For a weekend of high-alpine adventure, answer the alluring call of the Crestone Group, a cluster of fourteeners in southern Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo range. These rugged peaks rise like a hilltop castle, forming a rocky rampart between the San Luis Valley in the west and the Wet Mountain Valley in the east. In one weekend, you can knock off three giants—14,081-foot Challenger Point, 14,165-foot Kit Carson Peak, and 14,064-foot Humboldt Peak—amidst some of the most stunning scenery in the state.
There’s no doubt this is an epic journey, requiring solid navigation and class-three scrambling skills. It could even turn into “An Epic.” If you live in Colorado, chances are you know the difference. Epic is off-the-charts awesome. “An Epic” is an adventure where plans go slightly awry—perhaps you wander off-course, encounter unexpected obstacles, battle bad weather, or the journey stretches a tad too long.
In either case, the word epic is rooted in poetry, involving long tales of heroic feats, and creating everlasting lore. Whether epic or An Epic, this adventure will leave you war-torn and weary, yet satisfied. It’s a Hero’s Journey. Here we outline a rough route. The rest is up to you. Part of the challenge is figuring out the fine points on your own.
Planning and Packing Essentials
Pack for two nights of camping in the backcountry, including a bear bag, blister kit, and bundles of layers. Bring a map and a compass (and consider a GPS). Some of the route follows established trail, but much of it requires navigation and route finding. You’ll also want a helmet to protect from falling rock on steep scrambles.
Leave early on Friday to allow time for the drive (about three and a half hours from Denver; slightly longer from Boulder) plus the hike to your campsite. You’ll need four-wheel drive to get to the upper South Colony Trailhead, at 11,060 feet—about 50 minutes past Westcliffe. (Trust us, you don’t want to park at the lower trailhead; it adds a 5-mile slog on a dirt road). From the upper lot, you’ll hike about 3.5 miles and 1,000 feet up to South Colony Lakes. Bring plenty of bug repellant; the mosquitoes are big and hungry as birds. Camp near the upper lake for quickest access to the trail in the morning.
Tackling the Challenge
Plan on an alpine start (3 or 4 am) if you’re hoping to nab all three peaks in one day; you’ll be scampering above 13,000 feet for nearly 10 hours. The full route from South Colony Lakes is about 13 miles and at least 6,000 feet of climbing, depending on the exact way you go. We suggest heading out to Challenger first (the farthest peak), then returning over Kit Carson, and bagging Humboldt on the way back. This way, if it’s getting late or the weather looks iffy, you can keep Humboldt in your back pocket for the next day.
In a broad-brush stroke, the route looks like this: Start up the steep, well-established trail from Upper South Colony Lake until you reach the ridgeline. The trails turns right toward Humboldt Peak. You head left (west) and follow cairns along the ridge, stepping gingerly over the rocky outcrops in the dark. If this part gives you the willies, you might reconsider the adventure: This part is child’s play compared to what’s to come.
After the ridge, traverse through a green, grassy field called Bear’s Playground, then skirt the talus around the south side of Obstruction Peak, following the cairns. Once around Obstruction, put on your helmet and follow a gully up to the top of Columbia Point, a bonus peak at 13,980 feet.
Then descend down an even steeper, rockier gully on the other side, traversing below a jagged fin.
From here you can see a green ledge on the other side of the gully that wraps around the west side of Kit Carson.
Head up the ribbon of green until you reach the top of Challenger Point. Relax for a spell and gaze at the San Luis Valley to the southwest and the rounded top of Kit Carson to the east.
To get to Kit Carson, descend the green ledge the way you came, then cut back up the gully on the left side of the fin (the opposite side from where you descended from Columbia). It’s a hefty scramble to Kit Carson’s summit. Once on top, resist the temptation to bask too much in the glory of accomplishment; you still have a long way to go.
Start down Kit Carson the same way you came, but instead of dropping into the gully, follow the ridge to the east toward a shark fin-like formation that connects Kit Carson to Columbia Point. This is the crux—an exposed, undulating scramble that will keep you on your toes.
Follow the fin over to the flanks of Columbia, then back down around Obstruction Point to Bear’s Playground. (Try not to curse the tedious talus field.)
From here, you’ll scramble over the same ridge you traversed in the wee hours. Keep in mind that it will probably seem much longer on the way back since your legs will be losing their pep. When you get to the junction with the trail to Humboldt Peak, assess how much gas you have left in the tank and check the weather. If you’ve got it in you, tackle the final grunt up Humboldt. Alternatively, descend back to camp and get up early to knock it out the next day.
On day three, break camp and head back to the trailhead. Insider tip: Leave a fresh change of clothes, tasty snacks, and a cooler of cold beer in the car so you can celebrate your victory in style.
For More Beta
Study a map in advance (the Sky Terrain Sangre de Cristo Sand Dunes is a good choice), as well as route descriptions. Gary Roach’s book, Colorado’s Fourteeners, is an excellent guide to Colorado’s highest peaks. 14ers.com has a good description of the route from Challenger to Kit Carson as well as a trip report that includes all three summits: Humboldt, Kit Carson, and Challenger, in the opposite order as we suggest. Summitpost.org has a trip report that includes the climb down the gully from Columbia toward Kit Carson (this is the gully we suggest you take to Challenger before hitting Kit Carson).