Sunlight Peak is one of three mountains that typically are accessed using the Durango & Silverton Railroad.
Riding the train adds to the wilderness feel of this hike. The engines are from the late 1800s, so not only do you get the impression you are stepping out of society, the ride makes it seem like you're stepping back in time. These engines were built two decades before Sunlight was surveyed and named by the U.S. Geological Survey. They have carried passengers through these mountains since around the time Colorado became a state.
When using the train to reach the Needleton Trailhead, the round trip to the summit requires 17 miles of hiking. If you opt not to take the train, you must add about 18 more miles of hiking. Few hikers do this trip in one day, especially since two neighboring fourteeners (Mount Eolus and Windom Peak) can be included. Ideally, hikers spend three days or more because this allows for some wiggle room in the schedule. Don't let the name Sunlight fool you; the weather patterns in this area call for flexible plans.
While the entire route up Sunlight is interesting, as the trail climbs past alpine lakes in a tower-rimmed cirque, around mazes of boulders and even through a rock tunnel, it's the summit that everyone remembers most. Sunlight boasts the smallest, most precipitous summit of all of the state's fourteeners - so much so that many ascend only to within 30 feet of the top, considering it close enough. Even the USGS marker was placed short of the summit. The final stretch involves scaling steep-angled boulders and hopping a gap to reach a summit with barely enough room for one person. The drop-off on the other side is so dizzying that few actually stand, choosing rather to sit straddling the summit. Few spend much time here as it is an uncomfortable place, and no one else can make the summit until it is vacated.
While climbing Sunlight, you likely will notice a rock tower on the peak's southeast ridge. This is known as Sunlight Spire and its summit is higher than 14,000 feet. However, the prominence of this point is only 220 feet above the connecting saddle with Sunlight Peak, falling 80 feet short of the required criteria to be listed among Colorado's fourteeners. The easiest route to the summit is a 50-foot vertical crack climb rated at 5.10. If this were a ranked fourteener, the list of those who climbed them all would be much shorter.
Friesema has scaled each of the state's 14,000-foot peaks. He has been a member of Teller County Search and Rescue since 2003. Read about his high-country adventures at hikingintherockies.com.