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: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.
Main Elk Creek/Canyon
|[img:747769:aligncenter:medium:Hadley Gulch ] ||[img:747808:aligncenter:medium:Cliffs along Hadley Gulch] |
-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 5.11||Sport||1||5.11d||The leftmost route at the Fortress. An early Tommy Caldwell creation.|
|The Pummeling||Sport||1||5.13b R||This 100 foot pitch is famous for it’s difficulty and runout after the third bolt.|
|Glamorama ||Sport||1||5.12d||Not as hard as it looks. Climb through a section of bad rock to some of the best and most interesting holds. |
|The Daily Planet||Sport||1||5.13d||Work through a mediocre first half to an amazing 60 feet of .13d on great rock.|
|Kryptonite ||Sport||1||5.14d||It takes a superhero to send this! A mega-famous route that has only been climbed a few times.|
|Flex Luthor ||Sport||1||5.15a|| Touted as North America’s first 5.15. Still unrepeated. |
|Metropolis ||Sport||1||5.12c||A 130 foot pitch that climbs some brilliant, sustained rock.|
|Orange Mechanique ||Sport||1||5.13a||Left side of the eastern portion of the Fortress. Crimp. 60 ft. |
|Boy Wonder ||Sport||1||5.12d||A short climb for the Fortress but with a variety of holds.|
Pup Tent of Solitude
|[img:747772:aligncenter:medium:The Fortress]||[img:747775:aligncenter:medium:The hardest/most famous routes]|
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 ||Sport||1||5.8||This short climb is the first route encountered at the Tent and one of the easiest. Could use a cleaning.|
|Total Eclipse ||Sport||1||5.12a||Steep, bouldery and long for the tent. 7 bolts.|
|Subprime||Sport||1||5.11a||Difficult start on a tan-colored wall. |
|Stimulus Package||Sport||1||5.11d||An eight-bolt arête.|
|Rex Luthor ||Sport||1||5.11c||Short, challenging. Start on a flake and over a bulge. |
|Craptonite||Sport||1||5.12a||One of the best routes at the Tent|
|Easiest ||Sport||1||5.7||A short climb, easiest at Tent. Can access anchors to next two climbs from top.|
|Easy||Sport||1||5.10a||Climb easy terrain to an insecure flake and reachy, overhanging topout. |
|Easier ||Sport||1||5.9||A tricky climb with some fun movement at the crux topout|
|Deputy Dawg Lives to Fight Another Day ||Sport||1||5.8||Possibly the best moderate at the Tent |
|Country Style Pork Rib ||Sport||1||5.9||A challenging 5.9 with a counter-intuitive crux|
|Puppy Love ||Sport||1||5.11c||One of the Tent’s best! Long and challenging.|
|Nose Picking Good ||Sport||1||5.9||A cool, black-colored arete. Some choss on a ledge midway and possible rope snag near top.|
|Nicklepup ||Sport||1||5.10a||Pull an easy, juggy roof to a dihedral. Climb up and traverse to excellent roof|
|Girls With Guns ||Sport||1||5.10d||A long climb, one of the Tent’s best. Bouldery start to beautiful headwall |
|Sith Lord||Sport||1||5.9||An interesting climb up a dihedral than onto awesome, dark rock.|
Main Elk Crag
|[img:812250:aligncenter:medium:Girls With Guns (5.10d)]||[img:812240:aligncenter:medium:Nicklepup (5.10a)]|
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 ||Sport||1||5.10b||A good warm-up for the area|
|Patchouli ||Sport||1||5.11c||A crack line over a bulge |
|Best in Show ||Sport||1||5.12d||Often considered the best route at the Main Elk Crag|
|Black Ball Retriever ||Sport||1||5.12c||A hard route with great rock. Identified by black hangers.|
|Jewel Rosena ||Sport||1||5.12a||Just right of a cave/roof. |
|Both Ends Burning ||Sport||1||5.13a||The first route to the right of where the approach trail meets the cliff|
|Infinite Jest ||Sport||1||5.12d||A 80 foot pitch that crosses varying rock that improves as you climb|
|Mint Jelly ||Trad||1||5.8+||A good trad route, with some loose rock and choss to tiptoe around. Good protection. |
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 LinksRifle 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
Mountainproject.com has a database with user-created beta on climbs at the Fortress of Solitude
and the Pup Tent of Solitude
has more recent information about newer bolted routes at the Pup Tent.