Tired of climbing peaks swarming with folks? Head to the Mount of the Holy Cross, the northernmost fourteener of the Sawatch Range. The lovely 14,011-foot peak lies hidden from the power corridor of I-70 and it requires a rugged trek to reach the top. A backpack trip into the Holy Cross Wilderness, capped with a scramble to the summit of its namesake peak, offers the chance for full immersion in the wild and a bit of tranquil downtime. On the Cross’s lower slopes, you’ll ramble through quiet subalpine forest and wildflower-filled meadows. On the upper reaches, massive walls of sheer granite, vast verdant basins and rugged ridges pull you toward the summit. The standard North Ridge route is only 11 miles roundtrip and can be knocked off in one long, exhausting day, but take heed: It’s a strenuous climb with 5,000-plus feet of elevation gain—including 1,000 on the return trip. If you want a truly enjoyable trip, spend a night (or two) at East Cross Creek.
1. Half Moon Trailhead
It’s off the beaten path; that’s part of the reason this climb stays relatively quiet. Enjoy the scenic drive starting from just west of Vail on I-70. Take Exit 171 and head towards Tennessee Pass on Highway 24. Drive through Minturn, travel three miles and turn right onto the clearly marked Tigiwon Road (FR 707). Follow the long, winding, rough-at-times dirt road for eight miles to reach the trailhead.
2. Half Moon Pass
From the trailhead, follow the Half Moon Trail west and upward through lush forest. After 1.7 miles, you’ll reach Half Moon Pass at 11,640 feet. Look back for views of the Gore Range and to the left to Notch Mountain before beginning your descent toward East Cross Creek. Remember, it’s a 970-foot to regain this pass on your way out. (Mental preparation might make it hurt less.)
3. East Cross Creek
The descent starts gradually, passing through dark forest, then a rocky open slope inhabited by chirping marmots. The downhill grade steepens, bringing you around a corner after which views of Holy Cross’s north face and the East Cross Creek Basin explode before you. Look for the waterfall cascading over boulder-strewn East Cross Creek. Continue downhill to the creek and pitch your tent in one of the numbered campsites (permits are required but free and self-issued). This mandatory campground serves to minimize impacts on the fragile riparian ecosystem.
4. North Ridge
Cross the creek on a spindly log bridge and follow the trail as it winds west over some mellow, rocky terrain. Increasing in difficulty, the route switchbacks through the trees, which thin with every step. After climbing a bit, you’ll reach the north ridge.
5. Final Push
Follow the ridge, with glimpses of the north face of Holy Cross, now closer and even more commanding. Take your time because the steep route gets rougher as you go, passing over talus and rocks. When you reach a notch, carefully peer over the edge to glimpse the Angelica Couloir, a technical snow climb. From the notch, the route turns left and the trail fades. Pick your own way up the steep talus slope leading toward the summit.
After an exhilarating, but non-technical scramble, reach the top and big, panoramic views of the heart of the Rockies. Pay attention on the descent: The trail is defined, but if you get distracted, you could end up way off route and in the wrong drainage.
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