All Hail the Lizard

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Gone Summering, July 1998

All Hail the Lizard
You don't have to see Colorado's most famous reptile. Just head out on the trail and trust that he's there.
By Rob Story

Altitude with Attitude

Flatlanders beware: this is high country — really high country — where national forest land lies above timberline, trails start at 10,000 feet, and temperatures can dive-bomb to the thirties in mid-July. No matter. Spend a few days sipping lattes in the lowlands of Telluride — a mere 8,750 feet — and you'll be ready to pedal, hike, or ride horseback over any of the wildflower-strewn mountain trails found in these parts.

Getting There: From Denver, head west on I-70 to Grand Junction and then south on U.S. 50 and U.S. 550 to Ridgway. Drive southwest on Colorado 62 to the junction with Colorado 145 at Placerville and then southeast 16 miles to Telluride. The trip takes seven hours.

Do It Yourself: The best way to spot the lizard in Lizard Head is from — surprise — Lizard Head Trail, which starts just off Colorado 145 and ends at the summit of Blackface (a 12-mile round-trip). To immerse yourself in the high country, follow the 5.8-mile Bilk Creek Trail past cliffs, waterfalls, and the ruins of Morningstar Mine. Though mountain biking is not allowed in the wilderness area, local fatheads swear by the steep, 10-mile Mill Creek-Jud Wiebe loop, which starts and ends just outside of Telluride.

Outfitters: Rocky Mountain Wilderness Adventures (800-877-6254) offers a 110-mile, five-day singletrack trip from Telluride to Durango via Lizard Head Pass ($785). Those who prefer a live steed will want to try RMWA's horsepacking trip through the nearby Weminuche Wilderness (six days, $865). Durango's Adventures Afoot (800-294-8218) offers a seven-day backpacking trip that ends with a ride on the famous Durango-to-Silverton narrow-gauge railroad ($930).

Bedding Down: San Sophia, a Telluride B&B, offers inspiring views of Ajax Peak (doubles, $140-$275; 800-537-4781). Primitive camping is allowed in the Lizard Head Wilderness, while Sunshine Campground in San Juan National Forest has it all: restrooms, water, and hookups ($8-$14 per night; 970-327-4261). — J.H.

If a mountain is to be known as Lizard Head, must it, in fact, resemble a lizard? Despite what it betrays about how I spend my days, this is a question I've pondered at some length, the peak returning my focused gaze with a very unlizardly visage. Of course, some people claim they see a reptile there, but they're the sort who laugh at jokes they don't get, or can pick Jesus out of one of those magic pictures. I'm not so blessed. Frankly, Pointy Rock Peak is more apropos.

Not that the name much matters. For whether or not I like its handle, Lizard Head, a 13,113-foot protrusion crowned by a 300-foot finger of naked cinder, has become a lodestone of the southwestern Rockies, centerpiece of a 41,500-acre wilderness that manages to seduce all manner of summertime refugee. To kayakers tuning up on the San Miguel before making their way west to the Colorado, Lizard Head is geology's promise that the Rockies' alpine summits will soon give way to the martian rocks of the Utah desert. When Telluride's world-class thermals reach their apex just after the solstice, paragliders rely on it as a signal landmark. And for seekers of solitude, there's the lonely spire of Dolores Peak, in the western half of Lizard Head Wilderness. From its 13,290-foot summit, you can peer out over a rainbow coalition of mountain scenery: alpine white, riparian green, and canyon-country red.

Oddly enough, the folks who seem least enchanted by Lizard Head are those you might logically expect to worship it: climbers. Among the most difficult summits in Colorado, its rock is so rotten that most guidebooks recommend staying off. Friends who've attempted it report disturbingly hollow sounds, taunting marmot whistles, and a register at the top with few, if any, repeated names.

But maybe it's this aura of danger that gives Lizard Head its mystique. Then again, maybe it's just the maddening Where's Waldo? gauntlet thrown down by the damn name. Oh, I've given the mountain its due chance. There on the far side, for instance: Might that be a snout? A few moments pass, shadows lengthen, the peak fades slowly to purple. A snout? It's as good a guess as any, I suppose.

Rob Story wrote about the Rockies' best mountain-bike trail in the March issue.

O n   t h e   F o u r t h
Steamboat Springs used to celebrate the holiday with a Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry, but apparently bovine unmentionables have become pass‰. Thankfully, town fathers have replaced the event with another that's equally questionable: an all-you-can-eat flapjack feed, followed by a 400-yard sprint down Main Street. Call 970-879-0880.

Illustration by Jason Schneider

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