Solitude on a Colorado fourteener, are you kidding? Well, no, if you are willing to go a little extra mileage and do some routefinding, this hike up majestic Mt. Columbia will leave you feeling like there is some wilderness left. This class 2 hike is a full, long day at 10 miles and 4800 feet of gain, but well worth the extra effort to see a beautiful backcountry basin. As a plus you get to have a fourteener all to yourself, at least until you get to the summit. These directions are taken from both the Dawson Guide to the Colorado Foureteeners vol 1 by Louis Dawson, and from the more recent Colorado’s Fourteeners from Hikes to Climbs by Gerry Roach. To get to the Three Elk Creek trailhead, drive to Buena Vista on US 24. Head north out of Buena Vista and turn west onto Chaffee County road 350, also called Crossman Avenue. Reset your trip odometer here. Drive for around 2 miles until you come to a T intersection. Turn right onto County Road 361 and drive 3.8 miles (5.9 miles from reset of your odometer) to Chaffee County 368. Turn left onto 368 and then drive 1.2 miles to Chaffee Country 368A (mile 7.1). Turn left (southwest) onto 368A and go just 0.1 mile to Forest Service Road 368. This is at mile 7.2. Turn right onto unimproved FS 368 and drive on a high clearance 4WD road for another 0.8 miles. There is a trailhead sign here at mile 8.0. Note that this can be really hard to find in the dark, which is probably when you will be starting if you want to leave yourself enough time to beat any bad weather.
From the trailhead walk south on a logging road for 300 yards. This area is filled with logging trails and roads and might even have changed since the guidebooks were written. Try to keep on eye on your approach as it can be confusing on the way back out to the car. When the logging road turns right (west), continue heading south on a well defined trail that is marked with blazes (they should still be there). You will cross other logging roads but you want to keep heading south on the trail. You will come to Three Elk Creek in a small gorge. Cross the creek, climb out of the gorge and find an old road that is now used as the trail. Head west on this road/trail. You will intersect the Colorado Trail at 10,270 ft, near Harvard Lakes, but you don’t want to turn onto this. Keep heading west on the old jeep trail for another mile and a half until you break out of the timber at around 11,300. The trail seems to keep going, but it will take you into a marshy stand of trees and then peter out. Look for the wide east ridge of Columbia on your right. You will see a huge stand of trees that are intermixed with lots of skeletal looking dead trees. There are some nice photo opportunities here. We headed under this mini forest following the basin, and then cut northwest after we had bypassed most of the trees to begin an ascent of the ridge. Pick a place that looks easy to ascend the ridge. Try to keep an eye on where you left the trail so it’s easier to find on the way back. The ridge is long and the views are more amazing as you gain altitude. There are several false summits along the ridge so don’t get discouraged, just enjoy the scenery as you hike the approximately 2 miles to the true summit. Enjoy your solitude on the ridge because it’s likely that the summit will have hoards of hikers when you get there, unless it is the fall in which case there will be sub-hoards. No matter what, the views from the summit are amazing as you can see Sawatch fourteeners and thirteeners in every direction. Reverse the route to return to the car. If you have a GPS you might want to mark important places like where you left the trail and the route through the maze of logging roads in the woods near the trailhead.
This is a hike, but its a long day into a remote basin with a long ridge hike. Take the usual for such a climb. It would be very helpful to have a GPS, but if you only have a map and compass, be sure to pay attention to where you are and you should do fine.
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