Peak(s):  Mt. Columbia  -  14,073 feet
Date Posted:  06/22/2009
Modified:  06/26/2009
Date Climbed:   06/21/2009
Author:  scotthsu

 Three Elk loop  

Itinerary: From Three Elk Creek TH (~9300'), we did a counter-clockwise loop of the ridge above Three Elk Creek basin, including the summit of Mt. Columbia
Who: Nice Axe and myself
RT mileage: ~10 (mostly class 1 with some class 2)
Vertical climbed: ~4900' (including some ups and downs on the ridge)
Car-to-car time: 7:50

After a failed attempt of a summit ski descent of Emma Burr's (13538') north couloir on Saturday (turned around about 800' shy of the summit due to sugary wet snow that failed to freeze overnight), we decided to leave the skis on the car and do a good old-fashioned hike of Mt. Columbia on Sunday. (A light pack is such a luxury after a season of backcountry skiing.)

We found Roach's directions to be pretty accurate for the Three Elk Creek approach and hike. Roach waxes poetic about this route. He says this is the "cardinal CO climb" (not sure what he means nor do I agree if you take the literal meaning). He also says that the Three Elk Creek approach "furthers the fantasy that every dirt road in CO leads to a fourteener" (I love this quote and agree with him wholeheartedly).

We parked at a nice flat spot just west of where the trail leaves the logging road (about 0.2 mile beyond the "Three Elk Creek Trailhead" sign). There are several spots there to park and set up tents. We watched a DVD in the back of the car and then crashed out. It was raining lightly when we first arrived, but it was clear by the time we went to sleep. We were on the trail at 5:50am the next morning. Nice light in the trees early on:

The trail was snow-free and easy to follow all the way to treeline (~11,300'). Along the way, there were several creek crossings (on footbridges in various states of disrepair and one log). After stepping on stones for the final creek crossing to the north side of Three Elk Creek near treeline, the trail becomes very faint and then disappears. But no matter, since nice bushwhack-free routes up to the ridge (on the north side of the Three Elk Creek drainage) are obvious from here. It took us a little over an hour to get to treeline (~3 miles so far). We stopped for a snack partway up the slope and then grunted up dry grassy slopes the rest of the way to the east ridge, angling NW.

View toward upper Elk Creek Basin:

We reached the ridge top at an elevation of ~12800'. It was very windy. The summit was socked in by clouds, but we were in the sun. It was a long ridge walk over several false summits toward the summit. Amy heading up one of the false summits:

Snow patches became more frequent. We had gaiters but never put them on. We entered clouds around 13200' and endured whipping winds, finally reaching the cloud-enshrouded summit around 10am.

Clouds rushing over the ridge from west to east were a sight to behold. We hunkered down just a few feet below and to the east of the summit and enjoyed a snack while being protected from the wicked wind. Somebody else walked up from the standard route just a few minutes after us. He said his grandfather went to Columbia and this hike was a tribute to his grandfather on father's day. I snapped a photo for him, and then he started his descent as suddenly as he arrived. (Turns out this was Greenhouseguy of

After about 20 minutes on the summit, we headed south along the ridge to continue our CCW loop of ridge surrounding Three Elk Creek basin. Soon the clouds opened up and we got spectacular views of Horn Fork Basin (to the west) and also Mt. Yale (to the south).

We passed a solo climber on the way up with two dogs. It was so windy I couldn't really hear what he said. It was a nice walk in the sun up high on the ridge. We were happy. The ridge turned to the east. Amy with Mt. Columbia in the background:

Mt. Yale:

We skirted to the north of PT 13298 where there was a little fun scrambling to be had. Around 12600', we started angling down gentle slopes to the NE. Layers quickly came off as we went from winter to spring to summer. We were hoping to find a long snowfield we eyed during the ascent for a fun, easy glissade down to treeline, but alas we started descending too early and missed the snowfield entirely. No matter, as it was a relatively pain-free and scree-free descent. Upon reaching the basin, we saw cairns which brought us right to the trail! I love it when that happens.

One of the footbridges in disrepair:

From here it was an easy march back to the car, where we arrived at 1:40pm in solitude. A fine day, and a fine route that we felt was worthy of Roach *classic* status. The only disappointment was the lack of elk sightings. Wildflowers are starting to appear and should populate the Three Elk Creek basin with colorful brilliance in another couple of weeks. Interestingly enough, a friend commented that he did this hike later in the summer, and he claims the views were "boring by CO standards" and all he saw before reaching the ridge was a "big gravel bowl" that was the Three Elk Creek basin. I guess the *classic* status should be season-dependent.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions
CO Native

Loved the Three Elk Route too
06/22/2009 22:28
I really enjoyed that route up Columbia as well. I found it scenic and enjoyable. I would hardly call Three Elk Creek basin a gravel bowl.


06/22/2009 23:38
Thanks for taking my summit pic. The weather was bad enough to worry me a little bit, but it cleared up by the time that I was halfway down the slope. The route you took looks much more scenic than the standard route; now I understand why so many people complain about the scree. The solo climber with two dogs had come up one of the gullies - it looked like an agonizing way to gain the ridge.


Light packs?!!!
06/23/2009 14:06
Shouldn‘t you have filled your packs with 50-lbs of rocks as training for next ski season? Where‘s your dedication?

Nice TR. I hope all this late spring/early summer moisture sets up for a great wildflower season.

Chicago Transplant

Nice Route
06/23/2009 14:19
Three Elk is the way I went too, it was a nice scenic and peaceful route, definitely seems to be the way to go on this peak! Sorry your ski didn‘t work out the day before, but sometimes its nice to lighten the load and enjoy a dry trail


06/23/2009 14:41
for the comments! Despite the extra ~700‘ vertical compared to the N. Cottonwood approach, I wonder why this route didn‘t become the ”standard route” up Columbia.


nicest Sawatch 14er route I‘ve done
07/05/2009 04:00
I got weathered off last September when the aspen were on full display. Finished it up today. A little-used, very nice route. The secret is out.


backpacking options near this route?
09/18/2009 17:00
Thanks for the TR. We‘re thinking of climbing this route to Columbia on Sunday but are hoping to backpack in on Saturday. Any decent camping within the first few miles?

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