Elevation: 14,252 feet
Range: San Juan
Hiking Mount Wilson is a journey.
Among fourteener trailheads in Colorado, the Navajo Lake Trailhead is the farthest from Colorado Springs. The hike itself is more than 16 miles. Yet, every bit of this journey is worthwhile.
The road trip winds through the Arkansas River Valley, over Monarch Pass and along the shores of Blue Mesa Reservoir. The trek continues with a drive along the Dallas Divide, which is one of the more photographed views in the state, through the outskirts of the mining town turned ski town Telluride and over Lizard Head Pass with its iconic Lizard Head Peak in view. Finally, the destination is reached on a dirt road that offers dramatic looks at Wilson near the high-end hot springs resort of Dunton.
While the drive is over, the scenery remains abundant. The trail begins in a sheltered valley but soon crosses a bridge and climbs into lush meadows with views of Wilson and El Diente Peak. The route passes near a set of twin waterfalls where Kilpacker Creek meets the West Dolores River. This side trip is worth your time, especially on the way down. The trail then winds around El Diente and up into Navajo Basin, where you will find Navajo Lake at treeline.
The lake provides a popular spot for hikers to camp and an astonishing reflecting pool for the mountains above. Visiting this lake at sunrise on a calm day is a transcendent experience not to be missed, unless of course you opt for a pre-dawn start to get a jump on the weather.
The route continues to the end of Navajo Basin on a gentle path, but the rugged mountain looms above as a reminder to not take this easy section for granted. Once through the basin, the trail takes a 90-degree turn right and the steep climb to the summit begins. The rock is loose, so be careful to stay out of the fall line of your hiking partners.
To the left of the trail, you will pass the Navajo Glacier. Small, mostly hidden and barely moving, it is the southernmost glacier in Colorado.
The climbing grows increasingly more challenging as the trail rises to higher elevations until it finally reaches the climax of the hike on the last 200 feet. After passing a small saddle, all that remains is a jagged ridge that involves steep, class 4 climbing. It's here, within a stone's throw of the summit (for Peyton Manning, at least), that my brother and I turned back on our first attempt. Even though it was summer, a cloud had formed over the summit and left a thin layer of ice. It was simply too risky on that terrain.
I've been told that it's not the summits you reach that make you a good mountaineer, but the summits from which you wisely turn back. If that's true, this mountain was it for me. I had driven across the state and hiked 8 miles to above 14,000 feet only to turn back just shy of the summit.
I returned a year later to reach the summit in beautiful weather, and I enjoyed the journey even more the second time.