Mount Yale via Denny Creek

August 7, 2021

Ascent along Denny Creek

Mount Yale lies in the heart of Colorado’s Sawatch Range. The Sawatch is the apex of the Rocky Mountains, home to the lion’s share of fourteeners in Colorado, the Rockies, and the Lower 48 in general.

The standard route begins at the Denny Creek Trailhead. There you’ll find a paved parking lot right at 10,000’—a somewhat rare luxury among fourteener trailheads. This combined with Yale’s not-too-technical class 2 route makes the mountain super popular among hikers.

A well-maintained dirt path follows Denny Creek up, through a grove of Aspens en route to Mount Yale.
A well-maintained dirt path follows Denny Creek up, through a grove of Aspens en route to Mount Yale.

My hike actually began just under a mile down the road at the College Peaks Campground. This large, creekside campground offers ample, spacious, tree-covered camping spots. You can (and should) reserve one well in advance!

In the age of COVID, cheap lodging has seemingly disappeared from even lower-key outdoorsy areas, like in the Sawatch. Luckily campgrounds have remained very affordable, provided some initial investments in the gear.

Great Trail Maintenance

I’ve found the Sawatch Fourteeners have exceptionally well-maintained trails. For instance, La Plata was a fine example of this. Mount Yale was no exception. The Denny Creek approach featured a well-packed dirt route, with ample switchbacks and erosion-resistance measures like log- and stone-stairwells.

Delightful and erosion-resistant signs of trail work on the route to Mount Yale via Denny Creek.
Delightful and erosion-resistant signs of trail work on the route to Mount Yale via Denny Creek.

And even in mid-August, it was still wildflower season in the high country of the Sawatch. This included some rather bizarre thistle! Later I would learn said thistle is actually a newly classified species, appropriately named the ‘funky thistle‘. The funky thistle is apparently endemic to the Colorado Rockies (excepting a small presence near Santa Fe).

Fireweed festooned the trailside meadows.
Fireweed festooned the trailside meadows.
An almost extra-terrestrial seeming funky thistle on the slopes of Mount Yale.  The funky thistle is a newly classified plant species endemic to the Colorado Rockies.
An almost extra-terrestrial seeming funky thistle on the slopes of Mount Yale. The funky thistle is a newly classified plant species endemic to the Colorado Rockies.

Smoke in the Alpine

The first two miles rose at a gentle pace, gaining just over 1000 vertical feet. The trail then rose up, out of the deep valley. As the views expanded and the sun rose higher, I saw the region was thick with smoke from wildfires both in Colorado and further afield.

Smoke filled the Sawatch from wildfires both within Colorado and further West.
Smoke filled the Sawatch from wildfires both within Colorado and further West.
The trail weaved in and out of the trees en route to the high ridgeline beneath Mount Yale.
The trail weaved in and out of the trees en route to the high ridgeline beneath Mount Yale.

Eventually, the trail left the trees and valley behind and began ascending towards the high ridge in an endless series of tight switchbacks. This section seemingly took forever! A few brief segments traversed flatter terrain. But for the most part, the trail remained consistently steep.

Smoke and morning sunshine roughly halfway up Mount Yale.
Smoke and morning sunshine roughly halfway up Mount Yale.

As the trail rose higher, above 12000′ and towards 13000′, things got a lot colder. The wind picked up. The air was not only filled with smoke but also humidity. The sun rose above the smoke and clouds and the direct light disappeared. The temperature also fell.

My fellow hikers (and they were legion!) spanned a spectrum between well-prepared and miserable. Many of us came prepared with ski gloves, hard shells, and winter hats. But some folks seemed to be in a lot of pain, struggling to stuff their frozen hands into the pockets of their running shorts.

Mount Yale and the Collegiate Peaks

In 1869 a group of students from Harvard Mining School embarked on an expedition through the high Sawatch with their professor, Josiah Whitney. They summited nearby Mt Harvard (14,421′) and Yale (14,200′). They named the taller peak after their alma mater, while naming the shorter after Whitney’s school. Josiah Whitney is also the namesake of the tallest peak in the lower 48: California’s Mount Whitney.

Josiah Whitney and his namesake peak in California.  Mount Yale is named after Whitney's alma mater.
Josiah Whitney and his namesake peak in California. Mount Yale is named after Whitney’s alma mater.

Other nearby fourteener peaks would soon receive University names, including Princeton, Oxford, and Columbia. Together these mountains are often referred to as the “Collegiate Peaks”. Mount Yale was my first of these mountains, though I had already climbed a couple other peaks in the Sawatch, including the tallest: Mt Elbert.

The high ridge to Mount Yale

After seemingly endless switchbacks, the trail crested the rocky barren ridgeline at just under 14,000′. The last stretch involves a bit of scrambling along boulders to the true summit. While the ridge is delightfully narrow, it’s not especially exposed.

Scrambling over large boulders to Mount Yale's true summit.
Scrambling over large boulders to Mount Yale’s true summit.

The wind whipped fiercely from the south. The smoke-filled sky seemed downright overcast. And I couldn’t see much from the summit. Hilariously, almost everyone was huddled just beneath the ridge on the leeward side.

Folks huddled on the leeward side of Mount Yale's summit, protected against the wind.
Folks huddled on the leeward side of Mount Yale’s summit, protected against the wind.

Descent Back to Camp

Mount Yale presents a safe, well-maintained class-2 route to its summit from a convenient, paved trailhead. But make no mistake, this is an intense hike! In all, I ascended roughly 4,200 vertical feet on a hike that took the better part of a day. The weather atop these peaks is hit or miss. You could have a warm sunny day at a brisk 45 Fahrenheit. Or you could easily lose feeling in your bare hands. Come prepared for either.

Marmots
Marmots.

Eventually, I was down in the far-warmer Valley. The Sun decided to come back out. It was delightful arriving in camp to a shady tent for a nap and some iced drinks. Eventually, I pulled myself out of my sleeping bag to make a nice hearty dinner of corn on the cob and pork tacos. A ‘graduation ceremony’ of sorts.

Roasting pork and tortillas at the Collegiate Peaks Campground.
Roasting pork and tortillas at the Collegiate Peaks Campground.
Some hard-earned tacos after summiting Mount Yale.
Some hard-earned tacos after summiting Mount Yale.

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