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Main Elk Canyon

Main Elk Canyon

Main Elk Canyon

Page Type: Canyon

Location: Colorado, United States, North America

Lat/Lon: 39.68513°N / 107.58113°W

Object Title: Main Elk Canyon

Activities: Hiking, Sport Climbing, Toprope


Page By: Orphanage

Created/Edited: Sep 20, 2011 / Sep 24, 2012

Object ID: 747761

Hits: 5350 

Page Score: 80.49%  - 12 Votes 

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Main Elk Canyon is one of the major creek basins that drains the southwestern portion of the Flat Tops Range in central Colorado. This major canyon is home to some remote alpine terrain, soaring limestone cliffs, and some of the best sport climbing in western Colorado. The creek, accessed from the small, non-descript town of New Castle, Colorado, also has a pair of significant trails that can lead one eventually into the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.

The Main Elk area is one of western Colorado's most beautiful and least traveled places. It's semi-remote location and out-of-the-way approach have deterred many people. For those, however, that are willing to spend the time to seek out what lies within this amazing place, there are untold secrets just waiting to be discovered. The possibilities for future rock climbing seems almost limitless, and the possibility for adventure is there for those willing to put in the work. While the Pup Tent of Solitude and Main Elk crags offer only mediocre to moderate challenges, for the sport climbing master with a sense of adventure the Fortress of Solitude is one of the best climbing destinations around.

[img:712886:aligncenter:small:][img:747769:aligncenter:small:][img:747796:aligncenter:small:] [img:747772:aligncenter:small:]


[img:720251:alignleft:medium:Hadley Gulch just off Main Elk Canyon]

The Main Elk drainage has mostly escaped the popularity that has engulfed the neighboring creeks and trails of Glenwood Canyon, yet from a climbing perspective this area is far more significant to the annals of rock history.

It could be said that without the attention gained by the hardwork of Tommy Caldwell in 1999 and 2003, the Fortress of Solitude would be just another obscure, if massive and untapped, crag in the Colorado backcountry. When Caldwell redpointed Kryptonite in 1999, it was the country’s first 5.14d, making the moment a benchmark in the history of American sport climbing. Due to subsequent changes in the route topography, perhaps due to natural processes or perhaps due to clandestine chipping by later climbers, Kryptonite is often now considered 5.14c.

Nearly four years later, Caldwell returned to the Fortress and redpointed a monster project he eventually named Flex Luthor after several months of work. Famously, Caldwell refused to rate the route, claiming only that it was "significantly harder" than Kryptonite, which led climbing media to claim Luthor as the first 5.15. To this day the route's rating has yet to have confirmation as nobody has been able to repeat Caldwell’s climb.

Later development by climbers such as Dave Pegg, Matt Samet, Bryan Gall, Jeff Achey and others have greatly expanded the climbing at the Fortress and Pup Tent areas. Other walls nearby, including some cliffs on the northeast side of the road, are also starting to be developed, though information about these routes is difficult to obtain.


Two major hiking trails exist in the Main Elk Canyon system: the trail that follows the creek into the canyon proper, and the steeper, Hadley Gulch trail that turns away from the creek and follows Hadley Gulch up to the canyon rim and, ultimately, onto the Flat Tops.

From the parking area, follow the Hadley Gulch trail for .22 miles until you reach a prominent fork. Here is where the two routes differ:

Hadley Gulch Trail- The right branch at the fork contours steeply up the hillside and into the steep, usually dry, creekbed. In the spring, however, this creek can have a substantial amount of water and be difficult to cross (as was the case for several weeks during the banner year of 2011). A small side-trail on the left just after the creek crossing accesses the Pup Tent climbing area. The first route, Gatehouse of Lonliness, is the black buttress right at the junction.

To continue up the Hadley Gulch trail, follow the steep and winding trail as it climbs past the Fortress of Solitude (about a mile passed the creek crossing and hard to miss) and into a meadow where there is another fork in the trail. You can go straight and follow the creek, but the route quickly becomes overgrown with many downed trees. The main trail turns left and climbs up the hillside to a notch in the cliffs. Here you can get on the plateau above the canyon where some indistinct dirt roads navigate around the canyon rim. From here you are about 2.75 from the trailhead and have gained over 2,000 feet of elevation.

On top, there are a number of options available by following any of a number variety of backcountry roads. This is a barren place that doesn’t see much traffic. Be sure to remember how to find the trail again, as it is easy to loose in the thick brush.

[img:747769:aligncenter:medium:Hadley Gulch ] [img:747808:aligncenter:medium:Cliffs along Hadley Gulch]

Main Elk Creek/Canyon-This beautiful hike is much quieter than comparable Glenwood Canyon neighbors like Grizzly and No Name creeks. This beautiful trail follows Main Elk Creek along the bottom of a narrow, quaint canyon for two miles to a prominent fork. There is possible camping in this area. The trail peters out here and navigation becomes more difficult. To continue farther you will need good backcountry skills. Ultimately, if you follow this canyon to its source, you will emerge deep in the Flat Tops above the Crater Lake.

[img:712886:aligncenter:medium:Main Elk Creek ] [img:747766:aligncenter:medium:Campsite up Main Elk ]


While the climbing in Main Elk Canyon will never be as popular and famous as nearby Rifle Mountain Park, there is some climbing here that is without-a-doubt world class. The established rock is split between three main crags:

Fortress of Solitude- the Fortress is proud, famous, and burly. Some of the hardest climbs in North America, if not the world, sit up there waiting. Despite this, the Fortress sees a shockingly small number of people per season. There are several reasons for this lack of popularity. The most obvious is the grueling approach, especially with the roadside walls of Rifle Mountain Park nearby. Still, for those undaunted by things like a steep hike or semi-remote location, it is hard to beat the Fortress in terms of challenge and adventure, especially for sport climbing!

Some of the best climbs at the Fortress (left to right)

Tommy’s 5.11Sport15.11dThe leftmost route at the Fortress. An early Tommy Caldwell creation.
The PummelingSport15.13b RThis 100 foot pitch is famous for it’s difficulty and runout after the third bolt.
Glamorama Sport15.12dNot as hard as it looks. Climb through a section of bad rock to some of the best and most interesting holds.
The Daily PlanetSport15.13dWork through a mediocre first half to an amazing 60 feet of .13d on great rock.
Kryptonite Sport15.14dIt takes a superhero to send this! A mega-famous route that has only been climbed a few times.
Flex Luthor Sport15.15a Touted as North America’s first 5.15. Still unrepeated.
Metropolis Sport15.12cA 130 foot pitch that climbs some brilliant, sustained rock.
Orange Mechanique Sport15.13aLeft side of the eastern portion of the Fortress. Crimp. 60 ft.
Boy Wonder Sport15.12dA short climb for the Fortress but with a variety of holds.

[img:747772:aligncenter:medium:The Fortress][img:747775:aligncenter:medium:The hardest/most famous routes]

Pup Tent of Solitude
The Pup Tent is overshadowed by it’s towering neighbor, but it is still a worthy crag, particularly if you are a novice/intermediate climber. There are just over 50 established lines, most of which are bolted with a smattering of short trad lines thrown in for kicks. The routes are usually short, and the rock is generally quite good.

Some of the better routes at the Pup Tent (right to left, as encountered from trail):

Gatehouse of Lonliness Sport15.8This short climb is the first route encountered at the Tent and one of the easiest. Could use a cleaning.
Total Eclipse Sport15.12aSteep, bouldery and long for the tent. 7 bolts.
SubprimeSport15.11aDifficult start on a tan-colored wall.
Stimulus PackageSport15.11dAn eight-bolt arête.
Rex Luthor Sport15.11cShort, challenging. Start on a flake and over a bulge.
CraptoniteSport15.12aOne of the best routes at the Tent
Easiest Sport15.7A short climb, easiest at Tent. Can access anchors to next two climbs from top.
EasySport15.10aClimb easy terrain to an insecure flake and reachy, overhanging topout.
Easier Sport15.9A tricky climb with some fun movement at the crux topout
Deputy Dawg Lives to Fight Another Day Sport15.8Possibly the best moderate at the Tent
Country Style Pork Rib Sport15.9A challenging 5.9 with a counter-intuitive crux
Puppy Love Sport15.11cOne of the Tent’s best! Long and challenging.
Nose Picking Good Sport15.9A cool, black-colored arete. Some choss on a ledge midway and possible rope snag near top.
Nicklepup Sport15.10aPull an easy, juggy roof to a dihedral. Climb up and traverse to excellent roof
Girls With Guns Sport15.10dA long climb, one of the Tent’s best. Bouldery start to beautiful headwall
Sith LordSport15.9An interesting climb up a dihedral than onto awesome, dark rock.

[img:812250:aligncenter:medium:Girls With Guns (5.10d)][img:812240:aligncenter:medium:Nicklepup (5.10a)]

Main Elk Crag
A slightly more obscure crag, this set of cliffs within the Main Elk Canyon proper sees even less traffic than its neighbors. The routes here are more advanced than the Tent, and the rock quality has moments of greatness and moments of, well, not so greatness often within the same pitch. A couple of chossy trad routes are thrown in for fun.

Giblet Gravy Sport15.10bA good warm-up for the area
Patchouli Sport15.11cA crack line over a bulge
Best in Show Sport15.12dOften considered the best route at the Main Elk Crag
Black Ball Retriever Sport15.12cA hard route with great rock. Identified by black hangers.
Jewel Rosena Sport15.12aJust right of a cave/roof.
Both Ends Burning Sport15.13aThe first route to the right of where the approach trail meets the cliff
Infinite Jest Sport15.12dA 80 foot pitch that crosses varying rock that improves as you climb
Mint Jelly Trad15.8+A good trad route, with some loose rock and choss to tiptoe around. Good protection.

Getting There

Main Elk Canyon is accessed from the town of New Castle (exit 105) 7 miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. At the exit, turn north and cross a bridge over some railroad tracks to a four-way blinking red light. Turn left. Go 1.2 through downtown New Castle and turn right onto N. 7th Street. If you cross the creek you have gone just a little too far. Follow this road for .7 miles through a neighborhood and continue straight at the junction with Castle Valley Boulevard. After another 3.1 miles turn right onto CR 243 (Main Elk Road) which is paved. Follow this road for 6 miles until it crosses the creek and reaches a trailhead and a small parking area.


Main Elk offers various sorts of adventures in all seasons. While the main canyon gets snowy and cold in the winter, those adept with snow travel may think the quiet trails are at their best in these conditions. The Pup Tent is a sunny, south-facing crag that is often climbable even in the dead of winter. The summertime, however, can be too hot, especially at the Tent. Hiking within the shady canyon is quite pleasant in the hottest part of the summer season. In the spring, Main Elk Creek can be very swift, and the canyon's narrowest point is often flooded at peak runoff, making for difficult passage.

[img:747796:aligncenter:medium:Winter in Main Elk] [img:747813:aligncenter:medium:High water]


Camping is illegal at the trailhead for the Main Elk area. My recommendation would be to either stay at the nearby Elk Creek Campground (just up nearby East Elk Creek) for a small fee, or backpack a short ways into Main Elk Canyon (being sure to adhere to No Trace ethic, of course).

External Links

Rifle Mountain Park and Western Colorado Climbs is an excellent guidebook not only to the world-famous crags of Rifle and the adventurous rock here in Main Elk but to the entire Roaring Fork Valley and lower Valley area. It is a must for anyone who wants to visit the area to climb. Purchase the book at local climbing shops in the area such as Summit Canyon Mountaineering or online at Wolverine Publishing’s website.

Mountainproject.com has a database with user-created beta on climbs at the Fortress of Solitude and the Pup Tent of Solitude.

Splitterchoss.com has more recent information about newer bolted routes at the Pup Tent.