Length: 14 miles round-trip and 4,600 vertical feet
Difficulty: Most difficult
Why We Love It: The well-built trail has a fairly consistent gradient that makes this route a great choice for hikers who crave a straightforward challenge—and memorable views.
When To Go: Mid-June through early fall, once most of the snow has melted
Pre-hike Buzz: Forego the pre-hike buzz for a crack-of-dawn start and toast your summit afterwards at the Jailhouse Craft Beer Bar, located in Buena Vista’s historic 1880s jailhouse.
Restrooms: Outhouse at the trailhead
Distance from Denver: About 130 miles
Dogs: Must be leashed at all times within the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area

Mt. Harvard—named for the university from which most of the peak’s first survey team graduated—is one of the five stunning “Collegiate Peaks” that loom over the west side of the Arkansas River valley. At 14,420 feet, the mountain is Colorado’s third-highest peak, but because the standard route follows its southern slopes, the hike to the summit is often free of snow earlier than many of the state’s other fourteener routes. This fact, combined with a relatively consistent gradient and the beautiful wildflowers that speckle its slopes, make Mt. Harvard an ideal early fourteener-season hike.

From its start at the North Cottonwood Creek trailhead, the path crosses the stream and then follows the valley for about 1.5 miles to a second bridge. A short distance after the crossing, you reach a signed trail junction at about 10,400 feet. Veer right here to continue heading toward Horn Fork Basin, the expansive, green valley below Mt. Harvard’s summit.

After hiking a couple miles through stands of evergreens, you reach treeline at roughly 11,600 feet. From here, the trail continues northward through the basin before crossing another small stream. Continue an additional 1.5 miles to the next trail junction at about 12,300 feet, where you should once again veer right to continue ascending Horn Fork Basin with a U-shaped profile that was carved by a series of glaciers that flowed down this valley 13,000 years ago. Here is a good place to rest and recharge while you search for wildflowers, including lavender lupine, glowing fireweed, and the dainty purple-and-white columbine, our state flower.

Once you’re ready to move on, continue along the trail as it picks its way upward through a steep talus slope to the crest of a broad ridge at about 12,900 feet. From here, follow the path north as it ascends an ever-steepening slope that leads to the peak’s southern summit ridge at 13,600 feet elevation. Once you’ve gained this ridge, follow the obvious path northward towards the summit. It’s smooth sailing until about 50 feet below the summit, where you encounter a steep, final pitch. Carefully pick your way up this last obstacle, using your hands as needed, to reach the summit.

Enjoy the sweeping views of the valley and neighboring peaks—you’ve earned it—snap the requisite photos and take care to descend the mountain by the same route you arrived. One more peak in the bag.

Getting There: From the only traffic light in downtown Buena Vista, head north on US-24 for 0.4 miles to County Road 350 (Crossman Avenue). Turn left (west) onto Crossman and continue for 2 miles before turning right onto County Road 361. Head north on CR-361 for 1.1 miles, and then turn left onto County Road 365, a dirt road that’s a bit rough but accessible to most 2WD vehicles. Continue on this road for about 5 miles to the North Cottonwood Creek trailhead at the end of the road.

Logistics: Dispersed, low-impact camping is allowed near the trailhead. For important safety considerations, detailed route descriptions, and recent access and trail conditions visit 14ers.com.

Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at down2earthscience.com.