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 12,000 feet (Southwest Ridge from Fourmile Creek standard route)
SUMMIT ELEVATION 14,036 feet
HIKING DISTANCE 5.25 miles, starting at the gate
TIME 2.5 hours up; 1 hour down
DRIVE TIME FROM DENVER 2 to 2.5 hours
A Historical Twist
Taking a lowlander to altitude and then asking her to summit a tall mountain is almost never a great idea. In fact, it’s often a recipe for respiratory distress. But I’d gotten the day off from work to conquer what would be my ninth fourteener—and I needed a climbing buddy. So I texted my friend Emily, who happened to be visiting from the East Coast.
“Wanna do a fourteener with me on Friday?” Although Emily had lived in Colorado off and on for five years before moving to Boston, I knew she’d never done a fourteener. She texted me back with a quick, “Yes!” On the morning of the hike, we pack the car with provisions, agree if at any point Emily can’t handle the elevation we’ll turn around, and leave Denver around 8 a.m. We reach the trailhead at 10:30 a.m. I’d hoped to get there earlier to avoid afternoon storms, but sleeping in got the better of us. We luck out with a bluebird day.
The first half of the hike is gradual; an old rock-strewn road winds us up and around various mining ruins, including the Dauntless and Hilltop mines, where we stop to take a few snaps. The surrounding landscape is also photo-worthy, although maybe not beautiful in the traditional sense. The mountainside is rocky and barren, but the cobalt sky is a brilliant contrast to the ruddy orange hues of the Colorado clay and gray rock that dot the mountain. During our lunch break near the Hilltop Mine, we sit on a side trail with our feet outstretched, taking in the views of the valley and Fourmile Creek Road. I try not to let on that I am watching Emily closely, but at 12,800 feet in elevation, she seems to be handling the hike just fine.
We continue, and at the top of the saddle between Mt. Sheridan (a thirteener) and Mt. Sherman, the town of Leadville slides into view along with a breathtaking look at Turquoise Lake. With vistas like this, I am eager to reach the summit. We start up Mt. Sherman’s southwest ridge, at about 13,150 feet, when I realize we need to stop. I tell Emily to slow down—but not because she needs a breather. Instead, I’m the one in need of a short break. I huff and puff and dive into my trail mix for fuel. I look at Emily with amazement as she waits for me, even offering a gulp of her water. She—a flatlander!—is out-hiking me. As a longtime Coloradan, I feel a twinge of embarrassment.
But that feeling melts away as we reach the most difficult portion of the hike—a narrow edge laced with scree. We skirt over it, taking care not to dwell on the drop-off. Instead, we fixate on our destination, the oh-so-close summit, where we relish a deep breath and the knowledge that we made it to the top together. —Dana Pritts
LOOK INTO THE PAST The mining town of Leavick sprang up in 1881 on the east side of Mt. Sheridan and in its heyday boasted a population of more than 200 hearty souls who lived their lives in search of gold, silver, and zinc. Mining ruins now pepper the entire area, including the hiking trails, and make for great side jaunts and photo opportunities. You’ll definitely lay eyes on the Dauntless Mine and the Hilltop Mine. Be careful, though: The ruins are fragile and unstable; do not enter or touch the structures.
GETTING THERE From Fairplay, drive about a mile south on U.S. 285, then turn right onto CR 18. You’ll drive along this road until you reach a closed gate at about 12,000 feet. This gate marks the trailhead. On busy summer weekends, you may not be able to park at the trailhead. Instead, park at a lower-elevation pull-off and hoof it to the gate.