September 15, 2016

Crestone Needle – 14,197′

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Sangre de Cristo
457' (Crestone Peak - 0.5 mi WNW)
Custer/Saguache County
13 mi SW of Westcliffe
35.6 mi NE of Alamosa

South Face (Class 3)

Google Maps


This is the 10th 14er I've climbed, back in July 2013 with my friends Chris and Sean. It is the 20th tallest in Colorado and the 3rd tallest in the rugged Sangre de Cristo Range. Crestone Needle gets its unique name seemingly from the fact that its steep north and east faces shoot up abruptly more than 2,000' above the South Colony Lakes below, only a third of a mile away. This is a steep mountain that is perhaps one of the top 10 most difficult 14ers in the state. You can see it easy from much of the San Luis Valley to the west and from the east along CO Rt. 69 between Gardner and Westcliffe.


- The Approach -

We took the standard route to the summit, which was a two-day ordeal requiring a 6.5 mile approach hike on day one up to the South Colony Lakes at 11,600'. Over the course of both days, we hiked/climbed 16 miles and gained 5,500' of elevation. Arriving around 5pm that first afternoon, we parked at the Lower South Colony Trailhead at 8,800' since we did not have a 4WD vehicle. This parking area is actually below treeline, out in the valley east of the Sangre de Cristo Range.

From here, the rough 4WD South Colony Road (FR 120) continues southwest up through a forested valley for 2.7 miles, past the Rainbow Trail Trailhead at 9,800', to a parking area near 10,000'. As implied, 4WD vehicles with decent clearance can drive up the road and park here. The South Colony Road actually continues on from here but has been gated at this parking area for a number of years.

Past the gate, the route follows the rough road as it crosses to the north of South Colony Creek and heads up the valley (to the west southwest) for 2.5 miles to what used to be the actual Upper South Colony Lakes Trailhead and parking area at 11,000'. The road then crosses the creek again to its south side, breaks out of the trees, and continues for another 0.7 miles until it ends at 11,400'. From here, 14er Humboldt Peak can be seen just to your north and 13,573' Broken Hand Peak rises directly above you to your west.

Beyond the end of the road, a nice trail heads north for another 0.7 miles along Broken Hand Peak's lower east slopes to a wooded area just east of Lower South Colony Lake near 11,600'. If you plan to spend the night here, there are plenty of good dispersed camping spots from which to choose.


- The Climb -

The trail continues up to and along the south side of South Colony Lake, where the east face of the Needle comes into view in all its glory. From the lake, it is about half a mile up to the summit, but the horizontal distance from the summit to the lake's western shore is only 0.6 miles. Upper South Colony Lake is a little farther up to the northwest, at ~12,000'.

The trail veers left of the Needle and begins ascending the slopes up toward Broken Hand Pass, the 12,900' low point between the Needle and Broken Hand Peak. This requires a 400' Class 3 climb up through a couloir below the pass. Once at the pass, the trail meets with the trail coming up from Cottonwood Lake on the west side. From here, the route follows a third trail that heads off to the right (northwest) and winds its way up along the west side of the Needle's southeast ridge.

During this portion of the hike, the Needle's nasty-looking south face greets you up ahead. The trail continues to the base of the face near 13,300', where you will begin looking for two gullies that lead up toward the summit. From this point on, please do not use this route description if planning to make this climb. Instead, follow a more detailed description either from (see above) or from a 14er guidebook such as the one by Gerry Roach called Colorado's Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs*. Those will provide you with a much more detailed description than I care to give here.

The goal from the base of the east face is to find the easternmost gully and climb up it on very solid Class 3 rock for ~300' until it becomes steeper and more difficult. There is an obvious dihedral that runs down the middle of the gully at this spot, and it is possible to continue up the gully from here to the right of the dihedral on more challenging Class 4 rock to the summit. However, the route officially turns left (west), drops down a few feet into the dihedral, and climbs a steep Class 3 wall toward a notch at the top of the gully's west side. From what I remember, this wall looked worse that it actually was, though it was fairly exposed.

Once at the notch, continue around the corner, hike a few hundred feet west or northwest, and enter the westernmost gully. From here, climb the remaining 400' to the top of the gully near 14,000' and scramble up the rocks to the summit. Enjoy the views of 14ers Crestone Peak to the west northwest, Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak farther away to the northwest, and Humboldt Peak to the northeast. Also, Great Sand Dunes National Park lies 6,000' below in the valley ~10 miles to the south. On a clear day, you should also be able to catch views of the distant Blanca 14er group even farther south.

*Click here to get this book on Amazon!


Trip Reports

Crestone Needle (July 2013)