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Colorado Trail Ride - Blanca Peak

Posted in Events on March 1, 2008 Comment (0)
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Colorado Trail Ride - Blanca Peak
Photographers: Joanne Spivack

Why it's called Lake Como Road is beyond me." "A few years ago, I backpacked the road from the flats with my wife and kids. We started at the bottom at the same time as a group of extreme four-wheelers, and wound up arriving at the lake at the same time they did." "I think going up that road is pretty stupid." "After seeing what it was, I believe my Jeep would have been injured or killed by the attempt (maybe me too)." "There are few things in life that I hate as much as I hate the Lake Como Road." "I've hiked this road and have seen some guys from New Mexico who come up every year to drive it with modified vehicles." "My God, that road is horrendous."

All hese quotes are taken from recent forum postings on a website (www.14ers.com) dedicated to climbing Colorado's collection of 14,000-foot peaks. It is always interesting to hear another recreational group's view of our own very special places; especially since the climbers, just like us four-wheelers, engage in an activity that is probably considered extreme by the general public. We certainly had to chuckle as we read the posts. Our amusement was twofold: First, our local four-wheel-drive club is the "guys from New Mexico," and second, we love our annual trip up that "horrendous" road.

The Lake Como Road is the official route name for the road up Blanca Peak in southern Colorado, and it is a true Colorado classic. Blanca Peak is in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range and is situated just southwest of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument.

Is Lake Como Road the hardest road in Colorado? Maybe... depending on the definition of "road" one chooses to use. The route scaling the slopes of Blanca Peak is officially an Alamosa County road (County Road 975). The County Commission asserted its RS 2477 right to the road back in the mid '90s when the Forest Service was rattling its road-closing sabers. Is the road up Blanca the hardest 4WD route in Colorado? Not by a long shot, but it is still a very interesting and challenging route. It is also as beautiful a drive as Colorado has to offer, although one may be a bit too preoccupied by the road to admire the scenery!

The New Mexico 4-Wheelers have made a 4WD pilgrimage up the mountain and out to the end of Lake Como Road most years since the early 1990s. The trip is usually the second weekend of September and often includes an overnight campout on the edge of beautiful Lake Como. The lake, on the upper flanks of Blanca Peak, is one of the more spectacular settings available for an overnight 4WD outing. The campsites are nestled amongst the pines just below the tree line with the towering, jagged summits of Ellingwood Point, Blanca Peak, and Little Bear Peak surrounding the lake on three sides.

These three nearby "fourteeners" attract a high degree of foot traffic to Lake Como Road. It is by far the most popular route taken by those seeking to scale the summits. The road was the scene of many contentious confrontations between pedestrians and those who chose to recreate with motors during the mid '90s while the Forest Service was seeking to close access. Once the road issue was resolved between Alamosa County and the Forest Service (with local 4WD clubs adopting the road and maintaining some sedimentation mitigation), the conflicts quickly dropped off. Present encounters between hikers and wheelers are generally very genial, illustrating how much "user conflict" can be decreased by educating users and correctly calibrating their expectations.

The Blanca Massif can be dangerous to hikers and motorized recreationists alike. All too frequently, the peaks, road, and trails have claimed the lives of the unfortunate and the unprepared. Do not take the mountain or its road lightly. Know what you are doing, have good equipment, understand how to use it, and watch the weather. Storms form quickly and violently on Blanca, and precipitation is a regular occurrence. And perhaps most important: Never go alone!

We began our five-vehicle ascent on a Saturday at 9 a.m. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise directly from the floor of the San Luis Valley, making the Blanca group an imposing sight from the trailhead. The route directly approaches the base of the mountain via a gentle incline and then begins its ascent in earnest via a series of long switchbacks. The road is initially really slow and rough but not particularly difficult.As one climbs higher, the incidence of exposed granite in the roadbed increases and the difficulty slowly rises accordingly. The route tops a ridge and then drops into the confines of Holbrook Canyon.

Take a deep breath because the four-wheeling fun and the source of all that angst among the mountain-climbing crowd is about to reveal itself. At the mining settlement site of Commodore, several cabins stand in various states of disrepair. Late 19th-century mining activity in the area gave rise to the cabins and to this remarkable road. You might not spend much time admiring the cabins if you are a driver, as Jaws 1 is staring you right in the face.

A word or two about the major obstacle names on the Lake Como Road. No one seems to know who coined them. Maybe no one wants to claim the dubious distinction of naming them. As accurate as the monikers are, they show a severe lack of diversity! They are called, in order of appearance, Jaws 1, Jaws 2, Jaws 3, and Jaws 4.

Jaws 1 sits right at Commodore and straddles your upward path. A long and increasingly tall diagonal spine of light-colored granite runs across the road. There seem to be tracks around the lower end, and it looks tempting. The off-camber nature of this "bypass" and its close proximity to the creek below doesn't make skirting the rock a very appealing alternative. There are two schools of thought on Jaws 1 depending on vehicle clearance and breakover angle. One can attack the spine directly and let gravity drag the skidplate over when the vehicle high-centers, or one can creep up the diagonal and drop one tire at a time over the crest. Either way, going up is much more fun than coming back down!

Once past Jaws 1, the route crosses Holbrook Creek and makes its way steeply up the mountain on an increasingly rocky path. Soon Jaws 2 looms ahead, smack in the middle of a narrow shelf road. This particular obstacle has been the site of most of the vehicle mishaps on Blanca Peak. Although not as formidable as it once was, it demands respect and care. Again, a large chunk of the mountain's mineral skeleton lies exposed on the trail. There is a large pile of loose rocks on the lower side of the ledge and a pesky point that loves to snag the undercarriage. To the left is the yawning space of high-mountain air and very little else. A lively throttle and a bouncing vehicle on this near edge has been the fatal recipe for more than one enthusiast. If you don't climb it cleanly on your first try, stop, carefully back off, and make another attempt.

Next up is Jaws 2.5. "What? Where did that come from? It is not on the list!"

This newer challenge has emerged from the dirt just 100 yards short of Jaws 3. Keeping with "tradition," wheelers have gleefully tagged it Jaws 2.5. When dry, a careful straddling of the V-crack allows a vehicle to walk right through. When wet, dodging all of those projecting granite points can be a real challenge!

Jaws 3 is much less of a menace than it once was, and there is a short bypass down and to the right that skirts around the named impediment. Once past Jaws 3, it is a short climb up to the shores of Lake Como. The four-wheeling fun doesn't stop there. The route continues along the north shore of the lake, crosses the inlet, and scales Jaws 4. Above Jaws 4 (hug the tree on the far right really close), the road climbs through the last of the trees and emerges into a beautifully rugged high-alpine basin. The trail bumps and crawls over and around piles of boulders to terminate just above the lowest of the Blue Lakes. The end of the motorized trail is a wild and awesome place with the stark granite peaks of Ellingwood Point and Blanca Peak soaring above.

Now the route reverses and so does the role of gravity. On the downward trek, gravity now seeks to "help" the vehicle back down the mountain. Jaws 1 gets a lot trickier coming down, and when the typical afternoon or evening rains further slick the granite, watch out! We were happy (and lucky) to make the run dry this year and returned to the trailhead by noon Sunday after a perfect night by the lake.

Lake Como Road on Blanca Peak is a true Colorado four-wheeling classic. A stiff challenge, a historical route, gorgeous scenery, and a fabulous setting combine to provide one of the truly unforgettable routes still available to the four-wheeling public. Be careful, respect the dangers, keep the area clean, stay on the road, and have fun!

How To Get There
The trailhead for the Lake Como Road on Blanca Peak is located east of Alamosa, Colorado. Take U.S. Highway 160 east out of town. Fourteen miles east, turn north on Colorado Highway 150 toward Great Sand Dunes National Monument. The unmarked trailhead is located a little over 3 miles north of the 160 and 150 intersection. Lake Como Road (dirt) heads diagonally away from the highway and directly for the mountain. There is a Forest Service information kiosk about a half-mile down the road. Camping facilities are located in Alamosa and within the Great Sand Dunes National Monument.

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