Peak(s):  Crestone Peak  -  14,294 feet
Crestone Needle  -  14,197 feet
"East Crestone" - 14,260 feet
Broken Hand Pk  -  13,573 feet
Date Posted:  08/24/2011
Modified:  09/04/2013
Date Climbed:   08/21/2011
Author:  SnowAlien
 Peak to Needle traverse from Cottonwood Creek TH  

I thought I'd just add a quick report on the Cottonwood Creek approach and some route finding on the Traverse.

Cottonwood Creek TH Approach

Cottonwood Creek trail starts flat, but after a couple of miles it will get steep. According to Roach, this approach requires a 9.2 miles roundtrip with 3,910 elevation gain on Class 2+ trail, which can be pretty taxing with a heavy(ish) backpack as we planned on camping near Cottonwood lake.

Trail wades through the forest. There are a lot of downed trees which may complicate route finding a bit, but it is not too difficult.

Imagine crawling on those ledges in the rain with a backpack (happened to us on the way back). Not fun.

The trail on the ledges tends to be well marked by cairns so no major issues with route finding.

And here comes the *steep steep* part. This headwall needs to be climbed over. With a backpack. There is a faint trail to the left, which is easy to miss. Expect some bushwhacking through willows, and if not lucky with route finding - climbing near the waterfall.

Looking down on the "waterfall climb".

Crestones come into view. But the approach hike is not over yet. More elevation gain before reaching the lake is yet to come.

Having finally arrived at the Cottonwood lakes after 5 hours of backpacking, we collapsed in our tents. We were woken up about an hour later from our afternoon slumber by those guys who came to check out their new neighbors.

Starting on the Red Gully next morning @5am - standard approach.

Made the summit of Crestone Peak by 7am. Weather seems to hold up so far.

Peak to Needle Traverse

Starting on the traverse. The key is to go low. Way low. Unexpectedly low.

Cairns are generally easy to spot, and the climbing is not difficult.

Reaching the 2nd Red Gully (there are actually 2 on the Crestone peak face). The 2nd one is much narrower.

After crossing the 2nd red gully (a fine bailout route if necessary due to weather), the route starts to go up.

The goal is to traverse to the right side of the Black Gendarme (sorry for the photo quality, my camera was having an off day, unfortunately). The climbing was generally easy and straightforward up to this point.

Approaching the base of the Black Gendarme. A side note - do not attempt to descend the BG gully (as one of our party found out). It is miserable.

Looking down from the 5.2 buldge (step). There is currently a thin rope there, but we did not use it.

Topping out on the Black Gendarme gully. The route turns sharply to the right and up.

There is a small knife edge section (no more than 10 feet) that needs to be crossed over. Climber is seen approaching it.

After climbing to the top of the ridge, there are several options. We chose to stay away from the ridge crest, and picked the line across ledges aiming for the gully directly ahead of us. We then turned sharply left and ascended the gully that took us precisely to the starting point of the final pitch up the Needle.

Looking up the final pitch. We brought the rope, harnesses, biners and rock climbing shoes just in case, but did not use any of it. At least the first half of the route has great holds, so it felt doable.

Looking down on the route. I must have found some nice perch to secure myself on.

Climbing gets a bit more difficult the higher you go. Supposedly, there are more holds on the ridge crest, but then there is exposure. So that's a trade-off. There is a rappelling station immediately below the ridge.

Topping out on the ridge. Summit comes into view. From here, it is just a short walk over.

After 2.5 hours on the traverse, we reached the Needle summit by 10am.

Weather really cooperated with us that day. Needle and Humboldt summits were in the sun, while Peak is already engulfed in clouds.

After half an hour on the summit, we headed down the standard route, trying to outrun the clouds.

Descent the West Gully was uneventful (watch out for some loose rock though) and the turn off was easy enough to spot. There is currently a pink tape on the small cairn marking the turn off to the East Gully.


Back to camp at 12.30pm.

Getting drizzled on the way back. It is possible to skirt the ledges on the left side, but be prepared to crawl over downed trees with a backpack. Back at the car by 5pm with some daylight to spare.

An update as of July 2013:

The Cottonwood trail seemed to be even easier to follow with plenty of cairns, at least in the lower section. Past the "turnoff" into the upper basin the trail gets more difficult to navigate. Last time we went to the left of the waterfall, this time we went right. On the day of the traverse we added SE Crestone and Broken Hand Peak and were down by the lake around noon. The Cottonwood creek approach/deproach felt easier the second time.

A word of caution on the descent from Crestone Needle: I believe we used the East gully for the descent and didn't do a crossover to the West gully, which is the standard route. The difficulty seemed about the same, maybe just a bit steeper, but it is pretty subjective, so use your own discretion.

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30

 Comments or Questions

08/25/2011 12:54
That approach is... fun. Bushwacking seminar to say the least. Grats on the traverse!

Good Approach Beta
08/25/2011 16:13
First of all...congrats on the traverse. Beta on this approach is hard to come by and this report fills the void. Now I am not certain that I will attempt it for the ”Peak.” Thanks for posting.


08/25/2011 22:29
Any problems with landowners and gaining access to Cottonwood Creek TH?


Great report!
08/26/2011 19:07
Congrats on a great day! Do you know how long the Cottonwood trail head will be open? I am contemplating utilizing this approach in a few weeks.


Nice ...
08/26/2011 19:14
Love that Cottonwood Creek trail (done it a couple of times). We went to the right of the waterfall (quite a bit below the waterfall where it is a creek crossing ... actually a leap of a crossing). Nice photos ... the clouds add much to the feel of the photos. Thanks for posting. Congrats on the traverse. Interesting vantage point on the ”low” route ... we stayed very high the entire time. Happy trails!


08/29/2011 01:47
Heck of an approach, not to mention the climb. Congrats!

05/23/2012 05:33
I am thinking of doing the same traverse. Did you use ropes at all? Also, any thoughts on going north from there through Colony Lakes up the ridge to North Crestone Lake? I know its a solid hike on a ridge above 13,000 feet but can't find anyone who's done it.


Very Useful
07/11/2012 15:47
Very useful trip report, thanks for the Beta. If you had to do it again, now that you have had time to think about it- would you again use the Cottonwood creek approach?

Also, it looks like you camped at Cottonwood lake, is that a decent place to throw down a tent? It is somewhat high.


Cottonwood Creek TH is temporary open this season
04/02/2015 19:45
this was part of the reason why we chose this TH for an approach


04/02/2015 19:45
We started higher, but did not spot cairns, so we kept dropping/downclimbing lower and lower until we saw some. But I agree, up to the Black Gendarme, it was more of a hike than a climb. Then it got more interesting Weather and the clouds were the most unusual that day.


04/02/2015 19:45
”We brought the rope, harnesses, biners and rock climbing shoes just in case, but did not use any of it.” It is probably Class 4 with strong exposure (and only the final pitch up Needle). The rest of the route is Class 2+/3.

No, I don't know about the route to North Crestone lake. Sounds interesting though.

Thanks for reading!


Thank you!
04/02/2015 19:45
It is a difficult question to ask. After I first did it - I was ”no way”, Colony Lake is much easier vs. this approach. But as the time goes by... the pain and suffering fades away

The approach is very scenic. It is also very challenging, esp. with a backback (but w/o backpack that would make for a very long day). Route finding is definitely a concern. We followed someone who'd already done this approach a few times and still had to stop and figure out where the route was. In fact, we missed the trail near the waterfall and had to scramble on rocks that was close to Class 3 with a backpack (we found and followed a very faint trail on the way down). Downed trees in the first ~ 3 miles were a bit of an issue even last year, and I hear it is worse this year due to wind storms.

Cottonwood lake camping is fine, but it is unprotected from the elements. There were some rock outcroppings that can protect from the wind, but that's about it. The big plus of the approach, of course, is that you avoid the Broken Hand pass and you are right at the start of the Red Gully the day of the climb (and the descent from the Needle back to the camp takes a short time). But I would say that this approach is not for a faint of heart - bring your best game, light backpack, GPS and a good weather forecast. I would compare this approach to the Willow lake approach for Kit Carson, but with more scrambling and route finding. Good luck!

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