Located in the Gore Range, Mount Powell is a Class 2+ ascent with a fairly long trail approach from the Piney River Ranch trailhead. Just barely ranked in the top 200 summits, the popular Mt. Powell is the highest Gore summit and one of the easiest to climb with a very well established route. The trailhead can be accessed by most passenger vehicles and there is primitive camping nearby.
From I-70, take Exit 176 for Vail. Take your first right thru the roundabout on to North Frontage Road (you will now be traveling on the north side of the interstate and driving west.) At Red Sandstone Road turn right, and follow the paved road about 0.7 miles, past two switchbacks. Just before the sharp curve to the right (3rd switchback) the dirt road you need to take will be a left turn on the curve here. There should be a large green Forest Service sign indicating this is Red Sandstone Road #700 (Reset your odometer here). As you head generally north on this road, it will have frequent sharp curves and changes in direction as it crosses several drainages.
Continue for about 2.7 miles to a fork in the road at Lost Lake Road (#786). Keep left here to stay on Red Sandstone Road.
Around mile 6.5 you will pass Red and White Mtn Road/FSR 734 which forks to the left - Stay straight. At mile 6.7 you will pass another fork to the left for Muddy Pass/Moniger Road. Stay straight. Immediately after, the road begins to drop on two switchbacks down a forested side of the mountain to the Piney River.
When you are just over two miles from the ranch, you will cross a small bridge over Piney River. Follow the road as it curves to the right, where you will see a sign for Piney Lake two miles ahead.
You will reach a Forest Service parking lot on the right at mile 10.65 before the entrance to Piney River Ranch. If you are only hiking, and not a ranch guest, park in this lot. The trailhead is on the north side of the parking lot (left side of the parking lot as one faces the Piney River Ranch entrance). Allow up to 45 minutes to make this drive.
At the crossing of Piney River and along the two mile stretch of road after that crossing that leads up to the ranch, there are numerous primitive site opportunities. However, we offer the following warning. On one of our two visits here on a Friday evening, we found most every possible site taken and there were boisterous campers who kept us up much of the night with loud music, partying and even shooting off pistols in the middle of the night. On our second visit and overnight camp (which was on a Thursday evening this time) we were awakened at 1:00 AM in the morning by two very drunk men attempting to paddle a canoe down the Piney River in the dark. For 20 minutes or longer, we listened to their loud voices as they would get out of the canoe to get around some obstacle, splash around in the water, stumble, and then get back in the canoe. Eventually they were out of earshot, but our impression of this place is that it's the "in" spot for partiers.
If you want some peace and quiet, you may want to search for a primitive site somewhere along the Red Sandstone Road before coming to the Piney River crossing. There are some spots visible on Google Earth and on the two FS roads mentioned above that turn off to the left just before the descent down the mountainside to cross Piney River. Just be careful to not end up on private property.
When we first climbed Mt. Powell by using this approach in 1994, the Piney River Trail (#1885) stayed low in the valley past the lake and then gradually gained above the valley bottom, passing through marshes, until it took you to the turn in the valley to the south. This is what the 1970 USGS map shows. But the trail has since been revised so that now, the trail from the near the resort begins to gain elevation shortly after the lake. You probably gain a minimum of 400 feet with several switchbacks, before the trail then drops you back down nearly 200 feet toward the Piney River, where it crosses some rocky outcrops that form some nice cascades for the river below. Do not accidentally get misled onto Trail #1889 that takes off to the left not too far past Piney Lake. That trail goes to the Soda Lakes.
From where the trail has dropped down closer to the Piney River, hike on upstream a little more until you locate a large cairn marking a trail that turns off on the left and leads up to the basin below Mt. Powell and Peak C. This trail intersection is in a nice forested area and even without the cairn, the trail is quite visible. (On our visit here, someone deliberately knocked down the cairn while we were camped up above.) It was approximately 3.2 miles from the parking area The only thing confusing about it is the initial direction it takes, first heading north and switchbacking west before turning abruptly east to climb steeply into the aforementioned basin. This particular trail starts out easy enough to follow, but after a few hundred feet of gain in the forest, it crosses into some highly vegetated areas where it becomes easily lost in the abundant corn lilies, willows, Queen Anne’s Lace, and assorted other flowers. It is very steep through here and a struggle with full packs.
After a somewhat swampy section, the trail becomes more visible again as it makes a very steep gain up an open bench. At the top of this, it finally relents in the steep gain and you may pass an early, but small campsite in some open trees to the right. We wanted to get closer to our two peaks we would climb from here though, so we continued on, sweating freely in the morning sun as we crossed through more open meadows and made one more gain to the west end of the upper basin. This basin that lies at about 11,225 ft., is bordered on the south by the steep slope of a great, rock glacier. It is a relatively flat area of a few acres, with a pleasant stream flowing through, abundant flowers, and surrounded by dramatic peaks, Peak C taking center stage because of its towering appearance above. We arrived here in about 3.5 hours from the trailhead and immediately set up tents as we were greeted by first three, and then a small herd of mountain goats. We had to keep an eye on them as we set things up and were concerned they might take off with some of our gear, but they were mostly just interested in our urine. This campsite makes a very good location to launch off for Mt. Powell, Eagle's Nest and Peak C, all of which can be climbed in just a few hours from this location, with Eagle's Nest taking the longest.
For a Peak G approach, return to the trail junction near the Piney River. From that junction, stay on the Piney River Trail as it turns to the SE. This trail was fairly easy to follow for the next 1.5 mile but then does not receive much use so it begins to fade out. The USGS map shows it abruptly terminating in an open meadow at about 10,260 ft. Trails Illustrated shows it as an unmaintained trail. Some recent reports we have seen indicate to us that the FS may be attempting to close this section of trail. Those reports indicate is may be blocked and difficult to spot now. In 2006, we began to lose the trail where the USGS map shows it to terminate, however, the Trails Illustrated map shows it continuing all the way to Upper Piney Lake. That map shows the trail staying on the north side of the river for much of the upper distance. For Peak G, you may want to pack up to near some coordinates provided below for a possible campsite to climb Peak G from. Or you could ditch backpacks back at the earlier trail junction and complete Peak G as a "day hike" from that junction. The coordinates we're providing are in an open meadow area that is close to where you would begin the ascent of Peak G. If you decide to try and backpack up the river, in 2006 we found one nice campsite, pretty much in the middle of the trail, just a few minutes beyond where the trail takes the turn to the south. About 3/4 mile farther, and up a steep section of trail followed by a bench, was another campsite that could accommodate multiple tents. The site we used was another 25 minutes past there.
Mount Powell can be easily climbed as a day-hike from the trailhead at the Piney River Ranch. With an early start, most can complete the climb and return to the trailhead by mid-afternoon. However, if you want to climb Powell's neighboring 13ers, Eagle's Nest, Peak C and the more distant Peak G, a 3-day backpack can result in climbing all four summits. From a campsite at 11,225 feet below the Powell south ridge, the one-way distance to the summit is about 1.25 miles with 2,350 feet in elevation gain. Overall mileage is 5.5 one way from the trailhead and 4,215 feet in elevation gain.
From the Piney River Ranch Trailhead, see the Upper Piney River Approach for details on how to reach the campsite location at 11,225 ft. below the south ridge of Mt. Powell. From that camp location, looking east there is a large, split couloir that leads to what is called "Kneeknocker Pass," the saddle between Mt. Powell and Peak C, the stunning sharkstooth summit south of that pass. The west flank of Mt. Powell is an almost rhythmic alternation between rock outcrops and velvety tundra benches and gullies. This is one of the most interestingly shaped peaks to see from this viewpoint. A clear trail now leads up alongside that steep couloir on the north side avoiding some of the rock, by staying on tundra, but eventually crosses onto talus and scree to reach the pass. From below the pass, still on the west side, an older route veers off from the main couloir a few hundred feet before reaching Kneeknocker Pass and follows yet another tundra-covered slope which leads to a higher gully and a break in the south ridge of Mt. Powell. To reach that break, there may be some snow to cross earlier season. This route is likely that suggested by G&M. The intersection of the south ridge is at 12,460 ft. From there, we continued up, more or less along the south ridge for a short distance before a path led us over to the east side of the ridge. On that east side, we both ascended and contoured at times to avoid rocky outcrops, having to cross some minor gullies as well, but our footing was generally solid on tundra. We eventually ended up ascending several hundred feet on the left side of the main couloir that many ascend from Kneeknocker Pass. Eventually you top out at a minor saddle. From there it's a hike over medium-sized rocks and boulders and/or patches of snow to the summit. We would regard this route as Class 2. Enjoy the panoramic view from the Powell summit of the rugged Gore range. Return as you came.
What has apparently become the most popular route today is to climb up the west couloir all the way to Kneeknocker Pass, descend briefly to make a somewhat exposed traverse below a small cliff on loose rock, descend a short scree slope, cross a boulder field then begin the upclimb in earnest by heading up on steep, grassy slopes to the upper saddle. The tundra/grassy slopes eventually lead into a prominent couloir on the south face that can be followed on up to that saddle. From there, the two routes join. If using this route, we should warn that an ice axe and/or microspikes may be handy for the descent on the east side. It takes the snow some time to melt out here.