Leon Peak and Castle Rock
(High points of Mesa County and Montrose County, Colorado)

22 Jun 2002 - by Gary Swing

Leon Peak (highpoint of Mesa County, CO)
Summit Elevation: 11,236 feet
Distance: 3 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 830 feet
USGS Map: Leon Peak
Hike Date: June 22, 2002

Castle Rock (highpoint of Montrose County) Summit Elevation: 11,453 feet Distance: 5.2 miles round trip Elevation Gain: 1,433 feet USGS Map: Castle Rock Hike Date: June 23, 2002

My girlfriend Tindi and I joined fellow county highpointer Adam Roddy and his friend Tim to climb the highpoints of Mesa and Montrose Counties. Adam picked us up in Denver at 5am on Saturday morning and drove us out to Grand Mesa National Forest for the hike of Leon Peak. We took I-70 to DeBeque, where we headed south on a windy paved road for 12 miles to join CO-65 southbound. Sixteen miles south of Powderhorn Ski Area, we turned left on FR 121 for eight miles. Then we turned right on FR 126 for another 3 miles to a trailhead parking area in Weir and Johnson Reservoir Campground at the end of the road.

From the campground, we hiked north on an easy trail marked 'Sissy' which passed east (to the right of) two small lakes. The first lake is marked as either Round Lake or Sissy Lake on maps, and the second is Leon Park Reservoir. Just past Leon Park Reservoir, we intersected a small, gentle ridge rising to the left. We headed northwest up the wooded ridge with sections of faint path that we could follow. The ridge became very rocky with the trees giving way to volcanic talus and boulders. It was windy and cool above the trees. Soon after the ridge leveled out and we could see the summit of Leon Peak clearly to the northwest, we contoured or traversed slightly downhill into the gully descending from the northwest to the southeast that separated us from Leon Peak. From the gully, we chose our own lines to rock scramble north or northwest to the summit. I took a fairly direct and steep line with some more substantial boulders, ending up just to the right of the summit. On the summit, there stood a frame of an old fire lookout post built in 1911 or 1912 with a summit register stashed inside.

On the hike back, we descended the summit a little further west of where I had climbed up, on some easier terrain. We traversed across the gully between the ridge and the summit, intersecting the ridge further to the west than we had left it on the ascent.

Leon Peak was a nice short hike and scramble. The difficulty is perhaps overstated in the guidebook 'Hiking Colorado's Summits,' which says that Leon 'offers some of the most brutal boulder scrambling of any Colorado county highpoint.'

From Leon Peak, we drove to Montrose where we made a meal of miniscule portions of mediocre pasta at Sicilys Italian Restaurant. Then we headed south on I-25 and west on Buckhorn Road from Colona to the free campground at Buckhorn Lakes. We picked out a campsite at the southern end of the northern Buckhorn Lake. The campground was dilapidated, trashed out, and infested with mosquitoes, but it was worth what we paid for it. The campground has nice views of the lakes and the Sawtooth Rocks for those who can tolerate being outside among the swarms of mosquitoes long enough to appreciate the scenery.

Castle Rock would have been an excellent climb, if not for the mosquitoes attacking us everywhere. On Sunday morning, we continued up the Buckhorn Road about a mile from the campground to an unmarked road on the right. The written directions in the guidebook identify this as FT 232 while the map in the guidebook shows it as FT 223. We parked near this junction and walked south for a little over a mile up this dyslexic forest road. In a relatively flat area a bit above 10,400 feet, we started bushwhacking west through the woods past a tee-pee frame littered with trash. We encountered a dry wash and followed this uphill, generally to the west. It became a steep gully with some loose rock. We followed it past a couple of dramatic, crumbling rock outcroppings on the left. Then it petered out and gave way to some steep scree and grassy steps, leading up to Cimarron Ridge. On Cimarron Ridge, we hiked south up faint, sometimes steep trails through the woods. Part of the way, we walked along the rocky edge of dramatic cliffs on the east side of the ridge. There was a nice breeze here that diminished the mosquito population. The cliff edge also afforded us excellent views to the west. The ridge leveled out substantially as we crossed over Storm King, with a slight dip before finished the ascent of Castle Rock. There are TV antennas on a shack at the summit surrounded by piles of garbage and huge battery packs. A little bit to the south is a hollowed out stump with a summit register. If you continue a few more paces to the south, there is an airy rock catwalk to test your nerves.

Despite the elevation of Castle Rock, this mountain rises high above the valley to the west and dominates its immediate vicinity. The summit register contained a 'who's who' listing of Colorado county highpointers. Castle Rock was my 59th of 64 Colorado county highpoints, Adams 26th, Tindis fourth, and Tims second.

For the return route, we followed a combination of forest paths and cliff edges north until we were just south of the gap between Cimarron Ridge and the southern Sawtooth Rock. We bushwhacked generally west through uneven depressions to intersect a side road, which we followed downhill to rejoin the dyslexic forest road we began on.

On the way back to Denver, we debated whether or not the water at Curecanti National Recreation Area was too cold to take a dip in. To settle the question, we stopped at a lakefront beach where I walked in up to my neck and ducked my head under. Tindi waded in up to her knees. Later, I was wearing thermal tights and a wool sweater in the car to get warm while the air conditioning was on so the others could stay cool.

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