3 Elk Creek Trail
3 Elk Creek Trail is located just north of Buena Vista off County Road 368 that provides access to Mount Columbia at 14,073 feet, with an elevation gain of 4, 813 feet. Please keep in mind that the Horn Fork Basin detailed in the Mount Columbia page and the information sheet below is the recommended route for this Fourteener. From the trailhead walk south on a logging road for 300 yards. When the logging road turns right (west), continue heading south on a well-defined trail that is marked with blazes. You will cross other logging roads, but keep heading south on the trail. You will come to Three Elk Creek in a small gorge. Cross the creek, climb out of the gorge and find an old road that is now used as the trail. Head west on this road/trail. You will intersect the Colorado Trail at 10,270 ft, near Harvard Lakes, but you don’t want to turn onto this. Keep heading west on the old jeep trail for another mile and a half until you break out of the timber at around 11,300.
The trail seems to keep going, but it will take you into a marshy stand of trees and then peter out. Look for the wide east ridge of Columbia on your right. You will see a huge stand of trees that are intermixed with lots of dead trees. There are some nice photo opportunities here. Head under this mini forest following the basin, and then cut northwest after bypassing most of the trees to begin an ascent of the ridge. Pick a place that looks easy to ascend the ridge. Try to keep an eye on where you left the trail so it’s easier to find on the way back. The ridge is long and the views are more amazing as you gain altitude. There are several false summits along the ridge so don’t get discouraged, just enjoy the scenery as you hike the approximately 2 miles to the true summit.
Enjoy your solitude on the ridge because it’s likely that the summit will have hoards of hikers when you get there, unless it is the fall in which case there will be sub-hoards. No matter what, the views from the summit are amazing as you can see Sawatch fourteeners and thirteeners in every direction. Reverse the route to return to the car. If you have a GPS you might want to mark important places like where you left the trail and the route through the maze of logging roads in the woods near the trailhead.
Mt. Columbia has no standard routes, but more information can be found on the Mount Cloumbia information sheet.
At a Glance
|Closest Towns:||Buena Vista, Colorado|
|Information Center:||For more information on Leave No Trace Outdoor Ethics, go to http://lnt.org or for more information on Colorado's fourteeners, go to www.14ers.org|
To get to the Three Elk Creek Trailhead, drive to Buena Vista on US Hwy 24. Head north out of Buena Vista and turn west onto Chaffee County Road 350, also called Crossman Avenue. Reset your trip odometer here. Drive for around 2 miles until you come to a T-intersection. Turn right onto County Road 361 and drive 3.8 miles (5.9 miles from reset of your odometer) to Chaffee County Road 368. Turn left onto 368 and then drive 1.2 miles to Chaffee County Road 368A (mile 7.1). Turn left (southwest) onto 368A and go just 0.1 mile to Forest Service Road 368 at mile 7.2. Turn right onto the unimproved FSR 368 and drive on a high clearance road for another 0.8 miles. The trailhead sign is at mile 8.0.
Map showing recreational areas. Map Information
Permits & Regulations
Thousands of people enjoy climbing Colorado’s peaks. To protect natural resources and preserve the experience for others, please follow Leave No Trace hiking techniques: http://www.lnt.org/programs/principles.php
Remember, you are within the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. As such, special regulations apply, including:
- Campfires are prohibited within 100 feet of water and trails;
- Group size is limited to 15 people per group with a maximum combination of 25, including pack and saddle animals, in any one group within wilderness;
- Dogs must be under physical restraint of a leash at all times;
- Bicycles are prohibited;
- Organized groups are required to obtain approval from the Forest Service, Leadville District Office (719-486-0749);
- Short-cutting switchbacks is prohibited.
Mountain weather is unpredictable and can change quickly. Be prepared with rain gear and extra layers of warm clothing. Thunderstorms occur frequently in the afternoons, so plan your trip accordingly. Also, keep in mind thunderstorms build rapidly, so keep an eye on the weather and get below timberline at the first sign of a thunderstorm.
Combat altitude sickness by acclimating gradually and staying hydrated. If symptoms (i.e. severe headache, dizziness, or nausea) occur, immediately descend to a lower elevation. At this altitude, sunlight is much more intense, and the air is much drier. Wear sunscreen and a hat, and drink plenty of fluids. Always carry a map and compass, and know how to use them.
Snow, rain and lightning storms are common. Daytime temperatures range from 40-70 degrees in the summer months. Be prepared for changing weather. Carry rain gear and extra layers of warm clothing.