14er Peak Rank #7/53 and Rank #19/53

Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle – often called simply ‘The Crestones’ and featured on Colorado 14ers Map 12 of 16 – are some of the most striking peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range as well as some of the more challenging Colorado 14ers to climb. Rising prominently from the Wet Mountain Valley in the east and the San Luis Valley in the west, the Crestones receive more climbers than, for example most of the Elk Mountains Peaks (according to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative) but far less than most Front Range or Sawatch 14ers.

Crestone Needle from Lower South Colony Lake

Crestone Needle from Lower South Colony Lake

The earliest name given to the Crestones by non-native American settlers was the Trois Tetons (due to their resemblance to the Tetons of Wyoming), but this didn’t stick for long, and the name Crestones caught on soon after. Crestone comes from the Spanish word crestón, which usually means either ‘crest’ or, in a mining/mineral sense, ‘outcrop of ore’.

Crestones behind the Great Sand Dunes
Crestones behind the Great Sand Dunes

The Crestones (right of center) rise dramatically above Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes from the west – NPS

Both of these peaks – at the time called simply The Crestones – were first climbed by famous Colorado mountaineer Albert Ellingwood in 1916 (the later-named Crestone Needle being the last Colorado fourteener to have a recorded ascent). One of the classic climbing routes, named for him, in Colorado Mountaineering is the Ellingwood Arete/Ledges on Crestone Needle.

Albert Ellingwood on the summit of Lizard Head Peak in 1920

Albert Ellingwood on the summit of Lizard Head Peak in 1920

The Crestones can be accessed from either the east or west side of the narrow spine of the Sangre de Cristo Range. From the west, the Cottonwood Creek Trailhead is on private property and usage rights for hikers have been spotty over the years until 2013 when the Forest Service negotiated some access with limited parking spots (please observe signs and park only where allowed here). Similar access issues exist for the rarely-used Spanish Creek Trailhead to the north of Cottonwood Creek, but this is a primitive trail and legal access is still in question for this area.

From the Cottonwood Creek Trailhead (8,440′ elevation), the Cottonwood Creek Trail #861 follows Cottonwood Creek (what else?) steadily upwards (with the trail petering out occasionally and towards the end in favor of cairns marking the route) for a little over 4 miles to the junction of the Crestone Peak trail/route to the left just before Cottonwood Lake. From here, it’s a steep Class 3 (scrambling) climb to Crestone Peak.

Crestone Peak from Kit Carson Avenue

Crestones from Kit Carson Avenue, by Fredlyfish4 – Own workCC BY-SA 3.0Link

From the east – much more commonly used than Cottonwood Creek – is the old South Colony Road approach.  South of Westcliffe, South Colony Road (County Road 120) lies east-west on flat land.  Towards the end of the straight section of road is the low-clearance vehicle trailhead (8,785′ elevation) before the road gets much rougher.  For those with higher clearance vehicles, the road continues southwest, crossing the motorized Rainbow Trail after 2.2 miles and finally making the upper 4×4 trailhead (9,900′ elevation) 0.4 miles after the Rainbow Trail junction. 

There is a gate across South Colony Road at this point, as the remaining 3.4 miles of road were closed off by the Forest Service years ago.  2.5 miles up the road from the upper trailhead is a trail going right/west that cuts off some of the distance to South Colony Lakes (reaching them after 1 mile from the turn-off). Otherwise, carry on another 0.9 miles along the road after this junction to the end of the old road and follow a trail north/northwest 0.7 miles to South Colony Lakes. At a junction just south of the Lake, a trail heads 0.8 miles steeply up to Broken Hand Pass, at the crest of which is the junction to the Crestone Needle standard route. From here it’s a 0.6 mile Class 3 route to the summit.

Another 0.8 miles down the trail from Broken Hand Pass will get one to the junction of the Crestone Peak trail/route.

The traverse from Crestone Peak to Crestone Needle (or vice versa) is one of the classic Colorado 14er Traverses, and this route should be left to those comfortable with exposed class 3 and Class 4 (simple climbing) terrain. Save this traverse for once you’ve built up a portfolio of experience with 14ers and higher class routes.

The Crestones of the Sangre de Cristo range are some of the most beautiful peaks in the state, but they can be dangerous as route-finding skills are required to avoid accidentally finding yourself in Class 5 (roped climbing) terrain. So for those 14er enthusiasts out there, it is prudent to build-up experience, fitness and and a comfort level with Class 3 terrain before attempting these summits – especially the traverse. This is, of course in addition to the normal precautions needed for Colorado alpine environments: respect your physical limits, keep hydrated, pay close attention to the weather, don’t be afraid to turn back even if near the summit and don’t forget your 14ers maps and compass. Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle are two of the five fourteeners featured on Outdoor Trail Maps Colorado 14ers Map 12 of 16.

Directions to Trailheads:

From the west side (San Luis Valley), turn east off CO Hwy 17 (that runs along the western edge of the Sangre de Cristo Range) at Moffat, CO towards the town of Crestone on County Road T (Russell St.). After 12 miles, the road splits; head right/south just before the small town of Crestone on Camino Baca Grande and follow this road south for 5.2 miles to a left turn (Tranquil Way) just before the road crosses over Cottonwood Creek. A third of a mile up this road is the trailhead – watch for parking signs and please be respectful of private property in this area.

From the east side (Wet Mountains Valley), staring in Westcliffe, drive south on Colorado HWY 69 for 4.6 miles and turn right/south on County Road 119 (Colfax Lane) and follow this road due south for 5.6 miles where it dead-ends into South Colony Road (County Road 120). Turn right/west onto South Colony Road and follow for about 1.5 miles to the 2WD trailhead on the right. For 4×4 vehicles, continue 2.6 miles to the 4×4 trailhead before the gate.