This route takes the direct line along the ridge crest from the Daly saddle to "K2" and along the entire NE ridge of Capitol Peak. This is one of the finest scrambles in the state to one of Colorado's most formidable mountains. Due to the exposure, this is a Class 4 route. For the more adventurous, the ridge is interspersed with opportunities for low 5th class moves (no rope necessary), although these can easily be avoided with proper routefinding. Once on the Ridge Direct route, expect the traverse to take about 3 hours, each way.
I will also explain the differences between this route and the standard NE Ridge route, as well as the differences between the Capitol Creek Trail and the Capitol Ditch Trail. The Snowmass Creek Trail also intersects with the approach trail, but it is not illustrated in this topo, nor is it discussed in the text.
The topo illustrates the trails and where they intersect. It also offers distances.
Getting ThereFrom Glenwood Springs, drive south on Colorado 82 for roughly 26 miles. Turn right on Snowmass Creek Road. Drive 1.7 miles to a T-intersection and and turn right on Capitol Creek road. Continue on this road all the way to the trailhead, 9.9 miles from CO-82. The road turns to dirt and goes over some whoop-dee-doos, which might suggest the need for a high clearance vehicle...or even better a dirt bike. A 4WD vehicle might be beneficial in wet or snowy conditions. In August, we spotted some ordinary cars at the TH.
Ditch Trail or the Creek Trail?
The Capitol Ditch Trail starts at the west end of the parking area. The Capitol Creek Trail starts at the east end of the parking area. Both are signed. So, which one should you take?
The issue begins with the fact that the guidebooks and websites often label the Capitol Ditch trail as the alternate route. This is simply not accurate. The Ditch Trail should be the trail of choice, for two reasons: it is slightly shorter, and it does not lose 425 feet of elevation, which you must reclimb after a long day, right at the parking area. In addition, I've read a few trail reports that imply the Ditch Trail is difficult to follow. This is also inaccurate. The Ditch Trail is a well-used, hard-packed, easy to follow trail, even in the dark. There are no turns or diversions. Creek crossings are straightforward and simple. The trail is signed and quite beautiful and intersects with the Capitol Creek Trail and the Snowmass Creek Trail, somewhere in the middle.
At the west end of the TH, locate the signed Capitol Ditch Trail. Do not take the Capitol Creek Trail, unless of course you are a glutton for punishment. Stay on the Ditch Trail, following the mother of all ditches as it continues due south toward Capitol Peak, about 8 miles away. The trail is an extremely easy hiker's trail with very little elevation gain. After about 3.1 miles, you reach a stream crossing, which you cross by hopping on a piece of drift wood and then up a 4-foot log. On the other side, amidst a stand of evergreens, you should locate the sign and continue on the well-used trail. Walking at 3 mph puts you here in about 1 hour and 15 minutes. If you started before 3:00 am, you can slow down and enjoy the remainder of the approach, because you will arrive at the base of the saddle in another 3.7 miles, just in time for sunrise. On average, the entire approach probably takes 3 hours.
So, as you can see, even though the approach is quite long, there really is no need to pack in and camp at the campgrounds near Capitol Lake, making Capitol Peak seem a bit more accessible.
At Capitol Lake, the trail meets the ascent to the Daly saddle. Continue on the easy trail as it switchbacks up to the saddle. This does not take very long at all. Enjoy the last leg of your civilized hike, because the real adventure is about to begin.
From the obvious saddle, immediately turn right and gain the ridge toward Capitol Peak. There is easy scrambling for a few minutes before things get interesting. Stay on the ridge crest for the most intense scrambling. There is awesome exposure in a few areas and any 5th class maneuvers can be avoided. Stay on the ridge until it meets the Standard route and continue climbing toward K2 over large boulders. I'm not sure why this little hump has a name, but just go with it.
The standard route does not summit the tiny K2 and for good reason: there is absolutely no reason to climb it. Although short and sweet, it is loose and isn't really a "peak." The standard route traverses the north side and ends at the so-called knife-edge.
If you feel that it's necessary, climb K2 for about 40 feet to its summit and then retrace your steps to gain the not-so-obvious trail that traverses the north side. You do not want to attempt a downclimb off the backside of K2. K2 is very steep and loose. Be careful that you don't fall to your death and that you do not accidentally kick a rock and kill someone else. After I summited Capitol and retraced the ridge, I was nearly killed by a climber above me not paying attention to this danger. His careless footing dislodged several rocks, one of them a microwave-sized block, which careened like a missile right towards my head. I raised my left arm to block it. By pure luck, another dislodged rock struck it at the last moment. Its trajectory changed slightly, and the killer block missed my head by less than 12 inches! Another example of why inexperienced climbers should not attempt Class 4 routes.
From K2, continue across the "knife-edge" ridge. After all the juicy scrambling you've already completed, the knife-edge will seem relatively simple. There is no need to sit on your butt and scoot across this like a dog scratching his ass on the carpet. Have some dignity and use the knife-edge as a handhold. Hop across quickly, using your rock climbing skills and then continue to some more fine scrambling along the remainder of the ridge until you arrive, finally, at your destination atop Capitol Peak.
A word about the standard trail: After the knife-edge, the standard NE ridge route traverses the south side of the ridge, much lower than the actual ridge crest. Unless you enjoy getting slugged by random rockfall, avoid this route.
To exit, retrace your steps. While you could descend the standard trail, it is a tedious hike down loose talus, usually below other climbers, and then down into a basin that you must eventually climb out of. Also, if you attempt to downclimb the large boulder field between K2 and the Daly saddle, you will find yourself in dangerous territory, with Class 4 and potentially Class 5 downclimbing, not to mention that you will be below other climbers on loose rock. When we were there, several other climbers descended this way, realizing too late that it was the wrong way. Do your best to avoid making this mistake.
Typical hiking gear for the approach. For the ridge traverse, a helmut is mandatory, and approach or climbing shoes are better than boots. In warm weather, it might be useful to stow your boots and trekking poles near the start of the ridge and continue with rock climbing shoes. You will appreciate this advice.
Be prepared for a very long traverse with very few escape options. Rain and ice would severely complicate the ridge traverse. Carrying a short rope is almost always advisable.
Although I have not completed this route in winter, I know that it can be done. Typical mountaineering gear would be necessary for a winter ascent. The approach would also vary, as a large section of the road to the trailhead would likely be closed.