When summer arrives in the Colorado high country, a curious natural phenomenon occurs on the east flank of 14,003-foot Mount of the Holy Cross. Winter snowpack recedes from exposed slopes but lingers in a deep couloir that runs up the mountain, then along an intersecting ledge about two-thirds of the way up. The result is a short-lived, cross-like apparition that in days gone by attracted religious pilgrims by the hundreds. Nowadays the peak and the surrounding wilderness that bears its name draw pilgrims of a different stripe.
With 26 peaks soaring above 13,000 feet and plenty of alpine lakes, crystalline streams, and lush glacial valleys, the Holy Cross Wilderness is about as close as you'll come to finding heaven on earth. Deciding which of the 164 trail miles to hike can be tough, but one of the best routes, in my book, is the 28-mile Fall Creek-to-Cross Creek Trail loop around Mount of the Holy Cross. To accomplish it in one weekend you'll really have to hoof it and take two cars for a shuttle. Park one at Cross Creek trailhead, then drive up to Halfmoon Campground and the Fall Creek trailhead. In summer you'll likely share the first few miles of trail with dayhikers headed up Notch Mountain (13,237 feet) to catch the incomparable view of Mount of the Holy Cross.
As you continue along Fall Creek Trail, the crowds begin to thin. After passing Lake Constantine, you'll rise above timberline on the march to 12,600-foot Fall Creek Pass, one of Colorado's highest and most scenic passes.
The trail descends steeply past the Seven Sisters Lakes, a chain of pools stair-stepping into French Creek, to the ruins of the old mining town of Holy Cross City. Enjoy the relatively flat terrain because you'll soon be climbing again, this time to Fancy Pass (12,350 feet). The pass is barely half way through the loop, but rest easy because the hard stuff is behind you. It's all downhill from here as you follow Cross Creek through a beautiful, glacier-carved valley to the Cross Creek trailhead and your waiting car. You remembered the keys, didn't you?
QUICK TAKE: Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado
DRIVE TIME: Holy Cross Wilderness is located in the central Colorado Rockies, 108 miles (13/4 hours) west of Denver.
THE WAY: From Denver take I-70 west past Vail, then turn south at Dowd's Junction onto US 24. Just south of Maloit Park, turn right onto Forest Road 707 (Tigiwon Road). Cross Creek trailhead is less than a mile from the turnoff, and Fall Creek trailhead is only 6 miles farther.
TRAILS: The Fall Creek-to-Cross Creek Trail loop is 28 miles long. Some other recommended hikes include: the 24-mile roundtrip up East Lake Trail to Upper Camp Lake; the 18-mile roundtrip to Turquoise Lakes; and the 16-mile West Grouse-Cross Creek loop, which requires a car shuttle.
ELEVATION: Fall Creek Pass, 12,600 feet, is the high point on the Fall Creek-Cross Creek loop; the low is the trailhead, at 8,500 feet.
CAN'T MISS: Holy Cross City, a ghost town that was once a booming mining center.
CROWD CONTROL: Hike in May or September or on weekdays if you want to be alone.
MAPS AND GUIDES: Trails Illustrated's Holy Cross map (#126) encompasses most of the wilderness, but you'll need Vail Pass (#108) to cover the trailheads ($8.99 for each map, 800-962-1643). Good trail descriptions can be found in The Complete Guide to Colorado's Wilderness Areas ($24.95, Westcliffe Publishers, 800-523-3692).
PIT STOP: The town of Minturn off US 24 offers several low-cost, relaxing watering holes.
WALK SOFTLY: Open fires are permitted but discouraged. Camp at least 100 yards from any water source. Steer clear of fragile meadows and alpine tundra.
MORE INFORMATION: Holy Cross Ranger District, White River National Forest, P.O. Box 190, Minturn, CO 81645; (970) 827-5715.