Lizard Head

Distance: 7.6 - 11.7 miles (loop)

Lizard Head Wilderness, San Juan National Forest, near Telluride in Southwest Colorado

Introduction

The Lizard Head trail traversing Black Face Mountain’s broad, panoramic ridge is not the shortest route to the base of Lizard Head peak but it is certainly the most scenic. From the ridge leading to the top of Black Face Mountain, the San Miguel Range, including Mount Wilson (14,245-ft.), Gladstone Mountain (13,913-ft.) and Wilson Peak (14,017-ft.), forms a dramatic backdrop for Lizard Head’s lone spire soaring 400-ft. above its rocky pedestal.

To the east spectacular views encompass Trout Lake and the peaks surrounding the Lake Hope basin, including Sheep Mountain, Pilot Knob, Golden Horn and Vermillion Peak. To the north, Sunshine Mountain rises above picturesque Wilson Meadows. In the distance, to the northeast, is the jagged profile of the Sneffels range.

The trail can either be done as an out-and-back hike or a loop using the Cross Mountain and the old Railroad Grade route on the return leg. The loop covers 11.7 miles of diverse terrain with a net elevation gain over 2,900-ft.

Be aware the loop hike follows ridges and crosses high alpine meadows for over 4 miles. These areas are dangerous places to be in the event of a thunderstorm. Pick a nice day and get an early start so that you are down from the high country before the onset of afternoon thunder storms, a frequent occurrence on summer afternoons in the Rockies.

Trailhead to Black Face Peak

Closeup of Lizard Head from the top of Black Face

Distance from Trailhead: 7.6 miles (round trip)

Ending/Highest Elevation: 12,147-ft.

Elevation Gain: 1,897-ft.

The Lizard Head trail heads northeast from the parking area (see driving directions) on easy grades through pretty meadows and forests of aspen and mixed conifers beneath the steep south face of Black Face Mountain (12,147-ft.). Openings in the trees provide views of Trout Lake and the jagged ridge of 13,000-ft.-plus peaks rising to the east.

After 1.5 miles the trail swings left (west) and starts a moderately steep ascent on switchbacks through spruce-fir forest and meadows, at times skirting the edge of talus slopes, to a junction with the Wilson Meadows trail (heading straight ahead). Keep left, staying on the Lizard Head trail as it climbs steeply up switchbacks on a forested slope. As you climb, the trees gives way to rocky slopes. Reach the ridge leading to the summit of Black Face at 3.0 miles after gaining 1,400-ft.

As the trail attains the ridge top the rocky slopes give way to alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers. Watch for posts to help guide you through areas where the trail is indistinct.

The path now ascends on gentle to moderate grades along the ridge to the summit of Black Face (12,147-ft.) at 3.8 miles. Along the way enjoy spectacular views to the east of Trout Lake and the peaks surrounding the Lake Hope basin, including Sheep Mountain, Pilot Knob, Golden Horn and Vermillion Peak. To the west the skyline is dominated by Lizard Head’s distinctive profile set against a backdrop of the high peaks of the San Miguel range, including Mount Wilson (14,245-ft.), Gladstone Mountain (13,913-ft.) and Wilson Peak (14,017-ft.). Sunshine Mountain (12,930-ft.) towers above the beautiful emerald green expanse of Wilson Meadows to the north. In the distance to the northeast is the jagged profile of the Sneffels range.

The top of Black Face is a good turn around point for hikers looking for a shorter day or if the weather is taking a turn for the worse.

Black Face to Junction with Cross Mountain Trail

From the trail you get great views of the 14ers - Mt. Wilson and Wilson Peak

Distance from Trailhead: 2.3 miles (one way)

Ending/Highest Elevation: 12,080-ft.

Elevation Gain: 600-ft.

To continue the loop follow the trail down the west side of the ridge to a saddle between the Wilson Creek and Lizard Head drainages, losing about 630-ft. From the saddle the trail ascends a rocky slope on moderate grades and then swings southwest, traversing high meadows to cross a ridge (12,080-ft.) jutting from Lizard Head’s southern flank at 5.9 miles. From the saddle to the ridge the trail gains about 600-ft.

Hikers continuing along this segment of the trail are rewarded with amazing views of Lizard Head towering above the trail. The 13,113-ft. eroded volcanic plug was called, “one of the most difficult of Colorado’s summits to reach,” by Robert Ormes in his 1979 Guide to Colorado Mountains.

Anyone except the experienced parties thinking about scaling the peak should heed Ormes’ warning, “our advice when you reach the base, take [a] picture and go home.”

Take a break at the top of the ridge to enjoy the spectacular views of the high peaks of the San Miguel range. From the ridge top the trail loses about 150-ft. as it contours beneath Lizard Head to the junction with the Cross Mountain trail at 6.25-miles.

Optional Bilk Basin Overlook extension

View of beautiful Bilk Basin

Distance from Trailhead: 0.6 miles (round trip)

Ending/Highest Elevation: 12,114-ft.

Elevation Gain: 180-ft.

A quick side trip to the Bilk Basin overlook is highly recommended if you have the time and energy. To reach the overlook from the Cross Mountain junction, continue along the Lizard Head trail as it ascends northwest through rocky meadows to a saddle, 0.3 miles from the junction. This wonderful vantage point features panoramic views of Bilk Basin and the jagged peaks and ridges of the San Miguel Range, including Mount Wilson, Gladstone Peak and Wilson Peak, towering above the west side of the basin. After soaking in the views, return to the Cross Mountain trail junction.

Cross Mountain and old Railroad Grade to Lizard Head Trailhead

View of Lizard Head from near the top of the Cross Mountain trail

Distance from Trailhead: 11.7 miles (loop)

Ending/Highest Elevation: 12,147-ft.

Elevation Gain: 2,900-ft.

To complete the 11.7-mile loop, using the Cross Mountain trail and the old Railroad Grade back to the Lizard Head Parking lot, head downhill on the Cross Mountain trail. The trail descends through meadows and spruce/fir forest, losing over 1,900-ft in 3.25 miles as it drops to a parking area just off Highway 145. (For more information see the Cross Mountain trail description.)

Just before reaching the highway you will see a wide, unmarked trail/dirt road heading left (northeast) through open meadows. The wide path ascends on easy grades along an old railroad grade that essentially parallels Highway 145 for 2.25 miles back to the Lizard Head Pass parking area. (See the Railroad Grade trail description for more information.)

Hike Facts

  • Distance: 7.6 - 11.7 miles (loop)
  • Elevation: 10,250-ft. - 12,147-ft.
  • Elevation Gain: 1,897-ft. - 2,900-ft.
  • Difficulty: strenuous
  • Basecamp(s): Telluride
  • Region: Southwest Colorado

 

Elevation Profile

Lizard Head Elevation Profile

 

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Driving Directions

Driving directions from Telluride: Drive south from Telluride on Colorado 145 for 12.3 miles to Lizard Head Pass. On the right (west) side of the highway is a rest area and interpretive site. Turn right into the rest area and park. The trailhead is located at the northeast end of the parking area. You can also park in a separate trailhead parking area by driving through the rest area (past the restroom) for approximately 1000-ft., then turn right onto a spur road that ends at the Lizard Head trailhead parking area.

 

Trail Resources