Mount Columbia - featured on Colorado 14ers Map 7 of 16 - has a reputation for being one of the least pleasant 14er peaks in Colorado to hike, due to the loose scree characterizing much of the standard route to the top. Often climbed with fellow Collegiate Peak Mount Harvard nearby, many peakbaggers suggest avoiding Columbia unless you're trying for all of the 14ers - but check it out for yourself.
One of the five "Collegiate Peaks" located near each other in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness of the Sawatch Range, Mount Columbia was named after Columbia University in New York. The first recorded ascent was by Roger Toll, who named it for his alma mater Columbia University, in 1916 while he was placing Colorado Mountain Club summit registers on Sawatch Range peaks. Toll was a charter member of the Colorado Mountain Club and went on to become superintendent of Yellowstone National Park before his untimely death in a car accident in 1936.
Roger Toll, photo courtesy of National Park Service
There are a few approaches to the summit of Mount Columbia, but the standard route is via Horn Fork Bain from the North Cottonwood trailhead. From the trailhead at 9,890' elevation, the trail travels west for 1.6 miles before splitting off right/northwest from the North Cottonwood Creek into Horn Fork Basin. 2 miles from this junction into the basin is the trail that leads east towards Mount Columbia. For the next mile eastwards from this junction, one must contend with the infamous scree-filled western slopes until reaching the ridge at 13,700' elevation. Another 0.6 miles north from gaining the ridge is the summit. This route is 5.4 miles one-way from trailhead to summit with an elevation gain of 4,180'.
When the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative performed baseline route condition inventories in 2011-2013, Mount Columbia received an "F" rating due to this unsustainable social route. After 5 years of designing a new route, CFI is currently constructing a new, sustainable trail to the south of the current social trail along the scree slopes. The first phase of trail construction was completed last year, but this effort is slated to take another few years to complete.
Another approach to the peak with somewhat less scree to navigate is from the east via the Frenchman Creek Trail #1457 from the high-clearance Frenchmen's Trailhead. There is no defined trail leading from Frenchman Creek to the ridge between Harvard and Columbia, but the Frenchman Creek Trail will get you up to 12,250' elevation before running out of trail and hitting the talus on the eastern slopes up to the route between Harvard and Columbia. Others also elect a primitive route approach from the Three Elk Creek basin just south of Frenchman Creek basin - a long approach but with less scree involved.
Whichever way you choose to climb Mount Columbia - if you're up for a loose rock adventure - remember to be prepared by bringing plenty of water, respecting both weather conditions and your own limitations and by bringing your 14ers Maps along with you. Mount Columbia is one of six fourteeners featured on Outdoor Trail Maps Colorado 14ers Series Map 7 of 16.
Directions to Trailhead
To reach the North Cottonwood Trailhead, take County Road 350 (Crossman Avenue) west from Buena Vista, CO off US Hwy 24. After 2.1 miles, this road ends a T-junction with County Road 361 where you turn right/north. After 0.9 miles, turn a very sharp left onto County Road 365 where you drive 5.1 miles to the trailhead at the end of the road.
For Frenchman's Trailhead, travel 7.4 miles north of Buena Vista on US Hwy 24 and turn left/west on County Road 386. After 1.5 miles the road forks and here is the low clearance trailhead. High clearance vehicles can turn left/south and drive 2.3 miles to a gate in the road at the wilderness boundary which is the trailhead.