Mount Harvard (14,420ft.) is a 14er mountain located in Colorado’s Sawatch Range, within the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and the greater San Isabel National Forest. As the third tallest mountain in Colorado and the fourth tallest mountain in the contiguous U.S., Mount Harvard is only slightly smaller than Mount Elbert (14,440ft.) and Mount Massive (14,421ft.), the two highest peaks in the state.
The standard Mount Harvard route via its South Slopes is easily accessed at the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead. As with many Sawatch Range mountain ascents, the South Slopes route to the summit of Mount Harvard is long and steep at 14.1 miles roundtrip with 4,527ft. of elevation gain. Indeed, the South Slopes route is rated Class 2, with some fairy significant boulder scrambling and exposure at the route’s summit crux. We consider this route a substantial challenge for a day hike, but achievable with proper preparation and training.
HIKE REVIEW SERIES: Mount Harvard
In 1869, members of the Harvard University School of Mining and Practical Geology embarked on an expedition with geologist Josiah Whitney and named Mount Harvard in honor of Harvard University. Whitney was notably the chief of the California Geological Survey and a founding faculty member of the Harvard school of mines. However, Whitney was a Yale University alum, hence nearby Mount Yale obtained its namesake in honor of Whitney’s alma mater.
Staying with the trend of naming peaks after prestigious universities, Mount Harvard and Mount Yale neighbor other 14er peaks such as Mount Columbia and Mount Oxford within the magnificent Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and the larger Sawatch Range. Congress designated the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness area in 1980, which encompasses approximately 168,000 acres and is home to some of Colorado’s most breathtaking mountains.
As with nearly every Colorado 14er mountain, Mount Harvard is extremely popular especially because of its status as the third tallest peak in Colorado. In addition, Mount Harvard is directly adjacent to Mount Columbia (14,073ft.) which offers a compelling opportunity to reach two 14er summits. Thus, due to this popularity, plan to hike on a weekday or arrive early in the morning for less trail traffic.
- Summit Elevation: 14,420ft.
- Range: Sawatch
- Sub-range: Collegiate Peaks
- Location: San Isabel National Forest
- Nearest Town: Buena Vista
- Route: South Slopes
- Class: 2
- Type: Out-and-Back
- Trailhead: North Cottonwood Creek
- Trailhead Elevation: 9,929ft.
- Route Length: 14.1 miles
- Elevation Gain: 4,527ft.
The Class 2 South Slopes route to Mount Harvard 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. Keep straight on the Horn Fork Basin Trail heading into the Horn Fork Basin. Beautiful views of Mount Yale will be behind, with Mount Harvard straight ahead and Mount Columbia to the east. The trail begins to enter willows and leads to a crossing of Horn Fork Creek.
At approximately 12,300ft., reach the trail junction with Bear Lake to the left. Head straight here on the Mount Harvard South Slopes trail and eventually begin to enter trail comprised of talus and small boulders. The trail exits the talus for a bit into tundra with navigation aided by large cairns and starts to steepen again into rockier terrain ascending the southern slope of Mount Harvard. Reach the crux just below Mount Harvard’s summit where the trail seems to abruptly stop. Choose the clearest path to scramble through the boulders to reach the summit.
Atop Mount Harvard, notice the connection to Mount Columbia and enjoy the views below into the Horn Fork Basin and beyond. Descend by doubling back, carefully down-climbing from the summit and retracing steps back to the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead.
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 South Slopes route to Mount Harvard begins at the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead parking area, which is also the starting point for Mount Columbia’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 some fairly significant boulder scrambling and moderate exposure at the crux of this route to Mount Harvard’s summit. Accordingly, 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.
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 Harvard 14er summit adventure.
RECOMMENDED HIKING APPAREL AND GEAR
We recommend bringing along a topographical map of the area, such as the “Outdoor Trail Maps 14er Series: Columbia, 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 Harvard and other 14er hikes in Colorado that may be of interest.
- Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs
- A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners
- Colorado 14ers: The Standard Routes
- Outdoor Trail Maps 14er Series: Columbia, Harvard, Belford, Huron, Missouri, and Oxford
- Outdoor Trail Maps Colorado 14ers Series Sawatch Range Map Pack
- Rocky Mountain Wildflowers Field Guide
- Roadside Geology of Colorado
- Mammals of Colorado Field Guide
- American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of Colorado
- Sibley Birds West: Field Guide to Birds of Western North America
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