Mount of the Holy Cross - 14,005 feet
In The Cross of Snow, Longfellow describes a mountain which bears a cross of snow upon its side throughout the summer, long after the other snows in the high Rockies have melted.
The mountain does indeed exist, though the namesake Cross is difficult to see unless one is willing to hike. A deep gash on the east face of the mountain collects snow easily and surrenders it reluctantly, which means that from mid-June to August, the namesake cross is very visible provided that one has the right vantage point. The mountain is very difficult to see, and in fact, very few views exist of the cross that can be reached without hiking. The main reason for this is that the couloir that forms the cross is deeply inset, with 20-30 foot cliffs on either side in some places.
On a clear day, the cross can be seen off in the distance just as one exits the west side of the Eisenhower Tunnel along Interstate 70, but you have to know where to look. Driving along Colorado 91 also affords some views of the cross, but again, they are distant. The mountain can be clearly seen from the famous back bowls of Vail, but the cross isn't visible from this angle because it is so deeply inset into the mountain. The best option for viewing the cross is from Notch Mountain, which lies across the Bowl of Tears basin from the mountain, but this is still a difficult hike.
The mountain became prominent in 1873 when famed photographer William Henry Jackson took a picture of the peak. Because of the distinctiveness of the cross in the year that Jackson took his picture, the mountain became quite famous. It was this fame that allowed Longfellow to write his poem. It also inspired several paintings.
The existence of a permanent cross on the side of a mountain inspired many pilgrims to the area. Samuel Bowles wrote in The Switzerland of America, "It is as if God has set His sign, His seal, His promise there--a beacon upon the very center and height of the Continent to all its people and all its generations...as if here was a great supply store and workshop of Creation, the fountain of Earth."
The pilgrims managed to find a few good vantages of the cross that didn't involve penetrating the Rockies too deeply. Shrine Pass Road (today a 4x4 road accessible off of Vail Pass) took them close, and Holy Cross City (today accessible only by one of the most difficult 4x4 roads in the state... and that's saying something) came into being, as pilgrims flocked to the area.
As the area became more popular, the rugged terrain and beautiful lakes were given poetic names. The lake at 12,001 feet in the basin below the mountain was called "Bowl of Tears." The couloirs were given names like "Angelica," and the ridge that surrounds the basin was called "Halo Ridge." The area was eventually dedicated as a National Monument.
In 1950, the monument status was revoked, because it simply didn't make sense to have a ranger station there. Only about 20 people per year were then visiting. It was instead given a wilderness designation, which is fitting, because it is one of the most beautiful places in the world, with rugged terrain, waterfalls, and gorgeous sunrises and sunsets.
Today, with the popularity of peakbagging, especially among the Colorado 14ers, the mountain is very popular. Hundreds (thousands?) of people each year make the trek to climb the mountain, either heading over Halfmoon Pass, over E. Cross Creek, and up the north ridge; or opting for a more difficult route with a better view of the famous Cross of Snow.
Besides the standard (and easiest) North Ridge route, people also choose to climb up Notch Mountain (~13,500 feet), where there is a shelter that one can spend the night in, and then head around Halo Ridge. Others choose to climb the Angelica Couloir, while the most popular mountaineering route is via the Cross itself. Any route on the mountain is quite an undertaking, and not to be attempted by someone without proper experience.
It's a truly breathtaking mountain, and the federally protected wilderness area around it is incredible as well. Regardless of your feelings on religion, you'll be stunned by this area.
- My own experiences from a climb up the cross