Hiking in Holy Cross Wilderness - Sawatch Range, Colorado
Updated: Mar 28
The Holy Cross Wilderness, named after Mount of the Holy Cross (14,005 feet), and its famous cross shaped couloir/gullies, is one of the four wilderness area in the northernmost stretch of the Sawatch Range. The Mount of the Holy Cross became famous in 1873 when William Henry Jackson, famous for his images of the American West, first photographed the cross, which is formed by a vertical couloir crossed by a horizontal (almost) gully, thus forming the shape of a cross on the northeast face of this mountain. Established in 1980, the Holy Cross Wilderness is managed by the White River National Forest and the Pike-San Isabel National Forest.
The Holy Cross Wilderness has plenty of alpine lakes, streams, and valleys. With over 150 miles of trails, the area is known for excellent hiking and backpacking experiences - Mount of the Holy Cross, Missouri Lakes, Fancy Lake, Beaver Lake, Cross Creek, Fall Creek and Timberline Lake and many more. My husband, Hermann, has explored much of this area, but I have only hiked here with him in three different places - to Missouri Lakes, Lake Constantine and one backpacking trip with our two friends to Lyle and Mormon Lakes.
- MISSOURI LAKES TRAILHEAD -
Driving on Interstate 70 (I-70) heading west, exit to Highway 91 at Copper Mountain Ski Resort heading south. Follow the road all the way at the edge of town of Leadville then turn right on Highway 24/10th Mountain Division Memorial Highway heading north. Before you reach the town of Red Cliff, there is an exit to Forest Service Road 703 (Homestake Reservoir Road) on the left. Follow this dirt road for about 7.8 miles, then take a right onto Missouri Creek Road (Forest Service Road 704). The trailhead will be visible at a cross road.
MISSOURI LAKES – 3.5 Miles, one way
Hiking to Missouri Lakes is about seven miles, round trip. It is short but mostly steep going up to the lakes. The trail begins as an easy ascent for about a mile, then a steep uphill begins. You will cross a creek several times, one is at the mouth of a little canyon.
The trees thin out as you go higher and about halfway on the trail you will pass an open meadow where the creek meanders down to the canyon. A nice spot to stop and have an energy-boosting snack.
Listen for marmots along the trail; you might see one, like this guy here standing on watch duty. It’s hard sometimes to take a photo of them, they are shy animals - which is good for their own protection. Hermann had to zoom in to take this photo. They will scramble out of sight if you come too near.
The Missouri Lakes basin contains a series of four (or five?) lakes. The lakes sit below Savage Peak (13,139 feet in elevation) and Missouri Pass. We hiked this trail for about 8.5 miles round trip - just to the lakes not all the way to Missouri Pass. Hanging out by the lakes will take so much of your time, the view is just incredible, so don't forget your camera. The lakes, the mountain backdrops and the colorful wildflowers, all together create a scene you won't be able to resist capturing.
If you want to hike the loop (Missouri Pass/Fancy Pass Loop), follow the switchback trail up to Missouri Pass – on the other side of Missouri Pass is Treasure Vault Lake. The trail continues east up to Fancy Pass then down to Fancy lake (Note: a one-mile detour from the Fancy Lake is a ghost town with well-preserved buildings, called Holy Cross City). The Fancy Pass Trail leads down to the trailhead.
- FALL CREEK TRAILHEAD, NORTH -
From the historic town of Leadville, turn right on Highway 24/10th Mountain Division Memorial Highway heading north. Turn left on Forest Service Road 707 (Notch Mountain Road, Tigiwan Road) which is closed for motorized vehicle from May 1 to June 20), past the towns of Red Cliff and Gilman. It's a rough road but you don't need a 4WD to drive here. Follow the winding dirt road for about eight miles to where it ends at the Fall Creek Trailhead.
LAKE CONSTANTINE – 4.5 Miles one way
From the trailhead, the trail to lake Constantine (and to Top Notch Mountain) is on the left - the Half Moon Pass Trail is on the right. On this trail you will see a panoramic view of the Gore Range, rugged but incredibly beautiful (there are beautiful hikes in that range as well, check Hiking in Gore Range).
It’s a gradual ascent to Lake Constantine, at least until past the junction/turn off to the Notch Mountain Trail. Past the junction the trail gets more rugged with a little scrambling on rocks before the lake. There are plenty of ups and downs along this stretch, which makes it quite strenuous, especially returning back down to the trailhead.
Lake Constantine, which is at about 11,398 feet in elevation, sits below Whitney Peak (12,363 feet) and Notch Mountain. Hermann camped here alone, and other time with a friend who, believe it or not, found two women sunbathing topless on the rocks while looking through his binoculars. Binoculars sometimes have other uses besides just to spot wildlife - you might also find something "interesting".
If you still have the stamina and want to extend your hike, continue on to Fall Creek Pass. Above Lake Constantine, on the west side, are the Tuhare Lakes, which Hermann said are good fishing spots. The Tuhare Lakes (the upper and the lower one), which are over twelve thousand feet, sit below the Holy Cross Ridge. Want to explore more? You will find the Seven Sisters Lakes on the other side of the ridge - by this time you will wish you are camping in the area, it's gonna be a long trek back to the trailhead after that.
- LYLE & MORMON LAKE TRAILHEAD -
From the historic town of Leadville, follow the Hagerman Pass Road (Road 4/105) – you will pass Turquoise Lake driving up to the pass. The trailhead is at the western end of the Hagerman Pass Road.
LYLE & MORMON LAKES – 7-10 Miles round trip
We were with a couple of friends when we took this trail. This was the first, and last, back country camping experience for me. (Goodness! That was in 2009, how time flies).
Back country camping is fun, but carrying 25 pounds or so of camping stuff is hard for a petite gal like me. I was with three well-seasoned hikers and campers - doing this is no hardship for them, but I managed it well enough. Hermann carried most of the stuff we needed so can't complain. Besides, I wanted to experience camping in the back country.
Anyways, it’s a gentle uphill hike to Lyle Lake, just about 1.5 miles, an easy backpacking trail according to my husband - a good introduction for me, he said. I was skeptical back then but, after years of hiking in Colorado and encountering backpackers on steep trails, I guess I can say this is an easy trail. I toughened up a bit since then, but back country camping is not for me - for personal reasons other than carrying a heavy backpack.
So, a little ways above Lyle Lake was our campsite. We camped here for two nights, and hiked to Mormon Lake to do a bit of fishing. Yes, I did some fishing too, I haven't learned how to tie on a fly or lure though; Hermann does it for me.
Staying by the campsite and just enjoying the view and the peace and quiet of the place is good enough, but why stop there when you can explore. Above Lyle Lake is Mormon Lake and a small unnamed lake.
From Lyle Lake (elevation 11,387 feet) to Mormon Lake is about 1.5 miles of gentle uphill. Mormon Lake is about 11,481 feet in elevation. This lake and the unnamed lake nearby are good fishing spots. Hermann and Lauren caught some good ones here. Hermann and I usually release them if we catch some, but this time we cooked the trout for dinner. I was squeamish about eating them since I saw them alive, but got to try it.
Bring along mosquito repellent, believe me you will need it. I wear long pants and long sleeves when hiking but I still spray on mosquito repellent. Those flying vampires are relentless, even with protection I still get some itchy bumps when we get home.
Seasoned campers know the rules and regulations in the wilderness, but just in case you are new to camping in the back country, campfires are not permitted in Missouri Creek and Fancy Creek area. Also, backpackers to Fall Creek Trail are required to self-register at the trailhead.
"Pack it in, Pack it out" motto is the key here to keep the place clean for others to enjoy.