La Garita is an unranked, but named and prominent summit located along the La Garita Mountains Crest NE of Creede, CO. It's fairly close proximity to the ranked centennial peak called "Phoenix," (13,895) may attract some peakbaggers to take the time to hike the connecting ridge over to this one. The trailhead access by passenger car can enable both summits to be completed in a reasonable day hike but 4WD will save about 3 miles of additional walking.
From the town of Creede and CO149, where the highway crosses the main stream in town, (Willow Creek) turn north and follow the Main St. north through the heart of town. Locate the Rio Grande Field Service Office on the right hand side of the street and measure from there. Continue north through town and begin the steep climb up the narrow canyon on a graded, gravel road. Beyond the town, this road becomes CR503. When the road forks at 1.2 miles, stay right. This becomes CR 502. From that junction, follow the graded road up along East Willow Creek to where the USGS map shows a BM 9704. Right here, the road will cross back to the west side of the creek and begin ascending uphill steeply. At the first switchback, (which will be 3.5 miles from the previous junction), passenger vehicles should park on the north side of the curve. A 4WD road takes off to the NNE from this curve. 4WD with good clearance vehicles may continue from here. Elevation here is just below 10,000 ft., and not 10,200 as the 1986 San Luis quad shows incorrectly.
For 4WD vehicles, continue NNE up the track which crosses a minor, forested ridge (where you may find some camping) and then the road drops considerably on a couple curves/switchbacks to meet a trail coming up from E. Willow Ck. Both the 1986 quad and the Trails Illustrated # 139 show the road continuing from here, but the FS2016 does not. The track heads up a minor drainage and works around a forested knoll to rejoin the creek, staying well above it. When it comes to the crossing of Whited Creek, the upper TH will soon follow. Drive to these coordinates: N 37° 55' 08.18" W 106° 54' 10.81". Elevation is 10,340 ft. This is 1.7 miles from turning off of CR 502. The trail heads down the open slope to the creek. Cross here: N 37° 55' 06.76" W 106° 54' 06.24". In 1993 when we hiked this area, there was a not-too-sturdy foot-bridge to cross on about 50 yards downstream. If no longer there, this will likely be a wet crossing. Once across, the trail climbs up the embankment, then turns south.
Camping opportunities are slim to none in the immediate area. It's too narrow along CR 502 as it follows E. Willow Ck., and there are numerous private property issues. See the trailhead description above for one possible place shortly up the 4WD section. W. Willow Ck. also does not have many opportunities but if you push up it north far enough, there are a couple spots where you can make do car-camp. With 4WD, the best place to camp will be after crossing Whited Creek and near the trailhead. In the immediate vicinity of Creede, there are no Forest Service campgrounds.
Note: The mileage estimate for this trip begins at the upper trailhead at the end of the 4WD segment. If accessing this area with a passenger car and having to park at the switchback on CR502, add another 3 miles round-trip to the mileage estimate.
Since we have described the 4WD section of the road in the trailhead, this route description will pick up at the La Garita Stock Driveway Trail #787 on Trails Illustrated. Once you've crossed the creek, the trail heads south some and then curves into the unnamed drainage coming in from the east. The USGS map indicates that the trail quickly crosses the stream not long after turning up the drainage. What we found was that the trail stayed on the north side until the stream comes close to a steep embankment that makes further progress difficult. It crosses the stream just after you come out of an aspen grove. About 100 yards later, you will likely come to a stream junction not indicated on the USGS map. An unmarked stream flows down coming from the south and we found rock cairns indicating we should cross this stream as well and continue east up the trail.
The trail continues east and passes through a rough, very rocky stretch, passes back into forest and becomes fainter, but frequently marked with cairns. Most of the time, it stays well away from and above the stream, still on the south side. Eventually, the trail emerges at timberline around 10,750 ft. From here, you can pretty much chart your own route up the open, tundra/grass slopes. We went back across the stream here at a point where the trail bends SE and the stream heads NE and proceeded to a large, man-made pile of rocks. This point was about two hours hiking in from the CR 502 trailhead. We continued east for a little bit to a bench-like area then headed up a narrow ridge on the east side of a drainage. Eventually this pronounced ridge plays out to a broad, mostly tundra slope farther up. Continue on up to the ridge crest utilizing as much tundra as you can find. You should emerge at a saddle about a half mile south of the Phoenix summit. Proceed north along the ridge crest to the summit over mostly rubble. There's a very large, man-sized cairn/rock pile on the summit.
The summit view is interesting. Most of these mountains are not very "rugged," but dropping down on the north side of the ridge, there are still glacial cirques evident and a few lakes with some nice interesting, glacial carved features and cliffs. Farther down and to the south is the vast Wason Park. You may spot some elk in that area as we saw many droppings indicating their presence. To the north there are long valleys that stretch for miles.
For the return trip, simply retrace the ascent route or continue SE along the ridge crest from the summit for 2.25 miles to tag la Garita Peak. The route we have described here is mostly that offered by G&M and worked well for us. Trail conditions may vary however and make route finding more difficult so be careful about reading your map.
La Garita Peak is sequenced with Phoenix Peak. Though this summit is not considered a ranked one, it is the second highest point in the La Garita Mountains south of Cochetopa Creek and since it bears a name, some peakbaggers will want to consider tagging this summit along with Phoenix Peak. One-way mileage and elevation gain are measured from the summit of Phoenix Peak and round-trip mileage and elevation gain assume completion of the entire sequence.
Looking SE from the summit of Phoenix Peak, what appears to be mostly a tundra-covered ridge actually harbors a lot of lichen-covered rock. Therefore, don't expect progress to be too rapid. Also, a long high ridge traverse like this seems to always expose one to high winds, so expect that as well. There will be two"bumps" to either go over or contour around with three intervening saddles. The ascent from the final saddle before the summit of La Garita will be on medium-sized rubble and the summit will be similar. Even though a little tedious, we still managed to make this 2.4 mile traverse in about an hour. Along the way, the main visual distractions will be the vast valleys and parks that seem to stretch for miles in either direction, and the remnants of glacial cirques and the impressive headwalls left behind all a long the NE side of the ridge. From the rocky summit, you can spend some time observing all this and for the watchful eye, there may be the likely opportunity to observe a herd of elk somewhere below either grazing or ruminating.
For the descent, we dropped back down to the saddle NW of the summit, then hiked downhill on mostly tundra slopes that also bore any number of wildflowers to distract us. Farther down, there are willows to contend with and it's a useful thing while still above them, to chart a route through so you don't get too tangle up in them. Our goal was to return to the trail at the approximate point at which we left it to hike up Phoenix Peak. Once you reach the trail, follow it back to either Phoenix Park or CR 502, wherever you left your vehicle. As mentioned before, we completed this circuit in about 7.5 hours with a start near CR 502, but that was 27 years ago as of this writing. Not likely to go that fast now!