Mt Harvard – 14,420 & Mt Columbia – 14,073

If you’re reading this because you want to do the Mt. Harvard and Mt Columbia combination route my advice to you is to climb them both separately. Unless you have extensive mountaineering and route finding experience and are extremely comfortable not following a trail for miles through a gulley and over a ridge do not attempt this route.

Last week I got some good online advice from Bill.  He suggested I invest in a GPS unit to help me stay on my intended route.  Bill doesn’t know this about me, but I have quite a bit of mountaineering/outdoor survival experience.  I teach outdoor survival skills, and I’m pretty good with a map and compass, not to mention surviving if I do become lost.  (I’d like to note here I’ve never been ‘lost’.  Although I have ventured off route many times I always realize this quickly and find my way back quickly).

In any event, I’m always glad to take the advice of someone with more experience than me, so I went to work researching a GPX viewer (etc.) for use with navigation.  I’ve steered clear of GPS units because I like traditional route finding and feel they’re ‘cheating’, but I agree they are a useful tool.  I found one I liked and downloaded the route GPX files (all 4 of them for the area even though I wasn’t taking all the hikes).  The night before the hike I opened the route I was taking and it looked easy enough to use. I wanted to start getting familiar with the whole process before using it on more challenging hikes.

OK, now to the hike.  The dirt road to the trailhead was easy to navigate, and navigable by any 2WD up to the actual parking lot (which was riddled with medium sized rocks in the dirt road).  The road also indicated with several signs I was on the right route to the “Mt. Harvard and Mt. Columbia Trailhead”.  However, once I reached the trailhead there weren’t any actual signs indicating I was in the right place.  No maps, no signs saying which trailhead this was or which mountains were near.  I don’t know why I expect such information, but it would be useful, especially since alpine hikers arrive in the dark (possible Eagle Scout project(s)?).  Here are the photos of the information provided I took after I was done with my hike. 

See, nothing that indicated Mt. Harvard or Mt. Columbia.  Yes, this info should correlate to my maps, etc., but call me crazy if I like a bright sign saying I’m in the right place before venturing out into the wilderness in the dark. But I digress.

I got out my GPX file, opened it, and was confused.  It placed me about 7 miles from where the trail started.  I knew that couldn’t be right, so I figured I had the wrong file.  Nope.  I eventually figured out the file was wrong.  Even though I downloaded a file that was supposed to be the route from the trailhead up to Mt Harvard, the site had uploaded the wrong file.  No big deal however, as this file indicated the second half of my journey.  I’d just use it when the time came and in the meantime use the maps I’d printed out.  I crossed the stream in the dark and was on my way.

The trail was pretty straightforward and easy to follow for the first 5 miles or so.  Besides being quite muddy in places and the fact the few turn offs I saw didn’t have signage (and I assumed went to Mt Columbia) I was able to find my way easily. 

I crossed a few streams…

I saw some cool mushrooms…

And thistles…

I didn’t even pull out my map (but I had it in my pocket).  I knew as long as I stayed to the left but not so far left I ran into Bear Lake I’d be fine. 

Then I ran into Bear Lake.  Drat!  I must have turned off somewhere without seeing a turn-off. 

So I turned back the way I’d come and found what I hadn’t noticed in the sunlight and mistook for water drainage had actually been   a trail.  It was only about 20 yards out of my way, so no big deal.  Once again, no signs indicating trail forks or name

Here’s a picture of the beginning climb to Mt. Harvard.  As you can see it passes a large rocky area, but luckily it’s also a very well marked trail with lots of cairns.

Here’s a picture looking back at Bear Lake and the trail from about halfway up Mt. Harvard

Please note here THIS is the summit of Mt. Harvard.  It’s not hard to get to, but it was difficult to find as there were many false summits and this one isn’t market (there’s no way to know you’re actually at the summit).  I actually passed it and had to backtrack. 

I took a summit photo and got out my GPS to start on the second half of my route

Woohoo!  It showed I was exactly where I was supposed to be to make the trek from Mt. Harvard to Mt. Columbia.  Awesome!  Let’s see how this thing works…

Here’s a look at the trail I started following towards Mt. Columbia

And here’s a picture of Mt. Columbia from Mt. Harvard.  Notice where the trail ends?  That’s where it ENDS. Notice Mt. Columbia is about 1.25 miles in the distance

I had a bunch of directions for this hike, but none of them indicated the trail ended and didn’t start again.  None of them indicated the extent of the route finding I’d need.  But they did have a pretty accurate description of how to navigate this hike.  I followed the directions and was pretty sure I was on the right track. 

I pulled out the GPS and I was right where I was supposed to be.  I took out my pictures of the route and what was before me was what was in my pictures.  I took out my altimeter and was shocked to find I was at 9800 feet.  WHAT?!?!?  I was supposed to be at 12,800!  I know it had been a steep descent, but how did I lose 3000 feet in elevation that quickly (and how was I going to make it up?!?!?)  About 2 seconds later I did a mental check and realized if I was at 9800 feet I’d be below treeline (which I most definitely wasn’t) so something must have been off with the altimeter.  I took a deep breath and looked at the route again.

Then I looked at my watch. This was supposed to be a 15 mile hike.  It was already 11:15 in the afternoon, which meant I’d been hiking for over 6 hours.  I did some mental calculations and got a bit scared.  I wasn’t scared I was lost or that I couldn’t get to where I was going (I could see Mt. Columbia in the distance, so I knew where I was headed, and I was confident I could get back the way I’d come). I was worried this hike was going to take a lot longer than I’d anticipated due to the route finding necessary.  I had to pick my daughter up from band camp at 6pm, and at this rate I wasn’t going to make it in time.  But there was really nothing I could do:  Going back the way I’d come would take longer than going forward.  This was something I hadn’t anticipated but will take into account on future treks.

I had to pass every single section of snow to get to where I needed to be.  Since it’s August and it was in the middle of the day there was postholing involved, which wasn’t fun in the rocky areas.  I have several bruises on my shins to prove it.  And the icy areas were slippery.  Because of this (and the scrambling aspect in many areas) I put my camera in my backpack and focused instead on the task before me, so sorry, no pictures except this before shot

I stopped at the ridge about 600 feet in elevation below the summit for a break, but I needed to keep up the pace to get home, so I was on my way.  This part of the hike doesn’t have a trail either, but as long as you stay to the left of the ridge you’ll be fine.

Here’s a look back at Mt. Harvard (the way I’d come)

I summited and there was someone there to take my picture!

I didn’t stay long however.  I opened the GPX file indicating the rest of my route and headed down the mountain.  I could tell by my topo map this was going to be quite a bit of elevation loss in a very short distance.  I was hoping that didn’t mean scree.

It didn’t but it wasn’t fun either.  It was a lot of loose rock mixed with sand, and to combat this, switchbacks. 

No, it wasn’t fun trekking down this path, but it would have been worse hiking UP this trail.  Someone had a very small dog they were trying to hike with.  At this point they were carrying the pooch and heading back down, as the trail was cutting up his paws. 

Once I made it down Mt. Columbia the hike was easy, just long.  I was doing my best to hike as fast as I could to make it back to my truck and in time to pick up my daughter.  I had fun following the GPS the rest of the way but must confess it felt like cheating.  It was just too easy.  I’ll continue to use it though (safety first!).

I’m not averse to hiking the same trail twice (I did Pikes Peak 12 times last summer via the Barr Trail route) but I have no need to ever hike these two peaks again.  Mt. Harvard wasn’t too bad, but Mt. Columbia wasn’t fun at all, and I can only imagine hiking UP the way I hiked down would have been even worse. 

I made it to my truck and when I turned on directions home it said I’d be back by 6:30pm.  OH no!  I needed to pick up my daughter at 6pm.  So I hopped in the truck and did my best to drive as quickly/efficiently/safely as possible to get there on time.  I wasn’t being dangerous or erratic, but I was making good time.  I showed an estimated arrival time of 6:02pm when I got behind a line of drivers stuck behind someone going 45 in a 55 in an area too dangerous to pass.  Not cool!  Feel free to drive at whatever speed you feel comfortable, but if you’re that far below the speed limit and you have a trail of cars behind you PULL OVER.  PLEASE!  You may not be in a hurry, but others might be.  Me in this instance.  I saw my estimated arrival time of 6:02pm go to 6:30pm, mentally cried I’d lost all the time I’d made up, and then got a call from my daughter saying they’d been let out 30 minutes early just as the radio announced the roads were a mess and to expect long delays on side streets as well as the freeway.  Sigh.  So I had someone else take her home and felt like a terrible mom for not being home to do it myself.  Note to self:  don’t plan a long hike when you have somewhere to be later in the day, even if you think you have plenty of time. 


I saw several camp groups with middle schoolers hiking/backing the trails.  The ones towards the beginning of the trail were clean and had bright, happy faces.  I high-fived their counselors, knowing what was in store for them in the next few miles or so.  “Happy trails!”

Horses on trails:  I know they’re allowed, but for the last 4 miles of my hike I saw fresh horse poop every 10 yards or so that hadn’t been there that morning.  In fact, there hadn’t been ANY horse droppings on the trial at all when I’d hiked in the morning, and now it was covered in poop.  I’m not exaggerating:  It was all over the place!  I know horse owners can’t control this, but the sides of the trail were torn up too from horses walking too close to/over/on the sides.  Moss and small plants were strewn all over the trail in many areas.  This is something horse owners can control and is unacceptable.  I was saddened by the destruction this caused.

There was a father with his son (probably 8 years old) on the trail.  They were backpacking and hiking.  I saw them first at the summit of Harvard, and the kid seemed to be thoroughly loving the whole hiking experience.  Rock on dad!

Author: Laura M Clark

Laura has summited over 500 peaks above 13,000' solo, including being the first woman to solo summit all of the Colorado 14ers, as well as the centennials. After each hike, she writes trip reports for each one and publishes them on her blog, which is read by fans all over the world. Author of Wild Wanderer: Summiting Colorado’s 200 Highest Peaks, which is available to purchase on Amazon.

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