Legendary Indian fighter Kit Carson remains a controversial figure to this day, so much so that a group of Crestone locals recently tried unsuccessfully to rename the mountain that towers over their town in the San Luis Valley. The 14,165-foot peak itself is a beast, with a long, steep approach just to reach Willow Lake (where many set up campsites) and an often hair-raising ascent to the summit itself. One section in particular, a ledge known as Kit Carson Avenue, is particularly unforgiving to a misstep. Hikers start so low that, with 5,400 feet of climbing to the summit, this is one of the tougher 14er ascents in Colorado.

I set out to climb this peak but was completely unprepared for how grueling it would be. On the endless climb to Willow Lake I met a young man descending. He’d made it to within a couple hundred feet of the summit but lost his nerve on Kit Carson Avenue and retreated. Surely I would make it, I thought. But after a night of camping at the stunning lake, I overslept the next morning, storm clouds were forming by 9 a.m. and I too lost my nerve. As they say, the mountain will be there next time.

Pro Tips

  • Make it easier on yourself and backpack in and set up a camp at Willow Lake, which is gorgeous, has a waterfall and makes a worthy destination on its own.
  • Take a canoe ride. Nobody knows who or how they did it, but somebody (or their horses) dragged a canoe up into this wilderness lake. There are even life jackets. Take it for a spin around the lake.
  • Spend some time in Crestone after (or before) your hike. With a free-spirit atmosphere and worship places for numerous obscure religions, it’s one of the more eclectic small towns in Colorado.
  • Recommended season(s): Summer – early fall.

    —R. Scott Rappold

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