Peak(s):  Mt. Columbia  -  14,073 feet
Date Posted:  08/09/2009
Date Climbed:   08/08/2009
Author:  George Kaplan
 A Great Loop Hike to Columbia  

I have heard so many bad stories about the standard scree-filled route up the southwestern face of Columbia, that I decided to try one of the less frequently used routes from the east side instead. I and my hiking partner Audrey met up at the Three Elk Creek Trailhead at 6 AM. Audrey had slept in her car overnight and I did an early-morning drive in from Denver. (Apologies in advance for lack of good photos in this report. I had forgotten my camera and Audrey's was practically out of battery power!)

A few points about the trailhead: There is no sign at the turn-off onto Forest Service Road 368. Just after you turn onto Road 368A and pass the bank of mailboxes, look into the trees on your right and you should see a dirt road with a couple of bare wood posts on either side of it. You should also see some signs nailed to trees that read something like "National Forest Wood-Cutting Area". This is the right road. Some people have written that this road is totally fine for 2WD cars. I will say that I did make it to the trailhead in the dark with a few scrapes on the bottom, but I personally would have preferred to just parked at the road's beginning and ride up the last stretch in Audrey's high-profile vehicle. (Incidentally, we COULD get cell-phone signals from the trailhead.) If you do take your 2WD drive car up this road, take it ultra-slow. I only saw high-clearance vehicles up at the trailhead, and one other guy at the end of the day asked me how I managed to get my car up there. Also, there is no formal parking lot at this trailhead like a lot of the more developed ones. There are places to park for perhaps up to a dozen vehicles in dirt patches here and there. On this day, there were 4 parked vehicles in the morning and 7 by the time we got back. Needless to say, there are no restrooms. The only landmark to look for to confirm that you are at the trailhead is a beaten-up wood sign that says "Three Elk Creek" with an arrow.

Three Elk Creek

The first few miles of the hike were very pleasant. You start heading south and soon cross the Three Elk Creek. Shortly after that, you come to an area with several cairns at which point you hang a right and head west up a broad trail. From here, the trail rises at a gentle grade through the forest as you roughly follow alongside Three Elk Creek. At the point where the trail intersects the Colorado Trail, there is a wooden sign. Cross the Colorado Trail and keep following the Three Elk Creek Trail straight ahead.

You eventually break out of the trees and arrive in a meadow with the high walls of the basin rising up on either side. After crossing the meadow and just before entering another grove of pine trees is where it is time to leave the trail (which essentially disappears shortly after this point anyway). We turned southwest and started the steep climb up the slope. (This would be route 6V in Roach's guide) This slope is steep, but is mostly dirt and grass which gave us firm footing the whole way up. On the way up, we saw chipmunks, pikas, and a couple of frisky ptarmigans. We gained altitude quickly and hit the ridge in the saddle between Points 13,298 and 12,740. At this point, the wind kicked in like crazy and we needed to gear up into warmer clothing.

The ridge was grassy at first, but became rockier with talus as we neared and ascended over the top of point 13,298. The wind was gusting at about 35 mph and Audrey was having a hard time staying upright at points. From the top of point 13,298, we got our first view of Columbia's summit and the remaining route. We would essentially need to follow the rocky ridge for about a mile in a giant "C" around the western end of the Three Elk Creek basin. As we continued on, we had great views down into the Horn Fork Basin to the west.

The route up on approach to point 13,298 looking east

Bear Lake and Horn Fork Basin to the west

Heading up the first 13er summit. Mt. Yale on the left.

About halfway to the summit, we noticed the dirt-packed trail of the standard route rising up to meet us. Eventually, the standard route trail joined ours on top of the ridge. From this point, the final bit of route to the summit rose at an easy gradual rate, and we soon gained the small rocky summit. We met several other people at the top, who all seemed to have gotten to the summit from different routes. For being an often overshadowed and underrated 14er, Columbia really does have a good variety of enjoyable routes up it. I also found it funny that even though the Forest Service had removed the summit registry canisters the week before, someone had already started a new register at the top of Columbia. There was also a social marmot at the top who very much liked standing on his hind legs for the summit photographers.

Summit shot!

The marmot had no problem standing up in the breeze.

From here, we decided to descend down the ridge on the north side of the Three Elk Creek basin and make a nice loop back down to the main Three Elk Creek Trail. (In terms of Roach's book, we had ascended route 5, and were descending route 6). This ridge had some areas of talus down from the summit and in patchy areas here and there but was mostly much more smoother than the ridge we had come up. We ascended and descended over point 13,740 and the next couple of false summits before deciding to descend back down into the basin. In hindsight, we had descended from the ridge too early. Where we had descended down from the ridge, there were still 2 rocky knobs ahead of us (east) along the ridge. What I think we should have done was continue along the ridge past these last 2 rocky knobs before descending down the grassy slope beyond. What WE did was descend down a hill of grass and talus that wasn't too steep (at least much less steep than the opposite slope we had climbed up) and arrived at the bottom of the basin. What killed us here was that we were now faced with a vast field of willows and tributary streams of Three Elk Creek to try and navigate our way through. This was some unpleasant and damp bushwhacking as we beat our way through further down the basin for another hour or so until we finally arrived back at the meadow and the main trail back. After a couple of easy miles of trail, we made it back to the trailhead at about 4 PM.

All in all, I thought that this was a great way to do Mt. Columbia. The loop route keeps things interesting the whole way up and down, and the route is much more isolated compared to the Horn Fork route (we didn't see another person until we were almost on the summit, which is pretty remarkable for a Saturday with perfect weather). It was the perfect hike to mark the completion of the final Sawatch 14er that I had on my peak list. I will highly recommend this route to anyone who is considering Mt. Columbia in the near future!

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