08-Jul-2017 -- 16 miles round trip? Shouldn’t be a problem.
I had been wanting to tackle this confluence for almost five years, but could never find a friend foolish enough to go with me, and due to its remoteness I definitely didn’t want to try it alone.I had read the two previous confluence reports from 2001 and 2010, both groups of which approached the point from the south. This seemed like it required some slightly rough driving north from Creede, which would have been no problem except that my wife and I sold our Jeep in late 2016 and downsized to a Honda Fit. It was upon reevaluating the situation that I realized that an approach from the north, while longer, might be possible, and definitely easier on a car. This approach would also require more trail-running than mountaineering, which made me think of my trail-runner friend AJ. Shouldn’t be a problem.
Two weeks in advance we determined our route using a detailed topo map of the Gunnison National Forest and La Garita Wilderness, in addition to the satellite view from Google Maps. We decided that we would use FSR Trail #592 almost to the Bondholder Meadows, then cutting southwest on the remote Cebolla Trail (#459). The latter was virtually indistinguishable from satellite imagery, but thanks to the topo map we were able to roughly plot the path we should follow: AJ marked waypoints that we would use to navigate ourselves using his Garmin GPS watch (see the actual route we took here).
We left Fort Collins, Colorado at 2:30pm on Friday, 7 July, arriving at dusk (just before 9:00pm) to a beautiful, heavily-wooded dispersed campsite along Cebolla Creek in the Mason Family State Wildlife Area. We needed no headlights to set up camp under the most brilliant full moon.
Waking up and packing up at 5:00 am, already dawning, it was a short five-minute drive to the pull-off along CR15, just east of the Cathedral intersection with CR50. We knew from previous reports of hikes along this trail that the first mile or two of Trail #592 are on private property, but that the owners will grant permission to cross if you ask. We looked around but didn’t see anyone on the property on our way in, perhaps because it was so early. We ended up receiving permission on the way back, but it would have been nice to have been able to contact them prior (we ended up getting their contact info for future visitors; see below).
The run to the Meadows went without a hitch. It was probably about 45 °F outside, and the trail involved five knee-deep stream crossings plus some mucky patches. I was thankful I had bought new running socks the week before or my wet feet might have gotten blistery. On a whole though, this two-track trail was in spectacular condition. We saw no wildlife other than the horses and cows by the ranch.
After about five miles we saw the Forest Service sign for the Cebolla Trail and traces of a crude bridge that once crossed the roiling stream, but it proved difficult to find any traces of the trail. We ended up crossing on a rotting log farther south and bushwhacking upwards the first half mile before bumping into the trail. It looks like a trail that could have once accommodated ATVs, with switchbacks and all, but judging by the amount of trees down across it and by the age of the few logs we found that were once sawn to clear the path, I bet it’s been nearly 15 years since the trail’s been maintained. I doubt too many people make it out this far too often.
Cresting the ridge with a heading for the confluence point, we ended up veering off south and keeping the ridgeline as the “trail” sloughed off to the west. It was another half mile of mosquito-y bushwhacking (and elk-startling!) until making it out of a surprisingly high tree line, at nearly 11,800 feet. We veered left around the cliff-like outcropping (see picture #4) and found ourselves in the very stream bed where the confluence lies. Casting our eyes uphill, we were able to make out the mysterious fallen marker that was upright during the 2001 visit. It was now in the exact same position as the 2010 visit. We scrambled up to it. We had made it to the confluence! Just over three hours, eight miles of running, and 3,000 feet of elevation gain.
We stuck around the site for about half an hour, taking pictures, taking in the views (including the nearby 14er to the ESE, San Juan Peak), snacking, and enjoying the lack of mosquitoes. The weather was absolutely perfect: sunny, 52 °F, and no wind. Before heading back down, we snuck over to the rocky outcropping below us that we had seen from below as we were exiting the trees. The vantage from there was incredible as well.
On the way back down we decided to follow the stream bed, relatively devoid of trees, until reaching 11,400 feet, at which point we maintained elevation and once more met up with the Cebolla Trail on the ridgeline. AJ filtered some delicious ice-cold water from the stream before we ducked over. We ended up exiting the Cebolla Trail much closer to the fence perpendicular to the Bondholder Trail before entering the Meadows. For future visitors, we would recommend crossing the stream here at the fence (see photo #11) and taking this way to reach the Cebolla Trail, as it required less bushwhacking and would be much quicker to find the uphill trail this way.
Our fastest trail-running pace was achieved on this final five miles of running back to our car through the beautiful, wooded valley. Approaching the ranch we saw the property abuzz with men and women depositing hay bales, riding horses, hoisting barrels, riding ATVs – turns out there was a wedding at the ranch later that day! We spoke with the friendly landowner, Brad, who gave us permission to cross his property. And it turns out the groom was the one hoisting barrels – sweating away on his own wedding day! For any future visitors, in addition to being a functioning ranch, this property also comprises the Cathedral Ranch Cabins. You can reach them in advance by visiting their website, and actually you could cut a good three miles off your trip by just parking at the cabins, which Brad offered as a possibility.
What a fulfilling journey to the third-highest confluence in North America. It was worth the wait, and we felt proud for having proved the viability of this approach from the north. See our final stats and this incredible animation that AJ created of our confluence visit.
From here we headed back north through Powderhorn and Gunnison to the Crested Butte area, where we embarked on our second mountain confluence hunt of the day: 39N 107W.