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Peak of the week No. 4: Blanca Peak (14,349 feet)
Blanca Peak is the monarch of the Sierra Blanca massif, from which its name is derived. Sierra Blanca means white sawtooth mountains and is an appropriate description.
These jagged peaks jut out west of the Sangre De Cristo mountains into the San Luis Valley, creating the southern portion of the unique wind funnel that creates the Great Sand Dunes.
The road leading up the valley toward Blanca Peak is known as Lake Como road. It’s one of the toughest four-wheel-drive roads in the state, with three main obstacles along the way dubbed Jaws 1, 2, and 3. Except for those who have invested significantly in their four-wheel-drive vehicles, the last few miles of the road must be walked.
The best way to turn this problem into a benefit is to camp. Hike in the day before, carrying your gear up the easily walkable road. Set up camp beside Lake Como and watch the dramatic summit of Little Bear Peak turn shades of orange and red as the sun sets behind you. Be sure to use bear-safe camping practices in this valley, as the bears in the area have begun to use campsites as a food source.
From Lake Como, the trail follows the glacier-carved valley to its terminus, winding through a series of ponds, streams and waterfalls. The best time to view waterfalls is during the spring melt, when the runoff is strong.
During most of the journey up the valley, Blanca Peak is visually elusive. The summit is tucked in along a ridge, making it hard to discern the true high point. It’s not until nearly 13,000 feet, where the trail passes a gigantic boulder, that you first clearly glimpse the summit.
From there, the trail becomes more challenging to gain the ridge that connects Blanca to its neighbor, Ellingwood Point. With such dramatic surroundings, the trail is surprisingly tame.
Once at the ridge, there are two options — hike on the ridge itself or hike the trail to the right of the ridge.
The route on the ridge is lofty, offering thrilling views. You’re standing above Blanca Peak’s famous North Face — 1,500 to 2,000 feet of near-vertical rock wall that drops into the Huerfano valley. Standing next to this face on windy days or in slippery conditions, you quickly will understand why the second trail has formed.
When you reach the summit, be sure to look west and take note of the Winchell Lakes. No, your eyes are not deceiving you — one lake is jade green and the other steel blue.
Also in view are three other fourteeners — Ellingwood Point to the northwest, Little Bear Peak to the southwest and Mount Lindsey to the east.
Looking to the west you will have a clear view of the vast San Luis valley. While taking it all in, keep an eye on the ridge connecting Blanca to Little Bear and you might spot a very adventurous soul traversing this sawtooth in the sky. The Little Bear–Blanca ridge is one of the famous four classic Colorado traverses, according to author and mountaineer Gerry Roach.