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Mt. Columbia (14,073'), A Wilderness Loop, Colorado


Author: Gina Pasquale

Trip participants: Steve Doorn, Gina Pasquale and Tasha, the climbing wolf dog

We decided to look for an isolated, wilderness route this weekend, after being on Mt. Sneffels over Labor Day with 100 of our closest friends. (OK, so they weren't really our friends...) This turned out to be a perfect weekend for aspen color in this part of Colorado.

After camping out in Buena Vista, at an undisclosed location (I have a reputation to keep!), we headed up to the 3 Elk Creek trailhead. A good way to get there is from Chaffee CR 384, a few miles north of BV. The information I got from the San Isabel ranger station in Leadville was almost correct, but here's what we discovered: With a 4WD, you can drive up past the "normal" 3 Elk Cr. trailhead at 9200'. Keep going straight up, then take a right fork when you see one, to a parking spot at about 10,000'. You can't actually drive to the wilderness closure, which is only about an additional 100' up, as they are doing some "restoration". You know you are at the right parking spot if you see some clay pigeon pieces. The route finding starts from here.

Take the trail up towards the Colorado Trail. You will go past Bunny White's old cabin. Keep going up until you get to his old, rusty mining cart. If you are feeling really adventurous, as we were, cross the Colorado trail and keep going straight up a small ravine and angle left towards a ridge. This is a ridge that leads all the way to Mt. Columbia, a few miles away! This route is completely off trail, so you must be confident in your route finding skills for this one. (Make sure your altimeter is working, mine died the day before this trip, and it was a bit more challenging without it.) The best map for this route is the Trails Illustrated Buena Vista/Collegiate Peaks map (thanks, Norman).

About 100' below the summit, we passed a party of 3 people heading up. We didn't say much to them, as the wind was really howling and we were cold. After we were settled in on the summit, out of the wind, the first of the 3 people came up to meet us. He said 'Hello' to us, then immediately pointed north and said "Wow, that's Columbia over there, isn't it?" I looked at him for any sign of a joke. There was none. I said, "Are you serious? You're standing on Columbia. That's Mt. Harvard over there!" He looked bewildered, and when the other 2 came up to join us, he informed them as to their current whereabouts. The woman said "This has to be Harvard. I have a map right here! I'm from Denver and have already climbed 30 14'ers!" She pulled out her map, and I showed her where we were, and where they had come from (Frenchman Creek). I have heard of this happening before (people climbing the wrong mountain), but I had never experienced it in person! I found this quite hilarious, and also somewhat disturbing at the same time. People really do get lost on 14'ers, folks.

After an hour on the summit all to ourselves, enjoying the gorgeous fall day with crisp, clear blue skies, we headed straight down off the face into the 3 Elk Creek drainage. We stayed close to the creek until we picked up a faint trail near Harvard Lakes. A stop at the larger lake should be a mandatory rest spot, especially since you now have about a 400' (in a mile) climb up the Colorado Trail to reach the turnoff back to the parking spot. The lake was beautiful, especially with the golden aspens reflecting their color off the dark blue lake.

We were fortunate to see much wildlife on this trip: mule deer, antelope, an owl, and that guy with the braided beard in Nathrop. Our post-climb dinner stop was at Paddler's Pizzeria in the Nathrop Mall. Highly recommended, good crust. However, best to get it to go, trust me.

Round trip beta: 4500' gain, 10+ miles


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