Elevation: 14,294 ft
GPS: 37.967, -105.585 Google Map · Climbing Area Map
Page Views: 83,374 total · 379/month
Shared By: Ben Mottinger on Dec 31, 2000
Admins: Leo Paik, John McNamee, Frances Fierst, Monty, Monomaniac
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Some of the most jagged and spectacular peaks in Colorado--The Crestones. Both the Crestone Peak (14,294') and the Crestone Needle (14,197') are also two of the most difficult 14'ers in Colorado. They lie within wilderness in the narrow Sangre de Cristo Range in the south central part of the state. The best climbing season is from late June-September although there are some good snow/ice climbs also. There are several technical routes in the Crestone group including Ellingwood Ledges (part of Fifty Classic Climbs of North America) and the NW Pillar on the Peak.

In addition, there are some 14'ers including Humboldt Peak (14,064'), Challenger Point (14,080'), and Kit Carson (14,165') and bunches of 13'ers including Broken Hand Peak (13,573'), Lone Horn Peak (13,143'), Mt. Adams, (13.931'), Colony Baldy (13,707'), Milkwaukee Peak (13,522'), Marble Mt. (13,266'), Music Mt. (13,355') in the area to supplement your hiking needs.

Getting There

The shortest (although not best) approach to these peaks is via the East side. Drive to Westcliff from CO Hwy 96. Go 4.6 miles. S on CO 69, the take 119 5.6 miles to 120. Turn right and take the dirt road to a gate. Cars without 4WD Low should park here and walk the remaining 5 miles to the trailhead. Those with a good vehicle can take the 4x4 trail. Eds. the 4WD road is closed 3 miles from the old 4WD trailhead. Note that this 4x4 trail is not easy. I would not attempt this trail in any vehicle without 4WD, good tires, and plenty of clearance. FWIW, in the old days, 4WD vehicles were only barely faster than walkers on the last 3 miles.

From the new trailhead, you walk 3 miles up the gentle grade of the old 4WD road. Just before a stream crossing, you have a choice. You can head right up a more forested trail that gets you to just above the Lower South Colony Lake or continue up the slightly longer left fork that approaches the Lower South Colony Lake from below.

If you access the Broken Hand Pass (Standard Crestone Needle access), the trail switchbacks quickly from near the SE corner of the Lower South Colony Lake. There is no established trail on the southern shores of South Colony Lake.

Alternative approach: From the West side, take the Cottonwood Creek trail 6 miles and about 4500 feet of elevation gain to the lake on the Crestones SW side. I prefer this approach since there are far less people and the scenery is nicer.


There are camping spots around the Upper and Lower South Colony Lakes that are heavily used by peak baggers. Note, although closer to the starts of the climbs, there is little wind protection around Upper South Colony Lakes due to its being above treeline. You must camp 300 feet from any water source. Ear plugs may help for good sleep with windy conditions. Protecting your food from inquisitive animals is recommended. Water treatment is strongly advised.

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Classic Climbing Routes at The Crestones

Mountain Project's determination of the classic, most popular, highest rated climbing routes in this area.
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Sun & Shade

Weather Averages

Days w Precip
Prime Climbing Season
George Bell
Boulder, CO
George Bell   Boulder, CO
Hey, has anybody ever climbed the "Black Gendarme", the spectacular tower on the ridge between Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak? This is the spectacular tower near the low-point of the traverse. ...

We spotted a wicked crack on the SW side with slings at it's top. Looked wide and burly but was the only route evident on the west side. That is one wild tower! Aug 12, 2002
That is an amazing looking tower, isn't it? Good ol' Harvey T. Carter claimed the first ascent of the Black Gendarme in the early 1960's. See W.M. Bueller's "Roof of the Rockies" for more details. Feb 10, 2003
Does anyone know if the Ellingwood Ledges route and the Prow have been linked before? Since these are the two most famous climbs in the area, it seems like someone would have done this before, including the traverse between the Needle and the Peak as the approach to the Prow. Jun 23, 2003
Jason williams
Parker, Colorado
Jason williams   Parker, Colorado
We were up there this weekend with really perfect weather. Wanting to avoid an insurance claim on the truck I just bought, it took us over 2hrs to complete the 5 mile 4wd road in my Dodge Ram 1500. It seems 4runners and jeeps have the easiest time on this road. We were told by several climbers on the way in that the last pitch on the headwall of Ellingwood Ledges is completely iced up, as well as the surrounding cracks. The days have been nice and warm lately (60s), but the nights dip below freezing. The headwall only gets a couple hours of sunlight each day, probably not allowing time for the ice to thaw. To answer Bill Wright's question, it IS possible to do The Prow from the Ellingwood area? We hiked up the trail from "upper" S. Colony Lake to the saddle of Humboldt Peak, then broke NW along the ridge which will gradually drop you down to the Bears Playground. From here, you can see the obvious awesome Prow about 2 miles away. Keep in mind you do not want to reverse the ridge at night. Several sections are only 3ft wide and some with snow and ice that's challenging enough in the middle of the day. Start early and haul ass and it can be done. Sep 22, 2003
My partner and I did the Ellingwood Ledges & Peak Traverse part of the link up on Monday. I have done the Prow as well on a separate excursion. While I am no marathon maniac, the feat is doable. First off a good working knowledge of the traverse is mandatory as it isn't all that intuitive and is usually done in the reverse direction. After dropping all the way down the North/west couloir on Crestone Peak, it is most likely a long mile over to the start of the Prow on pretty reasonable terrain. Ending the day back at S. Colony is going to be the ball buster as going back up over the Bears Playground after all that ground is going to separate the men from the boyz so to speak. But then those of you who chase these dreams are made of the stuff the others of us only dream of. Aug 14, 2007
Julian Smith
Colorado Springs, CO
Julian Smith   Colorado Springs, CO
A bit more on the marathon stuff… left the trailhead at 3:30 AM, hiked to upper South Colony Lake and had to pace around in the dark to wait for enough light to solo the direct start of the Ellingwood Arete; arrived on the summit at 7:34 AM. Down-climbed the rappel and traversed over to Crestone Peak, which is way more complicated than I gave it credit for; arrived at 9:35 AM. Descended the North Couloir, crossed over the Bears Playground, and climbed Humboldt Peak; arrived at the summit at 11:45 AM. Descended back to the trailhead by 1:07 PM. I call this the South Colony Lakes Trifecta; my first three-bagger! (not as stout as doing the South Prow instead of Humboldt...) Aug 2, 2009
John Korfmacher
Fort Collins, CO
John Korfmacher   Fort Collins, CO
An update on the S. Colony Lakes access road...the Forest Service is constructing a new trailhead about 0.5 km past the Rainbow Trail intersection, and installed a heavy-duty gate just past the parking area. I don't know what that implies for future 4WD access, but in any event, the lower part of the road has been recently maintained and it is now passable to skillfully-driven 2WD vehicles as far as the new parking lot. The new lot is still about 5 km from the old 4WD trailhead farther up the valley. The upper part of the road is still godawful.

Camping at lower S. Colony Lake was very crowded on Labor Day weekend. There are a large number of fairly good sites southeast of the lake, near the old hiking trail that went unnoticed and unoccupied. PLEASE be careful with waste disposal, litter, fires, etc. in this area.

If you are of a mind to pack a fishing pole along with your rope, both S. Colony Lakes have sizable populations of cutthroat trout. Sep 8, 2009
Custer County South Colony Road Closure Begins This Month
Westcliffe, Colo., October 1, 2009 - The U.S. Forest Service - San Isabel National Forest, San Carlos Ranger District will permanently close the upper half of the South Colony Road, Forest Service Road (FSR) 120 to motor vehicles on October 13, 2009.

The closure near the Custer and Huerfano County line will occur approx. 2.7 miles above the lower parking lot or 0.2 miles above the Rainbow Trail before the first stream crossing. A trailhead, information kiosk, foot bridge and primitive camping facilities have been constructed at the closure point. The parking area will accommodate about 50 vehicles.

These actions are needed to protect the physical and biological environment surrounding the lakes, streams, trailheads, and routes to the nearby peaks from the steadily increasing levels of recreation use in South Colony Basin.

This action responds to the goals and objectives outlined in the Pike and San Isabel Forest Plan, and helps move South Colony Basin towards desired conditions described in that plan. This action is being implemented in accordance with the Environmental Assessment (EA) for the management of the South Colony Basin. The purpose is to:

Maintain South Colony Basin in a natural condition while accommodating human uses.
Offer recreational opportunities within a natural setting that enhance the visitor's outdoor experience; including opportunities for challenge, self-reliance, and risk.
Provide for public health and safety commensurate with the backcountry setting.
Minimize the costs for maintaining roads, trails and trailhead facilities. Nov 24, 2009
Leo Paik
Westminster, Colorado
Leo Paik   Westminster, Colorado  
The Forest Service is considering charging for permits in the South Colony Lakes area at the cost of $10/day/person for day trips, and $20/trip/person for overnights during May 1-Oct 1. Children less than 18 would be free. These would be available online or with exact change at the trailheads. Consider contacting the FS if you have opinions on the matter. Sep 3, 2010