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 10,560 feet (North Ridge from Clear Creek standard route)
SUMMIT ELEVATION 14,003 feet
HIKING DISTANCE 6.75 miles round-trip (11 miles round-trip if you hike the four-wheel-drive road)
TIME 3.5 to 4 hours up; 1.5 hours down; add 4.25 (relatively flat) miles’ worth of time if you must hike the four-wheel-drive road
DRIVE TIME FROM DENVER 3.5 hours
Huron Peak can barely call itself a fourteener. It pushes past the mark with just three feet to spare—as if one little boulder at the top is jutting over the measuring stick. Reports describe this Sawatch Range beauty in the San Isabel National Forest as “scenic,” “enjoyable,” and “a great choice for my first fourteener.” Having scampered up plenty of peaks over the years, I figure I’m in for a mild, ho-hum ascent when we set out one Saturday in early September.
Admittedly, my friend and I get off to an easy start when we hitch a ride with two other hikers along the old jeep road between the lower and upper trailheads. The two-mile dirt stretch is usually passable only in all-terrain vehicles—definitely the way to go if you want to cut two nonscenic miles out of your hike each way.
By 8 a.m. we’re on the trail (the path forks in two directions at the trailhead; look for the wooden “Huron Trail” sign marking the left-hand standard route, also known as the North Ridge). Navigating switchback after switchback through the woods, we move steadily through the pine-scented air, and I try not to notice how hard I’m breathing each time we hit a steep pitch. Just shy of 12,000 feet we break timberline, and our heads-down push through the forest is rewarded with sprawling views of a trio of peaks aptly named the Three Apostles.
Shortly after, the trail dips into a grassy meadow basin surrounded by 360-degree views of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. Hefty boulders dot the well-maintained trail, making for convenient resting points to guzzle some water or scarf a granola bar. But when the path rises out of the basin and melts into a stone staircase along a ridge, every step provokes a new muscle spasm in my quads. Eventually, the marked route dissolves into one big rocky pitch upward—basically a Choose Your Own Adventure scramble—about a quarter-mile from the summit.
Red-faced, legs shaking, and lungs on fire, I crest the last cluster of boulders around 11:40 a.m. I want to collapse on the rock and nap on the summit all afternoon. Instead, we settle for 30 minutes, a sandwich, and panoramic views that render my start-and-stop slog (and my silly notion that any fourteener would ever be an easy stroll) a distant memory. —Julie Dugdale
TIP If you don’t have a four-wheel-drive vehicle that can make it about two miles up a rutted dirt road to the upper lot and trailhead gate, you’ll need to park and walk starting from the lower lot at 10,260 feet.
BRING THE TENT Huron is a haul from Denver—too much for a day-trip. If you have a car that can handle it, there are some nice dispersed backcountry camping spots along the four-wheel-drive dirt road before the trailhead. Drive down midday on Saturday, set up your camp, cook a hearty meal around the campfire, and get a good night’s rest. Hit the trail right outside your tent in the morning. Or, leave Denver in the wee hours to arrive at Huron early, keep your camping stuff in the car, and set up your campsite after you finish your trek—a plan that’s much more conducive to kicking back with some celebratory drinks around the campfire.
MIX IT UP If you have an extra day, take the right fork at the trailhead for a 7.6-mile round-trip hike to Lake Ann, a serene alpine gem worthy of a trip by itself. Make sure to stay right when you get to the Apostle Basin junction after about 1.5 miles; going left will take you up the Southwest Slopes route to the summit of Huron (a trek about a mile longer than the standard trail that requires route-finding skills). After a couple of creek crossings, you’ll get to another fork at 3.7 miles; stay left this time to reach the lake.
GETTING THERE From U.S. 24 (15 miles north of Buena Vista, 19.3 miles south of Leadville), take CR 390 west for 11.7 miles to the ghost town of Winfield. Turn left to stay on CR/Forest Road 390 and continue 0.3 miles to the lower lot. If you have four-wheel-drive, continue up the jeep road for another two or so miles to the upper lot trail gate.