Mount Sopris Backcountry Skiing - Chapter 4

Introduction

Mount Sopris Area

Drive Interstate 70 to Glenwood Springs, then head up the Roaring Fork Valley toward the town of Carbondale. If you're in a car full of glisse alpinists be prepared to pull over. Rising before you will be colossal Mount Sopris, western bastion of the Elk Mountains. Sopris is not a fourteener. At 12,953 feet it's not even a thirteener. Nonetheless, Sopris rises 6,000 stupendous feet from the Crystal River Valley in just three miles.

Mount Sopris, Thomas Lakes Bowl viewed from West Thomas Lake

This is a skier's and rider's mountain, with five glorious cirques radiating from its double topped crown: two identical height summits 1 ½ miles apart and 12,953 feet high.

In winter, Mount Sopris is known for its high winds and unstable weather, but several Sopris ridge routes are easily navigable and most often safe for mid-winter routes, making the mountain a rewarding and relatively easy winter ski-climb (provided you descend avalanche safe terrain).

But forget winter; the best season for skiing Sopris is spring, when the mountain's big drops offer miles of velvet corn snow-and predictable avalanche conditions.

While many Colorado summits have boring or mundane names, Sopris is an exception. The peak is named after Richard Sopris (1813-1893), a true frontier adventurer. Sopris was born in Pennsylvania, and went west in 1858 with the gold boomers. He was successful in mining the Platte River area and settled in Denver. However, wanderlust was Sopris' ilk (or perhaps he was broke). In spring of 1860 he organized a group of fifteen gold prospectors to explore west of the "Snowy Range," as the huge barrier of the Continental Divide was known at the time. The crew took a roundabout route, eventually traveling over the hills south from the Vail area to the Roaring Fork Valley, then to the base of what they named Sopris Peak, now called Mount Sopris. The journey wasn't over. They headed downvalley and discovered the famed Glenwood Hot Springs, then spent several months swinging through southern Colorado. The Sopris expedition didn't find gold, but they helped make the first functional map of Colorado, and Richard Sopris went on to a life of farming and politics in the Denver area. Unquestionably, it was men such as Richard Sopris who laid the foundations for our North American mountaineering heritage.

The peak's mountaineering history is poorly recorded. The first anglo ascent of the peak was probably in 1873 by Dr. Albert Peale and other Hayden Survey workers.

During the Elk's mining heyday in the mid 1800s, the area around Mount Sopris was the district's bread basket. The Aspen area was too high for farming and too steep for cattle, so the food for thousands of miners was grown downvalley in the lush hill country watered by snowmelt from Mount Sopris. It was during this time that a network of roads developed around the north side of the peak, with one track ascending to Thomas Lakes, a pair of tarns at 10,200 feet. In the 1950s and 1960s, spring skiers such as Aspen newspaperman Bil Dunaway four-wheeled to Thomas Lakes and skied Mount Sopris. The Thomas Lakes road was closed to summer vehicle traffic in the 1970s, while it's still open to snowmobiles up to the Wilderness boundary at Thomas Lakes. Although the road closure was a disappointment, Sopris skiing is still popular among glisse alpinists in the Roaring Fork Valley, and is approached on foot as well as by snowmobile.

Roads and Trailheads

USGS Maps: Mount Sopris, Basalt

USFS Forest Visitor Map: White River NF

Our own Sopris West topo map PDF

Our own Sopris East topo map PDF

 


 

West Sopris Creek Road, Dinkle Lake Road, Thomas Lakes Trailhead

To reach the Thomas Lakes Trailhead, drive Colorado Highway 82 for 22 miles upvalley (SE) from Glenwood Springs or downvalley (NW) 18 miles from Aspen to the Emma townsite. Turn S at obvious signs indicating "EMMA ROAD AND SOPRIS CREEK ROAD," then take an immediate left (E) on the Sopris Creek Road. Drive 1.1 miles to a T intersection, then turn right on the West Sopris Creek Road. Drive 5.3 miles to a parking area (winter closure) at a switchback below Prince Creek Divide. During spring snow season the road may be open another .5 mile to the Prince Creek Divide (8,110 feet). At the Prince Creek Divide, take a left (S) on the Dinkle Lake Road (FS road 6A), and follow the Dinkle Lake Road 2.1 miles to obvious parking on another divide (8,640 feet); this is the late spring and summer trailhead, and is known as the Dinkle Lake Divide.

After full melt-off (late June or early May), the Prince Creek Road connects Highway 133 (Carbondale) with West Sopris Creek. You can drive Prince Creek Road from the Carbondale (W) side by driving Highway 133 south from the Carbondale stoplight on Highway 82. At 2.5 miles you'll see a state fish hatchery on your right. A few hundred feet past the hatchery, take a left on the Prince Creek Road and drive 6.2 miles to the Prince Creek Divide; turn right here on the Dinkle Lake Road, and proceed to the Dinkle Lake Divide parking mentioned above.