El Capitan is the 2nd tallest peak in the Bitterroot Mountains (but not the Bitterroot Range
). Sitting just under 10,000 feet, the peak occupies one of the more rugged looking sections of the Bitterroot Mountains, sitting right next to the rocky pinnacles of the (3) Como Peaks and The Lonesome Bachelor. Despite a somewhat heinous approach including trail, bushwhack, and scrambling, the peak is well worth the climb.
Getting ThereNOTE: Directions are given for access from Little Rock Creek. It is also viable to access the peak via Tin Cup creek and Kerlee Lake.
From Highway 93, take Lake Como Road West (turnoff about 10 miles South of Hamilton). Lake Como Road will continue to a fork, where the right fork takes one to the beach/camping, and the left fork takes one to the dock and Little Rock Creek Trailhead. You will have to take another (well marked) left fork to access the trailhead. The trailhead road continues high above Lake Como to the South. There is a small pullout parking area where cars with low clearance may want to park. The road continues for a couple hundred yards to its end, and the trailhead. The Little Rock Creek Trail continues on an old Jeep road for 1/4 mile before beginning the descent down into the creek drainage.
The trail itself ends at Little Rock Creek Lake (approx. 5 miles from the trailhead). The trail is rough, with many wet areas and downed trees. There are campsites at the lake, but, in general, they are not very good. One must Continue West/SW along or above the creek until they reach three small lakes at about 7,300'. There are cairned routes on the North slope (above the creek), but are often hard to find/follow. It is about two miles on mixed rock/alpine vegetation to the higher lakes. There is great camping to be had here, especially late in the season.
To access the coloirs (most viable route), you will have to cross the creek before the lakes, or circle around behind and above them. The easiest thing to do is aim straight for the coloirs (S. of the peak) once you can see them. There are a few coloirs that one can climb to gain the ridge. The easiest is the southernmost coloir.
Most years, one will have to deal with snow in the access couloirs well into July. One must hike a couloir (800') to access the ridge. It is a good idea to bring an ax and crampons if you plan on doing this climb any time other than late summer. From the top of the couloir, it is a straightforward ridge-walk for about a mile (1000' additional elevation gain) to the summit. There are a couple of tricky (class 3-4) moves in the last 20 feet of the climb, as the summit is comprised of a large granite block. See more info in the route description section.
Check current fire restrictions. Be aware of bears: hang your food if you plan on camping.
Camping is allowed anywhere in the Biterroot National Forest. There is okay camping at Little Rock Creek Lake, and numerous great camp spots can be found in the meadows around the higher, unnamed lakes.
For more information...Western Montana Avalanche Center
Darby Ranger District (406) 821-3913