TLDR: Big Agnes Mountain has a few ascent routes, this is the most difficult while still allowing access without ropes. It’s a really fun, dramatic route with short periods of intense scrambling followed by very pleasant alpine strolling. The scrambling (both up Big Agnes’s north summit/west ridge and around the Spike) certainly demand attention and careful route selection but aren’t as difficult or nearly as long as something like the North Ridge of Lead Mountain. However, for such a geographically small area, the scrambling possibilities are explosive. There are many, many individual rock formations that you could add to the adventure, although many of them require ropes. In most cases, you can just breeze right by them so the variety of possibilities is a highlight. This route takes advantage of easy access, offers great views of the Sawtooth Range, sections of superlative scrambling and stellar views of Mt. Zirkel. I have two Gopro videos that show both the Spike and the W. Ridge. You’ll find links sprinkled throughout the article. There’s no volume, it’s really for informational purposes and goes well with the route description below. “Spike Traverse,” “Big Agnes W. Ridge.”
-via W. ridge and the Spike: ~10.6 miles (+ 3,920 ft.)
-via W. ridge and the Spike Bypass: ~10.25 miles (+ 3,770 ft.)
Table of Contents
Each bullet point below is hyperlinked, just click it to go to that section of the report. At the bottom of each section is another hyperlink back to the table of contents. Endless scrolling is annoying, hopefully this helps.
- Preface/Rating System
- Introduction to the region (lots of maps and geography talk)
- The Approach
- The Spike Option ie. full West Ridge Traverse (Class 4)
- Spike Bypass
- Big Agnes West Ridge (Brief Class 4)
- Descent Options
- Conclusion/Future Reports
Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and mark-up some of my pictures for route clarification.
- Black/white lines= general directions, landmarks and/or Class 1 sections.
- Blue Lines=Class 2 sections.
- Red= Class 3 sections.
- Purple = Class 4 sections.
- Orange = Class 5.
The class system is based on the YDS rating scale. Please note that these colors are different than other sites. If you are unsure of what a color means, I usually leave a quick reminder in the picture caption.
- Highest point: 12,060 ft. on Big Agnes Mountain’s middle summit (there are three)
- YDS breakdown
- Approach to Micah Lake: Trailed Class 1
- Low saddle north of Micah Lake: Class 2
- Direct approach that skips the “Spike”: Class 2+
- “The Spike” (optional but very fun): Class 4
- The North Summit of Big Agnes from this route: Class 4
- Descent route: Class 2+
So, the Park Range. it’s a lower, lesser-known, and difficult range to reach, despite relatively good access from the Steamboat area. Resources are scarce, although there are some (discussed in the Resources section), so my scrambling partner and I were flying a bit blind. A lot of this adventure was an exploratory endeavor, and I think the route represents a really good case study of the type of terrain available here. The rock is generally very solid around Big Agnes but gets less solid around Mt. Zirkel and the Continental Divide.
Since many people recreate in Colorado without ever stepping foot in this part of the state, I think it’s beneficial to play a little geography catch-up.
Here’s a big overview of the main ranges of Colorado. By the way, I hope you are a map person. Slide the bar to the right to see a PARTIALLY labeled map. The partially labeled map shows areas many people are familiar with but also leaves some notable areas out, like the Grand Mesa, Rabbit Ears Range, Roan Cliffs, Uncompahgre Plateau, and The Park Range.
If you’re wondering what the numbers in the Front Range Zone represent, here they are:
- 1. Medicine Bow Range (NOT Medicine Bow Peak, that’s in the same range but north of the border in Wyoming. A lot of people just call these the Rawahs because of the wilderness area and to avoid confusion.)
- 2. Never Summer Range.
- 3. The Mummy Range.
- 4. The most popular area of Rocky Mountain National Park, west of the town of Estes park. The east/northeastern part of the Never Summers and all of the Mummy Range belong in the park as well.
- 5. The Indian Peaks Wilderness
- 6. James Peak Wilderness
- 7. The mountains around I-70 i.e. Loveland Pass, Pettingell, Citadel, Grays/Torreys, Evans etc.
- 8. The Pikes Peak Massif, kinda off on its own
- 9. The Wet Mountains
Wow, great, cool, super nice, but where’s the Park Range? Great question; it be here.
There are three broad areas of the Park Range that, combined, make for a continuous uplift area about 180 miles in length before jumping the border into Wyoming. Big Agnes and Mount Zirkel are located in the Northern Park Range, which we’ll be focusing on.
The middle section of the Park Range is a lower, rolling area with thick forests (Sarvis Creek Wilderness is a notable feature, along with the Colorado River breaking through the range just west of Kremmling). If you’ve ever driven over Rabbit Ears pass on US 40, that’s a great example of the terrain typically associated with that region.
The southern part of the range is really dramatic and known as the Gore. This part of the Park Range is well-known and well-loved for a truly mind-boggling amount of scrambling and peak bagging. The Northern Park Range is similar in its offerings but much less expansive.
Sweet, let’s zoom in on the northern part of the range, again, with an unlabeled and labeled map; just slide the indicator to toggle between them.
Yeah, so, a lot going on. Steamboat Springs is on the southwest side of the range; the higher peaks are to the north and east. There’s also the lower Elkhead range, which is an East-West oriented range that includes Hahns Peak, a popular hike and backcountry ski. Hahns Peak is NOT in the Park Range. Adding to the confusion is the Sierra Madre, or what Wyoming calls the Park Range, which spills north into Wyoming. Jury’s out on whether or not the Sierra Madres is distinct enough to be its own range (geologically, it’s part of the Park Range), but again, these distinctions begin to matter when you live around here or recreate in the area and are trying to relay accurate locational information. For now, there’s the Sierra Madre and the Northern Park Range, which bears similarities to the 10 Mile/Mosquito Range issue (same range geologically, but separate names and divided arbitrarily at a point). The 10 Mile/Mosquitos are divided at Hoosier Pass, the Parks and the Sierra are divided along the drainage of the Northern Elk River and the Encampment River.
Don’t worry, there’s more! Let’s zoom in on the Zirkel/Agnes zone, one of two major alpine uplift zones that make up the meat of the Northern Park Range.
The southern zone is almost as high but doesn’t quite make 12k. The southern zone is notable for large stretches of alpine (treeline is quite a bit lower this far north) and contains a ton of large permanent snowfields on the eastern flank of peaks like Mt. Ethel and Lost Ranger (turns-all-year people take note).
The Zirkel/Agnes zone (northern zone) contains the Northern Park Ranges only 3 official 12ers and can be subdivided further (because, of course, it can).
Confused yet? Here’s the gist. The Northern Park Range has two major alpine zones; we’re focusing on the northern one, which is largely accessed by one trailhead: Slavonia.
This zone can be divided into two components based on rock quality. There’s the looser rock quality along the Continental Divide spine and the bomber rock hidden in the Sawtooth range. The Continental Divide portion has the range’s two highest peaks (Zirkel and Flattop); both are longer journeys but don’t exceed Class 2 and are beautiful. The area has some backpacking potential as well, especially near Gilpin and Gold Creek Lake (not allowed to camp within 1/4 mile of either). The trails that connect the two lakes to the trailhead make up a loop called the Zirkel Circle or Zircle. That is probably the best way to experience the area without going too crazy because it’s a great loop and it’s on an established trail network. If you want Big Agnes, you gotta get off-trail no matter what route you pick.
For the adventure-oriented and scrambling-minded folks, let’s do one more zoom-in, this time focusing on the best part of this area (and a top-five candidate for the best area in northern colorado if you ask me), the Sawtooth Range. I’ve also drawn the general overview of the West Ridge Big Agnes route. Don’t worry, route descriptions are still coming, along with a shitload of pics and extra maps.
The Sawtooth Range is exquisite, and Big Agnes is its heart. However, if you look online, you will find very few pics and descriptions of the area. This is due to a variety of reasons, including a lack of online reporting and the generic-ass name. There are Sawtooths everywhere. There’s the Sawtooth Traverse, a very popular and well-documented intro Class 3 scramble between Mt. Evans and Mt. Bierstadt. There’s also Sawtooth Mountain, a 12,300-foot peak in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. There’s even a Sawtooth Mountain in the remote Elkhead Mountains. The Sawtooth designation doesn’t end in Colorado either; Idaho’s Sawtooth Range is one of the prettiest in the western US; there’s even a set of Sawtooth Mountains in Minnesota.
Understandably, this Sawtooth Range (the rugged subrange that includes Big Agnes) is tougher to get info on. This is kind of a double-edged sword, though. Despite weekend popularity and high traffic around Gilpin Lake, once you barrel into the arms of the Sawtooth, you will likely be all alone. The exceptions are Micah Lake and the two of three routes up Big Agnes that don’t involve Class 4 scrambling. If you do see people on this route, they’re likely just as nuts as you are.
Weather, always check the weather. This area does not have a hugely reliable forecast; expect high variability and come prepared. Unless you live in Routt County, make sure someone has a detailed plan of where you are going and how long you plan to be there.
Here are some local emergency numbers as well; stay safe out there.
- Routt County Sheriff: 970-879-1090 (offices in Steamboat Springs)
- Routt National Forest: 970-723-2700 (offices in Walden)
There are some resources that shed light on this region. Summitpost has a good Park Range page with mountain profiles; there are occasional Zirkel and Big Agnes reports on 14ers.com, and List of John has regional trail reports. The following photo journal is also a great resource for the Sawtooth Traverse, but it is a photo journal and doesn’t go into too many scrambling specifics. The definitive guidebook for the region was written by Joe Kramarsic, but it is not well distributed. You’ll have to hunt in local gear shops in Steamboat or perhaps Winter Park to find it. It’s listed on Amazon as “Mountaineering in the Park Range. A Guide to the Mountains of the Mount Zirkel-Dome Peak wilderness,” but has been unavailable every time I’ve checked. Hopefully, this guide helps fill in some knowledge gaps.
Directions to Trailhead: Type Slavonia Trailhead or Seedhouse Road into your phone and follow the directions. If you’re coming from the Front Range, expect somewhere between a 4 and 6-hour commute. Plan accordingly. The last 6 miles are on a relatively easy dirt road but there are some sections of washboard to watch for.
From the trailhead, pick up the only trail as it heads northeastish. Only a few points of a mile into the hike, you’ll come across a trail junction. Take the left branch (Gilpin Trail); the right one heads to Gold Creek Lake. Continue along the trail as it ascends a smaller valley and skirts a larger burn area. You’ll be seeing lots of burn evidence on this hike. The late 90s saw a devastating wind event in the region, followed by a pine beetle infestation and a couple of fires (~2002). Combining that with the deeep regional snowfall (~500+ inches a year), I think trees have just had a really hard time bouncing back. It’ll look a little bare on the approach, but for the first 1.25 miles, you stay in a treed area and only skirt the scars.
The next junction is with the Micah Basin Trail; take a left and head up the valley. The approach into the basin is a good 700 or so vertical feet in less than a mile. It’s not so bad in the morning, but from late July-early September, if you go up this stretch, put on some sunscreen, it gets bright.
Once you get into the basin, the elevation gain lessens, and you meander along the trail as it winds higher among fields, burn scars, and babbling brooks. Eventually, you cross a crest of land and can stare down a small rise to the shores of Micah Lake. Your introduction is over. Micah lake is about 4 miles in, so it’s really not a bad approach and all on easily identifiable trails.
The Spike Option (Class 4, optional but the best scrambling on the route)
Right, so north of Micah Lake is a low saddle that separates the east ridge of Little Agnes with the ridge leading up to The Spike and eventually Big Agnes. Head for it.
If you look to the right as your finding a way beyond Micah Lake, you should be able to see the profile of the Spike.
Clamber up to the low saddle, where you’ll notice fire damage from the Mt. Zirkel Complex Fire (~2002) to the north and the effect it has on the landscape, which is…yeah, pretty noticeable.
Head east (right), up a steep slope with sections of dead trees. This first part is somewhere in the Class 2 range and gains elevation quickly.
The higher you go, the better the views become. There are great perspectives to the south, where you can see all the way down to the Lost Ranger and Mt. Ethel region, which is the other large alpine area of the Northern Park’s.
Little Agnes also starts to take shape behind you, along with its apparently Class 4 east ridge (on the to-do list).
What really steals the show, though, is your view east, which reveals a dramatic profile of the Sawtooth Range.
This view continues to change and impress as you traverse the spike. In fact, the whole route from here on out has plenty of great mountain views to stare at and scramble over. The sharp and serrated profile of the ridges in the Sawtooth is a route highlight.
The ridge will stay class Class 2 as you descend a bit off of the first high point you reach. As you start to gain elevation on the other side of a shallow col, the first scrambling section appears.
You’ll cross into Class 3 territory as you negotiate a rock band on the ridge crest. There are several options to choose from, and if you get to the Class 3 section on the ridgecrest and don’t like what you see, head right, following the rock band. The rock will break in a few spots allowing for a few additional Class 3 options to consider that will reconnect you with the ridge crest.
In either scenario, you’ll continue along the ridgecrest, deploying Class 3 and Class 3+ moves where necessary. The rock quality is great, with plenty of holds. The ridge narrows, and you get to stay on it for a few seconds before the route briefly banks to the right to avoid a wall. Once you get around this (Class 3 light), the ridge widens out a bit and softens with more grassy saddles.
This is very typical of the Sawtooth Range. There are stretches of superlative rock scrambling, but those sections are often broken up by mixed terrain. It certainly keeps you on your toes, but none of the scrambling sections on this route are what I would consider relentless.
With the summit tower of The Spike, the strategy is to head right and circle around. The exposure is very high to the north (left) if you decide to take a look that way. There is a route that hugs the summit block and goes at easy-moderate Class 3, with a final small Class 3 slab to climb before relenting back to Class 2. A rocky side ridge blocks you from maintaining your elevation line, so the only way to continue is to work back up to the ridge crest, now on the other side of the summit tower.
**This route does not climb the top of the Spike, to do that I think you’ll need to still circle around the tower and attack it from the east, it could go at exposed Class 4 but I didn’t scout it, will report back when I do!
Once you work back up to the ridge you have a sneaky Class 3 descent before arriving at the next grassy col. This is the last break before the route crux, which is a really fun and engaging section.
From the grassy col, sight a diagonal line of rocks to the left of a very prominent rocky highpoint.
The first part of the route is a nice Class 3 section with good holds, then you hit a small shoulder and the difficulty bumps up to Class 4. The rock is delightful and there are great options for holds.
Once you get right up to the obvious highpoint rock, slide by on Class 3 terrain and approach another difficult section. The next part features two small leaps of faith sections where the ridge comes down to only a few feet in width (on good rock) and drops vertically on either side. The exposure to the north is, again, much more dramatic.
Once you get out of this section, the ridge begins to look a lot more accommodating, and for the most part, it is. However, like with the traverse around the highest tower of the spike, there is a sneaky descent here (Class 3+). The path is not straight down; hunt for options, and don’t be afraid to traverse around before settling on a route. There are a few chances to make this section harder than you’re intending.
After you drop off the last rocky part, you’re back to grassy alpine for a while. Descend to the right of one final rock fin, hit a lower saddle, and approach a thick line of krummholz atop another sneaky Class 3 rock band. The scrambling is easy and fun. Make sure to stay on the ridgeline to avoid the krummholz. Watch the exposure to your left(north), but this part doesn’t get harder than moderate Class 3 if that.
On the other side of the krummholz, you’ll see two rock towers along a softer stretch of the ridge and The Grand Central Tooth taking shape on a sub ridge to your north. This area is where the Spike Bypass comes in.
The Spike Bypass
Now, let’s say you didn’t want any of that, and you just came to tag the Class 4 wall on the way to Big Agnes. Well, you can skip the Spike and its associated scrambling portions. The idea is to break from the trail at Micah Lake, and head east, higher into the basin. The vegetation is pretty sparse here, so orientation should be very simple on a clear day.
Keep the Spike to your left, traverse beyond the rock towers and sight a grassy slope leading up to the ridge with thick krummholz on its right (eastern) side. By the easiest route, you can keep this ascent at a mid-Class 2 and avoid the Spike. I would argue that including it adds to the route, but the option to skip it is certainly there.
As you climb up to the ridge, make sure to keep the krummholz to your right and sight the line of least resistance to the ridgeline. You’ll join the route from the Spike right after its difficulties relent and around a set of three rock towers. There are two smaller ones on the main ridgelines and a much larger tower on a spur ridge leading north (called “Grand Central Tooth” on Listofjohn).
The two smaller towers on the ridge are called “Baby Teeth,” according to ListofJohn, but I don’t know how I feel about that name. I kinda thought the eastern small tower looked like a howling Pika, so I’ll just call it that. You can scramble the Howling Pika at Class3+; the other tower looks harder. I think Grand Central Tooth also looks like a Class 5 endeavor.
Head east and uphill to continue to Big Agnes.
Big Agnes West Ridge (Brief Class 4)
Like the Spike portion, the start of the Big Agnes West Ridge route (post bypass) starts out pretty innocuously.
The trajectory is fairly self-explanatory. Stay closer to the ridge crest, avoid the krummholz and begin ascending up to “Middle Agnes.” This unofficial peak is attainable via Class 2+ scrambling, making it one of the easier peaks to reach in the Sawtooth. As you climb, the Sawtooth wall leading north from the Big Agnes Massif steals the show. The rock walls around the Incisor are particularly good-looking. On subsequent adventures, I went along that ridge and made it beyond the Incisor, look for that report soon.
As you ascend up the pleasant alpine slopes of “Middle Agnes,” you’ll run into one ridgeline obstacle. There’s some quick Class 3-4 scrambling involved here, but you can just as easily skip it all to the right.
After some huffing and puffing, you’ll top out on “Middle Agnes.” This is a great place to take a break with stellar views.
Don’t get too caught up in the view, though, because there’s a big ole wall that’s now in front of you, and you need to get around it to get up to Big Agnes. The wall leads to the summit of Big Agnes North, one of three summit blocks.
As you approach the wall, you may be wondering how on earth you’re going to be able to scale this thing without ropes. Well, there’s a sneak on the left-hand side that provides a (relatively) simple passage. Let’s walk through it. FYI: This will be another section of concentrated scrambling like the Spike, or it’ll be your scrambling intro if you hit the bypass. Get your game face on, it’s not long, but it is steep.
The first section involves some brief Class 3 scrambling along the ridge crest as you approach the wall of North Agnes.
You’ll stay along the crest (employing some moves to the north side to get around a small tower) until arriving at a set of white slanted blocky rocks. Here, you have two options, a Class 3 skirt to the left or a brief, fun Class 4 traverse along the very sturdy rocks.
Is there any benefit to the Class 4 way? Yeah, it’s fun. Practically, though, you can just skip it.
On the other side of this initial test piece, you’ll be on the slanted northern slope of the Big Agnes massif. The terrain here is a mix of solid rock sections and grassy benches, which are pretty but don’t offer the best traction. Pay attention to where you step and what you step on.
The strategy now is to perform an ascending traverse along these grassy ledges while keeping the mostly solid cliffs close to your right-hand side. A few sections of traversing are necessary, but if you start losing elevation in this part, you’re doing something wrong.
As you ascend towards what looks like a rockier section, two options open up for you.
The upper option is initially easier, taking advantage of a large, flat-ish rock, but ends in an awkward Class 4 traverse move to get into the right gully. The lower option traverses underneath the flat-ish rock, heads into the right gully, and then climbs it directly. In both scenarios, there is a move or two of Class 4, while the rest remains manageable Class 3.
Once you’re in the right gully, you climb up and bank left, following the natural lay of the land. This will deposit you on another series of grassy benches underneath a last quick pitch of Class2+/Class 3 scrambling. Once you find the easiest gully up, take it, scramble for a few seconds and then find yourself on a much more forgiving summit plateau.
Here’s the whole route from below.
From where you break through on the summit plateau, it’s only another 20 seconds to the top of Big Agnes North. Might as well touch it since you’re up there (Class 2).
Once satisfied with your first of 3 Big Agnes summits, turn south and sight the last mandatory Class 3 section. The basic pattern is ridgecrest (Class 3), dip left to circle around a small tower (Class 3, stay on the slanted rocks, it’s got better grip than the sandy chute below), scramble back to the ridgecrest (Class 2+).
When you’re beyond the Class 3 section, pick your easiest Class 2+ route up the blocky terrain to the highest summit. There’s a small plaque in this section; see if you can find it.
Continue up to the highest point, and just like that, Big Agnes is yours.
There is a southern summit that’s within a few feet of the true summit’s elevation. It takes a bit of Class 3 to reach, but nothing you haven’t already done.
To add the south summit, descend into the col, and work your way back up to the white rocks at the top.
The final push to the Southern Summit requires a handful of Class 3 moves on gloriously solid rock. Have fun!
Once you’re done farting around on the summit, it’s time to pick your descent route. There are three options, repeat what you just did (hardest), choose a Class 2 route back into Micah Basin, or choose a longer Class 2+ route that leads southeast towards the Gilpin Lake Trail. I chose the Class 2 Micah Basin option; it’s easy to find, the off-trail veg is manageable, and you can reconnect with the Micah Basin Trail pretty simply.
Once you descend out of the upper basin between Big Agnes and Pt. 11,777, head west or southwest to reconnect with the Micah Lake Trail. The simplest strategy for the off-trail descent portion is to sight Micah Lake and head towards it. This may not be the most direct route, but you connect with the trail quickly, and then you can haul. Once you do, follow it south to its end, take a right and bust the 1.25 miles back to the trailhead. Nicely done, ya did it.
Big Agnes Mountain is one of 3 12,000 foot mountains in the Park Range. There are three ways up it, with the Class 4 west ridge providing the most in terms of scrambling. There are also three summits, a southern summit (Class 3), true summit (Class 2+) and a Northern Summit (Class 3 by easiest way, Class 4 via West Ridge).
I find this area fascinating for several reasons:
- Rock Quality: Generally great, especially within the Sawtooth Range (Big Agnes and the ridges leading up to it).
- Off-the-beaten-path: Solitude almost guaranteed if you hit Big Agnes via the Spike or any of the other spindly ridges in the area
- Satisfying scrambling and views (largely Class 3-4 with harder stuff around)
- Lots of rock climbing potential
- Large alpine area for being so low. The tree line is also a lot lower so you get alpine ruggedness mixed with stretches of krummholz, thick alpine grass and occasional pine trees. It makes for a challenging and visually quite interesting smash of environments.
- Generally manageable distances to get to most of these ridges, just a (potentially) long way to the trailhead
- Lots of fun off-trail exploration (Pack your shit out though, like, all of it.)
- TONS OF SNOW IN THE WINTER. Backcountry skiing looks like it would be excellent up here, most likely via snowmobile though, lots of winter gate closures limit cold weather access
- Relatively contained area: i.e. depending on willpower and scrambling ability, you could check off the main ridges and peaks within a season or two
The next report will deal with the Incisor and the ridge to the north of Big Agnes, which makes for another excellent adventure. Look for that report soon!