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Lizard Head
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Lizard Head

Lizard Head

Page Type: Mountain/Rock

Location: Colorado, United States, North America

Lat/Lon: 37.83600°N / 107.95°W

Object Title: Lizard Head

Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering, Trad Climbing

Season: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter

Elevation: 13113 ft / 3997 m


Page By: Diggler, Liba Kopeckova

Created/Edited: Nov 5, 2003 / Nov 21, 2015

Object ID: 152036

Hits: 35140 

Page Score: 94.01%  - 53 Votes 

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Lizard Head is a lofty volcanic pinnacle lying in the fabled San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. It has a number of accolades: it is a 13,000+' volcanic pinnacle (how many of those can you think of?!); it's surrounded by numerous 14,000 ft. peaks; it is in one of the most beautiful regions of the Colorado Rockies; there is no non-technical way to its summit; and it has a storied climbing history.

While many know of Lizard Head's existence, to reach its exclusive summit is an honor only earned by a select few. The easiest way up the formation is a 5.8 traditional rock climbing route, and the rock is far from perfect (or even reasonably good, for that matter). Its first ascent was achieved by Albert Ellingwood, quite possibly North America's greatest climber of his time, and was one of the most difficult ascents in the Americas at the time. Modern climbers with nylon ropes, sticky rubber, a good understanding of time-honored crack climbing techniques, and spring-loaded camming devices will have a difficult time imagining ascending the spire without any of these, as Ellingwood did (!!).

If you find yourself at the top of this pinnacle at some point in your life, count yourself fortunate for joining a relatively small group, not to mention being in a very special, unique, and beautiful little part of the world.


Lizard Head Peak has been known as Colorado's hardest summit to reach as the easiest route is 5.8+. It stands out as a big pinnacle shooting into the sky. It almost looks like a desert tower except that it's at over 13,000 feet and the rock isn't great. The top 500 feet of Lizard Head is a near vertical pillar. Heavy erosion leaving whats left of an ancient volcano. That being said, the rock is not Yosemite like. Many that have done it, never return again due to that factor. I would do it again though! It ain't that loose, as storied. The summit is the best in Colorado in my opinion. Lizard Head also has a bit of history.

There are at least 3 routes in it's south face. The standard route is what everyone uses though and the other routes, expect massive amounts of choss. There is potential for new routes if that's your sort of thing. New routes would be steep, loose, run out, and probably require some aid.

Getting There

The most straightforward access to the spire is via Cross Mountain Trailhead, approximately 2 miles west of Lizard Head Pass, and 17 1/2 miles from Telluride.

From Telluride, go to the state route 145 north/south split. Go south (L) along state route 145 (San Juan Skyway) for 14.0 miles (past Lizard Head Pass) to Cross Mountain Trailhead.

From the southwest: from Cortez, go to the state route 145 junction and follow 145 north for about 57 miles to the same location.

Hike the Cross Mountain trail (#637) approximately 3 miles to its intersection with the Lizard Head trail, at the base of the formation.

Alternately, it is possible to get to Lizard Head from the trailhead at Lizard Head Pass (Lizard Head Interpretive Site); the Lizard Head trail (#505) goes to the base of the ridge, then follows it west to the base of the pinnacle.

Take the talus cone to the formation's base, using the faint trail if you can find it. Go to the obvious corner marking the start of the standard route.

National Geographic's 'Trails Illustrated Map' to Telluride, Siverton, Ouray, & Lake City is an excellent topographic map to the area.

Red Tape

Lizard Head lies fittingly in the 41,193 acre Lizard Head Wilderness, set aside by Congress in 1980 within the San Juan & Uncompahgre National Forests. In addition to Lizard Head, fourteeners Mt. Wilson, Wilson Peak, and El Diente, as well as numerous other 12,000'+ peaks lie within the wilderness area.

The following regulations apply to all Wildernesses within the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, & Gunnison National Forests (this more or less from the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, & Gunnison National Forests website):

Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is prohibited. This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters. Wheelchairs suitable for indoor use are exempt.

Be aware, there is a "Region 2 Wilderness Use Restriction, Special Order" ("Possessing or using a wagon, cart, wheelbarrow, bicycle, or other vehicle (Including “game carts”)") in effect as well, ha ha.

Weed Free Feed is required on all national forest lands in the Rocky Mountain Region.

A summary of the most applicable rules pertaining specifically to climbers in Lizard Head Wilderness is as follows:

• A maximum of 15 people, or a combination of 25 people/livestock, is permitted at one time.

• Fires are not permitted within 100 ft. of any lake, stream, or National Forest System trail; above treeline; or within Navajo Basin

• Don't shortcut a switchback in a trail.

Full regulations specific to Lizard Head Wilderness can be found here.

When To Climb

July to early September is the main season for climbing Lizard Head Peak. The snow is gone. That being said, take my advice and get a late start. The route is in the shade in the morning and is bitter cold. Some have got frost bite in the summer. You don't want to get too late of a start though. Make sure your off the summit by 11 or 12 at the latest as this would be one nasty place to be with lightning.

Winter on Lizard Head Peak is more of a challenge, if doing it in the summer is not hard enough. It involves a large dose of suffering. Climbing in double boots and gloves is a must making the climb feel a bit harder then 5.8. No ice screws needed as there was no ice just snow covered rock. The summit has been one of my favorite experiences in the winter in CO. That being said, I only know of one or maybe two parties climbing it in the winter in the history. It's a bit more serious but well worth the effort!


Mountain Conditions

Additional Resources

Lizard Head Wilderness area website

Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, & Gunnison National Forests website

• National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Map ™ to Telluride, Silverton, Ouray, & Lake City

Additions and Corrections

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Digglerrap' anchor work


Voted 4/10

Not sure if there are other options, but the rap' anchor we used (it puts you ~30' to the R of the standard route P3 start) totally sucked- it held for us to get down, but 2 attempts to pull our ropes were fruitless- I ended up prusiking back up to the anchor TWICE to try to free the lines, but each time, it was still totally impossible to pull them. We ended up leaving a rope left by an earlier party that I'd hoped to return to its owner, & just doing a single-rope rap' off of it (because it was impossible to free our own ropes). Extending the anchor over a prominent edge just below it with some additional chains/quick links, & using a dedicated rap' ring (instead of threading the ropes through 2 chain links would quite possibly do the trick). If a future ascent party familiar with anchor set-up could bring some additional hardware & do some modification, that would be a great community service.
Posted Jun 28, 2012 7:11 pm
Liba KopeckovaHistory of the climb

Liba Kopeckova

Voted 6/10

Lizard Head has an intriguing climbing history. At the time of its first ascent in 1920 by Albert Ellingwood and Barton Hoag, Lizard Head was probably the hardest rock climb then completed in the United States. Armed with three soft iron pitons, hemp rope, and nailed boots, Ellingwood and Hoag made a couple of abortive attempts on cracks near the SW corner before rounding the corner to the west face. Ellingwood reported that "most of the enticing small holds crumbled at the touch, and large masses of the loosely compacted pebbles would topple dangerously at a slight pull." In spite of the difficulties, they struggled up and placed two of their rustic pitons in the lower cliff, saving one for the higher cliffs.

After spending about a half hour on top of the summit, Ellingwood and Hoag began an epic descent. Ellingwood's rope became stuck on the lower cliff. As he shook it, a rock cam loose and hit him on the top of the head, almost knocking him from the wall. Hoag was also hit by rockfall but was on secure footing at the time. After more effort, they had to abandon the rope and begin down climbing. Ellingwood reported that Hoag "slipped and, leaving a section of this paint behind, drifted relentlessly downward until the wall became vertical and then jumped (perhaps 15 feet) to the rock below. I followed with more caution, regretfully saying goodbye to my rope that had served me well for five good seasons."

Elingwood and Hoag's climb was well ahead of its time. This is reflected in the comments of Harold G. WIlm who made the second ascent on June 9, 1929 with Dobson West. Referring to Elingwood, Wilm noted: At the time, it was considered an impossible feat, and little credence was given his performance by many who knew the peak. For some time, therefore, Dobson West and I had planned a second ascent, chiefly as a proof of his climb, but also as a mountaineering stunt of our own."

Wilm and West did in fact confirm the first ascent by retrieving Ellingwood's old rope and finding his old rusty pitons still in place. Several more ascents of Lizard Head were made during the 1931 joint outing by members of the Colorado and Appalachian Mountain Clubs. SInce the early efforts, interest in Lizard Head waned. The horror stories have taken their toll.

The first winter ascent of Lizard Head was made on January 18, 1970, by a strong party from Colorado Springs which consisted of Art Howells, Mike Dudley, Don Doucette, Chuck Behrensmeyer, R.J. Campbell, and Fletcher Smith. Although the first 100 feet of the climb had snow on all the hold, they made excellent time and got on and off the summit cone in about four h
Posted Jul 28, 2013 3:22 pm

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