OverviewMount Oilphant is in the northwestern of the Elkhead Mountains. The mountain is fairly flat to rolling on top with steep cliffs around its sides. The summit register indicates that two other people have signed the log in the past five plus years, so apparently the mountain is not climbed often (by Colorado standards at least). Although beautiful Mount Oliphant is not as spectacular as say Capitol Peak or the Maroon Bells, if you enjoy solitude the peaks in the Elkheads are a welcome change from some of the other ranges in Colorado such as the 14’ers, Indian Peaks, and Gore Range, all of which tend to have large crowds on summer weekends.
Several aspects of the Elkheads make this a rather unique mountain range in Colorado. It is certainly possible that the Elkhead Mountains are the least known of the major mountain ranges in Colorado. This is partially because the range is a long way from any metropolitan area, and partially because the Elkheads are fairly low by Colorado standards, as there are no peaks reaching 11,000 feet. There are also few lakes, so the range isn’t visited by fishermen. Despite their low altitude, the Elkheads receive much snow, and snow lasts into July on the higher peaks. Most of the peaks in the Elkheads see very few ascents, but Hahns Peak, the eastern-most peak in the range is a popular climb for residents of Steamboat Springs. The Bears Ears see quite a few ascents by Elkhead standards, because of their prominent shape and visibility from the Yampa River Valley. Black Mountain is also climbed fairly often because it is the highest point in Moffat County, and the popularity is on the increase with more county highpointing interest. Sand Mountain must be a fairly popular (by Elkhead standards) climb as well, as there is a trail to the top, and as it is the first and only mountain in the range where I have ever met anyone. This was on Labor Day weekend, 2005, when we saw 3 other hikers. Most of the rest of the peaks see few ascents, and one ranger has told me some of the peaks only have a few names in the registers since 1980. So, there are few hikers around, but hunting is another story. The Elkheads are very popular for hunting in the fall and contain large populations of deer, elk, bear, etc.
One thing unique about the range is that hiker use is overall actually decreasing, rather than increasing as it is in most places in Colorado. The summit registers (which the Forest Service keeps record of) on most peaks indicate that they have had more ascents in the 1960’s and 1970’s than they do now. Even before that, there were many summit logs from the 1930’s and 1940’s from sheepherders.
The Elkhead Mountains are made of old volcanic rocks 17-25 million years old. One thing unusual is that the Elkhead Mountains run west to east as opposed to north and south as most of the ranges run in North America. It is impossible to describe the general forms of the peaks because they are all so different, but most of the peaks are isolated rises from a huge plateau which forms the bulk of the Elkheads.
Elkhead Mountains-10,000+ Foot Peaks with 300+ feet of Prominence
Navigational WarningNone of the maps available show the roads or trails on Mount Oliphant accurately. The closest one that bears resemblance to reality is the Forest Service Map-Routt National Forest, but even that one has many errors, especially on the access roads. The map is still very useful to help you find the trailhead, though there is still one confusing junction (now signed as of August 2008, so not as confusing as it used to be). The USGS maps are even more confusing, and don't show the route to the trailhead accurately at all. The USGS maps don’t show some of the other roads in the area as well, but seem to show roads and trails that don’t exist; at least not any more.
The USGS has (finally) updated the 7.5 minute maps. They were scheduled to be produced for Colorado last year, but I’m not sure when they will hit all the stores. Right now you can get/see/print/buy the new 7.5 minute maps on My Topo.
The good news is that all the roads and trails are FINALLY accurate for the Elkhead Mountains (and undoubtedly other areas as well). After receiving the new maps, I am very pleased to see that the roads and trails are in the right places. I am also very pleased that the USGS has a new agreement with the US Forest Service and within the national forest service areas, the private land holdings are shaded (but only in USFS areas, land ownership is not shown outside FS lands) on the 7.5 minute scale maps.
Getting ThereDrive Highway 13 either north of Craig or south of Baggs to between Mile Markers 115 and 116 (this is about 25.5 miles north of Craig). Turn east on County Road 38 and follow it to Forest Road 109. The Forest Service boundary is about 9.7 miles from Highway 13 (after this point I took a wrong turn, so don’t have odometer readings).
Stay on FR 109, ignoring all the named roads that branch from it. Before the Forest Service boundary, make sure to stay right at an unmarked junction. If you start heading away from the mountains, you are on the wrong road. After the Forest Service boundary, stay left at two junctions, while staying on FR 109. The second left is labeled “Willow Creek/Trail 1144”. Follow the road to a locked gate. The trail begins here on the east side of the road/parking lot.
Routes OverviewThe only route I have completed is the North Ridge from the West route, but there are certainly other routes available. Approaching the South Ridge from the east and the Bears Ears Trail is certainly possible and the trail appreas to be in good condition, but the drive is longer. It would be a good route to try if you are climbing Black Mountain or Bears Ears on the same trip. There appear to be other routes on the mountain as well, but be prepared to find your own way through thick timber or very steep talus.
When to ClimbJuly through September could be considered the normal season to climb the mountain. The access road usually doesn’t open until late June, and it would be a really long walk in the winter. The Elkheads are a very popular hunting destination in September and October (until snow closes the road), so use extreme caution at this time of year. Expect to take 3-4 days in winter or spring.
CampingThere are no official campgrounds in the area, but the access road has some nice campsites once you reach the Forest Service boundary.
Mountain ConditionsCLICK HERE FOR THE MOUNT OLIPHANT WEATHER FORECAST
Below is the National Weather Service Climate Summary of Dixon/Baggs, on the Wyoming/Colorado border. The data is from 1922-2005. This is the closest long term weather station, but be aware that higher elevations will be much wetter and colder. Dixon/Baggs is at 6370 feet elevation, so expect the temperatures on Mount Welba to be 10-20 degrees colder than in Dixon, except on winter nights.
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