South River Peak is one of the most difficult 13er summits to reach as a day hike. Some may want to turn this into a backpack trip to help reduce the daily mileage and elevation gain. With a private property issue that eliminates one approach possibility, climbers are faced with these choices: a backpack trip; shorter mileage but greater elevation gain and a difficult bushwhack; or longer mileage, no bushwhack and less elevation gain. Pick your poison. The route we used in 2010 was the second choice. The bushwhack was very difficult and writing this 10 years later, beetle-kill may have rendered this approach to the peak nearly impossible because of fallen trees, etc. Nevertheless, we will post the route we used since we have no accurate beta on any other approach. The trailhead we propose can be reached by vehicles with better than average ground clearance. 4WD was not required.
From the town of Creede, where CO149 crosses the Willow Creek, drive south and west about 5.1 miles to where the highway crosses to the south side of the Rio Grande. Continue another 1.7 miles to just before where the highway crosses back to the north side of the Rio Grande. Forest Road 523 turns off to the left just before the bridge crossing. Head south on FR 523. The graded gravel road follows along the Rio Grande briefly, then passes by a subdivision of houses and comes to an intersection in about 4.7 miles. Stay right here. Drive another 3.7 miles to another intersection and veer left to stay on FR 523. Now the road will finally leave the river valley and begin to do some climbing. Follow FR 523 to Love Lake. There's a vault toilet here and not much else. Measure from Love Lake another 2.5 miles. In this next section of driving, the road deteriorates some after the lake and becomes rougher but still passable for passenger cars with better clearance. Do not depend on the Trails Illustrated map at this point. It is inaccurate in showing where the road really goes. There will be an intersection where you'll need to make a sharp left turn to remain on FR 523. By now, you are in an area of extensive logging with multiple logging roads heading off in various directions. Drive about 3.7 more miles on FR 523 to an intersection at these coordinates: N 37° 36' 56.93 W 107° 02' 41.58". Elevation 11,480 ft. Make a sharp left here and drive another half mile to where the "good" road ends at an area with piles of old cut logs. 4WD is not required to reach this point as of 2010, but better ground clearance is useful. The road actually continues, turning back to the SE, but a berm seems to be intended to halt further traffic, so let this location serve as the trailhead to reach South River Peak.
Camping is possible right at the trailhead, or at any number of other locations in the final mile or even farther back. Water may not be immediately available. It's not too likely to find competition for campsites in this logged and now beetle-kill forest.
A warning: Google Earth does not adequately show the problematic cliff band that guards the summit and also shows this summit as 60 feet lower than the USGS map. The following account is largely copied from a report we wrote about this climb a few months later: From our campsite/trailhead, we walked southeast along the remaining half mile of road until it terminated. At its end, we found a trail heading more south toward the Copper BM summit of 12,467 ft. We assumed this to be the trail that some maps showed heading toward this summit, but it may not have been. After a couple hundred yards of following the fading trail through the forest, we left it and bore SSE toward the saddle between Copper BM and 11,895, which we could catch good glimpses of. The forest began to open up and it was relatively easy to chart a course over to the saddle. We walked through attractive, grassy, timberline meadows until we arrived at the saddle where we found at least two game trails heading down into the side drainage that empties into Red Mountain Creek, 1,600 feet below us and about 1.5 miles away. What followed was a rugged tree-bash down the very steep mountainside. Along the way, we flushed out two cow elk. After a drop of several hundred feet, we came to the edge of the drainage which on the survey map shows as clear in the center of trees. In the winter, it functions as an avalanche chute. We made good progress by staying on the embankment on the north side and dropped several more hundred feet until the watercourse began to taper off some and enter the forest at about 11,000 ft. It was here that we noticed a pink, plastic ribbon tied to a tree. We figured this may be someone’s marker left behind to help follow a route down to Red Mtn. Creek so we headed in the direction the location of the ribbon seemed to indicate and began to find others. All total, on our way back up at the end of the day, we counted 37 of these ribbons. Admittedly, they were a help, providing some direction through the maze of fallen, beetle kill timber. This became a real tree-bash! Descending was steep and difficult, requiring the crossing of a multitude of fallen trees and other debris. The ribbons probably did not follow the best course at all times, but they at least provided guidance and offered assurance that someone had successfully been this way.
At one point, Carrie managed to roll a log onto her leg, bruising herself significantly and drawing some blood. There was a lot of vegetation through all this to dampen us, so we had worn either gaitors, rainpants or both to ward off some of the abundant moisture. Eventually, after about an hour and a half of struggle from the time we left the vehicle, we broke out into the north end of the wide meadow of Red Mtn. Creek at an elevation of about 10,200 ft. It was really nice to be out of that mess and to now stroll easily along an old roadbed that led us south along the edge of the forest on the west side of the meadow. Access to this meadow is blocked by private property to the north. We had hoped to see elk or deer in this isolated valley, but saw none. After about ¾ mile of walking south, the road came to a sturdy, well-built but aging bridge that took us across the creek. After that, we continued on the same road southeast as it entered forest and began to gain elevation. In the 10,300 – 10,400 foot area, the road had to ascend steeply on the edge of the drainage it followed. It was nearly washed out in a few places and from it we were entertained with a view of two large waterfalls across the way. Above this steep section, the road continued with a more gradual ascent. At times, it crossed boggy areas, led through open meadows where we saw some grouse or led through more beetle-kill forest, though the damage here was not as severe. We passed by an old cabin still in fairly good shape that we later surmised may have serviced the mine we came across farther up.
Pressing on from the cabin, still following the old road, we came to the mine area indicated on the survey map. There were still the remnants of old equipment laying around as we walked by. Above the mine, the roadbed climbed up the basin more steeply and quickly disappeared in a lush meadow. We spotted a faint trail leading back up the steep hillside to the right and followed it up until it too began to fade. The survey map would have you believe that a good trail leads all the way to Piedra Pass, but for at least this short section, it seemed to fade out. Nevertheless, we arrived at the broad pass area and intersected the Continental Divide Trail which generally goes east-west here. We hiked a little above the pass on the CD trail and followed the CD trail eastward.
At about 11,700 ft., we departed from the trail and began hiking up steep tundra in a more direct path toward our objective, which was now clearly in view. The open forest gave way to an extensive tundra basin with some fairly gentle hiking for a ways. To our north, on the flanks of a 12,367 point marked on the map, we spotted a group of four bucks with velvety antlers. They spotted us about the same time and scurried away from our view. From here on, we walked up tundra slopes covered with abundant wildflowers. It was hard to keep moving at times because of all the photographic opportunities, but we pressed on and intercepted the South River Peak trail on the eastern flanks of the peak below the summit. Out of curiosity, we continued hiking all the way up to the foot of the cliff on the south end of the summit block. There were some very nice flowers here that lured us up, but we mainly just wanted to see if we could make a direct approach to the summit. We found the cliff to be a 5th class climb though – something for which we were not prepared so we had to locate a more circuitous route around. Neither Google Earth or the USGS map, by the way, give any real hint of this southern cliff.
Traversing on the east side of the summit cliffs, we were forced down a good 100 or more feet in elevation before we came to a place where the cliffs broke and you could find a pathway to the summit ridge, north of the summit. It was a steep scramble on a lot of loose rock to gain the ridge. Once on the ridge, it was an easy walk on tundra and smaller, embedded rocks to the summit. We arrived about 12:00 PM after a 6:30 AM start, with clouds already building, promising a rainy return trip.
Here's our edited account of the return hike which generally followed the approach with a couple variations. The main variation can be seen on the CalTopo map on that site. It did not save that much mileage and may have increased overall difficulty:
On the summit, we had contemplated a descent north and then west into the basin on the west side of the peak, but we could not tell for sure if cliffbands would hinder this route, so we decided to retrace our path, dropping back onto the South River Peak trail briefly that leads south back to the CD trail, but breaking off from it as we passed over the 12,840 pass just south of the summit. From here, we left any trail and headed down to a saddle just east of the 12,367 hill mentioned earlier. Along the way, we found a flower-strewn gully that kept all three of us busy snapping photos for about 15 minutes.
From the saddle west of the aforementioned marker, we dropped northwest into the lush basin. Small waterfalls and more flowers held our attention and caused us to lose more time as we dropped steeply down. Once the stream here became more established, we stayed on the north side and followed the watercourse steeply into forest. There were numerous, well-used game paths to follow as we got into the trees and eventually we came out on the old road. We paused again to take some more photos of an extremely tall, dead tree, then continued back to the old cabins, where we spent some more time taking additional photos. From here, we just continued walking back on the road all the way back to the old bridge that crosses Red Mtn. Creek. This was a good place for a break before beginning the long slog back uphill.
Reluctantly leaving the beautiful and isolated meadow, we now began the long ascent back to our vehicle. It is never a fun thing to have to do an ascent like this at the end of the day and this one was going to be particularly difficult. We located the first of the ribbons and began making the climb back up through the difficult forest. As hard as it is to descend across fallen trees, it is even more difficult to ascend. Enough said. We followed the ribbons back into the clear watercourse and then just kept ascending up the same. It was about half way up this next section that it began to sprinkle, compelling us to hike faster, hoping to get back to the truck before it rained hard. It was not to be so. As we began to obtain the top of the watercourse, the rain began in earnest and we had to put on full rain gear and slug on. On our way up, we had followed all the way to the head of the watercourse to avoid the extremely steep hillside we had descended in the morning. This bought us out at a higher elevation than necessary, so we found ourselves on a path somewhat different from what we had followed in the morning. Eventually, we located the last section of the road and walked the final 5 minutes back to the truck. We arrived back at about 5:00 PM, fairly well soaked, but very glad to be done with this summit.