Deer Mountain can be a solo climb from the unnamed lake at the NE head of the North Fork of Lake Creek, or it can be sequenced with Mt. Champion and UN 13,736 for a longer day that includes a long and somewhat tedious ridge connect that offers spectacular views. The trailhead is passenger car accessible with a few minor potholes to navigate around. Some may also combine Deer Mtn. with UN 13,300 B off to the NW. The peak offers typical Sawatch Range terrain.
From Aspen, drive east on SH82 over the summit of Independence Pass and continue down the east side of the pass to the last switchback where the highway drops into the North Lake Creek valley. Just below the last switchback, there's a turnoff to the left (east) that's a short dirt road that leads to trailhead parking for several vehicles in 100 yards or so. This is just under 5 miles from the summit of the pass. The trailhead parking has a wood rail fence. The short drive in may have some potholes.
If coming from the Front Range, turn west from US24 onto SH82 and drive west past Twin Lakes, continuing up along the Lake Fork until the highway makes the first switchback to begin the climb up Independence Pass. Just before that switchback, turn right (east) onto the dirt road that leads to the trailhead parking in 100 yards or so. This measures about 18.5 miles from US24/SH82 turnoff.
Camping at the trailhead parking area is not good. If you can get your vehicle across the creek here, there's a faded track that leads up to a primitive site in some trees. Otherwise, there are designated National Forest campgrounds at Parry Peak and Twin Peaks campgrounds back towards Twin Lakes. We recommend a primitive site that has numerous camping possibilities about 2.4 miles back south on SH82 from the trailhead where a diversion tunnel empties water into the Lake Creek at these coordinates: N 39° 04' 54.99" W 106° 32' 21.86". We call this the Graham Gulch TH and it's 16.1 miles from US24/SH82. About a half mile north of there is another smaller area on the west side of the highway at these coordinates: N 39° 05' 15.72" W 106° 32' 32.28".
Measuring from the US24/SH82 intersection, the Whitaker CG is 5.3 miles; Town of Twin Lakes is 6.1; Willis Gulch TH is 8.1; Parry Peak CG is 8.7; Twin Peaks is 9.4; La Plata Peak TH is 14.0.
We have sequenced Mt. Champion with UN13,736 and Deer Mountain on a long ridge connect. Combining these three summits makes for a longer and more difficult day, hence the "Long Day/Back for Dinner" rating. The only real problem with climbing Champion is the initial start and heading up Lackawanna Gulch. This initial start is the same as we have for K49 (UN13,535). Our route described here is best suited for West Slope hikers, but the trailhead access for Front Range hikers, involves probably a little more driving time than taking the long dirt road up Halfmoon Creek out of Leadville.
From the trailhead, walk north on the old roadbed a few hundred yards and find a place to ford the creek. Once across, follow an old jeep track north into a clearing with some old mine tailings. Locate a trail that continues north, then turns east climbing into the trees. This trail continues well-defined (as of 1989) up into Lackawanna Gulch. Eventually, it fades in the higher meadows as you approach timberline. Bill Middlebrook on 14ers.com refers to a more ill-defined trail here. This may be the same as we have described, but what we found was never sketchy at the time. The main point is to work your way east, up through forest and staying on the north side of the main creek in Lackawanna Gulch. It's probably best to avoid the temptation to head directly up the SW ridge of Champion. Continue along and above the creek to about 11,300 feet in elevation where trees begin to thin. Turn more to a NE heading and begin hiking much more steeply up the south slopes of Champion. It is not necessary to continue east up Lackawanna Gulch until the stream forks, but you can if you find using the trail easier.
Once you depart the trees, heading north up the steepening south slope, the remainder of the hike is uneventful. The ground coverage is mostly tundra/grass for quite a ways before getting into more scree/rock, etc. Pass the old Champion Mine at about 12,900 feet. At about 13,500 feet, you'll intercept the SE ridge coming in from the right. Continue north along the main ridge to the summit and an impressive view gazing down into the North Fork of Lake Creek, now 2,000 feet below.
For the descent, return as you came. For the more determined peakbaggers, continue north from Champion and begin the trek to UN13,736 and Deer Mtn. The next couple hours of hiking will be a ridge type "skywalk" with impressive views on either side.
UN 13,736 is the second summit in a sequence that begins with Mt. Champion and finishes with Deer Mtn. One-way mileage and elevation gain are measured from the summit of Mt. Champion. Round-trip mileage and elevation gain assume completion of the sequence.
From the summit of Mt. Champion, descend NNW down the ridge to the saddle between Mt. Champion and UN 13,736 on mostly low tundra and smaller rubble. Continue north along the same ridge passing over some rockier sections, but still remaining a Class 2 hike. The ridge returns to low tundra higher up until you reach the false and true summit. These are rockier with some blocks and boulders to scramble around. This section of the three-summit sequence will go quickly and easily in comparison to what comes next. Again, enjoy the views down into Halfmoon Creek on the east and the North Fork of Lake Creek on the west. The scenery is very typical of the Sawatch.
We have sequenced Deer Mtn. with Mt. Champion and UN 13,736 for a fairly long day, ridge hike. Deer Mtn. is the third summit in the sequence, but the sequence could be run in the opposite direction of how we describe here. One-way mileage and elevation gain are measured from the summit of UN 13,736. Round-trip mileage and elevation gain assume completion of the sequence.
From the summit of UN 13,736, proceed north along the relatively flat ridge crest for a short stretch, then begin descending NE to the first of three saddles. Continue on fairly rocky & rubbly terrain beyond the saddle gaining elevation toward Pt. 13,445. This is all Class 2. About a quarter mile south of that point, the ascent will level off some at 13,350 ft. This is something of a false summit. Drop down a little to about 13,300 ft., then continue ascending north to Pt. 13,445. This last section of ridge will be a little less rocky with some stretches of low tundra showing up.
From the summit of Pt. 13,445, the real work begins with a significant notch/cleft problem to overcome. This part of the hike we will classify as Class 2+. As you descend the ridge crest, the terrain on the east side drops off dramatically. For the most part, you will stay on the west side of the ridge crest. Some fairly prominent game trails are evident in this next section that can assist in avoiding obstacles. Follow the ridge down to the third saddle at about 13,250 ft. Ascend along the ridge to about 13,425 ft. and soon after, you'll encounter a significant notch. You will have to drop down into the notch, then find a way to climb back up and out on the north side to regain the ridge crest. This will be the Class 2+ section.
Once you've navigated the notch, continue hiking NNW along the ridge crest. There will be another notch that can be easily dealt with by swinging west off the ridge a little. Conclude the ascent to Deer Mtn. by hiking and scrambling through more rubble up the summit cone. Once at the summit, there will be a nice view looking down onto the unnamed lake to the west and also of the long Class 3 NE ridge tha connects Deer Mtn. to Mt. Oklahoma. There are at least a couple reports of that ridge traverse to be found on 14ers.com and SummitPost.
For the descent, head NW down from the summit along the ridge crest. Avoid any temptation to drop south off the ridge crest until 13,200 feet. Any earlier will send you into some steep gullies where you may find yourself cliffed out. At about 13,200 feet, you can begin a descending contour down to the unnamed lake at 12,380 feet. This descent will be on mostly moderately stable talus and scree, or if you're patient and descend the NW ridge of Deer Mtn. a little further, you will be able to descend to the lake on a slope with more low tundra.
From the lake, pick up trail #1483 that drops back down into the North Fork of Lake Creek. The newer trail varies some from the older USGS map in places, but once to the bottom of the drainage, the trail follows along the west side of the creek all the way back to the trailhead. There are numerous points at which the trail cuts through willows. When you reach the TH, congratulate yourself on a job well done. This is a fairly strenuous Class 2/+ hike and makes for a longer day.