Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness covers more than 120,000 acres and encompasses the 14,000-foot Mount of the Holy Cross -- named for a cross-shaped crevice where snow melts more slowly than in surrounding areas. With more than 150 miles of trails, the wilderness provides plenty of opportunities for backcountry camping, hiking and sightseeing amid snow-fed alpine lakes and peaks rising above 13,000 feet.
Sighting Your Spot
As a wilderness area protected from significant human impact, the Holy Cross Wilderness permits only dispersed camping, as opposed to developed campgrounds. To minimize your footprint on the land, try to find an already established campsite rather than carving out a new one. Staff at the ranger district headquarters in Aspen, Eagle or Leadville can point you to locations where people have previously camped. They can also advise you of relevant cautions and regulations to ensure your backcountry stay is as safe, enjoyable and low-impact as possible.
Following the Rules
To hike or camp in the Holy Cross Wilderness, you need a free permit, available when you self-register at the trailhead. Your site, campfires and tethers for pack animals must be at least 100 feet from trails, lakes and streams, as well as “No Camping” and “Wilderness Restoration Site” signs. In the East Cross Creek Valley, you can camp only in designated spots along the Halfmoon Trail. Depending on conditions, campfires may be prohibited in all or parts of the wilderness. Where they’re allowed, they need to be a 1/4-mile or more below the timberline -- where trees stop growing and tundra begins. Up to 15 people, or a combination of 25 people and pack animals, can stay at each site. The national forest website or a park ranger can give you a full list of regulations.
For the last several years, many Colorado forests -- including in the Holy Cross Wilderness -- have been decimated by bark beetles, which kill trees but leave them standing. The dead timber can fall at any time, blocking roads and trails, hitting tents and even injuring or killing people. To reduce the risk, stay out of thick woods, especially during high winds. Set up your tent out of range of trees that might fall. To avoid spreading the beetles and other pests to untouched areas, use only firewood that you find near your campsite.
The Wild Side
Many wild animals -- including black bears, elk, mountain lions and moose -- call the Holy Cross Wilderness home. Never approach or interact with wildlife. You may take your dog into the Holy Cross Wilderness as long as it's leashed and does not bother the animals, but leaving it behind often works best. People have been severely injured when their dogs spook moose and other large animals that charge rather than fleeing. Bear-proofing your campsite is crucial as bears can detect appealing odors up to 5 miles away. Always store food, waste and scented toiletries -- even the clothes you wear to cook and dine -- in bear-proof containers or bags. Prepare and eat food at least 100 feet from your tent.
- United States Department of Agriculture: Forest Service: White River National Forest: Special Places
- United States Department of Agriculture: Forest Service: White River National Forest: Dispersed Camping Access and Guidelines
- Wilderness.net: Holy Cross Wilderness
- OhRanger.com: White River National Forest: Holy Cross Wilderness
- United States Department of Agriculture: Forest Service: White and Pike/San Isabel National Forests (PDF)
- Colorado Parks and Wildlife: Camping and Hiking in Bear Country