12,323 Feet (1,126th highest in Colorado)
West Slopes from First Gate on FSR 126 (9,836 Feet)
12,303 Feet (Unranked)
West Slopes from North Twin Cone Saddle
11,871 Feet (Unranked)
May 11th, 2008
Approximately 16 Miles Roundtrip
Elevation Gained: 3,000+ Feet
North Twin Cone Peak is 12,323 feet high and is the fourth-highest mountain in the Retirement Range. It is 3.2 miles northeast of Kenosha Pass in the Pike National Forest. North Twin Cone is the most visible peak when one is passing over Kenosha Pass from the west on Hwy. 285. The gradual slopes make this peak an appealing hike in any season. The shortest and most logical approach to North Twin Cone is from Forest Service Road 126, which starts at the Kenosha Pass Campground and goes most of the way to the summit. A 4WD service road goes the rest of the way to the summit, which is home to a shack and a radio antenna. The view from the summit is incredible; it is a great vantage point to view South Park, the Mosquito Range, the Front Range, and the stunning Lost Creek Wilderness.
The weather report was a mixed blessing; the temperatures would be in the high fifties, but the wind gusts would reach the mid-thirties. High wind above treeline is not my idea of a good time, but North Twin Cone has been on my to-do list for more than a year. I decided not to let the wind keep me off of the mountain. I was up for a challenge, so I planned to add another pair of peaks to the hike.
Sign marking the road to the trailhead
I hiked part of this trail last year, and had a hard time finding the trailhead. The Kenosha Pass East Campground is near the summit of Kenosha Pass; turn east into the campground and head towards the restrooms on the main road. The junction with FSR 126 is directly across from the restrooms; look for the sign by the restrooms. The dirt road is in excellent shape, and was completely dry except for a few puddles. It was a short drive to the first gate in the road. The road passes through private property for about 1.7 miles, and the gate remains locked in the winter months. There is a small pullout at the gate that can handle parking for no more than two or three cars.
The first part of the hike was the least appealing part. The nearly-level road followed Kenosha Creek past some private cottages. There were quite a few beaver dams on the creek, some of which were still under construction.
Beaver dam on Kenosha Creek
More than a mile into the hike, I caught my first glimpse of South Twin Cone Peak.
South Twin Cone Peak (12,340) viewed from FSR 126
There is a second gate in the road at the 1.7-mile mark. This marks the point where the road re-enters the Pike National Forest. The road used to take a hard left just past the gate, and this old route still shows up on many maps. The old road is overgrown and it would take quite a bushwhack to follow this route. The newer road follows Kenosha Creek for another 0.3 miles before it starts to switchback up the slope. It would have been possible to bring a mountain bike to make short work of this long, relatively boring stretch of road. I regretted leaving my bike at home, but I had assumed that the road would have been snowy and impassable to bicycles.
The second gate on FSR 126
At the 2-mile mark, the road turned to the left (north) and started to switchback up the mountain. After about 10 switchbacks, there was a sign for the 4WD club that sponsors maintenance on the road. At the next switchback, there was a faint trace of the old road where it meets the new road.
Adopt-a-Trail sign at 10,850 feet
Intermittent patches of snow began to appear in the road above 10,850 feet. The snow had a thick crust on it, so I had no problem passing over it without postholing. At 11,200 feet, there is an excellent campsite that is also a good place to take a break. The large flat area is big enough for several tents, and there is a big stone fire ring. The best part, though, is the scenery; there is an incredible unobstructed view of South Park and the Sawatch and Mosquito Ranges.
The snow cover on the road was nearly continuous above 11,300 feet. I broke through the crust in a few places, but for the most part I was able to stay on top of the snow without snowshoes. I took a break and layered down; I no longer needed my heavy base layer, my hardshell parka, or my gloves.
Snow cover on the road at 11,300 feet
The road lost about 200 feet in altitude over the next mile. It was easy going, but I knew that I would pay for it on the return trip. The road headed east at this point, directly towards South Twin Cone.
The road at 11,244 feet, with South Twin Cone Peak in the background
The road bottomed out in a willowy basin at 11,180 feet. The old 4WD road continued on the east side of the basin, but there was a chain and a closure sign that would prevent any vehicles from passing. Another branch of the 4WD road headed towards North Twin Cone on the west side of the willows. I took the west branch and started up a steep section of the road.
The bottom of the willowy basin at 11,180 feet
There were plenty of signs of animal life among the willows, but the only animals that I saw were chipmunks and squirrels. There were elk hoofprints and scat, as well as coyote or fox prints and scat. There was also a single set of fairly recent bootprints in the snow. Most of the trees in the area were Engelmann Spruces.
Passing through the basin with North Twin Cone in the background
The road abruptly turned away from the willows and headed up a snowy slope. The snow was getting much deeper, and the trees were spaced further apart. The sun had softened the snow to some extent, and I had to put on my snowshoes.
The road turned away from the willows at about 11,500 feet
There was a chain across the road at 11,550 feet. The deep snow made the road hard to follow, but I did not intend to follow the road. I headed across the well-consolidated snow directly towards North Twin Cone Peak’s southwest ridge. I left the road at about 11,650 feet.
Road closure at 11,550 feet, with North Twin Cone in the background
Moving across the snow towards North Twin Cone
The snow cover was sparse on North Twin Cone’s southwest slope. The hike across the rocky tundra was pretty straightforward. The slope steepened near the summit, and I had to kick steps in the hard snow. There was a shack and a radio tower on the summit, as well as a smaller storage shed that was built from local rock. The manmade clutter detracted from the aesthetics of the summit, but the peak still has sort of a wilderness feel to it. It was surrounded by miles of natural beauty. Mount Silverheels’ inviting slopes were visible to the northwest. South Twin Cone Peak was a short distance to the southeast. Mount Blaine and its two subpeaks were nearly due east.
Radio shack on North Twin Cone Peak’s summit
South Twin Cone Peak viewed from North Twin Cone Peak
Mount Blaine and one of its subpeaks as seen from North Twin Cone. The summit road is visible in the foreground.
The wind was fierce on the summit. I was glad to be there, but I had other goals for the day. Mt. Blaine was about a mile to the east, and it looked like it was going to be an easy summit. I followed the service road down to the saddle, and glided across the firm snow towards Mt. Blaine without snowshoes. The saddle was remarkably level until I got close to Mt. Blaine’s summit. I passed to the south of one of the subpeaks, and started up the rocky slope. Mt. Blaine’s boulder-strewn summit was only about 220 feet above the saddle. The boulders on the summit were unusually large, and it took a little bit of effort to pick my way through them to the top. The summit is on the western boundary of the Lost Creek Wilderness.
Huge boulders on Mt. Blaine’s summit
From Mt. Blaine, many hikers would call it a day or head southeast towards South Twin Cone. I hiked South Twin Cone last year, and wanted to avoid a repeat. Foster Benchmark, which is an unranked peak, was about 1.4 miles to the southeast. It looked like a fun little peak, and the extra mileage was sure to make this an epic adventure. I left Mt. Blaine and headed towards the eastern subpeak, Pt. 12,230. It was a sweet summit with an excellent view of the Platte River Mountains and the Kenosha Mountains. I could stare right into the heart of the Lost Creek Wilderness from this vantage point. It was well worth the effort to visit this beautiful spot.
The view from Pt. 12,230. To the right, I looked across Platosha and over “Kenosha Peak” to “Peak X;” to the left, I could see “Platte” and Shawnee Peaks.
I descended Pt. 12,230’s snowy eastern slope and hiked towards a spruce-covered knoll on Foster Benchmark’s west ridge. This turned out to be the most difficult part of the hike. I struggled through some willows in deep snow that was taking on the texture of a Slurpee. The postholing exhausted me. Thank goodness it was a relatively short stretch of my journey. The spruce-covered knoll was on the other side of the willows. This was another difficult stretch; the trees caught the snow that had blown across the plateau, and the drifts were incredibly tall and steep. My MSRs were up to the challenge, but I should have just avoided the challenge by walking around the knoll instead of passing over it. I was not surprised to see more willows on the other side of the knoll. I had a clear shot at Foster Benchmark if I could wind my way through a few hundred yards of vicious willows and mashed potatoes.
Foster Benchmark viewed from the west
When I came out on the other side of the willows, I took off my snowshoes and hung them in a snag so I could find them on the way back. I would have stored a waypoint on my GPS, but my batteries had died and my spare set was on the charger at home. I zigzagged through patches of snow to the summit. It was a nice summit, and I was glad that I made the effort to get up there. There were some old scraps of wood and wire from what seemed to have been a wooden cross. I found a Mike Garratt mayonnaise jar summit register in the rocks on the summit. I browsed through the register, and found an entry that read “Gerry and Jennifer Roach. 12/17/2000. Windy.” I had used their LCW trail guide to help plan this trip, and I’d recommend it to anybody who wants to explore the Lost Creek Wilderness.
Foster Benchmark’s namesake benchmark
Jumble of rocks on Foster Benchmark’s summit
I admired the exceptional view from the summit, and descended by the same route that I had used to ascend. I retrieved my snowshoes, and headed towards the low saddle between Mt. Blaine and South Twin Cone. The east side of this ridge is the headwaters of Rock Creek, while the west side is the headwaters of Kenosha Creek. It was a long, long journey through nearly 2.5 miles of treacherous willows. If I stepped too close to a willow bush, I was certain to posthole. Large patches of snow had already softened, and had a wet look on the surface. I avoided difficulties by staying away from the willows and avoiding the wet snow. The willows were widely spaced, so this was not too hard. I did not take any pictures on the return trip, because I thought that my camera batteries would be more useful in my GPS unit.
I passed over the ridge, and started to descend into the Kenosha Creek Basin. I probably passed over the 4WD road at some point, but it was hidden beneath the snow. As soon as it became practical, I moved to the west side of the drainage and followed the margin between the tall spruce trees and the willows. The willows in the drainage were a different species, and were much taller than the willows on the plateau up above. I didn’t want to have to bushwhack through these monsters! I knew that I had to cross through the willows to the other side of the drainage to find the road, but I wanted to find the narrowest spot to minimize my suffering. I was fortunate, and found a fairly wide game trail that cut nearly straight across. It was worth stepping in the occasional pile of elk poo to find an easy route through the willows.
I found the road on the other side, and was just a few feet away from one of my stored waypoints. I cruised the rest of the way down the road, and kept my snowshoes on down to about 11,000 feet. I made it back to the Jeep without further problems. I was incredibly beat – this was among the longest hikes that I’ve ever taken. I definitely worked harder than my deodorant.
It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t see another person on the trail all day. That’s part of the appeal of hiking in this area. It’s close to the heavily-traveled Hwy. 285, but people zoom right past it on their way to other destinations. It always amazes me that an area that is only 40 miles from Denver can remain so wild and uncrowded. The wildlife-viewing opportunities are excellent, and the area is covered with wildflowers in the appropriate season. Hiking and snowshoeing opportunities are endless. The peaks may not be the state’s highest, but they are surprisingly enjoyable. This was a truly great hike.