Located in the Gore Range, Mount Powell is a Class 2+ ascent with a fairly long trail approach from the Piney River Ranch trailhead. Was formerly just barely ranked in the top 200 summits, now reduced into the top 300 by LIDAR, 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. Lidar elevation brought about a loss of 24 feet in elevation. Powell was previously 13,580.
From I-70, take Exit 176 for Vail. Take your first right thru the roundabout onto North Frontage Road (you will now be traveling on the north side of the interstate and driving west.) Go .9 mile and turn right onto Red Sandstone Road 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 a short distance where you will see a sign for Piney Lake two miles ahead. Turn right at the sign for Piney Lake. To the left at this turn is a trailhead parking area.
The dirt road, now #701, becomes a little rougher, but still passable. Along the right hand side of this road is a split rail fence in somewhat poor condition that is apparently intended to prevent camping in just any location. There are a few openings in this fence that allow access to a campsite. We only counted three or four - all of this a change from previous years. 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 there is a large, open area and just after crossing the river, there's a trailhead parking area that could serve for car-camping. Along the two mile stretch of road after that crossing that leads up to the ranch, there are now a limited number of 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. A spot we used in 2020 was located perhaps less than a half mile from the Piney River crossing. See coordinates below.
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 trailhead parking area begins immediately to gain some elevation and continues to remain above the lake and a lower lake trail until after the lake. The trail continues up valley, with a few switchbacks to help gain elevation and remains well above the valley bottom and the Piney River until you approach the falls that most day hikers want to see. A little before the falls, the trail loses some elevation. 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 for viewing the falls & cascades, hike on upstream a little more (about 5 minutes) until you locate a large, vertically stacked cairn marking a trail that turns off on the left and leads up to the basin below Mt. Powell and Peak C. There are two possible turnoffs and this is the first. A fallen tree somewhat obscures where the trail takes off. Coordinates are: N 39° 44' 13.0" W 106° 21' 38.2". A few more minutes of hiking on the main trail continuing east brings you to an older turnoff. This trail intersection is in a nice forested area of conifers and a few medium-sized boulders to sit on, and even without a cairn, the trail is quite visible. It was approximately 3.2 miles from the parking area. Coordinates for this second turnoff are: N 39° 44' 15.8" W 106° 21' 32.9". 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 and Upper Piney Lake from where you can climb The Spider (UN 12,692), West Partner Peak, Peaks P & J & H, continue on the main Upper Piney River Trail as it turns SE. Shortly, you will cross a major tributary on fallen logs that drains the basin below Peak C & Mt. Powell. This trail is fairly easy to follow for the next 1.5 mile but then does not receive much use so it begins to fade out and become more difficult to follow. About 15 minutes past the turnoffs for the Peaks C/Mt. Powell, the trail passes by a very nice campsite. A signed carved into a tree there calls this location the "Horse Collar Camp" and indicates it was established in 1923. It's in a grove of conifers and has plenty of level spots for tents, a fire ring and logs to sit on and is close to the river. Coordinates are: N 39° 44' 08.4" W 106° 21' 01.3". Continuing on from there, the "Vail East" USGS map shows the trail terminating abruptly in an open meadow at about 10,260 ft., having crossed to the west side of the creek and more than a mile past the aforementioned campsite. This is not accurate.
Trails Illustrated # 108 shows the trail as an unmaintained trail. This is accurate, but it still misleads one into thinking it will cross the river and then recross a little later. This also is no longer accurate. The trail now remains on the east side of the Piney River all the way to Upper Piney Lake. Beyond the unnamed, small lake at 11,560 ft., the trail becomes even more difficult to follow, but it at least leads directly to this unnamed lake. The last mile before that unnamed little lake, it does a lot of weaving around obstacles and there are at least two times that there appear to be alternate trails. There are many fallen trees to cross. For Peak G, having revisited this area in 2020, we would suggest setting up a campsite at the Horse Collar Camp mentioned previously and doing an out and back day hike to Peak G from there. Above the Horse Collar Camp, we did not see any good campsites until you arrive at the unnamed lake, which could also serve as a camp to reach Peaks G, F, and H. We should also mention that along the way to the unnamed lake, the trail comes very close to the Piney River on two occasions. The first time is fairly brief. The second time, it follows closely along the creek for some time. At one point, there's a small cairn that indicates a place to head up the embankment on the left and leave following the creek, or you can continue for a few more hundred yards until the trail abruptly turns left and climbs steeply up the embankment for about 20 feet before leveling out some. At the unnamed lake, there is good camping in the open meadow or up on a rock outcrop that overlooks that meadow. You will see a minor trail turning off for that outcrop shortly before arriving at the meadow.
Another item to correct, Trails Illustrated shows the trail going around the east side of the unnamed lake at 11,560 ft. This too is inaccurate. When the trail enters the open meadow on the west side of the lake, head over to the right, cross the small stream that serves as the lake outlet and head over to a rocky outcrop with trees still on the west shore of the lake. You'll pick the trail up thee. It does some more ascending after this point to reach the elevation of the Upper Piney Lake and levels out well before the lake, crossing marshy, vegetated areas and rock outcrops. It tends to be quite marshy along the eastern shore of the lake. The setting is beautiful and outstanding. Well worth the effort. Classic Colorado!
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 5.75 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, which is 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.