“Abundant wildflowers and stunning views characterize this lesser-known alternative to summiting Holy Cross.”
— Megan W
Camping is prohibited at the Notch Mountain Shelter. It is okay to go inside this stone shelter during storms – it has a lightning rod! Camping is OK in the rest of the Holy Cross Wilderness but you must self-register at the trailhead and carry the permit during the visit. Tigiwon Road is closed annually from May 1 to June 21 and opens on June 21 if the road is snow-free by that date.
Don't be deterred by the sheer number of switchbacks at the end of this trail – although the altitude is high and the trail surface is mostly small, loose rocks, the grade is not excessively steep. This steady ascent rewards intrepid users with solitude and sweeping views of the Gore Range, Sawatch Range and other distant 14ers. Notch Mountain is the best place to view Mount of the Holy Cross, although the Ptarmigan Loop
in Vail or the Shrine Ridge Trail #2016
are considerably easier!
Features: Fall Colors — River/Creek — Views — Wildflowers — Wildlife
This one is surprisingly runnable. The surface is rooty and rocky near the start, and of course anything at 13,000 ft is not trivial, but it's a good option for high-altitude running. Expect a lot of small, loose rocks for the last 1/4 of the trail.
From the busy Half Moon trailhead, proceed south on the Fall Creek Trail #2001
through initially non-descript woodland with a rocky/rooty trail surface. Soon, things become more interesting as brief Gore Range views appear and the trail crosses several sizeable ravines scoured by recent landslide events. After a few small stream crossings, prepare to be dazzled by large meadows brimming with wildflowers. Late July and August are prime season for the widest variety of wildflowers here.
Resist the urge to bed down among the colorful flowers and continue the steady ascent. Large glacial boulders and erratics are scattered along this valley. At about 2.3 miles, you'll reach a large, shady trail junction where the Notch Mountain Trail #2000
leaves towards the west. Take the Notch Mountain Trail #2000
contouring up through forest and more scattered wildflower meadows. Soon, the trees become more sparse and you reach tree line. Intense high-altitude sun and no more shade mean you should sunscreeen/cover accordingly. The chunky talus slopes open up and the views get better and better the higher you climb. The rocky trail gradually becomes more narrow and the switchbacks get shorter, but the overall steepness remains manageable – just keep chugging away.
The trail does not pass through the "notch," but instead ascends up and over a southern shoulder. When it finally ends, the trail levels out and deposits runners onto a wide saddle (13,077 ft) between the two summit peaks. This beautiful alpine landscape is covered with large boulders and tufts of fragile tundra mosses (try not to tread on the grasses). The stone shelter atop Notch Mountain was built in 1924 by the CCC. Mount of the Holy Cross looms over Notch Mountain from across a large valley, and it is even possible to see runners along its ridge and summit. Peek over the edge facing Holy Cross: this pretty cirque is called Bowl of Tears, presumably because those who wish to summit Holy Cross must descend into the depression formed by Cross Creek and then climb right back up out of it to reach the 14,005 foot peak. When you've had enough high-alpine splendor, retrace your steps back down the switchbacks to the junction with Fall Creek Trail #2001
and then back to the Half Moon Trailhead parking area.
Flora & Fauna
Get ready for plenty of spruce and fir, a huge variety of wildflowers, and marmots and pika at the top of Notch Mountain. Deer, elk, ptarmigan, and mountain goats have also been spotted along this route.
History & Background
At the saddle is a large boulder with a metal plaque explaining how William Henry Jackson was the first person to photograph Mount of the Holy Cross from this spot. His work helped popularize this iconic mountain. With its seasonal bands of snow in the shape of a cross, Holy Cross became a famous spot for religious pilgramages. Some people believed that this formation was a literal sign from God endorsing manifest destiny (the belief that the US should expand and populate the North American continent and that this was both justified/inevitable). A program was set up by faith healers to allow ill people who could not visit the mountain in person to still receive a blessing. People would mail handkerchiefs to Colorado, and these would be carried up Notch Mountain. Prayers would be said over the hankerchiefs and then they would be carried down and mailed back to their owners.