Kit Carson Peak & Challenger Point

In 2014, RMFI began a new multi-year, multi-phase project to construct a safe and sustainable summit trail designed to protect local land and water resources of the area by minimizing erosion, soil and native vegetation loss, and recreation impacts.
Tundra cutslope after backslope wall

BACKGROUND

The Kit Carson-Challenger Ridge Trail Project is designed to manage the high-use impacts of Willow Lake Basin in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range in Southern Colorado. Work completed during this project will not only reduce the impact of visitors on this fragile ecosystem, but will enhance the quality of the recreational experience by creating a new, sustainably-designed route for summiting Kit Carson and Challenger Point. The current user-created social trail is gullied, unsafe, and unpleasant for hikers. The current trail also crosses environmentally fragile areas including populations of sensitive alpine plants and an alpine wetland east of Willow Lake. Phase 1 of the project will combine re-routing the current social trail to a more durable and sustainable location and reconstructing and stabilizing usable sections of the existing alignment with in-trail structures including rock steps and retaining walls, thus protecting the surrounding environment by defining a single trail corridor. Subsequent phases will continue construction of the new trail accessing the summits via Challenger Ridge, and closure and complete restoration of the improperly aligned social trail. All phases include substantial social trail closure and restoration including erosion control and revegetation work. It is estimated that completion of the entire trail will take place over three phases and span many years. By the end of the third phase a safe, sustainable trail will provide access from the Willow Creek Trailhead to Kit Carson and Challenger Point, approximately 7.25 miles in total.

The fourth highest mountain in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, Kit Carson Peak (14,165) towers 6,000 feet above the San Luis Valley floor. Kit Carson generally refers to the three main summits that make up the massif: Kit Carson Peak, Challenger Point, and Columbia Point (informally known as Kat Carson). These peaks and Willow Lake Basin are a popular recreation spot for hikers, climbers, anglers, and backcountry enthusiasts. The Sangre de Cristo mountain range is a long, narrow and rugged range running from Southern Colorado into Northern New Mexico. The Colorado portion is 115 miles long and only a few miles at its most narrow width. The Sangre de Cristo range is home to ten 14,000-foot peaks and is a popular destination for a variety of backcountry recreation enthusiasts.

The Sangre de Cristo range delineates the eastern border of the San Luis Valley, an intermontane basin known for its rich human and agricultural history dating back to 6500 B.C. The peaks of Kit Carson, Challenger Point, and Columbia Point have long held a special interest for those who have visited the area. The Kit Carson massif is named for the frontiersman who explored much of the West for the United States Government in the mid-19th century. Carson led an adventure-filled life as a guide, scout, and later a general in the army, though his conquest of the Navajo tarnished his legacy and led to failed attempts to rename the peak. The settlement of nearby Crestone was established by a land grant in the late 1800’s and has experienced a history of boom and busts ever since, brought on by the promise of railroad lines and unfulfilled potential of gold mines. Today, the town is mostly recognized as a world-renowned center for many different religious and spiritual traditions, and as an entry point into the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, including the Willow Lake Trailhead.

Willow Lake Basin offers awe-inspiring views formed by geologic formations that provide outstanding alpine scenery. Periglacial formations such as moraines, striations, and horns are well represented. A string of alpine lakes, or tarns, connected by streams creates the unique paternoster landform. The oxidized iron in the sedimentary rocks of the Sangre de Cristo Formation gives a reddish tint to the landscape and offers an explanation for the origin of the name of the mountain range. Sangre De Cristo is Spanish for “blood of Christ.”

WORK OBJECTIVES

The primary project goal is to contribute to the preservation and restoration of the wilderness character of Willow Lake Basin and the quality of the recreational opportunities the area provides by reducing present and future recreational impacts on Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Ridge and the approach route corridor. Specific project objectives include:

  • Constructing a safe and sustainable summit trail from Willow Lake to Challenger Ridge
  • Re-routing the current trail away from environmentally sensitive areas
  • Protecting fragile land and water resources by restoring past recreational impacts including social trails, erosion gullies, and undesignated campsites.
  • Providing land stewardship and environmental leadership opportunities to engage local students, citizens, and stakeholders

2018 WORK FOCUS

  • Complete Phase 2 project objectives including new summit trail construction and campsite restoration.

PROJECT PARTNERS AND FUNDERS

  • Clif Bar Foundation
  • Colorado Parks and Wildlife
  • Colorado State Trails
  • Earth Corps participants
  • National Forest Foundation
  • Outward Bound
  • Patagonia
  • Southwest Conservation Corps
  • University of Colorado - Colorado Springs
  • U.S. Forest Service