Kit Carson Mountain is a very prominent mountain located in the Sangre de Cristo Range. The area surrounding Kit Carson Mountain is both rugged and pristine, with views of amazing peaks such as Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak in abundance. The hike to Kit Carson Mountain by way of the Willow Creek trailhead is nothing short of astounding, with breathtaking vistas available the whole way up. To put it lightly, this is one of the best hikes in Colorado, bar none.
Here are some meaningful statistics from my adventure up these amazing mountains:
Challenger Point – 14,081 ft – ranked 34th highest in Colorado
Kit Carson Peak – 14,165 ft – ranked 23rd highest in Colorado
Columbia Point – 13,980 ft – ranked 56th highest in Colorado
“Kitty Kat Carson” – 13,980 ft – unranked
Total distance traveled: Approximately 15 miles
Total elevation gain: 6,500 ft.
By now you might be wondering what makes a mountain ranked versus unranked. This is a fairly controversial topic in the climbing community. Basically, there is only one factor to consider when determining if a mountain should be "ranked" and that is prominence. The prominence of a peak is the height of the peak’s summit above the lowest contour line encircling it and no higher summit. Prominence is interesting to some mountaineers because it is an objective measurement that is strongly correlated with the subjective significance of a summit (and how difficult it is to climb). Peaks with low prominences are either subsidiary tops of some higher summit or relatively insignificant independent summits. Peaks with high prominences tend to be the highest points around and are likely to have extraordinary views. In the case of Colorado mountains, most mountaineers use a cutoff of 300 ft / 91 m to determine whether or not a mountain is ranked or not. So using “Kitty Kat Carson” above as an example, since there’s only 80 ft in elevation drop between itself and Columbia Point, it is not ranked. Alternatively, since there is 360 ft in elevation drop between Columbia Point and Kit Carson Peak, it is ranked.
I picked up my friend Terry from his condo at 5 AM on Friday and departed for the quaint town of Crestone. We arrived at the Willow Creek Trailhead at about 9 AM. There were several vehicles at the trailhead, which was kind of surprising given that it was still early on a weekday. This was going to be our third backpacking trek in as many weeks. This week I was able to get my pack down to 45 pounds, thanks in part to some lightweight food my mom graciously provided to me the previous day. We began our hike up the trail, which was well travelled. About 5 minutes into our hike, a gentleman with a long gray beard was coming down the trail and was very friendly to us, warning us of electrical storms. I commented to Terry that this was not my first rodeo and that the man reminded me of Jesus. I was hoping that his presence was not a sign of things to come… bearded man looking like Jesus appears out of nowhere and warns us of lightning… The trail was such a nice change from last week since it was actually easy to follow and was clearly maintained and free of vegetation and confusing side trails. The trail makes many large switchbacks up a gradual slope and then at the top of this slope it drops you right next to a huge meadow, accompanied by great views of part of Challenger Point.
After awhile, the trail brought us closer and closer to Challenger’s headwall.
Shortly thereafter, the trail begins a long series of shorter switchbacks leading to the north and east until a large waterfall is exposed at the base of the headwall.
After gaining the headwall and hiking further up the trail, we were right at the base of Willow Lake. Being that we were in a Wilderness area, camping was restricted to areas no closer than 300 ft of the lake. One of the very first campsites we encountered had some Big Horn sheep grazing at it.
The sheep quickly scattered up the valley towards the lake.
We kept going on the trail and found a really wonderful campsite left of the trail nestled in some trees. The funny thing was that the sheep were hanging out in this campsite. I was able to take several pictures of the sheep after we were able to claim the campsite as our own. This was one of the cooler things that has happened to me this year because one of my lifelong goals has been to see Bighorn sheep up close in the wild.
After we were able to chase off the sheep, we set-up camp. The campsite was very nice, with an established fire pit and logs all around it for seating. Here is the view we had of Challenger Point’s north face:
After setting-up camp, we decided to head up the lake to see what it was like. Boy, were we in for a scenic treat! The lake had a giant waterfall at its head and was surrounded by small cliffs where the waterfall was at. Here’s some stitched panoramic photos from the lake:
After soaking in as much of the lake as we could, we decided to head back to camp, cook dinner, and call it a night. We woke up at 4 AM the next day and quickly readied ourselves for what was going to be a very long but rewarding day.
We hiked up past the lake and began up the valley to the south. Quickly Kit Carson and Challenger came into view (left and right respectively):
I think Kit Carson looks like a Klingon’s forehead. Who’s with me?
I originally thought that this was “The Prow,” a semi-famous section of Kit Carson that is a a notorious rock-climbing route; however, it turns out that “The Prow” is on the other side of Kit Carson and is seen from Columbia Point.
Another view looking up the valley at Kit Carson (right) and the adjoining ridge to its South and East.
We climbed up the grassy slopes of Challenger Point and then up a loose talus section to the ridge. From the ridge we could see the top of Challenger Point and looking down we could see the upper Willow Lake and the sun’s reflection on it.
We started climbing up the ridge to the southeast towards Challenger Point. Here is a view from near the summit of what the ridge climbing looked like.
A few minutes later and we arrived on top, with Kit Carson and Crestone Peak in full view and the Blanca group in the distance to the South.
Looking east we could see Mount Adams poking up towards the sky.
And here’s a shot of me on the summit looking southeast towards Crestone Peak and Kit Carson:
On top of Challenger Point rests a plaque dedicating the mountain to the Challenger shuttle disaster of 1986.
After refueling on top of Challenger Point, we began the journey down Challenger Point’s southeast ridge towards Kit Carson and the Kit Carson Avenue, a long ledge leading around the side and then around the back of Kit Carson. Here’s a look at some of the perilous cliffs below Kit Carson Avenue and subsequently, a photo of the Avenue and the route up it.
The Avenue looks pretty sketchy from here but in reality it was a nice ledge with plenty of room for walking. Once at the top of the Avenue, you once again can see the awesome Crestone Peak (center) and Columbia Point (left) with the back-side and downward heading remainder of Kit Carson Avenue.
Going down the Avenue, I was struck by the really remarkable geological formations. It appeared to me that water had eroded the underside of Kit Carson in the Avenue, making it look like something had burrowed its way right through the rock all the way down.
And another view looking down the Avenue – it looks far less intimidating than it did from the top of Crestone Peak.
Once we reached the bottom of the Avenue, the route took us sharply to the northwest. The climbing was pretty standard class 2 stuff. Near the top of this last section Terry ran out of gas and took a break to rest. I decided to make the final push to the top after visually verifying that Terry was not injured and was continuing. Here’s a shot looking towards Columbia Point and Crestone Peak again. Take special note on the intimidating nature of Columbia Point (closest peak) from this vantage point, as it was the side of that mountain that I would later climb… Looking at Columbia Point you can see a small fin that is separated from the mountain by a small gap. That is the fin I would later ascend to reach the top (more later).
From here, reaching the top of Kit Carson was a breeze. There were several other groups on top. Here’s some stitched photos looking towards Challenger Point. This is a good view of the route we had to come up earlier in the day. Basically starting from the large lake pictured right of center, you climb up the grassy section and then up the rocks to the ridge.
Speaking of the lake, here’s a really high-detail pano of it.
And a shot looking south.
And a 180 degree pano with Columbia Point in center.
And of course here I am flexing victoriously on the summit.
After a quick snack on top I decided it was time to go back down and decide if I was going to climb Columbia Point. Terry had already headed down and would not be attempting Columbia Point. After running into another climber on the way down and picking his brain on the approach for Columbia Point and assessing the weather, I decided to give it a shot solo. This was possibly the most technically challenging climbs I’ve done to date. The route was not well-established and there was a couple of spots where I was exposed and could have fallen to my demise. Here’s a picture outlining my rough route up.
Once I reached the top of the first gully of the fin (5th red line from bottom), I had to make a really risky move to down-climb about 10 feet to the next section of the fin. I sat there for at least two minutes and contemplated the move’s risk and thought of turning around. I would definitely rate the move as Class 5 (Class 5: Technical free climbing involving rope, belaying, and other protection hardware for safety. Un-roped falls can result in severe injury or death) as it was 100% vertical and required both hand holds and footholds. Even though I still had on my backpack and had my camera around my neck, I decided that I had the skills and the mental acuity to give it a shot. This move was really tricky as I had to somehow flip myself around and onto the face of the rock wall, with 300 feet of exposure (Empty space below a climber, usually referring to a great distance above the deck through which the climber could fall) to the left and a steep rocky slope below me to the right. I took a photo of the spot but it really does not do it any justice. Perspective is everything. I was amazingly cool during the attempt but did find myself shaking a little and my heart was racing pretty fast. Once I secured myself onto the face of the wall, I descended several feet down, ensuring that my hands and feet had secure holds with each move. In retrospect, this was a very risky move and leaving the gully earlier to avoid it would have been prudent. After this, the route was pretty straight forward up the fin and then up the steep ridge. It was hand over hand the rest of the way up. I reached the top and took photos of the mountains surrounding me; Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, and Kit Carson.
At this point, “The Prow” of Kit Carson was readily apparent to the left of Kit Carson’s summit.
After taking pictures I took some time to search for something I had heard about… I was unable to locate a plaque that was dedicated to the Columbia shuttle disaster of 2003 as seen here:
This was a real disappointment because it was one of the reasons I wanted to climb this mountain. I searched around the summit in all directions but could not find it. Frustrated, I second-guessed that I was truly on the summit of Columbia Point and not “Kitty Kat Carson,” an unranked 13’er right next to Columbia Point to the south. You can see it behind Columbia Point in the photo above. Even though a summit register on top said I was on Columbia Point, I wanted to go over to the other summit to be sure. After a quick trip over to “Kitty Kat Carson,” I determined that I was indeed on Columbia Point previously; however, the trip was well worth it as I was able to get some pictures of the full-on and un-obscured view of Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak.
After enjoying the views from “Kitty Kat Carson,” I decided to go BACK over to Columbia Point one more time to try to find the plaque. Unfortunately I was not able to find it. Looking east, I noticed that some clouds were building so I decided it was time to head back towards Kit Carson and back up the Kit Carson Avenue. Another look back towards Kit Carson revealed that another climber was coming up Columbia Point so I knew I needed to be careful not to kick any rocks down on him.
I reached the top of the Outward Bound Couloir between Kit Carson and Columbia Point and headed back over towards Kit Carson Avenue by way of a steep gully with a large rock terraced over it, which created a nice and tight fit back over to the Kit Carson side of the couloir.
After reaching the top of Kit Carson Avenue, I climbed back down to the saddle between Kit Carson and Challenger Point and decided to re-summit Challenger Point as to ensure that the same route we took to get up would be the one used to get down. Once at the top of Challenger Point again, the nasty weather was building and looking more and more ominous.
Fortunately the weather cooperated just enough to let us get back down to the lake in our haste. It was pretty cool seeing the flora down there since it was dark earlier in the morning when we were coming up.
We made it back to camp, packed-up, and headed out. We got back to Colorado Springs at about midnight and I was exhausted.
I would rate this climb highly. It is challenging, offers many routes, and there are several peaks to ascend in the area. All in all, this is a must-do climb for any serious Colorado mountain climber.