One of the lowest 14ers in elevation, at 14,011 ft (USGS), Mt. of the Holy Cross is a challenge as well as a spectacle. It is such named due to the cross-shaped snowfield on the northeast face. The first recorded ascent of the mountain was in 1873, but it is very likely to have been previously ascended by Native Americans or mining prospectors. Holy Cross is the highest peak in the northern Sawatch Range.
Overview of the Route
There are two main summertime routes to the summit, the standard route, or North Ridge, and the more challenging, longer route via Halo Ridge. Halo Ridge is more challenging because you summit three unnamed 13ers along the way, after ascending to the 13,110ft saddle of Notch Mountain. The Halo Ridge route is made significantly more challenging because of the three 13ers, and because it involves over two miles of talus crossing, a.k.a. large boulders and rocks that can be as large as a small car.
Even though it’s roughly two miles from Notch Mountain to the summit of Holy Cross via Halo Ridge, it can take a few hours. Most who ascend via Halo Ridge descend via the North Ridge route. We got to the Notch Mountain shelter around 07:30, and left around 08:00 after taking a quick snack break and a chance to take in the views. It wasn’t until just after 11:30 when we summited Holy Cross.
Ascent to the Notch Mountain Shelter
Notch Mountain trail (Halo Ridge route) is accessible via the Fall Creek trailhead which begins at the same area as Halfmoon trail (the North Ridge route). It is of course longer, but quite a bit more scenic. There is a signed junction for the Notch Mountain trail about 2 1/4 miles in on the Fall Creek trail (continuing on Fall Creek will take you to Lake Constantine, over Fall Creek Pass, and ultimately ending at its southern trailhead at the end of the Holy Cross City Jeep Road #759).
Upon leaving treeline, you cross a nice meadow and a creek which is the final opportunity to refill water bottles until well into the descent. You start steeply ascending through a talus field. There is more than 600 ft of elevation gain in a mile up this talus field and over 30 switchbacks. Two large cairns mark the trail to the shelter near the top of the ascent. At this point you are over five miles from the trailhead.
Notch Mountain Shelter
Notch Mountain is home to an old lightning shelter originally used by pilgrims to witness the cross. Mt. of the Holy Cross was declared a National Monument by President Hoover in 1929, transferred to the National Park Service in 1933, before being returned to the Forest Service and losing its monument status in 1950. The shelter proved too expensive to staff, but is still there and open to the public. The shelter was built by CCC workers out of the Tigiwon Camp near Minturn in 1933. The first recorded pilgrimage to the Holy Cross was in 1912 Not much is left of the interior of the shelter, there is a fireplace and some benches inside. You are technically allowed to use the shelter for dispersed camping, on a first-come-first-serve basis.
There is no cover anywhere along Halo Ridge, for over two miles. Do not attempt to cross if there is any risk of lightning. The Halo Ridge route is not for the faint-of-heart, it is challenging and you must be in good physical shape to do this safely. There are three 13ers along the way to the summit of Holy Cross, all unnamed. In clockwise order from Notch Mountain to Holy Cross: the first 13,248 ft, second 13,373 ft, and the final 13er is one of Colorado’s 100 highest peaks at 13,831 ft. The talus is not technical nor really that difficult, but you do have to watch your step and take due precautions. It is all Class 2 talus (no climbing gear required). There are some steeper sections in which significant scrambling is required.
One of the factors which makes the Halo Ridge route more challenging is the fact you ascend and descend several times up and down each of the 13ers. Comparatively it isn’t that much elevation gain or loss (at most a few hundred feet each time), but the elevation combined with the overall distance is enough to challenge most hikers. Having departed the Notch Mountain shelter, you will (essentially) not drop below 13,000 ft for hours; the only time you technically do so is the 12,940 ft saddle between the first and second 13er (PT 13248 and PT 13373).
To the east and north down the side of Halo Ridge is the Bowl of Tears, the lake that sits well over 1000 ft below, and over 2000 ft below the summit of Holy Cross (the Bowl of Tears has an elevation of 12,001 ft, according to the USGS).
There are three false summits up the third and final 13er (PT 13831). Once you’ve reached the top of PT 13831, the final route to the summit of Holy Cross is visible, as well as most of the route from Notch Mountain. At this point, however, you are far from done.
From PT 13831, you descend to the 13,500 ft saddle with the Mt. of the Holy Cross. It is easy to bypass some of the more difficult rocks on the left (west) side of this ridge crest, there are plenty of better routes to take. On the way to the top of Holy Cross, it is relatively gentle, then consistently climbs. The final slope abruptly rounds off at the summit.
Taking the North Ridge down drops you over 3,000 ft to the East Cross Creek basin. This is pretty much walking straight downhill for a while. Then, there is an annoying 1,500 ft climb over Halfmoon Pass back to the parking lot.
The Halo Ridge route is challenging but extremely rewarding. It offers the best views a hike to the Mt. of the Holy Cross can offer. It is not a walk in the park, you need to be properly prepared to attempt it. Make no mistake, the Mt. of the Holy Cross has claimed lives. But it is certainly worth doing again.