Culebra Peak is one of Colorado’s Fourteeners in the Sangre de Cristo Range
Culebra Peak is one of Colorado’s 14ers – Mountains that rise above 14,000 feet. It is a lesser-known hike close to the New Mexico Border. Culebra is one of Colorado’s privately owned peaks, which brings up mixed feelings for outdoor enthusiasts.
This wilderness area is owned and managed by Cielo Vista Ranch. There is a fee to hike (and hunt) on the property. For me, I was happy to pay for the experience. Here’s why: The mountain is pristine and preserved due to controlled traffic. There are no trails above treeline, and only 20 hikers get reservations on summer weekend days. If you’ve spent any time on Colorado’s 14er trails, you know what a privilege this is. [I would estimate I generally see 300+ people per day on a similarly ranked mountain.]
Due to the reservation system, we picked a day in late May and hoped for the best with weather. Our first choice was rescheduled due to rainstorms, and luckily we were able to secure a reservation one week later. The hike date: May 23, 2021.
This was still early in terms of the hiking season, so we knew to expect some snow coverage. Still, I was shocked by the amount of snow in the basin.
We arrived at Cielo Vista Ranch the night before the hike with plans to camp at the gate. There is a designated tent camping area just inside the fence, and flat parking for car camping. I chose to set-up camp in the back of my 4Runner- a familiar practice for me when hiking 14ers far from home.
We woke early Sunday morning to get dressed and prepped. Carlos came down at 6AM sharp to open the gate and check us in according to our reservation. We drove the short 1.2 miles up to ranch headquarters, where there is another parking lot. The ranch hand gathered all hikers there for a short safety briefing. Big things: You must be back down to HQ by 6PM. Otherwise, they begin search and rescue practices (and you get charged a fee). He also gave us intel that snow traction would be necessary, especially for coming back down.
There are two other parking areas higher in the basin. One is about 2 miles past HQ, and the final Upper Trailhead Lot is about 4 miles past HQ. Both require high clearance and 4WD. However, due to the recent wet weather and downed trees, we got the pleasure of beginning our hike from ranch HQ (…bringing the roundtrip distance to about 14 miles).
We were just happy to get the opportunity to hike! So, we started up the long dirt road at about 6:20am. The road certainly has some decent grade to it, but we maintained about a 2.5 mph pace pretty well. We had a few early morning showers, an ominous sign for Colorado as it generally doesn’t rain before noon. Luckily, we found gratitude for the cool temperature and trekked on.
Just before reaching the Upper Trailhead, we ran into significant snowbanks and donned our snowshoes around 11,000 ft. We could see a significant snow-covered incline to the ridge. The snow was hard to manage in this basin, even in the early morning. As the sun hit the snow and softened, we found ourselves sinking and stumbling over our bulky snowshoes. Once we gained a higher grade, the snowshoes helped with traction and hiking was generally straightforward.
There is a large cairn at the top of this ridge. It wasn’t as obvious as the 14ers.com route description makes it out to be, but we easily followed other snow prints and I never felt off-route.
I made it up to the cairn at about 10:30am and saw the infamous “snakelike” Ridgeline that gives Culebra its name. The high peak visible from this point is actually a false summit, but still provides a great vantage of where we were headed. The ridgecrest is at 13,350 ft of elevation, so there is still significant climbing from here.
We stashed our snowshoes, and switched over to micro spikes, as the snow was crusty and windblown. The traction is absolutely necessary, but flotation was no longer needed.
At this point in the hike, we were introduced to the wind. The never ending wind. I’ve never felt wind gusts like this in my life. Carrie and Avrohom (my hiking partners) described it similar to the feeling of indoor skydiving- where the wind tunnel is so powerful it suspends you in mid-air. [Note: When we got back down to HQ, they confirmed wind gusts of 40-50mph]
The wind was so strong and so loud, we hiked on in without talking as we couldn’t hear each other, and barely our own thoughts. Honestly, if I had been alone, I would’ve turned around.
The ridge hike was much more enjoyable than the initial approach. It went much quicker than expected when viewing it. We did some boulder weaving, but it is mostly a straightforward walk without much exposure. Upon reaching the false summit, we got a great view of the final approach to Culebra. Beyond that, we were pretty socked in with cloud cover.
Again, the final approach seemed to go much quicker than expected, and before we knew it we were standing on top of the summit! This is an incredible feeling that never changes, no matter how many fourteeners I’ve completed. All three of us have 14er experience, and yet, all three of us got to share that euphoric feeling of “WE DID IT”. (This was Carrie’s 50th 14er!)
We arrived on the summit around 12:20pm- 6 hours from the start, and about 7 miles of hike distance. We were fortunate to have a slight weather break that made it tolerable to rest on the summit for a bit. The wind was certainly still THERE, but not unbearable. We were able to get great views of the Spanish Peaks, Little Bear, Blanca and Ellingwood, and the San Juan Mountain Range.
Red Mountain is a 13er that shares a ridge with Culebra Peak. It’s about a 1 mile traverse, and often hiked in concert with Culebra. However, we had already decided that it wasn’t in the cards to press on due to the high winds and long hike from headquarters. It would be a tough day for anyone in winter conditions to make it up and down both peaks before the 6pm cutoff. I know one day I’ll be back for Red, preferably in the late summer when I can park at the Upper Trailhead.
After snapping our usual summit shots, having a snack, and hydrating: it was time to start the descent. Again, this went quicker than expected. I was SO ready to be out of the wind- so I bundled up and took off. My downhill hiking speed is about twice the speed of going up.
When I got back to the cairn, I picked up my snowshoes, but opted to continue hiking down in my micro spikes. They were providing the traction I needed, and I wasn’t willing to stop in the wind to change over.
When I got to the top of the basin, I was postholing so often that snowshoes were again necessary. I stopped to put my snowshoes on and realized I had lost a microspike in one of my many knee deep posthole episodes. Oops! [Side note: I’ve since reached out to Katoohla, and they do not sell single spikes. However, the customer service is so excellent they are sending me a “loosey” at no cost! I guess this isn’t an uncommon request. Kudos to a great company, they’ve got my recommendation forever.]
Once I put on snowshoes, it didn’t seem to make the descent any easier. I was still sinking significantly in the snow, and now sort of skating downhill with every step. The snow was too soft to grab, and too wet to hold me up. This was one of my least-favorite sections of hiking as every step was unknown and frustrating. I took a break at the Upper trailhead to wait on Carrie and Avoram. Finally, I had respite from the wind and the warm sun was rejuvinating.
I couldn’t help but think, “We’re only halfway down..”. Carrie and Avrohom reported the same experience with soft snow, frustrating postholing, and absolute disdain for the unrelenting wind.
Only about a half mile passed the upper trailhead, we found dirt road and were SO thankful to take off our snowshoes for good. The hike down the road was uneventful. The sun was out, there was a *slight* breeze, and we again had optimal hiking conditions. Our pace increased to an easy 3mph, and we reflected on the experience.
Culebra Peak: Final Thoughts
We all agree: for a first fourteener of the season, Culebra Peak was an apt adventure. Yes, longer than expected. Yes, snowier than expected. But our pace was ideal, we didn’t feel overly spent, and we are ALL excited for the rest of the summer’s hikes.
Seeing the buildings of Cielo Vista Ranch headquarters brought another boost of endorphins: We did it! We signed out with Carlos, and were the first group off the mountain at 4:30pm. We expressed doubts that the other groups would be back before the 6pm cutoff. Carlos explained that in these conditions, he gives a bit of wiggle room as the road hike really adds up. We were confident that most of the hikers had made the summit, and would be making progress coming down.
We piled back into the car, and made the short drive down to the ranch gate. Taking off hiking boots at the end of a long day has to be one of the greatest feelings in the modern world. I said my goodbyes to Carrie and Avrohom, as they headed back to Buena Vista; and I began the four hour drive back to Denver.
I certainly felt the miles, and I was eager for a warm shower and long sleep. Every time I’m driving home after a 14er, I can’t help but start planning future hikes in my head. I LOVE the Colorado mountains and the type II fun of difficult hikes.
Culebra Peak was my 39th fourteener. I haven’t completely decided that doing ALL of the fourteeners is on my bucket list. Some of them are a bit too risky for my comfort. However, I’ve got plenty on my wishlist still to climb. This summer: Longs Peak, Grays Peak (leading a group of newbies), and Mount Lindsey.
Have you experienced Colorado’s High Country? What is your favorite hike?
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