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On Walkabout On: Mt. Harvard via the Horn Creek Basin Trailhead

Basic Information

  • Name: Mt. Harvard
  • Range: Sawatch
  • Where: Buena Vista, Colorado
  • Max Elevation: 14,420 feet
  • Distance:  7 miles one-way
  • Elevation Gain: 4,600 feet
  • Time: 4-6 hours one-way
  • Difficulty: EasyModerateHardDifficult
  • More Information: 14ers.com

Route Up Mt. Harvard

Mt. Harvard Route
The route through Horn Creek Basin up Mt. Harvard as seen from the summit of Mt. Yale.

Topographic Map of the Route

Mt. Harvard to Mt. Columbia Topo Map

Elevation Map of Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Mt. Harvard to Mt. Columbia Elev Map

Narrative

Having seen the 14,420 foot Mt. Harvard from so many different profiles after climbing all the 14ers that surround it; this caused this mountain to be on my short list to climb this summer.  So last weekend with the weather looking good I decided to finally hike up this great peak which is the 3rd highest in all the Rocky Mountains.  The hike to the summit of Mt. Harvard is a long one with it being 7 miles one-way.  This meant that I had to get a really early start to be able to summit the mountain before any potential storm blew in.  So I left my home in Colorado Springs at 2:00 AM in the morning and arrived at the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead outside of Buena Vista by 4:30 AM:


View 14er Trailheads in a larger map

The road to the trailhead from Buena Vista was mostly a dirt road that can easily be driven on by a sturdy 2-wheel drive vehicle.  When I arrived at the trailhead I was surprised how many vehicles were there.  Due to the length of this trail many people backpack in the day prior thus causing a lot of cars to be parked in the lot even when someone arrives early in the morning. After finding a parking spot I quickly geared up and I found myself departing the trailhead at 4:40 AM.  It was completely dark out so I had to use a headlamp as I hiked down the trail.  The following pictures I took later in the day because of the darkness I encountered during the start of my hike.  These signboards pictured below mark the start of the trail:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Shortly after passing the signboards the trail passes over a sturdy bridge:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

After passing the first bridge the trail follows Horn Creek where I could hear its waters rushing next to me.  Next the trail passes a sign that showed that I had now crossed into the Collegiate Peak Wilderness:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Next the trail passed over a second bridge and continued to follow the creek:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Shortly after the 2nd bridge and about a mile and half up the trail there is an intersection.  It is important to take a right here into Horn Creek Basin.  The sign is pretty obvious, but if someone misses it in the darkness taking a left here leads to Kroenke Lake which is a trail that leads away from Mt. Harvard:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Eventually the sun began to rise and I could see for the first time the beautiful forest I was walking through:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Due to all the monsoon rain we have been receiving in Colorado many sections of the trail were very muddy:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

I was glad I had on my Danner Crater Rim hiking boots because I was able to simply walk through much of the mud without any issues.  About three miles up the trail I began to walk through a section that had many meadows near the creek that I could see various people camping at.  This is also where the trees thinned out enough that I began to have views of the 14,073 foot Mt. Columbia that was looming above the basin:

IMG_5423

My goal for this hike was to summit Mt. Harvard, but I left open the possibility of climbing up Mt. Columbia as well based on time and weather.  If I reached the summit of Mt. Harvard before 9:30 AM and the weather was looking good I was going to attempt the traverse over to Mt. Columbia.  The weather report I saw before leaving for the trailhead said that clouds were supposed to roll in at 12:00 PM with rain showers beginning around 2:00 PM.  If I summited Mt. Harvard by 9:30 AM I estimated I could complete the 2.5 mile traverse to Mt. Columbia by 12:00 PM and be off the mountain before the rain started.  So with that in mind I continued to push myself pretty hard to get up to the summit of Mt. Harvard before 9:30 AM.  As I broke through treeline I had my first view of Mt. Harvard and the lush Horn Creek Basin in front me:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

This basin is absolutely beautiful to see and I really enjoyed this section of the hike:

Picture from Mt. Harvard, Colorado

However, there is a lot of willows around the trail that were damp from all the rain which caused my pants to get quite wet from all the moisture.  I also lost the main trail as I passed through the willows and ended up on a social trail that abruptly ended on me.  This caused me to do some minor bushwhacking and improvising a way to cross the creek to regain the main trail.  Once back on the main trail I continued up the basin towards Mt. Harvard and made sure to turn around occasionally and enjoy the sunrise on the 14,196 foot Mt. Yale behind me:

Picture from Mt. Harvard, Colorado

I hiked up Mt. Yale earlier this summer and really enjoyed the climb.  You can read more about my hike up Mt. Yale at the below link:

For the first five miles the elevation gain during the hike up Mt. Harvard is very gradual.  However, after five miles the trail begins to get a bit steeper in sections as it climbs various flat benches below Mt. Harvard:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

One of the steeper portions also involves some scrambling through a section of talus rock:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

However, it seemed like after each steep section there was a nice little flat spot to rest up on before beginning another steep section:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

On the last bench below the final summit ascent it was actually cold enough to where the creek I crossed over was frozen with ice:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The night before there was actually snow that fell on Mt. Harvard which I could still see remnants of near the summit.  After crossing over this last bench the trail then became quite steep as it tries to gain the ridgeline that leads to the summit. Fortunately though the trail is well constructed which makes the climb much easier:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The trail alternated between sections with nice stone steps to other sections that were just a switchbacking dirt trail:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is a wide angle view of the basin below me as I ascended up the upper slopes of Mt. Harvard:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The final section of the trail to gain the ridgeline goes right up the side of the mountain:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The trail actually stops short of gaining the ridgeline and instead takes a right towards the rocky summit of Mt. Harvard:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

On the way up towards the summit I enjoyed the views behind me of the Southern Sawatch Range:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Besides Mt. Yale I could also see in the distance the fellow 14ers Mt. Princeton (left), Mt. Antero (center), Mt. Shavano (center right), and Tabeguache Peak (right):

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

You can read my prior trip reports from these mountains at the below links:

As I hiked up the final rocky summit approach I saw two mountain goats come trotting down the rocks towards me:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

I did not know if they were being territorial and wanting to pick a fight so I tried to bypass around them, but they kept walking over in front of me:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

They eventually began to walk up towards the summit and I decided to follow them:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The goats led me up to the ridgeline where I had my first views looking towards the West:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

From there I had a short Class 3 rock scramble to reach the summit:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

It was actually a fun little way to end the hike to the summit of Mt. Harvard by climbing up these rocks.  Here is the view from the top of the rocks looking back down them:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

This rock scramble is not hard and should not deter anyone from trying to hike up Mt. Harvard.  The rock is very solid and basically if you can climb a ladder 20 feet you can climb this.  Here is a picture of the true summit of Mt. Harvard which is basically just a pile of rocks:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

According to the book “A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners: Twentieth Anniversary Edition, there was once a belief that the summit of Mt. Harvard and other peaks in the area reached over 17,000 feet.  Professor Josiah Whitney who was an 1839 Yale graduate led an expedition to Colorado of Harvard students to survey the mountains in August 1869.  Before becoming a professor of Geology at Harvard, Whitney was the director of the California Geological Survey and is the person that the highest mountain in the continental United States, the 14,505 foot Mt. Whitney is named after.  To dispel the myth of 17,000 foot mountains in Colorado, members of Whitney’s expedition became the first people to have recorded ascents of Mt. Yale and Mt. Harvard.  Their survey calculations from the summits proved there were no 17,000 foot mountains in Colorado.  However, the naming of the peaks after Whitney’s alma mater and the university he was currently teaching at started the tradition of naming peaks in the area after colleges.  This tradition eventually led to the establishment of the Collegiate Peak Wilderness that we know today.

Josiah Whitney

Also according to the book, the summit of Mt. Harvard used to have a large pole with a Harvard University sign on it.  In July 1962 three Harvard graduates hiked up Mt. Harvard carrying a flag pole and a sign.  There intent was to install the flag pole on the summit so that the mountain would be 14,434 feet high and thus one foot higher than the tallest mountain in the Rockies, the 14,433 foot Mt. Elbert.   Due to darkness the trio abandoned their attempt and hid the pole and sign below the mountain in anticipation of a future attempt to install it.  The following summer two Harvard grads hiking with a Cornell graduate happened upon the pole and sign and decided to bring it up the final distance to the summit and install it.  The Cornell graduate supposedly wrote in the summit register that “Cornell finished Harvard’s effort today”.  The pole remained on the summit until the early 80’s until someone took it down.  No one knows who did it, but I would think the US Forest Service probably took it down.  I for one would not want a flag pole on a 14er like this that would set a precedent to other people to leave flag poles on other mountains.

There may not be a flagpole on the mountain today, but there are plenty of mountain goats. not wanting to be alone down on the ridgeline my two goat buddies followed me up the rocks to the summit.  It is really amazing how well these goats can climb up these rocks with just their hooves:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The views from the summit of the 14,420 foot Mt. Harvard were as expected absolutely spectacular.  Here is the view looking East back down into Horn Creek Basin with Mt. Columbia on the left and Mt. Yale on the right:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is a panorama view looking towards the East to Southeast of the view from the summit of Mt. Harvard:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The sky had a few puffy clouds, but it was so clear that way out in the distance to the East I could even see the mighty 14,110 foot Pikes Peak:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is a closer look at the impressive Mt. Yale rising to the southeast:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

To the West I could see the expansive Frenchman Creek Basin that was backdropped by the rugged 13ers known as the Three Apostles (left), the beautiful triangular shaped 14,003 foot Huron Peak (center) and the 14,067 foot Missouri Mountain:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

You can read about my prior hikes up Mt. Huron and Missouri Mountain at the below links:

Further out to the West I could also see the red stained slopes of the appropriately named 13,500 foot Red Mountain B:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Even further out to the West I could see the impressive 14,092 foot Snowmass Mountain (left) and the 14,130 foot Capitol Peak (right) which is considered by many the most difficult 14er to climb:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Directly across the Frenchman Creek Basin to the North the viewed was dominated by the 14,197 foot Mt. Belford (center), and the 14,153 foot Mt. Oxford (center right):

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

You can read about both of my hikes up these peaks at the below links:

Further out in the distance to the North I could see the 14,336 foot La Plata Peak that I had climbed the prior weekend:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

You can read about my prior hike up La Plata Peak at the below link:

Also to the North I could see the highest peak in all the Rocky Mountains, the 14,433 foot Mt. Elbert:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

I climbed Mt. Elbert last month and my trip report from this hike can be read at the below link:

Even further out to the North I could even see the northernmost peak of the Sawatch Range, the 14,005 foot Mt. of the Holy Cross:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is an image I put together that labels all these peaks for easy identification:

Northern Sawatch Pic

I only spent about 20 minutes on the summit of Mt. Harvard enjoying the view because of the clouds I could see brewing below Mt. Columbia:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

If I was going to complete the traverse from Mt. Harvard to Mt. Columbia before a rainstorm formed I was going to have to leave now.  So I began the traverse over to Mt. Columbia where my two mountain goat friends followed me for a short distance before giving me a look of, “you do not want to go that way buddy”:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Conclusion

As I would later find out the goats not following me would be an omen of things to come.  As bad as the traverse to Mt. Columbia would end up being, I had nothing bad to say about the hike up Mt. Harvard.  The trail for the most part was in good shape, the hike had decent elevation gain, a scenic basin to pass through, a nice rock scramble to the summit, and stunning views from the top.  I even had the bonus of hanging out with two very friendly mountain goats.  So for anyone that has hiked a few of the easier 14ers and wants to increase the challenge a little bit I highly recommend checking out Mt. Harvard, just leave your flag poles at home.

Next Posting: Mt. Columbia via the Mt. Harvard Traverse

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