Missouri Mountain, the Spiciest Sawatch 14er

July 7, 2023

Up and At’em

I hit the trail shortly before 5 a.m. Even on this, one of summer’s longest days, this meant trudging up the lower switchbacks via headlamp. The forecast called for a perfect bluebird day, but even still I always like to start early. If nothing else, you sweat less.

I was excited to summit Missouri on a weekday. The vast majority of my 14er summits take place on weekends when I’m off work. But I was driving home from a week off in the San Juans and had time to kill.

About an hour later, as I pushed up a steep-ish grassy slope, the sun decided to join the party. It illuminated endless wildflowers, including the gorgeous Colorado Columbine. After a snowy winter and stormy spring, the mountains were finally drying out.

Colorado columbine en route to Missouri Mountain.
Colorado Columbine en route to Missouri Mountain.

Missouri Mountain

Roughly 90 minutes into my day, I reached the upper basin. The trees began to thin out. I stopped for a quick break near the remnants of an old cabin.

Remnants of an old cabin at the base of Missouri Basin.
Remnants of an old cabin at the base of Missouri Basin.

From here, the views opened up. I saw some goats above me on higher, grassy slopes. The morning sun illuminated the peaks with soft, warm alpenglow. But for the life of me I could not pick out Missouri Mountain. Plenty of false summits rose dramatically in its general direction. But the peak itself hid back behind them.

Of Colorado’s 50-plus 14ers, a solid 15 sit in the mighty Sawatch Range. “Gentle giants” pack this range, including the three tallest peaks in the entire Rocky Mountains. The standard hikes to summit these peaks are never technical. But they typically pack a lot of vertical punch and decent mileage. Missouri Mountain is no exception, with a 4500′ vertical rise and over 10 miles of round-trip trekking.

Missouri Mountain sits among the Collegiate Peaks. But it instead takes its name from local miners, who had journeyed to Colorado from their home state of Missouri. Confusingly, its lakes and streams drain into the Arkansas River, instead of the mighty Missouri, far north in Montana.

A snow-packed ridgeline East of Missouri Mountain's summit.  The true summit sits far back in its basin.
A snow-packed ridgeline East of Missouri Mountain’s summit. The true summit sits far back in its basin.

Gaining the Ridge

I saw only perhaps a dozen hikers in the basin formed by Missouri and Belford Peak. The trailhead and lower path access three popular fourteeners: the aforementioned Missouri and Belford, along with more remote Oxford. But this being a non-holiday Friday, all three summits saw few interlopers despite the exceptional weather.

Turning up towards Missouri (not visible here).
Turning up towards Missouri (not visible here).

If I had planned better (and hadn’t just finished a multi-night hut trip) I’d have pitched a tent in the upper basin and bagged all three peaks in a couple of days. It seemed like a crime to waste a perfect weather window on a single peak. And monsoon season was just around the corner. But alas, I had only the willpower for Missouri. That said, I did run into folks ambitious enough to summit all three in a single day. Colorado is full of crazy mountain people.

I left the basin’s riparian zone, still far from the summit, and headed up steep switchbacks towards the ridge. The grassy slopes sported bright yellow wildflowers and short grasses. This was a relatively lush hike by Sawatch standards. The “front-most” summits of the Sawatch, looming over the Arkansas, like Massive and Princeton, are basically dry, dusty piles of rocks. The peaks tucked back into deep basins to the west sport way more moisture and plant life. La Plata and Huron come to mind. Missouri and Belford lie somewhere in between, but luckily closer to La Plata.

Before the ridge, I came to the only steep snow crossing of the route. It would probably melt off in just a few short weeks. I was pretty sick of steep snow crossings at this point in the season.

Way Way Back to Missouri

Five miles and 4200 vertical feet into my day, I finally reached the high ridgeline. But I still had the better part of a mile left to the summit. Missouri is really far back. Some folks have taken to calling it Misery Mountain. It’s not particularly egregious by 14er standards. But these people might also be reaching it after bagging Belford and Oxford. Again, crazy people.

Fun flowers atop the ridgeline.
Fun flowers atop the ridgeline.

Then I came to Missouri’s spicy section. I have a confession to make: I did not read up much on this route before attempting it. I downloaded the route on both the excellent 14ers app and the increasingly less-than-excellent All Trails. But I didn’t really “do my research”.

So I was surprised to reach some steep, slippery scree slopes on the mountain’s backside. This was not your typical Sawatch 14er. The other 14 peaks feature basically no serious “exposure”. You could easily do some serious damage to your knees on the talus slopes of Princeton or Columbia. But you’re never really at risk of falling down the mountain. Missouri, it turns out, marks the one exception. This is the only Sawatch peak on 14ers.com labeled “considerable” exposure.

A dash of spicy exposure en route to Missorui's Summit.
A dash of spicy exposure en route to Missorui’s Summit.

That said, it wasn’t anything too crazy. You just tread carefully. I took some deep breaths and walked along. There was a bit of hands-on scrambling involved for me, to avoid the steepest sections of loose dirt. If given the choice between walking upright on loose, steep dirt, or scrambling on solid rock, I will always go for the scramble.

The Summit

And just like that, I had reached the summit. I sat down to enjoy a light snack and some sweeping views. Peaks streaked with lingering snowpack surrounded me on all sides. I felt very pleased with my life choices. Or at least my Friday plans.

The Colorado Rockies in early July.
The Colorado Rockies in early July.

And then it was time to do it all in reverse. Such is the nature of most peak bagging. The sun rose higher in the sky and I enjoyed a quiet, warm hike back to the trailhead.

A lone hiker stands atop Missouri Mountain.
A lone hiker stands atop Missouri Mountain.
Back down in the basin.
Back down in the basin.

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