14er Peak Rank #51/53

The Mount of the Holy Cross – featured on Colorado 14ers Map 5 of 16 – is another famous 14er in Colorado with a fascinating history. One of the lowest 14ers in elevation (only qualifying for the status by 5 feet), this peak is in the Holy Cross Wilderness just south of Vail, CO and further north and more isolated than the other Sawatch Range 14ers.

Mount of the Holy Cross hike

Mount of the Holy Cross” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by jl_2

As Americans of European descent were spreading west across the continent in the mid-1800s, mountain men and explorers begin speaking of a peak with a gigantic holy cross on its side. One of the first mentions was in Samuel Bowles’ 1869 book The Switzerland of America: A Summer Vacation in the Parks and Mountains of Colorado where he spots from the summit of Grays Peak “one of the largest and finest [mountains], the snowfields lay in the form of an immense cross.” Though mentioned by some, the exact location of the mountain was not yet known or explored (by non-Native Americans) and no pictures or proof of this mysterious Holy Cross mountain yet existed.

Finally in 1873, as part of the Hayden Expedition, photographer William Henry Jackson finally took a photograph from a vantage point to the east of the mountain – after an arduous trek up what is now known as Notch Mountain – erasing any doubt of the existence of the mythical mountain. This photo showed a large couloir and horizontal bench in the face of the mountain where snow was packed in longer than on the surrounding areas of the face.

Jackson photo of Mount of the Holy Cross
Jackson photo of Mount of the Holy Cross

After this photograph was widely published, many pilgrims began making the trek out to this site they considered holy for prayer and reflection. As these visits became more common, a shelter was built on Notch Mountain (which provides the best views of the cross form the east) in 1924 to accommodate the hundreds of visitors. Though this shelter can be seen today, hikers aren’t allowed to stay there, but they can take refuge in the case of thunderstorms. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover declared the site a National Monument.

Mount of the Holy Cross Painting 1901

Painting of Mount of the Holy Cross in the clouds – 1901

The pilgrimages slowed down over the years, and the cross itself became less recognizable as the right arm of the cross was disfigured by rock slides and erosion. In 1950, the National Monument status was revoked. In 1980, however, the mountain and the surroundings were preserved as a National Wilderness Area, and of course many hikers and tourists still visit this pristine area today.

Mount of the Holy Cross Trail

Trail to Mount of the Holy Cross “Mount of the Holy Cross” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by JBColorado

The main access point to hiking up Mount of the Holy Cross is via the Halfmoon Trailhead off Notch Mountain Road. From the trailhead (at 10,350′ elevation), the trail climbs southwest for 1.6 miles before the trail splits – to the left is the trail to the summit of 13er Notch Mountain and staying right on the trail will lead to the Mount of the Holy Cross summit after another 3.6 miles of Class 2 (more difficult) hiking for a total of 3,650 feet of elevation gain.

For views of the mountain, take the Fall Creek Trail #2001 south from the Halfmoon trailhead for 2.8 miles to the junction with the North Mountain Trail #2000, which switchbacks its way for another 2.8 steep miles up to the Notch Mountain Shelter where pilgrims used to view the cross.

So take some time out to visit what once was and still is a treasured part of Colorado history, but remember to be prepared: respect your limitations, be wary of inclement weather, stay hydrated, and don’t forget your 14ers maps. Mount of the Holy Cross is one of two fourteeners featured on Outdoor Trail Maps Colorado 14ers Series Map 5 of 16.

Directions to Trailhead:

From Vail, CO, travel 5 miles west on Interstate 70 to the exit for US Hwy 24 heading south. Continue through the town of Minturn for 4.8 miles to the Halfmoon Road turn-off on the right/west. Take the windy Notch Mountain Road for 8.4 miles to the Halfmoon trailhead.