Challenger Point (14,087ft., 34th tallest in CO) and Kit Carson Peak (14,171ft., 23rd tallest in CO) are two 14er mountains situated next to one another in the Sangre de Cristo Range of southern Colorado. Technically speaking, Challenger Point is a sub-peak of Kit Carson Peak, but each mountain holds its own distinction as a Colorado 14er. Further, regardless of whether you hike one or both mountains during your outing, you’ll be treated to absolutely stunning views of the San Luis Valley, including a birds eye view of the extraordinary Great Sand Dunes.
Since the Sangre de Cristo area is far removed from the busy Denver metro, hikes here are much less crowded than popular Front Range 14er hikes where parking can be problematic. In fact, most hikers of Challenger Point and Kit Carson are rewarded with a bit more solitude and opt to bag both peaks in one very long day hike or overnight in the backcountry near Willow Lake to make it a two-day hike. The most common approach to summit both mountains is via the Willow Creek and South Crestone Trailhead, taking the Class 2 North Slope approach up Challenger Point, hiking the saddle between Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak, then summitting Kit Carson Peak’s West Ridge via “The Avenue.” This combined, two-peak route is rated as an Easy Class 3 and is about 14.5 miles in length.
Hike Review Series: Challenger Point & Kit Carson Peak
Challenger Point, which is the first 14er mountain you’ll reach on this route, is named after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that occurred in 1986. Although Challenger Point is a sub-peak of Kit Carson Peak, the mountain does hold its own distinction within the famed Colorado 14er mountain group. The second 14er mountain you’ll reach is Kit Carson Peak, named after Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson, the famous, but controversial, 19th century frontiersman.
Kit Carson Peak
We recommend an early, alpine start for a day hike of Kit Carson Peak via Challenger Point, though those dynamics would change if you plan to camp along the way. If you are hiking at a fairly fast pace, the full hike will take somewhere in the range of 8-10 hours. Alternatively, a more moderate pace will keep you outdoors most of the day, so do keep that in mind.
In terms of wildlife, you may be lucky enough to see some big horn sheep along the hike route. In addition, you’re likely to spot some of the Trinchera elk herd and other alpine critters like yellow-bellied marmots and pikas. Also, if you’re interested in wildflowers, pick up a naturalist guidebook such as Plants of the Rocky Mountains to assist with plant identification.
Reach Willow Lake (elevation 11,700ft.). As a day hike, this is a good resting spot with nice scenery (Willow Lake is filled via a 100ft. waterfall) and an opportunity to resupply water, eat lunch, etc. Alternatively, if you decide to camp, there are a number of campsites nearby. Willow Lake has frequent wildlife visitors, especially due to the abundance of campers. So if you do camp here, make sure to properly secure food, etc. per wilderness regulations.
Take the North Slope approach towards the Challenger Point summit. This Class 2 approach is a very long, steep, and loose ascent and arguably the most difficult portion of the hike. During our hike, the Rocky Mountain Field Institute (RMFI) was doing trail maintenance and improvements. Big thanks to their organization!
As you start up Kit Carson Peak, you’ll notice a very interesting feature nicknamed the “The Avenue.” This is a narrow and upwardly sloped ledge on the north side of Kit Carson Peak and is your Class 2 route. Ascend up the “The Avenue,” and you’ll eventually descend a bit and regain elevation as you hike up a gully towards the summit.
Provisions and Dining
The small town of Crestone, CO has a few options for provisions and meals before or after a hike up Challenger Point and/or Kit Carson Peak. Below are our recommendations for places to stop in town.
Recommended Hiking Apparel and Gear
In our opinion, the best guidebook for information on Colorado’s 14er mountains is Gerry Roach’s Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs. All other guidebooks pale in comparison. Thus, this book will suit you well for hiking Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak. Although Roach’s book is incredibly detailed, you’ll still want to carry a topographical map such as National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map for the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In addition, we included a couple of our favorite field guides for plant and bird identification. These guides provide useful information that we find add to the outdoors experience and obviously help answer questions about animal and flower species.
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