Peak(s):  Crestone Needle  -  14,196 feet
Crestone Peak  -  14,299 feet
"Northeast Crestone" - 14,251 feet
"East Crestone" - 14,298 feet
Broken Hand Peak  -  13,573 feet
"Crestolita"  -  13,270 feet
Crestones Traverse
Date Posted:  07/24/2018
Modified:  10/02/2021
Date Climbed:   07/21/2018
Author:  kwhit24
Additional Members:   jbradish
 Crestones via Cottonwood Creek   

Cottonwood Creek Goes!

Hiking Statistics:

  • Total Length - About 18.42 miles (adjusted based on Gaia since I only used Garmin GPS w/o Glonass so it was wildly off)
  • Total Elevation Gain - 8,800'
  • Hike to Campsite (Just below Cottonwood Lake) - 7:08 PM start, 4.49 mi, 3 hours 10 min, 3,225' gain
  • Crestones Traverse - 6:00 AM start, 5.66 mi, 8 hours 16 min, 3,154' gain
    • Campsite to Top of Red Gully - 7:44 AM (1 hour 44 min)
    • Northeast Crestone - 8:03 AM (17 min)
    • Crestone Peak - 8:29 AM (26 min)
      • 15 min on Crestone Peak Summit
    • East Crestone - 9:03 AM (19 min)
    • Crossover from Red Gully - 9:33 AM (30 min)
    • Traverse to Crestone Needle - 11:00 AM (1 hour 27 min)
      • 37 min on Crestone Needle Summit
    • Hike down to Cottonwood Lake - 1:19 PM (1 hour 42 min)
      • 27 min at Cottonwood Lake
    • Back to Campsite - 2:16 PM (30 min)
  • Crestolita/Broken Hand Peak Loop - 4:34 AM start, 3.83 mi, 4 hours 27 min, 2,421' gain
    • Crestolita - 5:46 AM (1 hour 12 min), .93 mi, 1,481' gain
    • Broken Hand Peak - 7:32 AM (1 hour 46 min) 1.54 mi, 913' gain
      • 24 min on Broken Hand Peak Summit
    • Broken Hand Pass - 8:23 AM (27 min) .33 mi
    • Back to Campsite - 9:01 AM (38 min) 1.03 mi
  • Hike to Trailhead - 9:41 AM start, 4.44 mi, 2 hours 20 min

Cliff Notes:

  • Cottonwood Creek Trail was amazing and seldomly used (4 people showed up Sat night and 2 people were hiking in as we hiked down)
  • 90% of Cottonwood Creek Trail is either a well defined trail or cairned very well but is heavily vegetated although manageable
  • Lots of access to water along the trail and at Cottonwood Lake
  • Beta and pictures of Northeast Crestone below (lots of fun!)
  • Beta and pictures for our route up and down Crestolita below
  • The early morning views off Crestolita are worth it

Trip Description:

5 years ago I moved to Colorado form Ohio with a year spent in El Paso but prior to my move I never hiked. Thankfully I caught the 14er bug early on and it has become a passion of mine. I wanted to celebrate with tough hike and my partner wanted to get a couple 13ers so we settled on the Cottonwood Creek Approach. The weekend showed rain but only in the evenings so we pressed on after packing up the car on Friday. Thankfully crews had cleared the closed section on 285 so we got to the trailhead around 6 PM. However, it didn't stop raining until 7 PM so we got a late start.

The drive in

The Cottonwood Creek Trail is a beautiful trail that is heavily vegetated which didn't play in our favor and soaked us as we walked through. I'd say 90% of this trail is either a well defined trail or cairned very well. There are only a few tricky sections and one of them is the boilerplate area which is pictured below (stay left). The closer you get to the lake the tougher the trail is to follow but there are still plenty of cairns. Initially we wanted to set up camp at Cottonwood Lake but since we had a late we stopped around 11,700' at the fields below the lake. This turned out to be a blessing later on when we scouted a route up Crestolita. If you're looking for less exposed campsites there are a few between 11,100' and 11,400'.

Looking up the boilerplate slabs

Flowers along the trail
More flowers

The creek has some very beautiful features

Looking back at the campsite

If you do camp below the Cottonwood Lake this grass gully is roughly the point where the Cottonwood Creek Trail meets the standard route for Crestone Peak. Hiking in the night before allowed us to have a little later start up the Red Gully. So we put on our still soaking wet shoes and headed out at 6 AM.

Where the trails meet

We made our way up the gully with 4 other people without any trouble. A couple had started at 2:45 from the Lost Colony Lakes TH so I was even more appreciative of sleeping in. After getting to the top of the gully is when the fun started. We didn't have much beta on NE Crestone but we just knew to take it slow and not get into any areas we couldn't get out of. It was also reassuring knowing that the others from the gully could see us. Before we dropped in the other side of the gully we picked a route that looked best and went for it (see picture below). Personally, I didn't feel anything exceeded Class 4 but the highest is definitely the one we went up. After the group on Crestone Peak took some pictures of us (Thanks guys!!) we made our way back to the top of the gully and over to Peak. After a few snacks and pictures we again went back to the gully and headed to East Crestone. East is a pretty quick addition (no harder than Class 3) and the high point in Custer County.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Many have commented over the years that the route up NE Crestone is exposed Class 5 but we never felt that it rivaled the cruxes on the traverse. I'm not the best at rating routes so I figured I'd add this comment.

Looking down the Red Gully
Looking up the Red Gully (looks steeper than it is)

Admiring mighty Humboldt Peak from NE Crestone
Route up NE Crestone

Another view up NE Crestone
Great Sand Dunes and the Lake Como group from Crestone Peak

Crestone Peak from NE Crestone
Crestone Peak from East Crestone

After working our way back down the Red Gully we found the point at 13,700' where we started the traverse. Perfect weather for the traverse and we had it all to ourselves. Route is well cairned and we were so focused we forgot to put our helmets back on. We took a long break on Needle since the weather was so nice and headed back to camp. Since we had a lot of extra time on Saturday we were able to scout a route up Crestolita and talk through our options for tomorrow morning.

Jordan making moves up the crux wall
Making my way up the crux wall

On Sunday I needed to be back in Loveland by 5 PM so we woke up at 4 AM not knowing how long the hike would take. Below is roughly the route we took up Crestloita and our GPX track is below (ignore the random point ha). We crossed the creek straight away and aimed for the lower boulders. For the rest of the way up we pretty much followed the grass area up and turned towards the trees to gain the ridge. From here we picked our way up the steep slope and around some of the rock features to gain the summit. There is a small cairn with a register but papers inside it had gotten wet so I couldn't read any names unfortunately. After taking some pictures of the sun hitting the surrounding peaks we made our way our to the second summit of Crestlolita and scouted our route down. We settled on one of the last gullies the led directly to the 12,600' saddle. Initially this gully it pretty loose but we were able to pick our way down making sure to not get to any point that we couldn't get out of. The route down felt similar in difficulty to coming down Crestone Needle. We avoided some areas that we couldn't see all the way down but looking back I think it could be done from either direction. The picture below roughly shows the route and gully we used.

Route up Crestolita from Campsite

Route down Crestolita

Closer look at the gully on Crestolita
View of Crestolita's second summit

After reaching the saddle we basically went straight up the grassy slope until we reached the summit of Broken Hand Peak. Snacks and a few text messages later and we headed down the "standard" route of Broken Hand Peak. This basically entails following the ridge down and staying left of the rock features until reaching the skull at the pass. Overall it was a fantastic trip and I think Cottonwood Creek has a lot to offer to those who are willing to put in a little more effort than South Colony Lakes area. Especially if you are looking to get away from the crowds.

Skull at Broken Hand Pass
Serene Cottonwood Lake

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
2 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 22 23 24 27 29 31 32 33

Comments or Questions
Pleasure meeting you!
07/24/2018 11:18
My wife and I were the fools who started at 2:45 from SCL. You guys made NE Crestone look like a walk in the park! You flew up and down it.

Great report and glad to see the rest of the weekend went well too!

07/24/2018 12:04
Thanks! It was great meeting you both. Glad to hear you had a safe hike out!

I got chills
07/24/2018 18:05
Looking at the photo of you on NE Crestone. Really only Class 3/4 up that crack?

07/24/2018 20:31
That ridge line from Broken Hand to 13270 looks awesome!

NE Crestone
07/25/2018 00:58
@glenmiz I should lean it more towards Class 4 because some sections are but more experienced hikers then me may say otherwise. Maybe I should say itâs like the crossover on Crestone Needle with more exposure? Maybe? Iâm pretty new at judging things

Ridge Line
07/25/2018 01:01
@wombat it was pretty cool to say the least. Especially being up there as the sun started to hit the Crestones!

08/08/2018 16:55
Nice report.

Did you have to obtain permission to approach via Cottonwood Creek? My third edition of Roach (2011) says you need to get permission, but doesn't say how you can do that.


08/08/2018 17:10
@claybonnyman from my understanding the access is open to park at the TH. Thereâs room for like 4-5 cars but parking isnât allowed along the road. I think Spanish Creek still requires permission. There is a sign that directs you to the TH parking only. Iâve read this a couple places and Summit Post has a comment about it

08/09/2018 08:22
Thanks, kwhit. I think I'd prefer to backpack in from the Cottonwood Creek approach, so I may park there when I head up later this month.

Good luck!
08/09/2018 14:27
@claybonnyman - enjoy! I think it was a great alternative to the SCL approach and very secluded.

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