Peak C is by the route we took a minimum Class 4 climb. There are a number of possible routes on the peak allegedly rated from Class 3 to mid-Class 5. Since it's difficult to define and follow each route precisely, it is best to go prepared for a 5th class climb. If you've really been hooked with the "peakbagger" bug, when you see this sharkstooth spire from Mt. Powell, you will exclaim, "I've got to climb that!" If you have not been thus infected, you'll take one look and express thanks that it's not on your "to-do" list. That was our initial response in 1994 while viewing Peak C from Mount Powell. At that time, we had no design to climb all the 13ers and were grateful that Peak C was not on our Top 200 list. But in 2006, we found ourselves at the base of this imposing summit, attempting to climb it in inclement weather. If the mountain is wet from recent rain or snow, we suggest waiting for another day.
The peak can be climbed as a day hike from the Piney Lake Trailhead or done as one of four 13er summits on a backpack trip as we did. The trailhead is accessible by most passenger vehicles from out of Vail.
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!
Peak C may be climbed as a day-hike from the Piney River Ranch Trailhead with a return by mid-afternoon for stronger groups. RT mileage would be 10.9 with 3,860 feet of elevation gain. But Peak C may also be combined with three other 13er summits close by as part of a three day backpack trip with a base camp at the foot of the west facing couloir between Mount Powell and Peak C. From this campsite, the Peak C summit is .9 mile away with 2,000 feet of gain. Also note that Google Earth loses about 80 feet of this summit and therefore, the coordinates we provide may be off significantly. Helmets are strongly advised for this climb.
When we climbed Peak C, we had backpacked in that morning from the trailhead and established a base camp at the site coordinates provided. Striking out about noon, we thought we could gain the summit before afternoon storms moved in. We were wrong. During the course of our climb, it rained on us at least three times, one shower lasting for 45 minutes, and we were nearly struck by lightening. This is one peak we would like to have a "do-over" for. Keep in mind then that the following route description is influenced by the weather we encountered. Also, do not take the route we've drawn on the map literally. It's at best, an approximation and may be significantly off from what we actually did.
From the base camp meadow at 11,225 feet, looking east toward the Mount Powell/Peak C saddle, called "Kneeknocker Pass," there is a large couloir that's divided further up by a rock rib. Head up the south most couloir (right). Initially, for the first few hundred feet of gain you'll be hiking through vegetation that conceals larger rocks & boulders that are easy to trip on. Farther up, the vegetation gives way to a lot of broken rock of various sizes. Hiking over the larger ones seemed to offer more stability. The couloir continues to steepen and soon it becomes nearly a "two-steps-forward, one-step back" type of ascent in areas of smaller rock and gravel. At about 11,750 feet elevation, turn right into a secondary couloir that ascends to the west ridge of Peak C. This couloir is not visible from the campsite but is marked by a large sloping boulder with a reflective surface that can be seen from the campsite. (It may also be possible to go up an earlier and more visible couloir closer to the campsite that also gains the west ridge further down.)
This secondary couloir starts out filled with large, broken rocks & boulders. Farther up, the couloir narrows with near vertical walls on either side and becomes mostly loose, wet sand with remnants of snow and ice. We were here in mid-August indicating that any earlier in the season, this couloir would likely be filled with snow still so ice axe and crampons or micro-spikes advised. We estimated the angle as approaching 40°. At times, we had to plunge our ice axes into the gravel in order to keep from slipping back on the loose gravel. Fortunately, this steepest section does not last too long.
From the saddle, we headed east along the sloping ridge briefly before making more serious gain, following a faint trail that led to a rock wall with a notch marked by a small cairn. The rock was a sloping affair with a crack on the left that could have been easily scrambled if it had not become wet by some rain that had already fallen at this point. Since we were unable to get up here, we retreated back down the west ridge some and found a large crack that led to an area of almost vertical broken boulders and tundra ledges that led up to a higher, flat bench. The last ten feet of this ascent was exposed with no real way to protect it. Once atop, we worked our way back east into a rock-filled and lined, shallow couloir where we had to take shelter amid large boulders in a "pocket" of sorts while a rain shower passed over. It was while waiting here that a brilliant lightening strike followed instantaneously by an ear-bursting thunder clap left us actually feeling an electric charge passing through us, fortunately dissipated by the multiple rocks all around.
With the rain subsiding, we decided to try and make a "dash" for the summit, however, this is not the terrain where one just "dashes." We continued on up the shallow-rock-filled gully to its conclusion then made a right turn onto massive rock blocks. We found ourselves in a pocket of sorts where it was necessary to shimmey/stem up a large, somewhat exposed wet block (4th class) with the lead climber using some sling to assist the others. Once atop, it was a short stroll over more boulders to the rocky summit.
Weather did not allow us to linger on this summit for long with yet another storm approaching. One close call with lightening was enough for this day, so we returned as much as possible by the same route we had ascended. At the wall of near vertical broken boulders and tundra ledges, because everything was all wet, we used rope and set up a rappel. It was quite steep here and a fall would have been injurious, so this seemed prudent, otherwise, we did not use technical equipment anywhere else. From the summit of Peak C, some like to also include "C Prime" and there's also the challenge of the "Sawtooth" ridge all the way down to Peak G. Be sure and read some of the reports on Mountain Handbook.