Sawatch Range

The Sawatch Range is perhaps the most impressive expanse of mountains in the continental United States.  It stretches about 100 miles throughout Colorado, is home to fifteen 14’ers, it forms part of the Continental Divide, and it feeds the Arkansas, Roaring Fork, Eagle, and Gunnison Rivers.  The Sawatch Range and the Mosquito Range were formed about 35 million years ago by the Sawatch Uplift when a bulge in the North American Plate created the modern Rocky Mountains.  The name Sawatch is derived from a similar Ute word that means “blue earth” and refers to the mid-range terrain located between the canyons and the peaks.  The Sawatch Range contains the only 14’ers in the state that are named after Ute Indians.       

All of the ranges 14’ers have non-technical routes to their summits, as well as more difficult climbing for the further experienced mountaineer.  The recreation provided by the Sawatch Range is unending with its wide array of hiking, biking, mountain climbing, backcountry skiing and snowboarding, horseback riding, and much more.  To top it all off the majority of the range is easily accessible from the Vail and Beaver Creek Resorts allowing for access to the many professional guides and outfitters in the area. 

1. Mount Elbert – 14,433 – (Some claim the summit to be 14,400’)  Mount Elbert has a lot to be proud of as it is the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains of North America and the second highest peak in the contiguous United States.  It is a mere 65 feet shorter than California’s Mount Whitney.  The mountain was named after Colorado Statesman Samuel Hitt Elbert by local miners grateful for his contributions in the late 1800’s.  Elbert brokered a treaty with the Ute Indians that allowed for mining and railroad activity on three million acres of Indian Reservation land. 

There are five main routes available for access to the summit.  They are all typically fairly benign allowing for climbers of all skill levels to enjoy this regal mountain.  The most popular route is the South Mt. Elbert Trailhead which intersects and is congruent at times with the Colorado and Continental Divide trails.  This trail is also popular for winter use by experienced mountaineers due to very low avalanche danger.  The winter summit is very long, requires good trail finding skills, and proper gear must be attained prior to the attempt.  It is most common for winter climbers to make an overnight trip out of their Mt. Elbert experience.

2. Mount Massive – 14,421’ - Although Mount Elbert is considered to be the highest peak in Colorado some believe that Mount Massive is more deserving of the title.  A group of enthusiasts have gone as far to stack rocks on the summit in order to outdo its rival; however, the rock piles have been disassembled and thus the ranking remains the same.  Mount Massive is named for its elongated shape formed by a three mile ridge that has five summits above 14,000’.  These five summits give Mount Massive the most area above 14,000’ than any other mountain in the lower 48 states, barely beating out Mt. Rainier.  

Many of the Mount Massive ascents are fairly easy class 2 climbs, but they are also at least 6 miles in length so prepare for a long day.  There are more difficult hikes available including additional technical climbs or multi-summit ascents.  One good example of this is called the Tour de’ Massive which is the ascent of all nine of Mount Massives’ summits in one attempt.  The mountain is also a popular destination in the winter, but should only be attempted by experienced mountaineers due to the rugged terrain and avalanche danger.  The trailhead can only be reached in the winter with the use of four-wheel drive and chains, cross-country skis, snowmobiles, or snowshoes adding to the overall length of the adventure. 

5. La Plata Peak – 14,336’ - Similar to its taller Sawatch cohorts La Plata Peak is big, bulky, and rugged; however, there is one characteristic that separates it from the others, Ellingwood Ridge.  This 2 mile ridge is a haven of technical climbs held in reserve for only the expert mountaineer.  Despite this knife-like ridge La Plata Peak is a fairly gentle mountain for anyone looking to bag a few 14’ers or snatch up some panoramic views.    

The east side of La Plata Peak is home to Independence Pass which is a very popular high mountain road that takes you from Leadville to Aspen.  The name of the peak means Silver in Spanish and was an ode to the booming silver mining industry in the nearby ghost towns of Winfield and Hamilton.  The Hayden Survey is credited for the first ascent in 1873, although Ellingwood Ridge was not successfully climbed for another hundred years in 1974. 

10. Mount Antero – 14,269’ - Mount Antero has few distinctive qualities aside from its status on the 14’er list that makes it a popular destination.  First, the mountain is only on of three 14’ers to be named after a Native American.  Chief Antero of the Uintah band of Utes in Colorado was an important advocate of peace during the mid-late 1800’s.  Second, Mount Antero has one of highest concentrations of aquamarine and arguably the highest concentration of minerals in the country.  Some minerals still actively mined on Mount Antero are aquamarine, fluorite, topaz, and smoky quartz crystals.

The third interesting quality is the abundance of mining ghost towns including one of the more famous in Colorado, St. Elmo.  The most common route to ascend Mount Antero is from the Baldwin Gulch Trailhead located a short distance from St. Elmo.  The nearly deserted town (8 residents) was built in 1878 and incorporated in 1879 with a population of more than 2000 at its peak.  The preservation of the buildings in St. Elmo is astonishing, and has earned the town the title of Colorado’s Best Preserved Ghost Town.  The buildings are all privately owned and managed and there is a general store that runs from May to October. 

17. Mount Shavano – 14,229’ - The Sawatch Range was occupied by the Ute Indians for nearly six centuries prior to the arrival of white men.  Only a handful of the mountains bear names in honor of these early settlers including only three 14’ers.  The mount is named in honor of Chief Shavano of the Ute’s Tabeguache Tribe.  The mountain appears in a wide array of Ute and local lore for centuries mostly due to the Angel of Shavano, a snow formation in the image of an angel on the mount’s east face.   

Mount Shavano is the southern and eastern most 14’er of the Sawatch Range.  There are only a few trails leading to the summit all of which are fairly easy class 2 climbs.  Along these trails you may also see the deserted town site of Shavano or a deserted mine of two.  The mountain was and is rich in Gold, Silver and Lead and waits for the day that it is again profitable to mine these metals. 

25. Tabeguache Peak – 14,155’ – Tabeguache peak is named after the largest of the Ute tribes that spanned from Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico with roughly 1,000 members at its peak.  The name Tabeguache means “cedar-bark, sunny slope people” which is a telling name for the lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer tribes that inhabited the area. 

Tabeguache Peak along with Mount Shavano is the southernmost peak in the Sawatch Range and they are usually climbed together.  The trails of Tabeguache Peak are most typically class 2 climbs making it a great peak for a first 14’er or even first and second if climbed with Mount Shavano. 

51. Mount of the Holy Cross – 14,005’ – One of the most famous 14’ers in the state the Mount of the Holy Cross is named for its cross-shaped couloir on the mountains northeast face.  The first “discovery” of the natural phenomena was in 1869, and became a popular site for Christian pilgrimages throughout the early 1900’s.  The first known published photo of the peak was in National Geographic magazine, and the first ascent was in 1873 by the Hayden Expedition and photographer W.H. Jackson during a geographical survey.  The first winter ascent was in 1943 by Russell Keene and Howard Freedman of the 10th Mountain Division.

There are several popular routes for either summiting Mount Holy Cross, viewing the cross couloir, or both.  Whichever your goal it will often start with the summit and descent of the neighboring Notch Mountain by Half Moon Pass or Notch Mountain Trail combined with Halo Ridge.  Cross Coulior is a semi-technical class 3 climb for the more experienced mountaineer.  Anyway you decide to tackle this exciting 14’er you can count on a fairly long day, you may even want to consider making an extended trip out of your expedition.  The peak is located in the Mount Holy Cross wilderness in the White River National Forest.  Unfortunately, the wilderness is not protected and is in danger due to the last century of overuse.  Please always abide by backcountry ethics when exploring this land, and remember to pack out what you pack in.     

52. Huron Peak – 14,003’ – As you ascend to the summit of Huron Peak you may feel like you are traveling back in time.  The peak is located farther from any paved road than any other Colorado 14’er in the Sawatch Range, and no paved road is visible from the summit!  Prominently visible, however, are the nearby 13’ers the Three Apostles and Ice Mountain.  These three mountains form a foreboding massif sitting right on the backbone of the Continental Divide, and they should not be underestimated by the aspiring climber.

The most popular route to ascend Huron Peak is the South Winfield Trailhead which is a class 2 climb and about 8 miles roundtrip.  If you have a 4wd vehicle you can shorten the hike significantly, and other routes are available.  Huron Peak can also be climbed in conjunction with the 13’er Browns Peak for a 10+ mile hike.

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