Mt. of the Holy Cross

Mt. of the Holy Cross (Sawatch Range) – Standard North Ridge Approach (Class 2)

  • Attempted 8/12/15
  • 11.25 miles round trip
  • 7.5 hrs RT (4.5 hrs up, 3 hrs return)
  • Moderate 14er (Class 2/Difficult 2)
  • +5,600′ net elevation gain
  • Equipment:
    • Sunblock (at that elevation, you’ll feel the sun)
    • Tech shell (you will want a shell to protect you from the wind)
    • Nanopuff jacket (always layer when attempting a 14er)
    • Headlamp (you’ll have to be starting this hike earlier than most 14ers)
    • Light gloves (for climbing and warmth)
    • Hiking poles (save the knees!)
    • Lunch and lots of snacks – I mean LOTS
    • Lots of water!  I can’t express how much you will want.

First things first: If you want to see the iconic holy cross of snow on the slope of the 14er, you’ll get a much better view from the Halo Ridge approach (Difficult Class 2, 15 miles RT) and not have to deal with the 1000 ft gain in the valley on the standard route.  However, we had dogs with us, so we really had to take the standard route (Class 2, can be made a difficult class 2 on the final pitch).  I have been told that on the ridge before the valley as you are walking to the mountain, one can venture off the main trail onto a side trail where after a short distance, one will have a view of the cross from the standard route.  Of course, I learned of this after I hiked the standard route, so I feel slightly robbed of the holy cross experience.  Nevertheless, it was a BEAUTIFUL approach coming up the standard route, and I have only heard that the Halo Ridge is even prettier!

The whole gang left Boulder around 3:00a and arrived at the TH around 5:30a, beginning our ascent around 5:45a.  While we normally would have needed a headlamp, we had the moon to give us some light (it was a wanning crescent, as Natalee informed me – I have long forgotten the days of Earth Science!).  We had a couple of mountain-loving dogs with us: A Saint Bernard named Moose and the other Breezly (perhaps a Border Collie-Black Lab mix – I guess I don’t know my mountain dogs well, either!).  Anyway, the OR trail to reach the TH can be reached by pretty much anything with a rugged body.  By this I would hesitate bringing up my Honda Civic to the TH, but would trust a Subaru Outback to make it up no problem.  I’m sure a 2WD car could make it if great care was taken around the obstacles on the road.

What a sunrise. We couldn't have timed that any better!
What a sunrise. We couldn’t have timed that any better!
This is giving La Plata a run for its money!
This is giving La Plata a run for its money!

The first ascent is just in the trees.  A few rocks and roots here and there, nothing overly demanding.  Try and enjoy the views here on the ascent, because you’ll be dead-tired on the descent!  It won’t be long before you reach the ridge before the valley.  It is here you can venture off somewhere and take the iconic holy cross picture.  Where?  I am not entirely sure.  Perhaps summiting the baby mountain beside the trail, perhaps you continue straight on the first switchback.

The north ridge is on the right of the mountain, the iconic cross is on the southern ridge as seen on the left here (but the cross can’t be seen here).

Now for the fun part.  You aren’t tired yet and you are on a pretty steep descent.  I measured it to come out just shy of 1,000 ft of gain/loss here.  You duck in below treeline and don’t really see Holy Cross until you summit the small 13er just below the boulder field.  Continue down into the valley where the campsites exist for the mountain.  There are 9 campsites if I recall correctly.  We had to cross the river once where the dogs took a nice mountain bath!

The descent in the aspens, beautiful
He proceeded to lie down in the river…

After you hike around the valley briefly, you’ll reach a rather steep incline to clear treeline – this is probably the steepest grade slope on the whole hike.  After you break treeline, you’ll see a false summit that is the 13er peak before Holy Cross.  Shortly after climbing to the 13er, you’ll see Holy Cross peak out behind the ridge to the 13er.  Yes, you will be summiting the 13er on your way to Holy Cross.  It doesn’t look like you need to until you actually take the ridge and see that it is pretty loose rock on the other side of the ridge.

A flower-child through and through!
Breaking treeline, false summit 13er
Ahh, there we go, the destination is in sight!

On our way up, we heard TONS of pikas and marmots – all of which the dogs really wanted to chase!  Summiting the 13er is very well maintained; no doubt due to the hard work of CFI volunteers.  Cheers.  It is a stairway of boulders to take the 13er, then the trail becomes a scramble shortly thereafter to reach the summit.

Just after treeline looking north-east
Yin and Yang
For those times you feel you need to just chill
This is why we stay on the north-eastern side of the ridge. The route would easily become a class 3/4 if one were to come up from the lake below. I went over to the edge and saw a col one could take for a class 3 approach, just at the edge of the image on the right here.

Once you take the 13er, you still have some flat hiking on rocks (still maintained) before it becomes a scramble up the summit pitch.  While staying on the main trail keeps it at a class 2, we just went straight up the scramble to shave some distance and time.  The dogs could handle this fine with a little bit of route finding.

Shot through the class 3/4 col I found on the summit pitch
Shot looking North just before the scramble
This is more the class 2 part, it gets slightly more difficult as you reach the summit. It can be made a difficult class 2 at the top

We were alone save for another man hiking with his dog.  Beautiful summit, made it up just before the clouds obstructed our view!  Certainly a rewarding summit after a gorgeous approach.  I predict the halo ridge would have been better since it doesn’t have the valley to hike out, as I became a little bitter coming out of the valley on our “descent.”

Found it! I think I find these on 14ers somewhere between 25-30% of the time.
Freaking gorgeous… I want to go summit that mountain!
Fun Fact: I want to frame all my pano shots when I’m older.
Couldn’t quite get Moose to look at the camera – he was gazing off into the distance introspectively

The dogs were champs going down the boulders!  Better than me, for sure, as my knees were feeling the 5600′ gain by this point!!  We slowly made our way down, enjoying the scenery as we did so.  However, once you begin ascending out of the valley, it is difficult to enjoy much except the image of sitting in a hot tub somewhere letting your poor knees rest.  Nevertheless, we persevered and made it out of the valley in pretty good time.  We were all pretty tired, so we took a nice break at the ridge before beginning our descent again.  I’m impressed how the dogs stayed motivated, given they probably have no judge of how much further we had left to descend before the car.  By the time we got to the car, Moose could barely get his butt up into the trunk of my pathy!  Breezly still had enough energy to throw his head out of the window as we descended the OR trail to get back to the highway.

Round 2 in the river. They had no intentions of leaving the river once they got comfortable.
Pretty humbling shot of Holy Cross from the valley
It stays this grade for what feels like an eternity – it could have very well just been 100 yards, but I swear it never ended…
I mean, could we have asked for a prettier approach?
I am a molecular biologist – not a botanist – so I just take pictures of pretty flowers like I know what they heck they are called. The only plant you really need to know is poison ivy, and I have that one printed in my head forever.

Despite my complaining about this approach, it was beautiful.  Could a small dog handle this trail?  No, you would have to pick them up for the final approach (awkward).  As far as I can tell, Halo Ridge is too difficult for a dog.  If you are without dogs, I would probably go for that route, as I hear it is prettier and the added distance is nothing compared to going uphill upon your return trip!  Would I do the standard approach again?  Maybe.  It was gorgeous, but man were my knees screaming at me by the end of the hike.  If I had a dog with me and really wanted a stellar view with a short drive from Boulder, I think I would consider doing the standard approach again.  I can’t emphasize how much water and snacks will help get you through this.  Lots of salt and sugar to maintain energy going through that valley.  Tough to beat the views though, seriously!


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