General Mountain Information: Crestones Traverse
Video Hike Review: Crestones Traverse
Crestone Peak Rating: ★★★★ (⅘ Stars)
Traverse Rating: ★★★★ (5/5 Stars)
Challenger Point Rating: ★★★★ (⅘ Stars)
Distance: Please note that distances may be a bit off, depending on your exact route of the Traverse.
- 16.7 RT from South Colony Lakes TH (upper parking area)
- 22.66 RT from Lower Parking Area
- To South Colony Lakes: 4.6 Miles from upper area, 10.6 from lower parking area
- Crestone Peak: 8.5 miles from upper parking area
- Traverse: 1.6 miles from peak to peak (approximate)
- Crestone Needle to upper TH: 6.6 miles
Elevation Start: 9,800ft from upper parking area, 8,800ft from lower parking area
Total Elevation Gain: 5,900 ft
Summit of Crestone Peak: 14,295 ft
Summit of Crestone Needle: 14,203 ft
Estimated Time to Complete:
- 14-16 hours RT Total From Upper TH, 15-17 Hours from Lower TH
- 2-3 hours from Upper TH to Colony Lakes
- 2-3 hours to Crestone Peak
- 2-3 hours for Traverse
- 2-3 hours for Crestone Needle
- 2-3 hours from Colony Lakes to Upper TH
Difficulty: Strenuous What does this mean?
Class: 4 & 5
Season: July- September (Expect snow outside of this window and lingering snow inside of these months)
Trailhead: South Colony Lakes
Getting Here: Although there are other ways to attempt this hike, the most popular starting point would be from the South Colony Lakes TH. First step is to navigate to the small town of Westcliffe. Since there are many ways to get here, I will leave out directions. Once in Westcliffe, turn onto 6th St (CO69) south. Continue on for 4.5 miles until you reach Colfax Avenue on your right. Take Colfax for 5.6 miles until the road “ends” and take a right here to continue up towards the lower parking area on your right. If you are driving up to the upper parking area, it’s another 6 miles. This road is very rough and requires a high clearance AWD or 4WD vehicle. You can enter “South Colony Parking Lot” into your favorite navigational device.
Parking: There are two main lots for this hike, the upper area and lower area. As mentioned above, the upper area requires higher clearance and AWD or 4WD. The toughest section on this road is the infamous drain pipe which is about a mile from the top. The lower lot can fit about 15-20 cars and will fill up on busy weekend. The top lot can fit about 30 cars or so and will also get full on busier weekends. Neither area has a bathroom, so bring your TP and squatting stance.
Dogs: Simply put, do not bring dogs on the Crestones Traverse. Neither Crestone Peak or Crestone Needle is a safe place for a dog to be.
Camping: There is a lot of camping for the Crestones Traverse. The first spots are before the upper parking area along the road. There are scattered spots at the upper parking area and along the trail to the Colony Lakes. Once at the lakes, this is by far the most popular spot to camp if you are looking to make this a multiday trip. Even on busy weekends (Labor Day, 4th of July etc) there still should be plenty of room up here to camp, but get there early because it will get crowded.
Other Events In Area: Things to do and places to do things in Colorado: Concerts, Festivals, Events – eventsincolorado.com. The most complete calendar of things to do throughout the state of Colorado including concerts, fairs, festivals and family friendly activities
Make it a Loop: There are only two ways to hike the Crestones Traverse Peak to Needle – most popular or Needle to Peak (requires belaying gear). Both hikes form a lollipop loop. If you are in the area and want to hike more, you can hike up Broken Hand Peak, Humboldt Peak or one of the other summits in the area.
Trail Summary: The Crestones Traverse is one of the Four Great Colorado Traverses (Little Bear to Blanca, Maroon Bells, Crestones Traverse, El Diente to Mt Wilson). This route involves lots of route finding, exposure and class 3, 4 and 5 moves. It’s a hike I would only recommend for seasoned hikers with experience with all three aspects I just mentioned. Located in the Sangre de Cristo Range of Southern Colorado, this hike will cover almost everything other 14ers have to offer: scrambling, class 4 & 5 moves, exposure, route finding, high alpine lakes and great views.
Trail Route: Standard Crestones Traverse Route (Peak to Needle) – Ignore distance of traverse here, my watch got a little confused…the rest is accurate
Trail X Factors: Exposure & Trail Finding
When you hike most 14ers, the path is extremely evident because the mountain is so well traveled. While the Crestone Traverses are hiked almost every weekend, locating the correct path of the traverse is important to your overall success. If you watch my video review (below or above), I give tips on how to locate the start of the traverse and give a detailed walkthrough of each section you will hike through. I would recommend doing your research on this hike beforehand and bring pictures with to aid in your trek across the Crestones Traverse.
Exposure is also an extremely common part of this hike. From the hike up Crestone Needle to the Crestones Traverses to the descent of Crestone Needle, there will be lots of class 3,4 and even some class 5 exposure along the way. Do not attempt this hike unless you are looking to overcome a fear the hard way or have lots of experience dealing with exposure. Quick little story: when I was hiking Mt Washington growing up, I had a friend who figured out he was afraid of heights while we were in the middle of an exposed class 3 slab of rock. You do not want this to be you.
*Note* – I usually travel with lots of gear, but my advice on the Crestones Traverse is to travel light. You do not want a bag weighing you down on many of the steep exposed sections of this hike.
- Hiking Shoes/Boots with good grip
- Mickey’s Mountain Kit
- Water / Snack
- Hiking Poles – Would not bring on traverse, but useful for hike in
- Protection From Sun – Extremely exposed for all of hike past lake
- Climbing Helmet
- Optional: Climbing Shoes – Not necessary, but may increase confidence on final wall
- Optional: Rope/Harness – Very helpful if going Needle to Peak traverse
- Optional: Mountain Axe – Very helpful with lingering snow
- Optional: Bug repellent & net – Mandatory if hiking during June/July
- Optional: Camera
- Optional: GoPro -useful to capture moments when you can’t use your hands
Mick’s Tip: Pack Light & Start Early
Whether you are hiking in from the upper (or lower) trailhead or starting from South Colony Lakes, be sure to start the Crestones Traverse early. Wheather in this mountain range can be extremely unstable and unpredictable and this is not a route you want to get stuck in bad weather (snow, rain, hail, lightning, high winds etc.) Once you leave South Colony Lakes, there are almost no areas to get out of any inclement weather.
Packing Light is also key on the Crestones Traverse. The reason for having a light pack (in addition to keeping your hike times lower) is to keep your center of gravity. There are a lot of sections that involve class 3, 4 and 5 exposure and the last thing you want is to be yanked off the mountain because your bag is dragging you away from the rock, while you are pulling yourself in. Generally, I like to pack lots of extra stuff in my bag, but for this hike, I would keep it to the bare essentials. If you camp somewhere above the upper or lower trailhead, you can always leave gear in the tent. If that is not an option, when you hike up Broken Hand Pass, you can stash extra water, gear or food there because you will travel this section on both ways of your hike.
Photography Tip: The Crestones Traverse is full of amazing photo opportunities. From South Colony Lakes to Broken Hand Pass to the Traverse itself, there are a million great photo opportunities along the Crestones Traverse. However, the important balance is keeping your pack weight low vs capturing every moment along the way. I brought my DSLR but left some of my extra equipment in the tent. I also relied heavily on the GoPro to capture some of the action shots along the traverse, especially the final wall.
Mick’s Trip: Crestones Traverse
Approach & Broken Hand Pass
The Crestones Traverse was a hike I was thinking about for a long time. Almost a year in fact. Jackie and I had traveled down to Westcliffe, Colorado late in the summer of 2016. When we arrived, a strong storm rolled in and brought 3 inches of fresh snow to the entire area. My plan to hike the Crestones Traverse and Humboldt Peak in a weekend was flushed down the toilet. Nearly a year later, I was back with some friends and ready to take one of the four Colorado 14er Traverses down.
I was with some friends, Conor and Andrew, I had met on another hike and we met at the lower trailhead around 3PM on a Saturday of Labor Day weekend. I knew this was a popular weekend, which meant lots of people, but the weather looked great so we were pumped for the next couple of days. We drove up to the upper trailhead without any problems and started our hike up toward South Colony Lake were we would spend the night before starting the Crestones Traverse early the next morning.
I had made this approach hike the year before and surprisingly, a year later, it was just as boring. The trail was easy going but rather monotonous as it worked up an old 4WD road which used to the be where the trailhead started. At about 2.5 miles, we reached some signage about the mountains of the area and took the left at the fork in the trail to continue up to South Colony Lakes. Soon after, we entered a massive basin which provided fantastic views of Humboldt Peak, Crestone Needle, Broken Hand Pass and Broken Hand Peak. We continued up the trail which now started to steadily gain elevation as it worked its way up to the lakes.
About 30 minutes later, we started to encounter the standard camping sites near South Colony Lake which were all chock full of people. It was my nightmare. I knew this would be the situation since it was Labor Day, but I was sadden to hear and see how many other people were in the area. Eventually, we found a nice camping spot near a sprawling open field with great views of Crestone Needle. All three of us quickly set-up camp, pounded some food and started a fire as the brisk fall weather was in the air this night. We discussed our game plan for the next morning and decided to wake up at 2AM, hike up Broken Hand Pass and kill any extra time we had at Cottonwood Lake before the sun rose. All three of us wanted nothing to do with either Crestone Peak or Crestones Traverses during the night.
The next morning our alarms went off at 2:05AM and the conversation went something like this: Conor: “Sleep in another hour?” Andrew & I: “Sounds good.”
3:10AM was just as painful as 2, but now the excitement was starting to build in all of us and we were ready to take on this day. The dark night sky was full of stars and a semi full moon, which lit our way to the start of the trail up Broken Hand Pass. Hiking at night is always one of my favorite things to do. There are almost always no people, you get to enjoy the views of the night sky and the terrain you hike up, will look completely different on the way down since, most likely, that is your first time seeing it.
As we worked up the rock field that sat below the pass, we saw another group of hikers ahead of us on the trail. The consensus was to give them space, but we would pass them no problem on the descent of the pass. What started as a nice rock field, quickly devolved into a dirt trail mess. The trail was very easy to follow, but the higher we hiked, the worse the trail got. Towards the middle of the pass, there is a class 3 move which we all had no problem with. After the class 3 move, we struggled up some more awful dirt trail and eventually reached the top of the pass which was the southeast spine of Crestone Needle.
We were making great time, so I decided to snap some shots of the stars on a makeshift tripod while Conor and Andrew, refueled and hydrated. After a quick break, we resumed hiking and made our way down towards Cottonwood Lake where we planned on pumping some water to get us through the Crestones Traverse.
After a quick break and water pumping/sanitizing session at Cottonwood Lake, the sun was starting to rise and we decided to start the hike up Crestone Peak, the first 14er of the day. The trail worked through some willows and lake runoff before working its way north east up the side of the mountain. We did pass the group we had encountered on Broken Hand Pass, but saw some other hikers farther up on Crestone Peak. Instead of worrying about route finding in the low morning light, this made things much easier.
We hiked for another 15 minutes or so and found ourselves in the red gully, which is the freeway up Crestone Peak. This gully was still a bit wet with snow runoff, but presented no major challenges outside of the class 3 climbing and occasional loose rock. We tried to locate the start of the Crestones Traverse on the way up the red gully, but did not have luck finding it. However, it was not around 7AM and we were only 200 yards from the top of Crestone Peak, our timing was great! The other two in my group decided to leave their bags on the ridge of Crestone Peak and East Crestone (another false 14,000 foot peak) in the area. The skies were clear, temperature was amazing and we all felt like we were in a great spot. We enjoyed the summit views of Crestone Peak but knew that the real challenge of the day was yet to come.
With more food and water in the our systems, we did a bit of research about where exactly the start of the traverse started. The consensus was to hike down about ½ of the red gully and look for some cairns on the (hiker’s) left of the trail. Sure enough, we found the start of the traverse almost exactly in that spot, at about 13,600 ft. (NOTE: If you watch the hike video review, I give much more detailed information on how to find the start of the traverse)
The first section of the traverse was straightforward: Class 3 hiking with cairns to follow almost all of the way. I was glad that all three of us were on the same page with research and had pictures of the route to help guide us through each section. While the trail was never hard to follow, the side of the mountain was very open and presented a number of different ways to get over to where we needed to go. Our end goal was to get over to the Black Gendarme (basically a large rock that sticks out of a mountain ridge), which is where the real fun would begin.
As we worked across the Crestones Traverse and towards Crestone Needle, we found yet another red gully which marked our time to head up towards the ridge one more. Before this ridge, the path across the mountains was fairly level, but from here we started to regain the elevation we had lost on the initial descent. The rock in this gully was rather loose, so we decided to space out a bit and always communicated when one of us sent a rock flying. This system worked great and after about 15 minutes, we were out of the gully and could see the Black Gendarme right in front of us. There was another group of hikers that were following us, so we decided to let them pass and take on the Class 5 move of this route first.
Conor and Andrew had both brought along climbing shoes for this section of the hike, so while they laced them up, I took some video and photos. Our “order” for the hike was for Conor to go first, then Andrew and for me to anchor the group. As Conor was about to go, we heard “ROCK!” from above and saw a massive boulder come crashing down the gully. We ran out of harm’s way. We were SO lucky that none of us had been in the middle of this climb when that rock had gone whizzing by. Helmet or not, that would have drastically changed the course of the day.
Feeling a bit more on edge, all three of us ascended the Class 5.2 move without a problem, sticking left to gain the most leverage.This was the point of no return for us. Regardless of what the conditions brought from here on out, there was no way we were getting down that section without a rope. Sounds ominous.
In all honesty, the class 5 move was physically tough but the next section was where all of our mental psyches would be put to the test. The knife edge. Similar to what you would encounter on Capitol Peak but to a lesser extent. The holds were somewhat slippery and the exposure was real. All three of us made it without a hitch, but it “woke” all of us up to the real dangers the Crestones Traverse presented. After the knife’s edge, the exposure picked up with some addition class 3 and 4 hiking. We reached the large white rock which signifies the last section before the final cruz of the Crestones Traverse.
After rounding a corner of the white rock, the final pitch of Crestone Needle came into view and all three of our confidence levels went through the roof. “We got this!!” Whether spoken or not, I think that the entire group had been worrying about this final pitch all day. From what we had read to what we had seen, we let the hype get to us, but were now excited to see that we could all handle this, no problem.
Photos and video footage are a vital part of any hike because after all, if you don’t have the pictures, did it even happen? Andrew turned on his GoPro, I took some shots of all three of us and we prepared for the final class 4 pitch of the Crestones Traverse. Similar to what we had read, the left side of the ridge was far more exposed but a bit less technical. The right side was far less exposed but noticeably steeper. We decided to enjoy the 800 ft drop down to South Colony lake and hike the left side. As previously agreed, Conor went first, then Andrew, then myself.
The exposure was real and as a hiker we ran into earlier in the day put it “airy.”The Crestone conglomerate (type of rock on the mountain – looks like concrete mixed with rocks in it) offered large hand and foot holds all the way up the ridge. I tried my best to take deep breaths, focus on the move in front of me and take it all in. Conor reached the top of the section and exclaimed that he could see the top. This immediately pumped more energy and excitement into Andrew and myself as we were still working up the crux. Near the belay station on the wall, the Class 4 scrambling got a bit more steep and I froze for a second. I knew that I had this in the bag, but starting to think about the fall and mentally got in my head. Thanks to some encouragement from Andrew and Conor, I quickly snapped out of it and kept moving. A few moves later, I was standing on top of the final pitch of the Crestones Traverse and could see the summit of Crestone Needle only 50 yards away!
All three of us embraced and celebrated our accomplishment on the summit of Crestone Needle. I called Jackie to let her know that I was not dead and that we had made it. I can’t speak for the other two, but I was so proud of what we had just done and was excited to celebrate with some food and beers in Westcliffe. Unfortunately though, the standard route of the Crestone Needle is tough in its own right so we had a bit of hiking still to do.
The descent of a mountain is always tough, I have been this very clear over my reviews here. However, what is worse, is when you are so high on what you just accomplished and are looking for an easy way down to reflect and celebrate. The Crestone Needle is not that folks. The Crestones Traverse is tough sure, but so is the Crestone Needle. Dreams of warm food and cold beer were quickly dashed as we slowly and painfully worked down the exposed Class 3 and Class 4 sections of Crestone Needle. It was around 12PM at this point and we were now sharing the trail with about 10-15 other hikers who had either rock climbed up the east face of the Needle or hiked the standard route.
The trail back to Broken Hand Pass was very easy to follow but full of loose rocks and dirt, exposed class 3 and 4 scrambles and lots of figurative screaming from my knees. The descent back to the pass took us about 1.5 hours and another hour or so back to South Colony Lakes. We were all exhausted and ready to be at the car. Unfortunately, we still had to pack up camp and make the boring walk out towards the upper trailhead. Many “what would you be/do” games later, we were back to the car. It was about 3PM, marking the 24 hour mark of when we had started our journey up the Crestones Traverse. It was a tough hike, but all three of us agreed it was one of our favorites we had ever done.
Many read about the Crestones Traverse, see Class 5 and immediately write this route off. However, all it takes is one section of a trail to be Class 3, 4, 5 etc. and that whole route is labeled whatever that move is. In this case, this Class 5.2 move was the toughest technical part of the hike, so the whole traverse is labeled accordingly. In reality, the most difficult part of the Crestones Traverse is dealing with the exposure and having a weather window that allows you to make this hike. It was tough and a hike I would not recommend for anyone without a lot of experience, but it was an AWESOME time.
For those of you who read this entire summary, I hope you find it helpful. Please message me on social media if you have specific questions and watch the video below which grants much more visual detail for the Crestones Traverse.