Pole Creek Mountain is a fairly isolated, Class 2 summit in the San Juan Mountains south of Lake City. Most any access to this summit requires 4WD and/or a backpack. The Pole Creek Mtn. quad holds a dozen 13ers including the namesake peak and with a little backpacking effort offers the opportunity to "bag" a large number of 13ers in a small amount of time. We have sequenced Pole Creek Mtn. with Northwest Pole for a nice dayhike from a base camp located above Cataract Lake.
Most of the 13er summits on the Pole Creek Mountain quad and the Finger Mesa quad can be most easily accessed from one of two trailheads, both off of County Road 3, south of Lake City and Lake San Cristobal. The first TH is Carson Pass at the head of Wager Gulch. This access requires 4WD with good clearance. The drive in is followed by walking the Colorado/Continental Divide Trail west. There is minor elevation gain and loss and no more than 4 miles of hiking/backpacking. The other trailhead is accessible to passenger cars, but requires more elevation gain (2,500 ft.) on foot. That access utilizes the Cataract Gulch Trail from near "Sherman." It's about a 4.5 mile hike/backpack up to Cataract Lake for a base camp. We used the Wager Gulch/Carson Pass access, hence our trip reports will be based on that as the start point. Peaks accessed in this manner include: Coney BM; UN13,260 D; Bent Peak; Carson Peak; "Tundra Top;" Cataract Peak; Half Peak; UN13,674(Quarter Peak); UN13,581; UN13,580 A; UN13,660; and Pole Creek Mtn. For information regarding the Cataract Gulch TH, you can find that by searching for that trailhead. We have never actually hiked that trail except in the vicinity of Cataract Lake. Our route descriptions for many of these peaks should be usable regardless of which TH you choose with the exception perhaps of Bent, Coney BM and UN 13,260 D.
From the Town of Lake City, drive south on SH149 and then turn right onto CR3 (BLM 3306) to Lake San Cristobal. Trails Illustrated labels this road as CR30. The road is paved past the lake then turns to graded dirt, passable for all passenger cars. About 2 miles past the Williams Creek campground, watch for a road turning off to the left (south) for the old townsite of Carson. This road is identified on maps as either BLM3308 or FS568. it's also called the "Wager Gulch" road. From this point on, 4WD is advisable.
Head up the road through aspen and conifer forest. At times, the road climbs steeply, but generally is not too rocky or in very poor condition. Along the drive up, there are a few primitive campsites. See coordinates below for what we consider to be the best primitive camp area. The road is fairly easy driving to the old townsite of Carson. Beyond there, it works its way up to Carson Pass through areas of willows and becomes quite rocky in stretches. We drove this summer of 2018 and found that a lot of the willows had been cleared away and though rocky in stretches, the road was easily passable in our Toyota Tundra. If you're not comfortable with driving this last part, park down near Carson and walk this last mile. From the summit of the pass and the coordinates provided above, you can begin your hike or backpack. In previous years, it was possible to continue driving south on a 4WD track for another half mile to where you would actually connect with the Colorado trail. Those coordinates are: N 37° 50' 52.67 W 107° 22' 06.06". Elevation here is 12,150 ft. so you've dropped down from the pass a little.
There are designated, Forest Service campgrounds at Lake San Cristobal, Williams Creek and Mill Creek (which is past the Wager Gulch turnoff). On the drive up Wager Gulch, we observed a few nice, primitive sites at some level locations. The best location was just a little before reaching the road that turns off for Carson. There is some open meadow on either side of the road and a good cam area on the west side. Be advised though that the beetle kill all through here is heavy and there are numerous dead trees around this camping location. See coordinates below.
From the summit of Carson Pass, drive south just a little to a multiple track intersection. This is a good place to park and leave your vehicle, but if you wish to save another .6 mile of carrying a pack, a 4WD vehicle can drive down the road that heads SW to another location where the better road ends at a promontory overlooking the valley below. Park here. Along the drive down, you will pass the turnoff on the right for the Continental Divide/Colorado Trail # 787. At this point, you've lost some altitude and will be about 12,100 ft. The trail is marked by a typical post. It heads off to the west and contours for a distance at a little above 12,000 feet before beginning to gain some elevation for a pass at 12,900 ft. The 3.9 miles to the pass (measuring from the first car park near the summit of Carson Pass) are all relatively easy hiking. The trail is easy to follow and stays clear of the abundant willows in the valley below. It's almost all tundra terrain. The gradient is very easy. This section of trail my actually be mountain biked if you care to travel that way.
From the anticlimatic pass at 12,900 ft., the trail turns more to the SW and drops down a broad tundra slope to intersect the trail coming up from Cataract Gulch and the West Lost Creek Trail. From the pass to the trail intersection is about 1.2 mile.
We recommend camping in the tundra on the broad tundra ridge above Cataract Lake. This offer expansive views in every direction and is very centrally located for climbing every 13er located in this area. The down side is the exposure since there are no trees. Cataract Lake offers a little better location and certainly beautiful. Obtaining water will be easier. Because of it's lower elevation, it will necessitate more elevation gain on the hikes to most of the other 13ers.
From the suggested base camp, drop down SSW toward the Pole Creek drainage on trail and locate the cairn-marked trail intersection of the West Lost Trail Creek and the CD/Colorado Trail. Continue SW through tundra crossing Pole Creek and aim for the North ridge of Northwest Pole. The very broad ridge is covered with broken rock and tundra. While in this area, you may want to keep a watch out for both golden eagles and hawks, both of which we observed. Continue south along the ridge which will gradually become rockier. After over a mile of ridge walking, you'll come to the point marked 13,606 ft. Scramble up broken rock to this false summit if you like. Interestingly, Google Earth shows this point to be higher than what has become the accepted summit, which is obviously higher.
From the false summit, continue south along the ridge crest. It's easily navigable. Walk on south to the true summit which is pictured on this page and consists of a rocky outcrop that will require some 3rd class scrambling. Work your way up the final 40 feet by climbing a short wall to a gash, crossing the gash, then climbing another short wall to the summit. We had no problem getting our kids up this last section. Enjoy the impressive view looking far down into Pole Creek to the west and to Pole Creek Mountain, an impressive hunk of mountain to the SSE. Keep a watch out for elk. On our visit here in 1992, we witnessed an enormous herd about a mile away running across a broad tundra plain looking like a swarm of ants. If you want to eat lunch at this summit, you'll likely want to drop off on the east side to find a better place of repose.
Either return as you came or make something up. There are any number of options, or, continue on to Pole Creek Mountain which we have sequenced with Northwest Pole.
Pole Creek Mountain is sequenced with Northwest Pole. One-way mileage and elevation gain are measured from the summit of Northwest Pole. Round-trip mileage and elevation gain assume completion of the sequence.
From the summit of Northwest Pole, drop east on small, broken rock for the first few hundred feet and then work around and across a developing drainage heading east, then SE, then south. The terrain becomes mostly pleasant, gentle tundra. Cross a large, flatter saddle area and then begin working your way up onto the broad north ridge of Pole Creek Mtn. From a distance, it appears as though this ridge will become problematic farther on with a few spires showing and some spectacular drops on the east side of the ridge crest. Work your way up staying on the west side of the ridge crest to avoid any difficulties and the route will remain Class 2 all the way to the summit. Closer to the summit, the tundra gives way to mostly rocky rubble and at times, things become a little steeper. Various foot paths of other climbers will be evident. Once you mount the partially tundra-covered summit area, stride on over to a large cairn that marks the true summit. The summit area is large and gentle and offers outstanding views all around, especially looking down into the Rio Grande drainage. As with Northwest Pole, watch for elk. They are plentiful in this area.
For the return trip, head back down the north ridge back to the broad, saddle area and then work NE toward a small sub-peak with an elevation of 13,066 ft. Either contour around the east side of this sub-peak at about the 12,700 ft. level or drop north through a saddle on the west side of the little peak. Either way, you'll need to lose about another 500 - 600 feet in elevation as you drop into another basin filled with a lot of willows. We took a semi-circular route through the basin heading first NW, then north, then NE to avoid some of the willows. Head towards a point on the USGS map marked as 12,302 and soon you should find the West Lost Trail Creek trail which you can then follow back to the suggested base camp.