General Mountain Information: Kit Carson & Challenger Point
Video Hike Review: Kit Carson & Challenger Point
Kit Carson Rating: ★★★★ (⅘ Stars)
Challenger Point Rating: ★ (⅕ Stars)
Distance: To Willow Lake: 4.83 (9.66 RT), To Kit Carson via North Ridge: 7.60 (15.2 RT), Challenger Point & Kit Carson via standard route: 7.62 (15.2 RT)
Elevation Start: 9,000 ft (TH), 11,600 ft (Willow Lake)
Total Elevation Gain: 5,300 ft
Summit of Kit Carson: 14,170 ft
Summit of Challenger Peak: 14,081 ft
Estimated Time to Complete: 12-13 Hours Total RT: 2-3 hours to Willow Lake, 2-3 Hours to Kit Carson/Challenger Peak, 30-45 mins from peak to peak
Difficulty: Difficult What does this mean?
Class: Class 4
Season: July – October (Expect snow outside of this window and lingering snow inside of these months)
Trailhead: Willow Creek Trailhead
Getting Here: The most common way to hike Kit Carson & Challenger Point would be from the Willow Creek trailhead right outside of Crestone, Colorado. To get here, from US 285 (north or south) navigate to CO17 and work towards the town of Moffat. Once in Moffat, turn onto Co Road T/Russell St. Follow this until it turns into Birch St right outside of Crestone. Follow Birch St left until you reach Golden Avenue. Take a left on Alder St and a right on Galena Avenue. Galena turns into a dirt road which you will follow straight until you reach the trailhead. The dirt road is passable by all vehicles unless you have a super low rider. To avoid following these instructions, you can enter “Willow Creek Trailhead Westcliffe, CO” into your favorite navigational device.
Parking: Parking is free at the Willow Creek trailhead and can fit about 20-25 cars comfortably. Since Kit Carson & Challenger Point are popular hiking destinations, this lot will fill up on most weekends. There is a new (as of 2017) non plumbing bathroom at the trailhead, bring your own TP though.
Dogs: A dog is certainly capable of hiking both Kit Carson & Challenger Point (via the standard routes). However, until trail conditions improve on Challenger, I think there are far more negatives to bringing a dog along then to bring one with. Having said that, both peaks are not extremely challenging for a dog (if you use the standard route)
Camping: The camping options for Kit Carson & Challenger Point are fairly diverse. A popular move would be to hike up to Willow Lake and create a base camp there. There are a number of camping spots near the lake and about a ½ mile away from it. If you don’t want to backpack, you can camp along the dirt road near the TH or at the trailhead itself. Be advised that both areas (up near the lake and along the dirt road) can get crowded, especially during summer weekends.
Other Events In Area: Things to do and places to do things in Colorado: Concerts, Festivals, Events – eventsincolorado.com. The most complete calendar of things to do throughout the state of Colorado including concerts, fairs, festivals and family friendly activities
Make it a Loop: The traditional hike up Kit Carson & Challenger Point is an out and back hike. However, in my opinion (if you have the experience) would be to hike up Kit Carson’s north ridge and come down the standard route to Challenger Point back down to Willow Lake. This will create a lollipop or complete loop (depending on where you are starting your day). Still want more? You can hike from Kit Carson & Challenger Point over to the Crestones. I personally have not done that, you can use the Google machine for more info.
Trail Summary: Kit Carson & Challenger Point are a pair of 14ers located in the Sangre Cristo range of southern Colorado. Its is extremely common for these two mountains to be hiked together because of their proximity and relatively small elevation loss on the ridge line. The standard route up both mountains involves mostly class 2 and 3 scrambling with poor trail conditions up Challenger Point. If you want to increase the difficulty of this hike, you can start with Kit Carson’s north ridge which has lots of exposure paired with class 3 and 4 hiking.
Trail Route: Challenger Point to Kit Carson Standard Route, 1 way
North Ridge of Kit Carson – 1 Way
Trail X Factors: Trail Conditions/Route Finding/Mosquitoes
Kit Carson & Challenger Point have 3 main X Factors IMO.
- Trail Conditions – As of August 2017, the trail up Challenger Point is in really bad shape. Loose rock, gravel and dirt with no defined trail to follow for most of the way. Sounds fun? Well it’s worse than it sounds. Besides my hike down Columbia Mountain, this was by far my worst experience on a 14er in Colorado. Having said this, RMFI (Rocky Mountain Field Institute) is currently attempting to improve the trail. This could be a game changer in future years but for now its a major factor of this hike.
- Trail Finding – Not sure what to do when you can’t follow a trail? Hiking the North Ridge of Kit Carson may not be for you. Once I left the top of Willow Lake, I was essentially route finding on my own until I reached the summit. It was a challenge at first, especially to gain the initial face of the mountain but I did figure it out eventually. Be adaptable, make good decisions and you will be fine.
- Mosquitoes. Simply put, these small blood suckers can absolutely ruin a trip to Kit Carson & Challenger Point. Avoid hiking in this area during late June – Mid August. You will thank me later.
- Waterproof hiking boots or shoes
- Mickey’s Mountain Kit
- Water / Snack
- Hiking Poles
- Protection From Sun – Extremely exposed for all of hike past lake
- Optional: Mountain Axe – Very helpful with lingering snow
- Optional: Bug repellent & net – Mandatory if hiking during June/July
- Optional: Climbing Helmet – Mandatory if hiking North Ridge
- Optional: Camera
- Optional: Tripod
- Optional: Filters
Mick’s Tip: Overall, I enjoyed most of my day on Kit Carson & Challenger Point and I think the route I choose was a huge factor in that. If you are comfortable with class 4 climbing with lots of exposure, I would highly recommend starting on the North Ridge of Kit Carson and descending the North Slope (standard route) of Challenger Point. Sure, this is a more difficult and technical climb, but until trail conditions improve on Challenger, I would not wish that section of trail on my worst enemy. It’s a nonstop challenge on your legs, ankles and feet to find good footing the entire way down (or up).
Photography Tip: The photo options for Kit Carson & Challenger Point are really endless. Willow Lake itself is a fantastic destination and once you move above it, you are greeted with dramatic mountains in all directions. Once you summit Kit Carson, you can even make out upper Willow Creek lake which is a stunning color of blue. Hiking the north ridge? Bring a GoPro so you can safely capture the exposed trail. Overall, this is a tremendous hike for snapping photos.
Mick’s Trip: Kit Carson & Challenger Point
Trailhead to Willow Lake
If you plan on hiking all 58 (or 54 if you are lame) of Colorado’s 14ers, there comes a time when you can’t just saunter up a mountain and reach a summit. For the first year plus of hiking them, I had hiked mostly Class 1 and 2 routes with a couple of Class 3 peppered in. During the summer of 2017, I started to look at what peaks I had left and realized that many of the “harder” mountains were still on the agenda. I decided to warm-up to tougher mountains like the Crestone Traverse, Little Bear and Capitol by starting with the North Ridge of Kit Carson & Challenger Point.
I arrived to the trailhead around 9PM on a Friday night, ate a gourmet ramen dinner, set-up my tent and went to bed. When I woke up around 3:30AM the next morning, I was surprisingly well rested and ready to go. Kit Carson & Challenger Point were my first mountains fueled by a vegan diet and first 14ers post Boulder 70.3. I was curious to see how my body would react on both fronts. I popped in my contacts, put on my bag and hit the trail right around 4AM. After a small stream crossing, the trail entered something I was not at all familiar with in Colorado, sand. If I had forgot my proximity to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, I was given a reminder right away.
Switchbacks dominated most of the pre dawn hours of the morning. I worked my way up the initial hill to an open field and eventually up another hill, with lots of switchbacks along the way. I crossed Willow Creek around 6:30AM and was about 3 miles into the hike. The sun rose shortly after and I finally reached the top of the hill I had been progressing up all morning. Luckily, all of the bugs that live in this area had died off. These bugs can literally ruin your hike, don’t think this is an exaggeration.
It was now 7AM and I started passing tents filled with hikers who were still in slumber from the night before. I reached Willow Lake and was in awe. It was a beautiful scene: a massive alpine lake with a towering waterfall at the east edge. I shot some video, ate my luxurious breakfast and moved on. I ran into some deer who were also eating their morning meal, they wanted nothing to do with me and hopped away. When the trail reached the top of the waterfall, I knew it was time for me to peel off the standard trail and towards the North Ridge of Kit Carson.
North Ridge Kit Carson
From the stream crossings above the lake, I was basically making my own trail all the way to the summit of Kit Carson. I knew that I wanted to head towards the large cliffs in the distance and that the best way to attain the initial ridge of Kit Carson was to start in the Outward Bound couloir. It took me a little while to realize that the trail I had started on, was not going in the right direction, so after about 15 minutes, I peeled off and made my own way towards the couloir.
Eventually, I reached the base of the Outward Bound colouir and at first had a hard time finding the best way up to the face of Kit Carson. I tried going through the couloir itself which proved dangerous because of the snow melt which made the smooth rock slick and almost impossible to grip. I regrouped mentally and realize that I needed to head up the side walls of the immediate opening of the coulouir. Duh! I scrambled up the class 3 section and reached the grassy and much flatter sections above. From here, I continued up the couloir until I finally reached the face (large flatter section of mountain) of Kit Carson.
At this point, I could see the north ridge (what I wanted to climb up) but still was not sure which way I should approach it. I thought that I would get closer and make my route from the base of the ridge. Once I was a bit closer, I mentally carved out a trail and began the ascend up the steep rock. From this point, the hike turned into a class 4 scramble with lots of exposure. Exposure means that when you look up or down, your brain is saying “holy shit, what are we doing here without a rope?!” In most cases, exposure is just a mental game to get over, but a fall could prove fatal here. I am not some mountain hardo, I will admit, it was scary at first. However, once I got into my zone, I knew that I could make this work.
I popped on some music to keep me in good spirits and began the climb up the ridge. I made sure to always keep 3 points of contact with opposite points of leverage as often as possible. What this means is basically pulling with one hand and pushing with another. The thought process with this technique is to keep your overall balance if something goes wrong (rock is loose, hand/foot slips etc.) I got into a good groove and even began to enjoy myself! About half way up the ridge, I noticed that there was a notch which I had to climb around. After regaining the ridge, I could make out the spine of Kit Carson and noticed there was a way to skirt around the final section towards the summit.
I was now back on the ridge of Kit Carson and could see the summit only a stone’s throw away. When I reached the summit of Kit Carson, I had already been hiking for 6 hours, woof. I shared the summit with a small group of hikers, one was a man in his 70’s who had just climbed his final 14er! Always exciting to share such an accomplishment with a fellow hiker. I knew that my day was just beginning, so after a quick call home to let Jackie know I was not dead, I moved on to Challenger Point.
The first section of hiking as I descended Kit Carson was the 2nd best decision I made all day. There are two main avenues down from the summit to the trail below, one is completely eaten out but less steep while the other is much more direct, on firm rock but class 3 scrambling. I choose the class 3 direct route and was down to the trail in about 5 minutes. From here, the trail worked up towards the shoulder of Kit Carson & Challenger Point. It was very easy to follow and I was over to Challenger Point in another 20 minutes or so. I ran into several other hikers along the way who told me the trail up to Challenger was bad. Yeah, okay. How bad could it be?
I enjoyed 14er #33 by snapping some pictures, rehydrating and checking for cell service. It was right around 12PM, so I figured I could be down to the trailhead in 3 hour or so. LOL at me all over the place. I started my descent of Challenger Point and basically followed the ridge to a large notch in the mountain. From here, I saw that the trail led down to the valley below. It started off with lots of loose rock and gravel. What began as one trail, quickly splintered into 4-5 separate trails, none of which made any sense. People often complain about switchbacks and do not understand why its so vital not to “cheat” them. Head up to Challenger Point and tell me you would prefer that to a bunch of switchbacks.
I could write paragraphs about how I was mentally defeated, angry and my legs, feet and ankles were so sore after about 30 minutes of this descent. It was just flat out awful. I took several breaks to prevent myself from lapsing into careless and getting injured. It figured that hours before I was on a rocky ridge line where my 3 points of contact with the mountain prevented me from falling several hundred feet but the loose dirt and rock were more likely to injure me.
After what felt like decades on this small section of Challenger Point, I finally found what resembled a trail which I was able to follow all the way to the bottom. It turned out that this was the new trail which was being worked on my the RMFI. When I was finally down, I kissed the mountain thanking it for sending me positive vibes all day with no injuries.
Earlier in the day, I had noticed a cave that I wanted to explore on the way down. However, after that god awful trail on Challenger Point, all I wanted was a hot meal and a cold beer. I half jogged, half ran down from Willow Lake to the parking area. I encountered several groups of backpackers along the way, all of whom planned on spending the night at Willow Lake. Looked like it was going to be a rager up there!
Overall, I was really proud of myself for the long day of hiking that I had just done. Kit Carson & Challenger Point both presented unique challenges (pun) that I had conquered. I swore to spread the word about Challenger’s trail conditions to anyone that would listen though. Like I mentioned above, do yourself a favor and hike Kit Carson’s ridge and then go over to Challenger. This avoids repeating that awful section of trail on Challenger. This route involves much more difficult hiking with more exposure, but honestly you could easily get injured (especially from fatigue) on Challenger’s North face anyway.
Video Hike Review: Kit Carson & Challenger Point