Everyone venturing to the Lizard Head Wilderness wants to see it...the lizard, that is. Despite its questionable reptilian resemblance, the namesake 400-foot spire does deserve oohs and ahhs. After all, the odd-shaped mass of volcanic cinder caps a 13,113-foot mountain visible for miles.
I guess I'm no exception to this geologic voyeurism. I wanted to see it, too, so I climbed the Cross Mountain Trail, which got me close enough for a touchy-feely encounter. Try as I might, though, I couldn't grasp the reptilian visage-a skyscraper suffering from sloppy architecture, perhaps, but a lizard?
This stony curiosity will be fleeting for anyone tackling the interior of the wilderness. Soon enough, the cloud-clawing San Miguel Mountains slap you in the face with one of the most magnificent views in all of Colorado. The centerpieces are the state's three westernmost peaks, all above 14,000 feet, charging skyward with a fury that can induce a case of acrophobia in would-be peakbaggers. If the weather gods begin to growl or if confidence in Class III (minimum) scrambling abilities is lacking, better to admire the unforgiving sentinels from below.
Peaks are only part of the allure, because basic trail trekking here is as rewarding as it gets. Several routes, including the Lizard Head and Navajo Lake Trails, plumb pristine enclaves such as Navajo Basin, a real jewel with a sparkling lake set beneath the ominous maw of El Diente (The Tooth). In Bilk Basin you're treated to a riparian wonderland, complete with a 400-foot waterfall and scores of lesser tumblers.
Indeed, water is everywhere. The San Miguels receive drenchings of biblical proportions. The good news is that the wildflowers slurp it up and grow chest-high in profusion. The down side is that the rain makes for soggy slogging, especially along the mucky Wilson Mesa Trail.
But don't let a little mud get in your way. The big peaks, lush valleys, endless solitude-it's all great stuff by any wilderness standard. And don't forget the lizard. Squint real hard and you might make out the reptile in the rock.
QUICK TAKE: Lizard Head Wilderness, CO
DRIVE TIME: About 385 miles (71/2 hours)southwest of Denver.
THE WAY: From Denver take I-70 west to Grand Junction, then head south on US 50 and US 550 to Ridgway. Go southwest on CO 62 to the junction with CO 145 at Placerville. Wind southward 30 miles on CO 145 to the Cross Mountain trailhead.
TRAILS: Thirty-seven trail miles traverse the 41,196-acre wilderness, and you can create loop options using the additional 20 miles of trails that skirt the boundaries. The 14-mile hike on the Cross Mountain and Lizard Head Trails climbs to 12,000 feet, then descends into Bilk Basin before joining the Wilson Mesa Trail. Tack together a return loop using the Silver Pick and Navajo Lake Trails.
ELEVATION: You never dip below 9,000 feet. Highest point is 14,246-foot Mt. Wilson.
CAN'T MISS: Photograph the iridescent first light on the imposing trio of Wilson Peak, Mt. Wilson, and El Diente Peak.
CROWD CONTROL: Most trail activity is in Navajo Basin. Bilk Basin and the trailless Dolores Peak area are best for solitude.
MAPS AND GUIDES:The Silverton/Ouray/
Telluride/Lake City, #141 map(Trails Illustrated;
800-962-1643; $9.95)covers the area.
PIT STOP: Carbo load at Smuggler's Brewpub & Grill in Telluride.
WALK SOFTLY: If you make a fire in Navajo Basin, use low-impact techniques. Peakbaggers should stay on trails and avoid cutting switchbacks.
MORE INFORMATION: Mancos-Dolores Ranger District, San Juan National Forest, P.O. Box 210, Dolores, CO 81323; (970) 882-7296.