Holy Cross Additions: Land of Contrasts

Featured wilderness

This feature has been updated to reflect the May 21, 2015, introduction of the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act.

Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness is a study in contradiction.  More than 25 peaks of 13,000 feet or more—including the 14,003-foot Mount of the Holy Cross, for which the area is named—dot a landscape two miles above sea level, yet countless creeks bursting with fish can be found within its boundary. Barren ridges rise over the area’s 123,000 acres, while glacial valleys with alpine lakes and flower-covered wetlands catch snowmelt each spring.  Remote backcountry serves as wildlife habitat; at the same time, the 164 miles of trail make this wilderness a popular spot for backpackers and day trippers alike.  Families and retirees trek the forest paths while expert outdoor athletes climb and even ski the 1,000-foot snow chute on the big mountain’s east face (taking care to stop before the bottom cliffs). So although the area was popularized by a 19th Century publicity stunt, it now offers unique opportunities for solitude and seclusion – and today, there is a chance to protect additional parts of this rugged land.

grassFlickr Creative Commons

Holy Cross Wilderness Area is about a two-hour drive west of Denver in the central Colorado Rockies.

 Colorado’s blazing aspen groves also can be found within Holy Cross,  as well as forests of spruce, fir, and lodgepole pine, many populated by songbirds, raptors, woodpeckers, and other winged wildlife. The area is home to black bear, elk, lynx, and bobcat, too. The highlands  harbor hollows, shaped by glaciers long ago, where today snow melt creates pools of crystal-clear water, which feed  streams that tumble from tree line into  alpine meadows and the forest below.

waterFlickr Creative Commons

Lyle Lake in Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness Area. Alpine lakes are just one of the amazing features of this wilderness area.

The area achieved fame in 1873, when painter and explorer William Henry Jackson photographed snow forming the shape of a cross that appeared on the east face of what became known as the Mount of the Holy Cross.  Although intersecting couloirs of snow do appear on the mountain, Jackson exaggerated their size and grandeur using early darkroom techniques (producing results similar to today’s Photoshop methods) and made the mountain popular among religious pilgrims and tourists.

snowFlickr Creative Commons

Holy Cross Wilderness Area. Snow formed in the shape of a cross on the east face of what became known as the Mount of the Holy Cross.

About a two-hour drive west of Denver in the central Colorado Rockies, Holy Cross Wilderness is located within the San Isabel and White River National Forests and encompasses the northern end of the Sawatch Range.  The area was first protected in the 1920s as a national monument but in 1980, Congress designated more than 122,000 acres of the area as wilderness, which prevents timbering cutting, mining, road building, and other development. So now, thousands of people hike, ski, climb, fish, and hunt there every year.

waterFlickr Creative Commons

Brady Lake in Colorado's Holy Cross Wilderness Area.

Recently, Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced legislation that would protect thousands of acres of public lands in Summit and Eagle counties. The midelevation landscapes are known for their wildlife, recreational opportunities, and clean water. The legislation includes a 3,942-acre expansion of the Holy Cross Wilderness. A diverse group of stakeholders—sportsmen, recreationists, small business owners, and current and former local officials—support the proposed protections.

The Pew Charitable Trusts looks forward to working with Rep. Polis and Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) in safeguarding the Holy Cross Wilderness additions during this Congress. 

Spotlight on Mental Health

Composite image of modern city network communication concept

Learn the Basics of Broadband from Our Limited Series

Sign up for our four-week email course on Broadband Basics

Quick View

How does broadband internet reach our homes, phones, and tablets? What kind of infrastructure connects us all together? What are the major barriers to broadband access for American communities?

Pills illustration
Pills illustration

What Is Antibiotic Resistance—and How Can We Fight It?

Sign up for our four-week email series The Race Against Resistance.

Quick View

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs,” are a major threat to modern medicine. But how does resistance work, and what can we do to slow the spread? Read personal stories, expert accounts, and more for the answers to those questions in our four-week email series: Slowing Superbugs.

Explore Pew’s new and improved
Fiscal 50 interactive

Your state's stats are more accessible than ever with our new and improved Fiscal 50 interactive:

  • Maps, trends, and customizable charts
  • 50-state rankings
  • Analysis of what it all means
  • Shareable graphics and downloadable data
  • Proven fiscal policy strategies


Welcome to the new Fiscal 50

Key changes include:

  • State pages that help you keep track of trends in your home state and provide national and regional context.
  • Interactive indicator pages with highly customizable and shareable data visualizations.
  • A Budget Threads feature that offers Pew’s read on the latest state fiscal news.

Learn more about the new and improved Fiscal 50.