New Comprehensive Climbing Guide to the San Juans Range

Free chapter excerpt from new guidebook, Climbing Colorado's San Juans: A Comprehensive Guide to Hikes, Scrambles, & Technical Climbs
CMC Press
May 02, 2022

Climbing Colorado's San Juans is the most comprehensive climbing guide for the San Juans. With thirteen of Colorado’s fifty-four 14ers, and twenty-nine of the state’s Centennial peaks, the San Juans Range in southwest Colorado offers a staggering array of options, from mellow walk-ups to advanced technical routes. This book is a treasure trove for adventurers, providing route intel, photos, and maps. It covers 300+ peaks across 14 mountain subgroups, includes fascinating stories from the area’s colorful climbing history, and offers stunning photography by Matt Payne.

Enjoy a free excerpt and pre-order your copy of this new guidebook today!



The main cluster of the San Miguels is composed of three 14,000΄ peaks—Mount Wilson, El Diente, and Wilson Peak—and one peak just under 14,000΄: Gladstone Peak. Mount Wilson and El Diente have well-deserved reputations as two of the most difficult 14ers to climb. The rugged, exposed ridge connecting Mount Wilson and El Diente is a “must climb” for serious mountaineers. Neighboring Wilson Peak is not as difficult as Mount Wilson or El Diente but presents all the challenges the average climber cares for. The almost-14er Gladstone Peak (13,913΄) is an attractive peak that has been overlooked by climbers intent on the 14ers. Perhaps this is for good reason, however, as the rock on Gladstone is notoriously loose and dangerous.

Two or three miles southeast of the main cluster of peaks lurks the infamous Lizard Head, which has worked hard to gain its reputation as the most difficult and dangerous summit in Colorado to attain. The history of climbing on Lizard Head is replete with stories of broken holds, rockfall, turned ankles, and climbing falls. In sharp contrast to the evil Lizard Head are the more rounded summits of Sunshine Mountain, directly east of the 14ers, and Dolores Peak, Middle Peak, and Dunn Peak, to the west. Lone Cone completes the San Miguels. Aptly named, Lone Cone sits in beautiful isolation several miles to the northwest of the other peaks in the range.

Wilson Peak 14,017΄ RANK 48

The iconic Wilson Peak can be seen prominently from many locations and espe­cially from Last Dollar Road near Telluride. It is featured on the Coors beer can. The variety of approaches and solid Class 3 rock on its standard route makes it a beloved classic.

Southwest Ridge

From Rock of Ages TH at 10,350’: 4.5 miles, 3,820’
From Wilson Mesa/Bilk Basin TH at 9,750’: 6.5 miles, 4,600’
From Navajo Lake TH at 9,360’: 7.8 miles, 5,000’
From Navajo Lake at 11,154’: 3.5 miles, 3,000’
From Kilpacker Basin TH at 10,100’: 9 miles; 4,840’
From Woods Lake TH at 9,470’: 7.7 miles, 5,260’
From Cross Mountain TH at 10,040’: 7.5 miles, 5,200’

This is the easiest and most popular route up Wilson Peak. From the Silver Pick Basin area, climb to the 13,020΄ pass overlooking the Rock of Ages Mine on the well-established Rock of Ages Trail. From the pass, contour up to the saddle on the ridge between Wilson Peak and Gladstone (if coming from Bilk Basin, your ascent begins here). From this ridge, descend slightly to a climbers’ trail that traverses up the right (east) side of the southwest ridge below the ridge to the east, to circumvent cliffs, before scrambling up broken rock to reach the southwest ridge at about 13,450΄. It’s possible to gain the southwest ridge earlier, but that would involve significantly more difficult climbing and some loss of elevation once the ridge is gained. Once on the ridge, you will need to make a short Class 3+ downclimb on the west side, shortly below the summit, which involves some exposure. Although this exposure is consid­erable, it is very solid rock that has been traveled a great deal over the years, so most of the loose rock has been eliminated. A steep but well-broken-up face leads you back to the ridge and summit.

West Face

From Rock of Ages TH at 10,350’: 4.5 miles, 3,820’

This is the most direct route on Wilson Peak, but it requires routefinding and off-trail climbing skills. At 12,560΄, the trail up Silver Pick Basin makes a 90-degree turn and begins to contour south toward the pass above the Rock of Ages Mine. Rather than turning right and contouring toward the pass, continue up into the basin below the west face of Wilson Peak. Early in the year, this basin usually has a large snow­field. Once in the basin, there are several Class 3+ variations that lead to the south­west ridge and then to the summit. Later in the year, expect to encounter talus and loose rock. It is also possible to gain the southwest ridge from the west by continu­ing on the Silver Pick Basin Trail a short distance after it turns south at 12,800΄ and then climbing left, up the prominent gully that meets the southwest ridge at 13,700΄. Although passable, this gully is a jumble of loose rock.

South Face

From Wilson Mesa/Bilk Basin TH at 9,750': 6.5 miles, 4,700'

In late spring and early summer, the south face is a moderate (30- to 45-degree) snow climb. From the old miner’s cabin in Bilk Basin at 12,800΄, head directly up the face to gain the southwest ridge. Once the snow is gone, the route is covered by loose talus and loses its attraction.

Mount Wilson 14,246΄ RANK 16

Mount Wilson, the taller of the two Wilsons, offers a variety of mountaineering chal­lenges sure to satiate even the hardiest of climbers. The two Wilsons are 1.5 miles apart and connected via a long ridge extending south and west from Wilson Peak, with Gladstone perched between the two, forming one of the most impressive and rotten ridges in the San Juans. There is debate as to what approach to Mount Wilson is the easiest. We found the approach from Kilpacker via the southwest flank in sum­mer to be the easiest and least traveled.

North Face

From Rock of Ages TH at 10,350’: 5.4 miles, 4,712’
From Wilson Mesa/Bilk Basin TH at 9,750’: 8 miles, 5,840’
From Navajo Lake TH at 9,360’: 7.2 miles, 5,130’
From Navajo Lake at 11,154’: 2.6 miles, 3,000’
From Kilpacker Basin TH at 10,100’: 8.5 miles, 4,950’
From Woods Lake TH at 9,470’: 7 miles, 5,330’

Often considered to be the standard route for Mount Wilson, this approach involves an airy and memorable final pitch sure to excite even the most experienced moun­taineer. The north face is accessible either by downclimbing 600΄ from the Rock of Ages pass connecting Silver Pick Basin and Navajo Basin or by climbing east from Navajo Lake, high into Navajo Basin following a well-used trail. Until shortly below the summit, the north face is not particularly difficult. Although it does require some scrambling, there are several variations that lead toward the final summit ridge. The last ridge section involves exposed and at times precarious Class 4 climbing along a thin ridge that, although it appears unstable, is relatively firm.

Southwest Flank

From Kilpacker Basin TH at 10,100’: 6 miles, 4,200’

In winter or spring, from high and far east in Kilpacker Basin via Kilpacker Creek Trail, the southwest flank of Mount Wilson presents (when snow conditions are right) a moderate snow climb that’s not possible later in the year when it’s more of a talus slog. Aim for a narrow couloir that leads you up to a spot about 100΄ north to the summit where you finish on the same narrow, exposed ridge that completes the north face route. In summer and autumn, this route has a very well-established trail leading up from the Kilpacker Creek Trail that is Class 1 until the final 1,000΄ of the climb, where it begins to cross several boulder fields, a snow field, and some easy Class 3 sections of rock directly below the summit. To gain the summit, you will partially ascend a well-traveled gully, cross a solid rock rib and ascend another short gully to a notch and then up to the summit. An airy but easy Class 3 move is required on the summit block itself. This route combines well with the south flank route of El Diente for those looking to avoid the more technical traverse while completing both in a long day with a solid weather window. The junction for both climbs is at the 12,640΄ cairn.

Mount Wilson—El Diente Traverse

This classic 0.8-mile traverse is undoubt­edly one of the most difficult ridges between 14ers and has claimed many lives, so extreme caution should be given. The ridge is 0.8 mile long. The low point is 346΄ below Mount Wilson and 259΄ below El Diente. When these 14ers are climbed together, via the ridge, it is best to climb Mount Wilson first. The first two-thirds of the ridge involves some scrambling and exposure but is not unreasonably difficult. At this point, however, you are confronted with a 30΄ rappel or a severe Class 4 down­climb. After the rappel, it’s best to drop off the ridge to the south (left) to avoid a series of rock pinnacles called the Organ Pipes before regaining the ridge shortly below the El Diente summit. The rock on the ridge is hard, highly fractured, and fairly stable; however, in years of extreme moisture, the rock becomes more unstable.


To start planning your next climbing trip, order your copy of Climbing Colorado's San Juans here.

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