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Length: 10 miles roundtrip and 2,750 vertical feet
Difficulty: Most difficult
Why We Love It: The area’s rugged mountains and interesting history feel like a slice of the Alps
Pre-hike Buzz: Skip the pre-hike buzz in favor of an early start
When to Go: July-October
Restrooms: Vault toilets at the trailhead
Distance from Denver: About 110 miles
Dogs: Must be leashed
Notch Mountain is situated in the heart of the 123,409-acre Holy Cross Wilderness, a part of the White River National Forest that once briefly hosted a national monument. This beautiful hike leads to a historic stone hut built in the 1920s to shelter pilgrims who journeyed there to gaze upon the iconic, 1,150-foot-high cross of snow visible on the upper slopes of Mount of the Holy Cross, one of Colorado’s famous fourteeners, which rises just across a deep valley from the hut.
Mount of the Holy Cross National Monument was created in 1929 by President Herbert Hoover, but after World War II, the dearth of visitors to this remote location, coupled with a lack of funding, led to its decommissioning in 1950. That historic twist of fate is probably a blessing for modern-day hikers who enjoy secluded spots with spectacular views.
Start at the Fall Creek trailhead, which begins on the south side of the parking lot. (Be sure to avoid following the Halfmoon Trail, which leads from the lot’s west side to the summit of the Mount of the Holy Cross.) The route begins by climbing steadily uphill through dense conifer and spruce forest. After about 2.5 miles, you’ll reach a trail junction. Turn sharply right here (in nearly a U-turn) to follow the Notch Mountain Trail.
This is where the fun begins; here, the grade increases considerably, and before long, you leave the trees behind. Be sure to bring adequate wind gear, as it can get blustery on short notice. Fortunately, the trail is well constructed, with switchbacks that help keep the grade steady all the way up to Notch Mountain’s ridge. Because the summit requires a technical ascent, this route ends at the ridge crest at 13,000 feet, where the historic shelter is clearly visible.
From outside the shelter, you can look across a deep glacial valley to take in the iconic view of the “t”-shaped couloir, which retains snow well into July. This spot has been a destination for devout pilgrims since the late 1800s. The stone structure is still open to the public, so you can tiptoe inside to view a few historic religious idols and peek at the cross through the old, distorted glass windows.
Once you’ve enjoyed the view, which photographer William Henry Jackson immortalized in a well-known image taken during the first-recorded ascents of both summits in 1873, retrace your steps back down through this remote wilderness.
How to get there: From Denver, take I-70 west past Vail to Exit 171 (US-24). Follow US-24 south for 5 miles, then turn right onto Notch Mountain Road (signed Tigwon Road). After 8.3 miles on a relatively smooth dirt road, you’ll arrive at the end of the road, where the Fall Creek trailhead is located.