Ranked among the 200 highest peaks in the state, Coxcomb offers one of the few 5th class climbing opportunities to be found with the 13ers. Experienced climbers may only rate this a 4th class climb, but many will probably consider it 5th class. John Kirk gives it a rating of 5.3. Regardless of its rating, Coxcomb offers a beautiful approach hike through a wildflower-laden valley and a climbing challenge to ascend through the cliffs guarding the summit. Rope, helmet & some minimal climbing gear is advised. 4WD needed to get all the way to the trailhead.
There are two ways to access the upper West Fork of the Cimarron River. One comes in off US 550 from a little north of Ridgway and the other comes in from US 50 and goes by Silver Jack Reservoir.
From US 550 turn east onto County Road 10 which is marked for Owl Creek Pass. This turnoff is 1.8 miles north of the single light on US 550 at the intersection for Ridgway. From here, just stay on CR10, avoiding any other options. The road goes mainly through open meadows or alongside pinyon/juniper forests. Watch for it making a right turn where County Road 8 comes in from US 550. (If coming from Montrose, CR8 can be used as a shortcut.) At the turn, you will now be on CR8. Follow it past the Sleeping Indian Ranch and across Cow Creek. A little further up valley, the road makes a sharp switchback and begins gaining elevation more seriously through open scrub oak terrain. Soon, you'll pass the Forest Service sign and enter FS land. The road tends to degrade some here but passenger cars driven carefully can continue. The Forest Service designation for the road is 858. It's a long slog to the top of Owl Creek Pass - usually requiring around 45 minutes of drive time. When you get to "True Grit" meadow that offers the nice view of Courthouse & Chimney Rock, and is usually filled with corn lilies, you're almost there.
At the top of Owl Creek Pass, there's a small, unofficial camp area on the north side of the road. Continue down east to the first turnoff you see, less than a half mile from the pass. This road to the south is FR860. Drive up this usually good road that offers several possible campsites all the way to the Courthouse trailhead (about 1.7 miles from CR8). A short distance past the trailhead, passenger cars will need to stop. There's some limited parking there. It will be obvious where you need to stop. The main road veers to the right and becomes much worse.
If you have 4WD with good clearance, continue south up the road as it goes up a steep, rocky section, then levels some as it passes through a section with large potholes. In .75 mile, it drops down a little and makes a sharp left to a ford of the West Fork. There are some good campsites here. The ford is a low water crossing and can be difficult in earlier season. Use good judgment. If you can't drive across, walk upstream a good distance to find perhaps a fallen tree across the stream. From the stream crossing, it's another.7 mile to the trailhead. This is not a graded lot. It's basically just the end of the road. Park where you can find room & it's not too rocky.
If coming from Montrose, by way of US50, drive past Cimarron about 2.7 miles and turn south on County Road/Forest Road 858 that goes to the Silverjack Reservoir. From Gunnison, drive west on US50 past the Blue Mesa Reservoir, down through a narrow canyon section, up over a pass at 8,700 ft., then down a long and winding descent toward Cimarron. The turnoff is one mile past the turnoff for CR864 and just past a small resort on the south side of the highway. It's a long, 22 miles drive back on a graded, dirt road, suitable for passenger cars, but can be dusty and/or washboarded. Continue past the Silverjack Reservoir about a mile and then make a right turn to cross the creek and then continue driving on FR858 to Owl Creek Pass. The turnoff for FR860 will be just after a major switchback and about 6.5 miles from the right turn that takes you across the creek after driving past the Silver Jack reservoir. See information above for the drive up FR860.
If coming from US550 on CR10 & CR8, the best camping will be at "True Grit" meadow on the west side of Owl Creek Pass; at the top of the pass; or along FR860 as it goes south up along the West Fork. There are numerous spots along 860, many of which will be occupied on a weekend. See also our CalTopo map for some of the closest spots to the trailhead.
If coming from US50 & the Silver Jack reservoir, there are three Forest Service campgrounds just north of the reservoir and then after making the right turn beyond the reservoir, there's an area with numerous campsites along FR861.A1 Otherwise, if you want to camp more closely, continue to FR860 and find a spot along there as described above.
The route we used to climb Coxcomb came from G&M. Refer to that book for additional description to enhance this one. From the West Fork of the Cimarron Trailhead, follow the trail south all the way to an unnamed pass at 12,500 ft., west of the cliffs guarding the summit of Coxcomb. This nearly three mile walk takes you through some beautiful alpine scenery with wildflowers abounding in July and early August. From the pass you'll need to make a decision likely based on what you dislike the least: losing elevation or a prolonged, sidehill contour. The goal is to reach the prominent south ridge that comes off the Coxcomb summit from its western end. From the pass, you can attempt to sidehill your way across to the ridge losing as little elevation as possible. We found this to be slow & tedious and likely saved no time or effort whatsoever. Some snow coverage may help earlier in the season. Otherwise, descend a good 400 feet in elevation south into the Wetterhorn Basin. (You can follow the trail down.) Then turn east off the trail and head for the same south ridge, regaining the elevation you lost as you approach the ridge. Head back up the ridge until you reach the cliffs that guard the summit block (about 13,350 ft.) by walking up the steepening, rocky slope. Now the fun begins.
At the base of the cliffs, identify a prominent couloir to the left that comes off the southern extremity of the summit cap of rocky cliffs. A short 4th class scramble of about 20 feet gets you into this couloir. Continue up the couloir with 3rd class scrambling to a tightening chimney. This is the crux of the ascent that many will consider to be low 5th class. Conditions may vary widely depending on the time of the year you attempt this section. On one of the three times we've been here, the chimney was still filled with snow & ice, so earlier in the season, ice axe and crampons/micro-spikes could prove useful. In order to get up and over a large block section of ice, we had to toss a long sling around a horn of ice in order to get footing and handhold to proceed up. In mid-season, you may find it wet in here with dripping water making things slick. Certainly, by August, the chimney should be cleared out. We found the chimney to be narrow enough that we felt secure in it without using rope & protection. At the head of the chimney, there's usually a protruding rock with multiple slings around it that people have used to rappel back down. Scramble on over broken rock at the head of the chimney to reach the summit ridge. It's not quite over yet.
Walk east along the summit crest ridge to a final obstacle - a 15 foot cleft that blocks the path to the high point. The west side of the cleft is nearly vertical while the east side is no more than a 3rd class scramble with perhaps one initial 4th class move. While some good climbers may be able to make the vertical descent safely, many will want to set up a short rappel here, leave the rope in place and scramble on to the summit. You'll briefly need to scramble back up to the narrow ridge to complete the climb on a somewhat exposed, narrowing ridge. On the return, you can use the fixed rope as a handline to get back up or send your best climber back up to belay others. The view from the summit provides a spectacular vision of the rugged terrain, especially along the Middle Fork of the Cimarron and Heisshorn Peak. For the descent, many will prefer to rappel the upper chimney and some may want additional protection further down.
Equipment wise, 100 feet of rope, harness, rappel gear, a few biners, a few slings or webbing of varying length and helmet can get you to the summit and back safely.