Mount Columbia: 14er Hike Review

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Mount Columbia (14,073ft.) is a 14er mountain located in Colorado’s Sawatch Range, within the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and the greater San Isabel National Forest. Adjacent to Mount Harvard (14,420ft.), the third tallest peak in the state of Colorado, Mount Columbia’s summit offers expansive views of the Horn Fork Basin and beautiful vistas of neighboring Sawatch Range mountains such as Mount Yale (14,200ft.).

The standard Mount Columbia route is via the Class 2 West Slopes, which is easily accessed at the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead. The West Slopes route is a moderately long 10.5 miles out-and-back roundtrip, though considerably steep with about 4,100ft. of elevation gain. Moderate scrambling on loose scree and talus rock is required to reach the summit. We consider this route a challenging day hike, but achievable with proper preparation and training.


Mountain Information

Mount Columbia is part of the impressively beautiful Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, which includes a number of other mountains named after prestigious universities such as Mount Harvard, Mount Yale, and Mount Oxford. Congress officially designated the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness area in 1980, encompassing approximately 168,000 acres and some of Colorado’s most breathtaking mountains. 

More specifically, Mount Columbia is named in honor of Roger Toll’s alma mater, Columbia University. Toll has an incredibly rich Colorado history and owns the distinction of the first recorded ascent of Mount Columbia in 1916. Notably, Toll was one of the founding members of the Colorado Mountain Club and became superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1921, after a brief tenure as superintendent at Mount Rainier National Park. In addition, Toll left a lasting legacy on area guidebooks, authoring publications such as The Mountain Peaks of Colorado and Mountaineering in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

As with nearly every Colorado 14er mountain, Mount Columbia is extremely popular. Because Mount Columbia is directly adjacent to Mount Harvard (14,420ft.), a compelling opportunity exists to reach two 14er summits in one outing. Thus, due to this popularity, plan to hike on a weekday or arrive early in the morning for less trail traffic.

Mount Columbia

  • Summit Elevation: 14,073ft.
  • Range: Sawatch
  • Sub-range: Collegiate Peaks
  • Location: San Isabel National Forest
  • Nearest Town: Buena Vista

Trail Guide

Route Information

  • Route: West Slopes 
  • Class: 2
  • Type: Out-and-Back
  • Trailhead: North Cottonwood Creek
  • Trailhead Elevation: 9,929ft.
  • Route Length: 10.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 4,144ft.
Difficulty – 0
Scenery - 0
Crowds - 0
Fun Factor - 0

Route Overview

The Class 2 West Slopes route to Mount Columbia begins at about 9,900ft. at the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead on the Horn Fork Basin Trail. In about 500ft., cross a footbridge over North Cottonwood Creek and begin a gradual ascent through the forest entering into the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. The ascent continues to another bridge crossing at about 1.5 miles into the trek. Here the trail starts to steepen and reaches a junction with a trail leading to Kroenke Lake/Brown’s Pass to the left; stay right on the Horn Fork Basin Trail to continue ascending.

At about 3.5 miles into the climb, reach another junction sign noting Mount Harvard/Bear Lake straight and Mount Columbia to the right. Take a right in an eastward direction and in a few hundred feet notice another junction to the left that heads north into the Horn Fork Basin. Continue straight until reaching a clearing with great views of Mount Yale to the south. Begin an ascent through loose talus and eventually into switchbacks of more defined trail with impressive views north toward Mount Harvard and even better views of Mount Yale to the south. Atop the long ridgeline, you’ll have good visibility of the summit goal, along with a great vista of Bear Lake to the west below. Keep ascending the ridgeline, reaching a flat patch of tundra. From here, the trail leads to more substantial boulders to work around and up to the summit of 14,073ft. 

Atop Mount Columbia, notice the connection to Mount Harvard and enjoy the views below into the Horn Fork Basin and beyond. Descend by doubling back, scrambling down from the summit and retracing steps back to the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead.

Planning Tips

Getting There

From Buena Vista, CO, continue on US 24 through town then turn onto Crossman Ave.. Stay straight on this road for about two miles, as it eventually turns into County Road 350. Turn right onto County Road 361 and in about one mile, take a sharp turn onto the dirt County Road 365, which transitions into Forest Road 365 as it enters the National Forest. Pass by the Silver Creek Trailhead on the left and numerous dispersed campsites along the way to eventually reach the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead parking area.

Note that County Road 365/Forest Road 365 is accessible with most vehicles. However, the road is rutted in certain sections; therefore, 4WD high clearance vehicles will have an easier time navigating the bumpy dirt road.


The standard West Slopes route to Mount Columbia begins at the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead parking area, which is also the starting point for Mount Harvard’s standard route. Though there are ample parking spaces that can accommodate approximately 30 vehicles, expect this lot to be busy. Further, this lot is unpaved with plenty of rocks and trees to navigate around. Primitive restrooms are available at the trailhead.


There are a number of dispersed campsite options to choose from along the road (Forest Road 365) toward the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead. If a more established campground is preferred, the Collegiate Peaks Campground is a large reservable campground that is approximately 30 minutes from the trailhead. Alternatively, Cottonwood Lake Campground is about 40 minutes from the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead and sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.


Dogs are permitted on leash. Note, there is a bit of boulder scrambling to reach Mount Columbia’s summit. If you do opt to bring your pet, please be considerate of others by keeping your pet on leash and picking up/packing out any dog waste.

Weather Forecast

Always check the weather forecast before venturing into alpine country. Thunderstorms and lightning are frequent occurrences in Colorado during the summer time, so plan ahead for your Mount Columbia 14er summit adventure.


Hiking Boots

The Vasque Torre hiking boots are incredibly lightweight, provide excellent traction, and are quite affordable for their versatility. We like the Vasque Torre’s for everyday hiking that includes a bit of scrambling. In addition, with the “GORE-TEX” construction, you don’t have to worry about damp feet if the weather turns or you have to splash through streams or puddles along the way.

Hiking Pants

We love prAna’s hiking pants for their quality and versatility. Indeed, their Zion (for men) and Halle (for women) are great on- and off-trail, especially for travel. Constructed with a durable UPF-50 fabric, a water-repellant finish, and utility pockets, these have become a staple in our wardrobe. Remember that it can be rather chilly at alpine elevations, so consider hiking pants rather than shorts (both for warmth and sun protection).

Hiking Shirt

It can get chilly during alpine outings, particularly when you start early in the morning. Therefore, we typically opt for a long sleeve but lightweight shirt to keep us warm when it’s cold, but keeps us cool when we are working up a sweat later in the day. The no-cotton rule applies to shirts just as it does for pants and other articles of clothing.

Our preferred hiking shirt in the summer is Outdoor Research’s Echo Hoody because of its UPF sun protection qualities and lightweight (4oz.) breathable construction. The shirt has a hood for added neck protection and has thumbholes to protect your hands from sun exposure, if you opt to not wear sun gloves. Outdoor Research also makes different varieties of the Echo shirt (e.g., quarter zip, long sleeve without hood, t-shirt, etc.) if you prefer another style.

Insulated Jacket

The Arc’teryx Atom is easily our favorite insulated jacket. Yes, there may be lighter weight alternatives on the market, but we love the style, fit, packability, and function. Wear the Atom during early morning starts or when you reach the mountain summit. It’s a great addition to an outdoors wardrobe and comes in handy when the temperature dips.

Hiking Socks

For most of our hiking needs, we like Darn Tough socks over the multitude of options on the market. They last long and have an ironclad guarantee. In addition, Darn Tough has a variety of designs, ankle lengths, and cushioning options to choose from. We like the Hiker quarter length with light cushioning.

Headwear/Face Covering

We often wear a Buff as a neck gaiter to protect from the sun, given its UPF 50 protective construction. Buffs are also a great option to use as a face covering on the trail. In fact, there are 12+ ways of wearing a Buff, so it’s a versatile piece of gear.

Day Pack

To summit Mount Columbia, we like REI Co-op’s Flash 22L pack for its affordability, lightweight design, and overall versatility. This pack has enough storage for a day hike and side pockets are available to store Nalgene bottles or other equipment. It is also hydration reservoir compatible. We think the 22L version has the perfect capacity, though REI does have an even smaller Flash 18L with a drawcord top.

Trekking Poles

Although trekking poles are optional and a matter of preference, we prefer to use them for added stability. We recommend choosing the lightest weight poles your budget can afford. The Black Diamond Distance Z is our top choice due to its extremely lightweight construction. If you are seeking just one pole, rather than two, consider Gossamer Gear’s LT5, which can be purchased individually.

recommended books

We recommend bringing along a topographical map of the area, such as the “Outdoor Trail Maps 14er SeriesColumbia, Harvard, Belford, Huron, Missouri, and Oxford.” A good topographical map is always nice to have in addition to a GPS device, if you’re using one. In addition, we included a couple of our favorite field guides for plant and bird identification to aid in the enjoyment of your outdoor adventure. Lastly, we included Gerry Roach’s “Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs” guidebook, which is the best print guide available for hiking Colorado’s 14ers. It provides an amazing amount of information on Mount Columbia and other 14er hikes in Colorado that may be of interest. 

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