Overview, Getting There, Route, Views
Handcart Peak sits on the Continental Divide less than a straight mile west from Webster Pass, also on the Divide. The peak is in Colorado's Front Range, which, being the closest major Colorado range to Denver, is also the state's busiest in terms of human traffic. Stories abound of the crowded summits and trails of the best-known peaks in the range. Although Handcart is not especially beautiful or challenging, it is quiet and still offers outstanding scenery. Furthermore, being situated almost within throwing distance (and definitely within visual distance) of some very popular ATV trails and other off-road drives, Handcart provides a welcome escape from the proximity, if not the noise, of machines and from the people operating them, many of whom carelessly drive off marked routes and mark up the tundra or leave their trash, especially cigarette butts, behind. The irony, though, is that to climb Handcart Peak, you will most likely use a Jeep or SUV to access it, so in a sense you'll be escaping from yourself!
I'm not going to pretend that Handcart is some objective to brag about. The ascent is easy and short. However, it's nice for someone adjusting to Colorado's altitude but wanting to enjoy great mountain scenery, and it's also nice as afternoon dessert following a tougher morning elsewhere in the vicinity. It's also a great option for parents with young children; it's safe (no exposure) in addition to being short and scenic.
HIGH CLEARANCE NEEDED-- A passenger car with adequate horsepower and torque could probably climb the road, but there is a stream crossing that even in late August will be too deep for regular cars. 4WD is helpful but not imperative unless one wants to try nearby Jeep roads such as Radical Hill and Red Cone.
From U.S. 6 at the eastern end of Keystone, take the signed road to Montezuma. This road is easy to find if one is traveling eastbound, but there is no direct access to it for westbound travelers, who will have to watch for the road and then make a U-turn to get to it.
It is five miles to Montezuma, where the road turns to dirt. Drive straight through the small community and follow signs for Webster Pass. There are a few intersections along the way to the pass, but they are signed, and there should be no confusion about the route.
The road is rocky in places but not terribly rough, and there are no major obstacles to surmount. There is, however, a stream crossing at about 1.5 miles, and even in early September I found this too deep for a vehicle without high clearance. After crossing the stream (the Snake River), the scenery opens up, and sprawling meadows laced with ponds and willowy bogs stretch to the peaks of the Continental Divide, including Handcart Peak. Webster Pass is at 12,096', five miles from Montezuma. There is plenty of room to park. The pretty red mountain just west of the pass is not Handcart Peak, but you will climb or bypass it on the way to Handcart's summit.
Route from Webster Pass
Approximately 2 miles RT, 500' of elevation gain from Webster pass.
Follow a use trail west from the pass. It's not cairned or otherwise marked, but you'd have to be blind not to be able to follow it. Closer to the red peak, choose a trail going over it for a little extra legwork or take a trail bypassing it. Either way, you will drop slightly to a saddle at the base of Handcart Peak. The trails disappear now, so try to stay on rocks instead of tundra as much as possible-- trampled tundra can take decades or longer to recover. The hike up the slopes is steep but short, maybe about a quarter of a mile. On the summit plateau, there is a cairn that may or may not mark the true highpoint-- it's hard to tell on this flat mountaintop. But the scenery is the prize, not some cairn or benchmark, so enjoy. You'll probably have the place to yourself, not counting the mountain goats.
Red Tape and Camping
No red tape concerning fees or permits, but respect private property-- there is a good deal of it before the stream crossing on the drive in.
There are no developed campgrounds, but there are many places for dispersed roadside camping, especially after the stream crossing, where the area really opens up.