Overview-Colorado's Forgotten Mountain Range
Cougar Mountain is one of the highest peaks in the Elkhead Mountains, but is also one of the least conspicuous and unassuming. It is wedged between the much more recognizable and conspicuous mountains, Bears Ears
and Black Mountain
. Because of the gentle and thickly forested slopes, the mountain doesn’t stand out among its neighbors and it doesn’t have much of a unique shape.
Also because of the gentle slopes and thick forested slopes, the peak is probably the least interesting of the 10,000+ foot peaks in the Elkhead Mountains and the views from the summit are mostly obscured by thick timber. Never-the-less the peak is above 10,000 feet, is one of the easier mountains in the range to climb and sits there waiting.
Because we climbed the peak in the rain, we didn’t get many photos of the mountain, but on the other hand, other than thick forest, there isn’t that much to see in the way of views. The wildlife viewing can be good though as I startled and elk herd on the summit and we were watched by deer below us while climbing the mountain. Besides wildlife viewing, the main attraction on the mountain might be the old growth forest on the highest slopes of the mountian.
Most maps don’t provide a name for this peak, but the local snowmobile maps label this peak as Cougar Mountain. The peak has a west and an east summit of which the west summit appears higher on the topo maps. Even so, after climbing both, it seemed to me that the east summit was higher(?).
Several aspects of the Elkhead Mountains 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 Elkhead Mountains 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 Elkhead Mountains receive much snow, and snow lasts into July or later on the higher peaks. Most of the peaks in the Elkhead Mountains 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 mountain in the range where I have ever met anyone. This was on Labor Day weekend, 2005, when we saw 3 other hikers. I met two hikers on Saddle Mountain on July 5 2010. Other than those two exceptions and on Hahns Peak, I have never met other climbers while climbing any of the peaks in the Elkhead Mountains. 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 Elkhead Mountains 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 Elkhead Mountains.
Elkhead Mountains-10,000+ Foot Peaks with 300+ feet of Prominence
These are the unassuming upper slopes of Cougar Mountain. What you see is what you get. This is the least rugged and least conspicuous of the 10,000+ peaks in the Elkhead Mountains.
The topo maps available don’t show the roads or trails around this mountain accurately. The closest one that bears resemblance to reality is the Forest Service Map-Routt National Forest
, but it is of a small scale. The USGS maps don’t show many of the roads in the areas, 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 ThereEast Ridge Trailhead
From the junction of Highway 40 and 13 in Craig, turn north on Highway 13, drive north for about 13 miles to north of mile marker 102 until you see a sign posted for County Road 27. The road is posted for “Forest Service Access” and “Black Mountain”. Drive County Road 27 through private lands for 10 miles which is where you reach the Routt National Forest boundary. The road becomes FR 110. From the Forest Boundary, follow FR 110 for 9.7 miles to FR 116. Turn right on FR 116 and follow it for about 0.8 miles and park at a small pull off on the right side of the road. We parked here because in the open area, it would be easy to spot and find the vehicle on our descent.
Hiking the lower slopes of Cougar Mountain in the rain. This is not far above the trailhead.
West Ridge Trailhead
If you want to climb the mountain from the west ridge, follow the directions above, but park at the junction of FR 110 and FR 133. This is about 7.2 miles from the Forest Service Boundary and is a shorter drive than the above route.
As of August 2010, the roads above were in good condition and were good for all vehicles.
Next to Black Mountain or possible Sand Mountain, Cougar Mountain is the easiest of the 10,000 foot peaks to climb in the Elkhead Mountains.
The east ridge of Cougar Mountain is an easy route with only minor bushwhacking. Some of the lower slopes have been formerly logged making for easy travel. On the upper slopes there are scattered game trails, but they may not always head in the direction you want to go. Even though there is no trail, the routefinding through the forest isn’t bad and this is a relatively quick and easy off-trail route.
See the route page for details.
This is some of the old growth forest on the upper slopes of Cougar Mountain.
Because of the gentle slopes, Cougar Mountain can be climbed from any direction. Route finding through timber is the only obstacle and there are no cliffs to speak of. The easiest route on the peak is probably the west ridge and has slightly less elevation gain than the east ridge.
To make this peak more into a climb, consider climbing it from the south. See the route page below for Bears Ears, which route can be tailored to include Cougar Mountain:
This would make a long route, but the by far the most scenic route.
There is no red tape here, so make sure to tread lightly.
There are many informal campsites along the road to the west trailhead after you reach the forest boundary. The Sawmill Campground isn't too far from the trailhead and now cost $10. It is the only official campground in the area.
When to Climb
July through early September could be considered the normal season to climb the mountain. The access road does not open until late June or early July. This would be a very long multi day climb when the access route is not open. A snowmobile would make this a one day climb in the winter, though the timber is pretty thick for skiing and snowshoes might be a better bet. The Elkhead Mountains are a very popular hunting destination in September and October (until snow closes the road), so use extreme caution at this time of year.
Bears Ears as seen on a rainy day from the slopes of Cougar Mountain on August 28 2010.
Mountain ConditionsCLICK HERE FOR THE COUGAR MOUNTAIN WEATHER FORECAST
Below is the National Weather Service Climate Summary of Craig, southwest of Cougar Mountain. The data is from 1928-2010. This is the closest long term weather station, but be aware that higher elevations will be much wetter and colder. Craig is at 6300 feet elevation, so expect the temperatures on Cougar Mountain to be 10-20 degrees colder than in Craig.
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