Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and markup some of my pictures for route clarification. Black lines= general directions, landmarks and/or Class 1 sections. Blue Lines=Class 2 sections. Red= Class 3 sections. Purple = Class 4 sections. Orange = Class 5. The class system is based on the YDS rating scale.
…where to begin. Well, I got lost, but on purpose. I suppose a better way of putting that would be, I went adventuring off-trail. What was the purpose of this you may ask? To verify a route I came across online that didn’t have a lot of supplemental information. I thought it interesting because it was in an area I had long wanted to visit, and a way up a tough mountain that supposedly lopped a few miles off of the alternative route. Naturally, it didn’t take me long to find time to make it happen.
This was to be a solo scouting trip and I relished the prospects just as much as I relish hiking with good friends. As any veteran outdoor person knows, there are attributes to either scenario, but for simple soul cleansing, nothing quite beats a solo adventure. So, on a Thursday in late July, I woke up at 1:30 AM, left the apartment, and drove three hours to the trailhead. Could I have slept at the trailhead and saved myself the pitch-black drive? Maybe, but our bed has memory foam, so…no.
From Trail to Bushwhack
Pulling up to the nearly empty Monarch Lake Trailhead, I grabbed my gear and started hoofin’ it at 5:30 AM. Monarch Lake is a lovely recreation area and in the predawn light, I managed to sight a TON of different birds and to hear aggressive rustling in the underbrush but didn’t manage to see anything. I did eyeball two loons on the lake which I thought was neat, they aren’t rare, but loons always remind me of my grandparents lake-house in the Adirondacks.
Once I’d passed Monarch lake, the trail into the wilderness started to rise up in a series of steps and runs. Right before the second step, I arrived at the first big waterfall on Cascade Creek.
On the approach, there were no less than five visible waterfalls with probably more in some sections. In between the waterfalls were sections of rolling terrain and wide-open meadows that seemed like the quintessential elk, deer, and moose habitat. They were really lovely looking. Below is a picture of waterfall #2, which I thought was particularly impressive.
Once you get to the third large meadow (I think, there were a lot of them), start paying attention. You’ll be able to see the view in the picture below. Here, you can see the summit, sub-summit, and the basin you’ll be using to ascend between them.
In the first few meadows, you’ll catch glimpses of where you’re going but it is NOT beneficial to leave the trail too early. You also don’t want to leave the trail in the middle of any of these meadows because two creek crossings are already required for this route, so adding a marsh to the mix is just excessive.
After the third meadow, keep trucking along for a few minutes more. I do want to make a note that at this point, I was over two hours into the hike, at a pace between 2.5 and 3 miles an hour. If you attempt this hike, be warned, you will be covering a lot of mileage, anticipate sore muscles.
When I saw the rock in the picture below, I began eyeing an exit strategy. It’s a good marker to use, don’t head off into the woods before seeing it.
Once you pass the above rock, pick a line and begin a diagonal traverse down to the stream (to the right). If you descend perpendicular to the trail (as in, straight downhill), you’ll spend a lot of time searching for a suitable water crossing. Below, roughly a minute or two past the rock is where I decided to begin my bushwhack and it worked relatively well.
I liked my initial path because it deposited me on a fairly obvious (albeit loose) line of rocks that I followed briefly before noticing a nearly identical ridge of rocks to my left. I dropped down in-between the two and descended (occasionally heading left to keep my trajectory) until arriving at a section of dead pine trees. Once you navigate through this part, the sound of the stream should be quite loud. If all directional senses fail you, follow your ears. The actual bushwhack (although a true one) was not long and pales in comparison to some of the absolute nightmares that exist out east. Before long, you reach the stream! Ta-da!
Once you find the stream, locate the two options for crossing the creek. For me, they were on my right-hand side about 15 feet downstream. Log #1 is the most intact, but only when dry, and has a lot of bounce to it, which might give you pause. It rained the night before so I opted for log #2, which is about 2 inches below water at its lowest point but has less bounce and I had high top hikers so the water wasn’t an issue, provided I didn’t fall in. Poles help for stability but do note that the creek is quite deep in spots. After a few careful movements, you’ve crossed Cascade creek and can begin your ascent.
Off Trail Ascent
From once you cross Cascade Creek until you ascend the north-facing basin between “Cherokee” and No Name Knob, you are on your own. Extra care must be taken to find and maintain the correct path. I will do my best to help in that regard.
After the creek crossing, you’ll find large slabs of rock between pine tree groves, use them to gain some elevation, veering slightly left (SW) as you can. Once you start to pick up elevation and navigate away from Cascade Creek, begin looking for the key to this entire bushwhack: a herd path. It is by no means a regular trail and often peters out, but mountain goats and elk frequent the trail so if you lose it, look for their scat. Elk scat looks like little large oval pellets and mountain goat scat looks like smaller pellets or a mass of pellets stuck together. If this grosses you out, take heart, its just a navigation tool, this isn’t some Bear Grylls survival special.
DO NOT leave the herd path too early and head left as I did. I saw the gully up between the peaks and decided to make a beeline for it, which ended up putting me in a much tougher situation. Even though the herd path begins to stray right (as in, away from your ultimate destination) stick with it. Eventually, the path will swing back around and put you in a good position.
If you make the same mistake I did, you end up encountering what’s depicted in the picture below. None of it was fun.
Let’s say you ignore my warning and end up giving it a go, here’s what you’re in for. Problem#1: a loose and frustrating descent down to a chasm, where another stream is. Problem#2: stream crossing, the chasm does not get a lot of light, therefore the rocks are UBER slippery. Two steps and I went right in the drink, both shoes, utterly soaked. Problem #3: you have to scout a weakness in the wall to get out of the chasm, which is made more difficult by wet rocks and thick vegetation. Once you finally get away from the stream, surprise, more problems. While it looks nice from a distance problem #4, is a long ascent through THICK vegetation, oscillating between young pointy pine trees, slick moss, underbrush, and hidden thistle that will prick you.
Now, let’s say you didn’t make my mistake and continued up the herd path. Eventually, you will be led to an easy stream crossing above the chasm. Yay! It will seem as though you’ve passed the ascent gully you want, but it’s fine, all you have to do after the stream crossing is double back up some broken rock steps until the views clear and you’re right where you need to be.
As evidence by the black arrow in the picture above, cross the stream and then perform an ascending traverse left (northeast) until you break out of the trees at the base of the ascent gully.
North Gully to No Name Knob
Now, the scrambling begins.
The blocky approach into the gully is a lot of fun and sports some variation, Below, I’ve highlighted two options. I chose option 1. Even further to the left as you approach the blocks, you’ll notice a stream spilling over a 10-15 foot rock face, eventually, the route you climb will connect with this stream.
Below is a close up shot of the red circle pictured above, with it’s own variations.
Above the initial difficulties, the gully relents and eventually merges with another shallow gully from the left (with the stream).
Make a mental note to remember the little cluster of pine trees you pass. These will serve as your markers on the descent. On the descent (assuming you come back this way), you’re going to want to veer left (north-northwest) to stay on track. If you stay too far right, you’ll end up in the krummholz, following the stream as it cascades off the 10-15 foot rock face.
After the two gully’s merge, the route becomes a lot simpler and begins to widen. Go up. Use your best judgment to find the path of least resistance. I always prefer rocks over potentially wet and slippery vegetation. It’s also handy to adopt a zig-zag pattern, rather than going straight up, which eats a lot of energy.
At the saddle, I skipped over to No Name Knob first, which I figured had an excellent view, and wow was I correct!
Upper route on “Cherokee”
After gawking at the surround from the summit of No Name Knob for quite a bit longer than I anticipated, I summoned up the willpower to begin the next part of the ascent. From the saddle between No Name and “Cherokee”, this part of the route overlaps with a route penned by Gerry Roach.
Gerry Roach is the resident authority on the Indian Peaks Wilderness and has written wildly successful books on climbing the 14ers, and the rest of the centennials (highest 13ers in the state). I used his book many times to corroborate routes when I completed the 14ers. Roach is a prolific climber and has named and identified dozens of routes in the area including many in the Lone Eagle Cirque. Officially, “Cherokee” does not have a name, its name was picked by Roach to match the theme of the Indian Peaks. This is why I keep the mountain name in quotes, on many USGS topo maps, there is no marker for the mountain. It helps immensely when scouting a new route, to agree on a name, even if it is unofficial.
Roach lays out a relatively simple way up “Cherokee” from the saddle that does not exceed Class 3. I have labeled his method as the Roach Approach in a few subsequent photos. On the way up, I initially stayed close to the route he described but ultimately traversed further, opting for more airy scrambling and will try to label those differences as I can. To be honest, Roach wrote only about a paragraph on the route up “Cherokee” from the saddle in his “Colorado’s Indian Peaks” guidebook, so move-for-move I just gave it my best shot and found fun rock to climb.
Please note: There are a few more internet descriptions of the upper route from the saddle to the top of “Cherokee,” but the subject matter is still annoyingly lacking. The theme of “Cherokee” appears to be, not many climb it, and those that do, climb from Crater Lake ie. not the north basin bushwhack I just described.
At first, both Roach’s and my route traverse beneath the first two major cliffs that hug “Cherokees” slopes until finding a long gully (with a few snow patches left in it) that acts as the path of least resistance. Neither Roach nor I actually climbed up the gully as it is festooned with loose, uncomfortable rock.
The initial class 2+ (blue line above) traverse is mostly enjoyable but watch your footing as you navigate below the first two large ridge towers. Depending on the time of year, small snow patches can add some spice, especially nestled at the base of the first tower you bypass.
In the above photo, traverse underneath the first tower and pay attention to the rock in the red circle. If it is hard to see, use the next picture below. The rock resembles two faces sticking diagonally out of the ridge. The “Roach approach” turns abruptly left before it, while my route continues traversing around it.
The rock is circled again and much clearer in the photo above. As I approached it, I began to like the way the rocks were starting to look if I kept traversing. Since I was here to scramble, I made the decision to traverse around the head of the ridge with the “Two-Face” rock.
This is what the view looked like on the other side of the brief, exposed traverse.
Notice the color differences in the ridges. The one I climbed (left of gully) was on darker, slabby rocks, occasionally culminating in a series of towers. The ridge across the gully was redder in color and served as my descent route.
For the most part, this route was a lot of fun. There were a couple of towers that blocked easy passage and handed me some nice Class 4 moves with not a ton of exposure. There were always bail out options either into the gully or left around the towers on grass ledges. The rock itself was very grippy and had a TON of great crack holds that could fit fingers and hands.
Eventually, the gully begins to lose its definition as you climb up to a large blocky rock I’ve dubbed “split rock”. At the rock, two shallow arms fan out in two different directions like the letter Y. Each arm will get you where you want. Be aware that if you take the more inviting looking right arm, you will have to hop back left towards the summit upon attaining the ridge, however, the distance is negligible.
The Summit Area
In addition to the summit block, there is a sub-summit that acts kind of like a leading edge, or the prow of a ship, with sharp drops on all three sides. It’s a quick couple minutes to get there and worth the effort.
The easiest way to access the sub summit is by finding a ramp on the east side of the summit block and head towards the saddle. To attain the sub-summit, climb on a smattering of rocks that require a few low Class 3 moves.
I must’ve spent about an hour up at the top. I had the weather, I had time, and after working my butt off to get here I was more than happy to relax. However, once it is time to leave, you actually have a couple of decisions to make fairly quickly. Do you want to descend back to the saddle between No Name and “Cherokee?” Or do you want to start descending back down the way you came up?
If you had it in your mind to head down to the shores of Crater Lake (a worthy destination in its own right), then backtrack down the gully until you can safely begin to traverse (right) back to the saddle. From the saddle cross over and find slanting rocks interspersed with grass and tree areas. Use the path of least resistance to make a descending traverse down to the shores of the lake which should be right in front of you. From the north end of Crater lake, haul the seven miles (on established trail) back to the trailhead.
Having botched the initial bushwhack on the way up, I was determined to descend back and find the right path, which I ultimately did. While I would love to see Crater Lake from the shoreline, I wanted to make sure I was presenting as complete a trip report as possible and that meant ironing out the kinks.
Just for kicks I decided to try descending on the opposite side of the gully from which I climbed up. It was initially easy Class 2 amongst flakier rock (make sure you don’t kick anything down or it’ll just keep going). The rock rib does cliff out at a certain point (very obviously) so the hardest down-climbing moves were descending off the side of the rib and back towards the gully.
In comparing the two lines I took, I think the descent route was easier. There were less Class 3 sections and they really only involved attaining the rob rib (if ascending) or finding your way off of it (if descending). The ascent route was more fun, and had more variety but if you want the easiest of the two, it’d be taking a line to the right of the gully on the climb up (and left on the climb down).
Now firmly back in familiar territory, I began descending with more confidence and soon came upon the small grove of pine trees I used as a marker on the ascent. Veering left, I found the original Class 3 section from the morning and dispensed it with a few moves. Once those difficulties were dealt with I was out of climbing territory and back down to easy Class 2 talus hopping. The day was far from over, however, and I was starting to feel it.
Contouring to the left, I corrected my earlier bushwhack mistakes, found the herd path and crossed over the unnamed stream I had so much trouble with earlier. I was offered a few great looks back at the lower portion of the route below the saddle and took a picture.
Remember, if you descend the north basin, take a left past the little pine grove. If you don’t, you end up in nasty krummholz and complicated Class 4 down-climbs.
Following the goat/elk path down to Cascade Creek was relatively straightforward. As before, I lost it a few times, but could orient fairly easily until I popped up at the stream bank once more. The ascent back to the trail across Cascade Creek was only five minutes long or so. Sweet relief washed over me when I emerged back on the relative highway of Cascade Creek Trail. Though I was still 2.5 hours from my car, I could cruise down the trail with relative ease. The end was in sight.
The trail out gave me time to think about my routes and the summit of “Cherokee”. I have climbed hundreds of mountains. “Cherokee” may have broken the top 10. While difficult and frustrating it had so many things I enjoy: remotes setting, route finding, scrambling options (upon options upon options), and STELLAR views. I’m already planning a return trip to the area. Well done Indian Peaks Wilderness, well done.