primary aspect

North facing

Drinking water

Unfrozen water

Location

Nearby Adventures

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Colorado

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