One fourteener, two (and a quarter) ways
Looking south from the top of Vail Mountain, you’ve likely spied Mount of the Holy Cross’s namesake feature—a deeply etched, snow-filled couloir on its rocky east face. At 14,005 feet in elevation, Holy Cross barely qualifies as an official Colorado fourteener. But this northernmost fourteener in Colorado’s Sawatch Range—and the only one in Eagle County—is a physically demanding, and metaphysically rewarding, long day trip for the expert hiker. The ascent doesn’t require technical climbing equipment, but you should be comfortable scrambling up and over rock piles, a.k.a. talus and scree.
If you’re physically fit and have adjusted to the altitude (keep in mind that the elevation gain from trailhead to summit is a lung-busting 5,600 feet), expect the hike to take at least eight or nine hours round-trip. As with any fourteener climb, it’s important to start early enough in the day that you’ve summited and are on your way back down by the time the frequent afternoon thunderstorms roll in. A good rule of thumb is to be off the summit by noon. For Holy Cross, that means you should hit the trail no later than 6 a.m. To reach the trailhead from Exit 171 off of I-70, drive approximately five miles through Minturn, and turn right on Tigiwon Road (Forest Service 707), a rough and rutted dirt track that’s passable by most passenger cars. Continue on Tigiwon for eight miles to the Halfmoon Trailhead.
Way 1. The classic route is twelve miles round-trip and follows a good trail until you reach Holy Cross’s north ridge. After traveling over Halfmoon Pass, the trail switchbacks down to East Cross Creek, then switchbacks up again to reach the north ridge. From there, you’ll need to pick your way carefully along the ridge, ultimately scrambling up steep talus to the summit.
Way 2. Caution: Only for expert hikers in peak physical condition. Start from the Halfmoon Trailhead but bear left onto the Fall Creek Trail. Eventually turn onto the Notch Mountain Trail, which ascends up to a small, stone Forest Service lightning shelter. From there, hike the rocky Halo Ridge around the Bowl of Tears basin, navigating over three false summits along the way before reaching a ridge that leads to the top of Holy Cross. Return via the north ridge route described in Way 1 for an epic fifteen-mile loop hike. Bonus: Unlike the classic ascent, this route allows you to actually see the famous Cross Couloir, visible from Notch Mountain.
The “quarter way.” Get a taste of what it’s like to hike in this beautiful wilderness area, and accomplish a more attainable goal, by topping out at Halfmoon Pass. This scenic overlook is about a mile and a half from the Halfmoon Trailhead, and at an elevation of 11,640 feet (higher than Oregon’s Mount Hood), it affords a memorable view of close-by Notch Mountain and the peaks of the Gore Range to the north.
If you have any doubts about your ability to tackle the peak on your own, the Beaver Creek Hiking Center (970-754-5373; beaver
creek.com) offers guided trips up Holy Cross (and other area fourteeners).
A walk on the wild side
This year’s above-average snowpack promises a spectacular wildflower season. From early July to mid-August, expect lush green alpine meadows to burst into a colorful quilt. One of the most brilliant wildflower displays in the Vail area blooms each summer along the Shrine Mountain Trail (also referred to as Shrine Ridge). Access the trailhead by driving east on I-70 up Vail Pass to Exit 190, then taking the dirt Shrine Pass Road for 2.3 miles to a small parking area. As you set out from the trailhead, you may notice one or more of the three log cabins that constitute Shrine Mountain Inn, one of the nineteen backcountry oases in the 10th Mountain Division Hut System (huts.org). Ascend a relatively easy grade that steepens briefly before plateauing on Wingle Ridge after about two miles. From there, if you can wrest your eyes from the carpets of flowers spreading out below, savor the views in every direction and vistas of four mountain ranges: the Gore, Tenmile, Sawatch, and Flattops. Come August, you’ll likely find wild raspberries.
Want to take a pass on the pass? In addition to the variety of wildflowers that bob in the breeze on its open slopes, easy-to-reach Meadow Mountain, just off of Exit 171 between East Vail and Eagle-Vail, has historical significance: for several years in the late 1960s, it was the site of a small ski area. The hike, which follows an old dirt road, starts near the Holy Cross Ranger District Forest Service office (a great source for trail maps and directions to other local trailheads). From bottom to top and back is nine miles, but you don’t have to hike the entire distance to enjoy the flowers. Keep an eye out and an ear open for mountain bikers, too, as this is a popular multiuse trail.