(WINTER) HOLD ON! If you don't have much high-elevation, winter climbing experience, be careful in your planning and take a partner. Even the "easy" 14ers (Quandary, Sherman, Grays & Torreys) can be deadly in winter.
(Summer/Fall 2015) Due to recent problems with black bears, the US Forest Service requires bear canisters when camping in the Maroon Bells Wilderness. This order is in effect from July to December, 2015. More info...
From Glenwood Springs, drive about 26 miles southeast on Colorado 82 and turn right on Snowmass Creek Road (this is not Snowmass Village). From the intersection of CO 82, it's 9.9 miles to the trailhead and the remainder of these directions assume you reset your trip-odometer at the intersection. Drive 1.7 miles to a junction and turn right on Capitol Creek road. Continue to 6.4 miles where the road turns to dirt. There's horse-trailer parking in this area and it's a good place to park if you have a low-clearance vehicle or the upper road is muddy. Continue up the rugged, narrow (and sometimes slick) road to reach the trailhead at approximately 9.9 miles.
Photo #1 is a view of Capitol from the trailhead. Two trails start here: 1) The Capitol Creek trail and 2) the Capitol "Ditch" trail. The creek trail has long been the standard way to approach Capitol, but the ditch trail has become more popular recently because it avoids the elevation re-gain required on the creek trail. This route description uses the ditch trail. Walk to the west end of the trailhead parking area and start down the signed ditch trail. The name of the trail soon becomes obvious because it parallels a water ditch (used for cattle) into the forest - Photo #2. Follow the ditch for about 1.2 miles to a junction at 9,500' - Photo #3. Cross the ditch and hike up into the forest on a good trail. Weave through the forest for a bit and, at 9,600', cross a stream and meadow before entering the Maroon Bells Snowmass wilderness. Hike through aspens and open areas to reach a wide-open area above Capitol Creek - Photo #4. Continue on the hillside for almost 1.5 miles to a point where the trail descends slightly and enters a meadow near the creek - Photo #5. This area is a bit confusing because there are cattle trails through the area. Angle left, cross the stream, and intersect the main Capitol Creek trail on the other side.
At the junction, turn right and continue south though meadows and small forest sections while Capitol Peak remains visible for most of this hike - Photo #6. Cross a few small streams along the hike and reach an open area (10,600') where the trail turns left and ascends an easy hill to reach 10,800'. Turn right and ascend a steep hill before turning left (south) again, near 10,900'. Cross the Capitol Creek stream and parallel it as you approach the Capitol Lake area - Photo #7. At 11,400', turn sharply right and hike up to the basin just below Capitol Lake - Photo #8. There are several places to camp on the right, before the lake.
Near 11,600' and below Capitol Lake, turn left on a smaller trail and climb southeast toward the saddle between Mt. Daly and Capitol - Photo #9. The trail is great all the way up to the saddle and it's approximately 900' of gain to reach the top - Photo #10. This is the end of easy, trail hiking. From the saddle, it's possible to turn right and climb south up the Class 4 ridge but this route describes the easier route of circling around the east side - Photo #11. Begin traversing across the side of the slope where it quickly becomes obvious that some route finding is necessary. Take your time and try not to lose much elevation as you cross a couple of small gullies and steep terrain. After approx. 1/4 mile, the route becomes more obvious - Photo #12. Again, the goal here is to traverse south under more-difficult terrain and cliffs - Photo #13.
Near 12,700', angle up to the right (Photo #14) to reach 12,800' where you'll see 13er "K2" up to the southwest - Photo #15. Follow cairns or take your own line up to K2 - Photo #16. Climbing to the top of K2 is optional but worth the effort because of the view excellent view of Capitol from the top - Photo #17. If you gain K2, you can descend steep, class 3/4 rock off K2's west side to regain the route. As seen in Photo #16, the easiest (requires careful maneuvering on loose rock) way around K2 is to turn right just below the top and swing around to the west - Photo #18. Once on the west side, Capitol's northeast ridge comes into view - Photo #19. Drop into a notch and climb onto a rock tower at the start of the ridge.
The remainder of this route has plenty of scrambling and exposed climbing along the ridge (Photo #20) and this is a good place to take a serious look at the weather and make a go or no-go decision. The summit isn't far away, but the remaining climb is time-consuming and not a place to be in bad weather. From the first tower, scramble along the ridge for a bit to reach the infamous Knife Edge and crux of the route - Photo #21 and Photo #22. It's a short, exposed section on the ridge that requires concentration and solid nerves. If you are spooked by exposure, this area may twist you in knots. Scramble along the crest or walk along the left side while holding onto the ridge. Experienced climbers can carefully walk across most of the Knife Edge. The last portion of the knife (Photo #23) becomes quite "sharp" and the easiest way around is to walk along the left side.
Beyond the Knife Edge, scramble on or along the ridge - Photo #24 and Photo #25. After about 0.1 mile from the Knife Edge, reach a notch with a steep gully down to the left. Cross the notch and begin climbing along the left side of the ridge - Photo #26. From 13,800' to the summit, the easiest climbing is below the ridge crest. Traverse and follow small cairns about 80 feet below the ridge crest. Above 13,900', continue left below steep rock - Photo #27. Climb steep rock to reach a small ridge before turning right and ascending to the summit ridge. Photo #29 looks back down on the route and Photo #30 shows the summit.
In summer, cattle can be a nuisance on this hike and they've made smaller trails off of the main, ditch trail. The main trail is obvious but there isn't much signage. IMPORTANT: This route enters the Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness area. Wilderness areas have special regulations and restrictions for party size, dispersed camping, campfires, etc. Also, dog owners should read the wilderness information carefully because some wilderness areas prohibit dogs to be off-leash and/or limit how close dogs can be to lakes and streams. If you have questions about the Wilderness area, please contact a U.S. Forest Service office for the National Forest(s) listed above.