Mt. Columbia is usually climbed together with Mt. Harvard, although the ridge is a long 2.2 mile commitment between the two, so the weather must be perfect for this traverse. You don't want to get stuck out on the long ridge between them if the weather is bad. Many climb the peak, as it is close to many cities in the Sawatch range. The easiest route is class 2.
North Cottonwood TH To access the standard route and the North Cottonwood trailhead begin measuring from the junction of US 24 and Chaffee County 306 in the center of Buena Vista. Drive 0.4 miles north on US 24 to the junction of Chaffee County 350 (directly across from the Pizza Hut) and turn left (west). Drive 2.1 miles to a T and turn right (north) onto Chaffee County 361. At 2.4 miles the road becomes dirt and angles NW. At 3.0 miles turn sharply south (left) onto Chaffee County 365, which turns west and enters San Isabel National Forest at 5.4 miles. Pass the Harvard Lakes Trailhead at 6.6 miles and continue to the North Cottonwood Trailhead at the end of the road at 8.2 miles and 9,880 feet.
Frenchman Creek TH Follow U.S. 24 7.5 miles north of Buena Vista and turn west onto Chaffee County 386. Go .3 miles until you come to Forest Service 386. Turn west onto FS 386 and go another 1.4 miles to the TH at 9.300'. 4WD vehicles may take the left fork and head south for another 2.2. miles to Collegiate Peaks Wilderness boundary at 10,800'.
Harvard Lakes TH Follow the direction for the North Cottonwood TH. You will find the Harvard lakes TH 1.6 miles before the North Cottonwood TH at 9,420'. If you see the Silver Lakes TH (for Mt. Yale), you have gone .1 miles too far.
Three Elk Creek TH See the North Cottonwood TH directions. From the turn at the T intersection onto Chaffee County 361, start to measure. At 3.8 from the intersection, turn west onto Chaffee County 368 and go 1.2 miles to Chaffee County 368A. Turn southwest onto CC 368A and go .1 miles until Forest Service 368. Turn west on FS 368 and go .8 miles until you reach the TH at 9,260'.
When To Climb
July and August are peak months. Try to climb during the week if you can as the crowds are smaller. This is a popular peak as many want to bag both Harvard and Columbia in the same climb. As always, be mindful of the weather as afternoon thunderstorms are quite common during the Colorado summer. As a rule try to plan to be off the summits by noon or 1PM. If you are going to do both Harvard and Columbia this could be a challenge, so start early, or be lucky and have a stormless day.
Click here for complete information on campgrounds in the Leadville Ranger District.
More than adequate camping is free and is readily available at the North Cottonwood Trailhead, in the lower Horn Fork basin, and along the Frenchman Creek. However, the best spots are between 11,000' and 11,400' in the lower Horn Fork basin. This is in an area that flattens out considerably. The are many campsites in this area that already have areas cleared out as well as fire pits. Thus, if you use these spots your impact on the environment will be minimum. Remember, a good campsite is found and not made. For additional information on camping in the area as well as weather updates contact the Leadville District Ranger Office at 2015 North Poplar, Leadville, CO, Phone 303-486-0749.
For current mountain conditions contact the Pike & San Isabel National Forest, Leadville Ranger District office, 2015 North Poplar, Leadville, CO 80461, (719)486-0749. Please click here for more information about climbing Mt. Harvard.
Buena Vista Forest Service has the latest weather reports. Decide early in the day if you are going to climb only Columbia or do both Columbia and Harvard. If weather looks OK and you go for the combo, the best route is to climb Mt Harvard first by way of Harvard's South Slope route. Then take the long 2.2 mile ridge route over to the Mt Columbia summit and descend by the Columbia West Slope route. If you decide to only climb Columbia, then the West Slope route is the easiest way to climb. If you can afford the luxury of camping overnite, and want to do both mountains, the preferred plan would be to start with Mt Harvard and proceed to Columbia if condtions permit, but if not do Harvard one day and Columbia the next. The Harvard/ Columbia combo is 13.5 miles and 5900 from the North Cottonwood Trailhead so be prepared for a long, arduous day.
DP ADDS: The West Slopes approach is notable for loose scree and dirt beginning several hundred vertical feet above treeline and continuing to the summit ridge at about 13,400 ft. This makes for poor footing and tedious climbing. The trail is cairned, but they can be occasionally hard to spot; keep to the south (right on the way up) to avoid the scree gully and find the trail.