Fifty-four peaks. More than 140 routes. And hundreds of thousands of feet in elevation. With all of this lofty real estate in our backyard, it’s no surprise that clawing our way up the sides of 14,000-foot mountains has become a rite of passage for Colorado residents. But how does a rookie peak bagger choose which summit to reach for? We present the ultimate beginner’s guide to climbing Colorado’s famous fourteeners.
TRAILHEAD ELEVATION 11,669 feet (West Slopes standard route)
SUMMIT ELEVATION 14,060 feet
HIKING DISTANCE 7 miles round-trip
TIME 2.5 to 3 hours up; 2 hours down
DRIVE TIME FROM DENVER 1.5 hours
A Close Encounter
I’m not going to lie: Peering up at a tall mountain while simultaneously thinking about climbing it usually gives me vertigo. But from the parking lot, the summit of Mt. Bierstadt—one of the closest fourteeners to Denver—looks entirely attainable. I tell myself it’s probably just the way the sunlight is hitting the treeless mountainside on this early July morning, but the 38th highest peak in the Centennial State is less intimidating than I expected. Which is maybe why, at 7:25 a.m. on a Monday, there are 60 other people layering up, lacing their hiking boots, checking that they have at least 1.5 liters of water per person, applying sunscreen, and taking a last (vault) potty break before they begin the ascent.
The first mile of the standard West Slopes route supports my idea that this might actually be a doable climb: It’s a relatively flat walk, mostly on a dirt path that morphs into elevated boardwalks in some of the swamp- ier areas. My husband, our six-year-old boxer, and I cruise along, taking in views of nearby ponds and the Sawtooth ridge, which is intimidating and snakes all the way to Mt. Evans. Once the climb really begins, it doesn’t let up. This middle part of the ascent is the most lung-busting, but there are some long switchbacks and great spots to pull up a patch of grass and snack on some oxygen. As a novice peak bagger, I am initially worried that my pace will be too slow, but as we climb higher it’s apparent there’s no need to rush. Afternoon thunderstorms are a real menace any time after 12:30 p.m., but the sky is still impossibly clear at 10 a.m.
From the outset, the trail is easy to follow and is mostly free of scree and boulder fields until we reach the final crest, turn left, and find ourselves looking upon a wide ridge that purses to the rocky summit. Before we make for the top, we look northwest to see Torreys and Grays peaks, peer down the dizzying backside of Bierstadt to spot Frozen Lake, and watch for small mouselike animals called pikas among the rocks.
The push to the summit does not have a well-defined trail. The landscape is a jumble of large boulders that will tax your already tired legs. My husband has to lend me a hand in a few spots, but the last 300 feet aren’t a punishing cardio workout. We force ourselves to go all the way to the tippy top to make certain we actually hit 14,060 feet. The blown-open views make us happy we do. —LBK
WAKE-UP CALL Bierstadt is close enough to Denver that you don’t have to camp near the trailhead to get an early enough start. We awoke at 5 a.m., left our Denver home at 5:55 a.m., and were hiking by 7:30 a.m. If you want to camp the night before, there are plenty of backcountry spots along Guanella Pass, or you can grab a spot at the nearby Burning Bear or Whiteside campgrounds ($16, two vehicles allowed).
DOG IS MY CLIMBING PARTNER Parts of the Mt. Bierstadt trail go through the Mt. Evans Wilderness Area, which requires dogs to be on leash. We took our four-legged friend, who managed the route better than we did. However, hikers need to be aware they are responsible for their animal’s safety on the mountain. In August 2012, Colorado resident Anthony Ortolani took his dog Missy on a hike along the Sawtooth ridge and abandoned the five-year-old German shepherd after bad weather rolled in and the animal’s paws were too cut up for her to descend. The dog languished on the mountain for eight days before volunteer rescue hikers found her and saved the dehydrated 112-pound shepherd. Ortolani pleaded guilty to a charge of animal cruelty in October and was sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation and 30 hours of community service. Bottom line: Treat your pooch like any other hiker.
GETTING THERE From Denver, drive west on U.S. 285 until you reach the town of Grant. In Grant, turn north on Guanella Pass Scenic Byway and drive about 13 miles to the top of Guanella Pass. You’ll see the parking lot for the trailhead on the right.