The Stage 3 fire and access restrictions to the San Juan National Forest have been rolled back to a Stage 2 condition which means access to the forest is once more open to the public. However, fire conditions still remain high and we are currently in the middle of a strong heat wave. Consult current regulations with the San Juan NF before planning any trips. Fines for violations are significant.
Note: LoJ identifies as "El Punto." G&M identify as UN 13300 F.
By itself, El Punto is basically a walk up except for the last 100 feet to the summit. That last section some rate as Class 3. We consider it a Class 4. The "climbing" is not that difficult but the actual summit feels very exposed, loose rocks abound and a rope can feel mighty nice going up but there's not much to anchor to. El Punto combines nicely with Heisshorn and the other unnamed summits at the head of the Middle Fork of the Cimarron and the other two 13ers in Porphyry Basin. Though these could be done as a day hike, an overnight backpack into some great country can make this a memorable trip.
From either the West Slope or East Slope:
From Montrose, drive east on US50 past Cimarron about 2.7 miles and turn south on County Road/Forest Road 858 that goes to the Silverjack Reservoir. From Gunnison, drive west on US50 past the Blue Mesa Reservoir, down through a narrow canyon section, up over a pass at 8,700 ft., then down a long and winding descent toward Cimarron. The turnoff is one mile past the turnoff for CR864 and just past a small resort on the south side of the highway. It's a long, 22 miles drive back on a graded, dirt road, suitable for passenger cars, but can be dusty and/or washboarded. Continue past the Silverjack Reservoir about a mile and then make a right turn to cross the creek and then make an almost immediate left onto FR861.1. If you fail to make this left turn, you'll find yourself ascending toward Owl Creek Pass. Hikers can also come in from Owl Creek Pass, the road for which turns off from US550, about 2 miles north of Ridgway. That road is CR8 or FR858. Hikers coming from Durango, Telluride, Ouray or Ridgway will probably want to use that approach. In which case, they will need to drive over Owl Creek Pass to near the Silverjack and locate FR861.1 to make the proper turn.
For all approaches, once you're on FR861.1, it's a 4.6 mile drive back to the end of the road and the trailhead for the Middle Fork of the Cimarron. We found the road to be generally passable for most vehicles, however, the time we were in here, there had been heavy rains the week before that had left sections of degraded road where small streams had swept across. Smaller passenger cars would have had difficulty getting past those damaged areas. We do not know if and how well they have been repaired, hence, the higher clearance recommendation. (Report from 2017: Some of those minor creek crossings still present a problem for lower clearance vehicles.)
The trailhead area apparently use to be a campground years ago, but the tables and designated sites have been removed. There are now plenty of primitive camp spots on fairly level ground in the trees to use and a vault toilet. There's also a nice meadow shortly after where the trail begins and some other campsites there.
From the trailhead, walk south past some willows and into a large meadow. The easy-to-follow trail #227 continues south gaining elevation up the drainage, passing through both forest and meadow. For the first two miles, it gains elevation rather gently. At 2.2 miles, the trail crosses the creek coming out of Porphyry Basin. The USGS map indicates a footbridge here. We found no such thing in 2005, but crossing the creek was not that difficult. Note that a path into Porphyry Basin heads up from this crossing area, on the north side of the creek, before you cross the creek. On this first & lower section of trail, do not be surprised to see cattle and in wet conditions, they can really muck up the trail.
Continue hiking on past the creek crossing for another 2 miles with the trail steepening and crossing through an avalanche run out area with downed timber. At about 3 miles from the TH, you'll come to a nice meadow area with lots of flowers mid-summer. Between the Porphyry crossing and this meadow, the views of the east side of Precipice Peak are spectacular with a dramatic array of cliffs, angular rocks, spires and pinnacles. As you continue hiking, there will be some possible campsites to consider. Most tended to be small and somewhat sloping with old cow pies. At about the 11,400 foot area, we found a usable campsite, but the best campsite we found was continuing all the way to where the trail takes a turn to the east and begins its ascent up to a pass just north of the Heisshorn. If you continue on this trail #227, it drops over a tundra saddle and into the East Fork of the Cimarron to become #228. There is also another trail that heads off to the right/west to cross the creek and then ascends to the base of Coxcomb Peak. This trail is called the Coxcomb Trail #132. In places it is not very visible and marked by stakes/posts. It does not show on the USGS but is on the Trails Illustrated map #141.
If you'll leave the main trail where it makes this turn and walk south, crossing another side drainage, but still remaining on the east side of the Middle Fork, there is an excellent campsite which at the time was being used by horse packing groups. If unoccupied, this makes an excellent base camp for ascending El Punto and Heisshorn together, and then UN13,377 and UN13,206 together.
Even as there are many ways to "skin a cat," there can be several ways to climb a peak. The following is how we climbed Heisshorn. It may be difficult to follow our exact description and what's provided below may have some errors, but this is our best recollection using the photos we took to help us recall the route. Also, Google Earth is off considerably and shows Heisshorn missing about 300 feet. The summit coordinates we've provided therefore are likely off by a significant amount.
From our suggested best campsite at 11,600 feet, go back to the main trail and follow it up eastward toward a pass at 12,595 ft., NE of the Heisshorn. The trail leads up through the forest for a short while, then opens into a vast, tundra covered area. The lush growth can be quite wet from overnight sprinkles and dew. About half way to the pass, you may depart the trail and hike more directly south toward the north ridge of the Heisshorn. As you approached the ridge, the tundra thins out to a soft dirt. Once on the ridge, walk on up to a flat area right at the 13,000 contour. At this point, the terrain changes abruptly. Below, there is soft dirt, tundra and a few rocks. Above is the rocky morass of the remaining 400 feet to the summit. Pause to arrange things and study your options.
The most obvious route from here we saw was to stay left of the ridge (south side) and follow up what appears to be a faint trail that leads through the piled up rubble of boulders and rocks. It could best be described as a “ramp” of sorts that skirts the ridge for the next two hundred vertical feet. As you ascend, the ramp will gradually disappear so begin more of a scramble over the loose rocks back in the direction of the ridge line that steepens even more. After about 200 feet of gain (at the most),emerge out onto a flat section of the main ridge. For the next fifty yards or so, you can easily stroll along the ridge crest, which becomes something like a narrow catwalk here. From this vantage point, the peak appears like a giant canine piercing the clear morning sky. On the north side, it plummets away precipitously.
On the south side, the ridge angles down a steep slope of precariously perched, loose rocks, too steep to ascend or descend safely. Continue following the ridge and after an open section of ridge and some boulder hoping, drop off on the north side and contour below some short cliffs and great blocks, crossing the head of a gully and emerging at a rocky, tight saddle, at the head of yet another steeply angled couloir on the north side. Ahead will lie the last 200 feet of mountain. So far, so good. But the hardest part is to come. From here, it's about two leads to the summit. A short wall of rock will be in front of you, topped by a pile of broken, loose rocks along the very steep ridge line. Using a rope here may be a good idea for anyone shaken by the loose rock and exposure, but in terrain like this, there's little to use for a solid anchor. Climb up the short wall and then gingerly proceed over all the rubble for 125 feet or so to another area where the ridge flattens again.
Walk through some large blocks of rock and come to yet another head of another couloir and another short, rock wall. This section of large blocks appears as the main break in the ridge line when viewed from the catwalk section below. One more lead separates you from the summit if using rope, which is about 100 feet away. The north face of the peak drops off in sheer fashion here adding to the drama of the ascent. After mounting another rock wall-like section, work carefully over loose rocks and rubble stacked on top of each other. The climbing is barely 4th class, and only for a short move or two. The remainder is 3rd and 2nd class, but the exposure is great. As the angle of this pitch relents, walk the last few feet to the small, rocky summit.
For a descent, we recommend trying to go back down staying as much as you can on the route you took up. Staying on familiar terrain is usually safer since you may have previously identified the worst hazards. Make your way back to the 12,595 pass where the trail crosses over to the East Fork of the Cimarron and decide if you've had enough or want to continue north to El Punto (UN13,300).
Note: On Google Earth, locating the summit of El Punto is difficult. We were unable to obtain an elevation that matched the USGS map by a significant amount. Google Earth does a poor job of showing any accurate detail concerning the summit of this peak. Therefore, the summit coordinates provided are somewhat of a guestimate. We climbed El Punto in combination with Heisshorn. Therefore, the route description begins from a descent back off Heisshorn. See that peak for further details. The mileage to El Punto and elevation gain are measured from Heisshorn.
The trip over to El Punto from Heisshorn is fairly straightforward. The one way distance is about 1.3 mile and elevation gain is 700 ft. For a while, hike NE along the ridge crest, from the 12,595 foot pass, but after a short, level, rocky section, begin a contour over the tundra toward the base of a rocky, steep slope that comes down from near the summit of El Punto. This slope passes between two great outcrops of rock, one a little higher than the other and on opposite sides of the slope. The slope ends abruptly at the dark colored cliffs of the summit block. At the bottom end of this slope, there was a remaining patch of snow when we were there in late August. Approach the slope, and begin to angle up, attempting to utilize as much tundra as possible for the secure footing advantage it offers. Once onto the slope, the footing becomes extremely loose. This is one of those “two-steps-forward, one-step-back” kind of climbs. The next several hundred feet of gain are tiring as you battle against the loose, small rubble. As you approach the summit block of cliffs, angle right and up toward what appears may be a couloir leading up through the cliffs. (This was on the advice from a book we had consulted recently and other sources that indicated an access to the upper portion of the peak from this southwest flank of the mountain.) As you fight your way further up the rubble, look for a tight, short couloir that breaks through the cliffs. A little scrambling brings you to the head of the couloir and a flat area, to the left (west) of the summit block, strewn with rocks.
Only the last 75 feet to the summit will be any problem. From the level area, there is a short stroll up the loose rubble to the cliffs of the summit block. This section appears more as a pile of great, broken rocks, loosely stacked, one upon the other. To say it had the appearance of being insecure was an understatement. Here, we broke out a rope, set up a belay anchor, and began the ascent. We had just enough rope to gain the top of the blocks, but not enough to actually reach the summit. The climb up to here was not difficult. It was only 3rd class, but again, the loose rock and exposure combined to make using the rope a nice security blanket. Once atop the blocks, go around the corner (right) and onto a small ledge. Actually mounting the summit some may find too precarious, so a hand tag may have to do for some. If brave enough, heave yourself onto the highest rock. This was indeed, one of the more intimidating summits we have done. There was no real, safe perch, and it dropped off severely on either side. Tag the summit, then retreat back to some place where you feel safer.
To descend, follow the same path back down through the narrow couloir and onto the rubble slope. You can descend the large basin SW which returns to nice tundra further down and rejoin the trail that comes up from the Middle Fork and either hike back out or return to your campsite. It is also possible and fairly easy to continue north from the El Punto summit block and in just over a half mile reach the summit of UN13,340 B at the head of Porphyry Basin. UN13,222 could also then be reached.