Trail Report - Crestone Peak - Colorado

September 2, 2017

Written by Paul van Valkenburgh

Showing Small Pictures    

Crestone Peak! 14,294'
Cottonwood Creek Approach
13 Miles Round Trip
5800' Elevation Gain


The Mighty Crestones


My brother from another mother Tommy Neville and I took the Cottonwood Creek approach to Crestone Peak! It was a day we'll remember forever, a truly amazing journey! We had an awesome time. The creek trail is amazing with several waterfall sections. Arriving at the Cottonwood Lake area and the base of Crestone Peak was incredible. And climbing the Red Gully and the summit block, the whole day was just an unbelievable adventure.


We left the trailhead at 4:30AM to get a head start. The first 3 miles head up nice trail following Cottonwood Creek. Of course it was dark so we couldn't see much, but it seemed to make the miles go a bit easier. You see things change when you hit the first waterfall along Cottonwood Creek and this crazy tree with it's roots flowing down like a snake. It was a great place to take a break and few pictures.


Waterfall On Cottonwood Creek Trail  Snake Tree On Cottonwood Creek Trail


Once you pass the first waterfall, you begin to hit the 'boilerplate slabs' (as they're referred to by Gerry Roach, Colorado Mountaineer Extraordinairre). They are these really cool slabs with crazy rock formulations that go up along side of the creek. There are plenty of twists and turns through the boilerplate section but the trail is cairned. When in doubt, keep going up the canyon that follows the creek!


Rock Slabs On Cottonwood Creek Trail


Cool Rock Slabs On Cottonwood Creek Trail


There are some trip reports on 14ers.dom that talk about a lot of deadfall on the Cottonwood Creek trail. This must have been cleared as of our hike as there were only a couple of spots where we had to log hop.


We met some really cool campers at about the 4 mile mark as we finished passing the 'boilerplate slabs' section. They mentioned that once we turn into the drainage, that there are 2 more waterfalls (which are bigger than the first one lower down Cottonwood Creek). Of course waterfalls are basically cliffs, so yes this section is steep and this section of the trail is the least established. But there are several ways to move up. We found that sticking to the left on the ascent, right on the descent, was best for us. The second waterfall we went through steep trees where the last waterfall we navigated the slabs along the side of it... really fun rock scrambling.


Other reports / threads discuss whether to go way high on the talus fields to the left to avoid the willows before and after the 3rd waterfall. We felt that would have cost us a lot more energy with the trek up the Red Gully still in front of us. So, we stuck as close to the left of the creek as possible... there was a litte bit of willow-bush-red-sea-parting goin' on, but wasn't really bad.... there's kind of a small trail underneath a lot of those willows.


Second Waterfall Towards Crestone Peak


Gorgeous Views To South From Waterfall Section


Third And Coolest Waterfall


Tommy On Slabs Of Third Waterfall


Looking Down From Top Of Third Waterfall


Ruggedness Near Cottonwood Lake


After about 5 miles you connect with standard trail to Crestone Peak. It is flat out stunning to see the Peak and the Needle for the first time. Tidbit - if you are are taking this route and only doing the Peak, you will actually never see Cottonwood Lake. It is just one quick detour if you want to run over and see it... but this is the case. Once you reach the standard trail, you still have a decent winding climb through the bottom of the basin to reach the trail entrance to the Red Gully.


The South Face Of Crestone Peak And Red Gully


Closer To The South Face And The Red Gully


The Red Gully is just insane. I think it's close to 1500 vertical feet. The pictures are great but it's just crazy to actually climb in that thing! You take your time and it goes up, up, up, up!! (Oh crap, I forgot, we have to come down that thing!). Tommy and I loved the gully as it felt like we were truly mountaineering.


Beginning Up The Red Gully


Scenery In The Red Gully


Moving Up The Red Gully


Tommy Heading Up The Red Gully


Tommy On Steep Section In The Red Gully


Looking Down From Part Way Up The Red Gully


Paul Climbing The Red Gully


More Steep Terrain In The Red Gully


Final Section The Red Gully


Looking Down From The Top Of The Red Gully


Once you arrive at the saddle between Crestone Peak proper and East Crestone (a sub-summit of Crestone Peak), you are treated to amazing views to the North of Kit Carson, Challenger Point, and other high peaks. The Sangre De Cristo's are SO AMAZING! Outside of the Tetons, I don't think I've seen any more rugged mountains in the US.


Tommy At The Summit Block


Exposure To The Left Side Of The Summit Block


Beautiful Views South


View North From Saddle To Kit Carson


Northeast Crestone From The Saddle


The Summit block is really cool too. It kind of has these blocks like ancient Egyptian pyramids that you navigate. Oh wait, there's a 1000 foot drop off to the left! (woops - forgot that minor detail) So you pick a line and move up. I was a little unnerved by the exposure, so I picked a more inner (higher) line. It makes for a little harder climbing / scrambling move, but it makes the exposure less. Tommy took the line that was lower, more exposed, but probably a bit easier.


Tommy Picking Line Up Summit Block


Tommy Nears The Summit


Paul Makes The Summit


On the summit, we met these two young guys who were like mountain goats. The views to other Sangre De Cristo mountains are just insane as well as those down to the valley. You just can't believe you are actually sitting on top of that mountain!! WOW!! This was my first successful class 3 hike! So after 6+ miles one-way and close to 6000K elev gain, this flatlander was feelin' pretty stoked to make it!!


The Summit Of Crestone Peak


Cool Cats On The Summit


East Crestone From The Summit Of Crestone Peak


Awesome Summit Views With Crestone Needle In View


Paul And Tommy On The Summit


View To Valley To West From The Summit


Crestone Needle From The Summit


Pano To The South From The Summit


Northeast Crestone East Crestone And Needle


View East To Colony Baldy


Another View East


The way down was long and painful as most way downs are. Going down the Red Gully takes a LONG time. Probably almost as long as going up as you must be careful. There are some slick and loose spots and Tommy and I both had little slips. With adrenaline push over and tiredness setting in, be carful! Going back through the waterfall section was fun as well as we could really see things better later in the afternoon. Those last 3 miles really hurt once you are on a somewhat boring trail after having seen what have seen earlier... UUUggggghhh. Total stats 13.25 miles RT, 15 hours (yes, we're slow old geezers), 5800+ elev gain.


The Top Of The Red Gully From Summit Block


Tommy Begins Heading Down


Hope this has been enjoyable and / or helpful to anyone reading it!!


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