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Route #5) Mt. Columbia - Southeast Ridge
Turn west on County Road (CR) 350 (Crossman Ave.) near the center of Buena Vista. This road is less than 1/2 mile north of the stoplight in the center of town. Continue on CR 350 for 2 miles and turn right onto CR 361. After almost 1 mile, turn left onto CR 365 (dirt). Continue on this road for 3.4 miles to the marked trailhead. This small trailhead is just 0.1 mile before the larger Silver Creek Trailhead (Mt. Yale). Approximately the last 1.5 miles is easy 4WD.
Head northwest from the Cottonwood Creek 4WD road on the Colorado Trail toward the Harvard Lakes. This trail climbs up through a couple of switchbacks to Mt. Columbia's southeast ridge, and follows the ridge for a short distance. Around 10,000', the Colorado Trail begins heading north, down from the ridge center toward the Harvard Lakes. Leave the Colorado Trail and continue up the ridge center into the forest. The departure point is marked by a cairn (Photo #1).
Gerry Roach describes the forest along the southeast ridge as "open". The trail through the forest is somewhat faint, and is relatively easy to find in daylight, but can be difficult to follow in the dark. There are many small cairns (usually made of three to four stones) and branches arranged along the edge of the trail to guide your way in places. Unfortunately, there are also many trees that have fallen across the path that make the path harder to follow in the dark, but these trees are easily climbed over or walked around. The majority of the hike through the trees is spent just below the right side of the ridge center, with occasional ascents up to the middle to take advantage of a clear section along the ridge (Photo #2, Photo #3). The trail grows rockier as you approach treeline. There is even a small boulder field a short distance below treeline, but (as usual) it can be avoided by dropping to the right of the ridge center and skirting around it (Photo #4).
When you emerge from treeline around 11,500', you are greeted by a stand of dead trees and an obvious ridge ascent ahead of you. Make your way up the middle of the ridge through the fallen trees and across the rocky "points" (Photo #5). The rocky terrain becomes more grassy before too long, and you can see the ridge in the distance ahead of you begin to turn to the west. The most efficient path here is often not across the top of the ridge points, but cutting across their left faces, avoiding unnecessary elevation gain as you ascend to the top of the points that you will only lose as you descend the other side (Photo #7).
Around 12,800', you should encounter a switchback on the ridge (Photo #9). From the switchback, you are afforded the first really unobstructed view of Columbia's summit on the other side of Three Elk Creek Basin. When you reach a rocky point near 13,240', the easiest way across is to climb up onto the rocks and look for a well-worn path around the point on the right (Photo #11) that will lead you back to the ridge center on the other side (Photo #12). At the top of Point 13,298', the remainder of the route still between you and the summit comes into view. After descending from Point 13,298' the ridge ascend becomes steadily narrower and rockier. Occasionally when traversing points on the ridge, the only real path is scrambling up and over the point, but in almost every case there is an easier, less-exposed path to the left of the points (Photo #15, Photo #16).
The remaining path from the intersection of the standard route from Horn Fork Basin to the summit involves more scrambling, but is very well-traveled. Continue along the center of the ridge, dropping to the left where it makes things easier, and you will soon encounter a broad, grassy expanse with Columbia's summit points clearly in view (Photo #18). The summit is the farther of the two points from where you stand (this is easier to see from the other side of Three Elk Creek Basin). Climb up and skirt around the first point on its right, and then scramble up to Columbia's summit as it comes into view.
Be sure to allow yourself ample time to descend from the summit to treeline on this hike, especially during the summer when afternoon storms are common. The descent from summit to treeline is very long and relatively shallow, leaving you exposed for quite some time. Giving yourself enough time probably means that you will be leaving the trailhead and making your way through the forest in the dark, which can make for some frustrating route-finding on the very faint path. Keep your eyes open for cairns, as there are many, but expect many long stretches where the path will not be marked. If you find yourself up on the ridge in bad weather, your best bailout options are south into Horn Fork Basin and back to the Cottonwood Creek Trailhead, or northeast into Three Elk Creek Basin to the Colorado Trail near the Harvard Lakes, depending on which descent is closer or safer from your location.
This route can be a rewarding hike, although a lengthy one. It affords more solitude and pristine terrain than the standard route, but also requires more route-finding below treeline and more vertical elevation gain (since some of the elevation gain is lost descending from points). It also involves more stable terrain than the scree-covered slopes coming up from Horn Fork Basin. IMPORTANT: This route enters the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness area. Wilderness areas have special regulations and restrictions for party size, dispersed camping, campfires, etc. Also, dog owners should read the wilderness information carefully because some wilderness areas prohibit dogs to be off-leash and/or limit how close dogs can be to lakes and streams. If you have questions about the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness area, please contact a U.S. Forest Service office for the National Forest(s) listed above.
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