Fifty-four peaks. More than 140 routes. And hundreds of thousands of feet in elevation. Here, the ultimate beginner’s guide to climbing Colorado’s famous fourteeners.
—Photos by Jeff Nelson
THE DECALIBRON LOOP
TRAILHEAD ELEVATION 12,000 feet (Combo standard route)
SUMMIT ELEVATION Mt. Democrat, 14,148 feet; Mt. Cameron, 14,238 feet; Mt. Lincoln, 14,286 feet; Mt. Bross, 14,172 feet
HIKING DISTANCE 7.25 miles round-trip
TIME 6 hours round-trip
DRIVE TIME FROM DENVER 2 hours
The Four Pack
The DECALIBRON LOOP is a well-known mountaineering route that lies less than 15 miles outside of Fairplay. The undulating trail allows hikers to summit four 14,000-foot peaks in one day, which is not an uncommon feat. There are at least a dozen groupings of fourteeners that can be conquered in a day-trip.
MT. DEMOCRAT Although it’s the shortest and first mountain I summit, Mt. Democrat requires the day’s most strenuous climb. From the Kite Lake Trailhead, a mild start to the ascent unfolds before two long, steep traverses put me at the saddle between Mt. Democrat and Mt. Cameron. A giant rock garden to the south looks like it leads to the summit, which doesn’t appear to be all that far off. Except, when I arrive at the top, it’s not the top at all: What looks like the end of my climb is a false summit. It’s another 250 feet skyward to the west to reach the true apex, from which point I see much of the rest of my (up-and-down) day laid out before me.
MT. CAMERON The drawback to conquering so many summits in a dayhike is the requisite backtracking. After snapping pics at the top of Democrat, I retrace my steps through the rock garden back down to the saddle between Mt. Democrat and Mt. Cameron. I pause here for a midmorning snack and ponder whether I’m really ready to hike farther: This is the best turnaround point before I’m committed to completing the entire loop. I decide I’m game. The haul to the zenith of Mt. Cameron is easily the most exhausting of the day—not because it’s any more difficult but because my legs are already weary from the 2,148-foot ascent of Democrat. To add insult to what feels like respiratory injury, Mt. Cameron doesn’t officially count as a fourteener. The flat summit of Mt. Cameron only rises 138 feet above the saddle to adjacent Mt. Lincoln. According to someone’s arbitrary and, I think, silly rules, Cameron’s high point would need to rise 300 feet above that saddle to claim the fourteener title on its own. I count it anyway.
MT. LINCOLN The view from the eighth-highest peak in Colorado is worth the short but steep pebble-strewn climb. I’d probably perch here for hours if I could; however, space is at a premium on Mt. Lincoln. Any more than 15 people crowded atop the rocky summit makes even the most stable hiker leery of the sheer cliffs. There are a few folks climbing up behind me, but it’s the wind that sends me in search of lower terrain. And thankfully, it’s almost all downhill from the top of Lincoln. I relish the easygoing ridgeline hike before entering a series of switchbacks that leads me back to the trailhead—or, for those who’ve made special arrangements, to Mt. Bross.
MT. BROSS This 14,172-footer is one of the 54 recognized fourteeners, but unless one has permission (a near impossibility) the climb is illegal; the privately owned peak requires permission from landowners to summit. The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a nonprofit that preserves the state’s fourteeners, is working with landowners to open the summit, but for now the organization recommends hikers respect those property rights. Hikers do often make the push up this final summit without approval, but it’s important to be aware of trespassing laws (specifically CRS 18-4-504) and their penalties, which can range from a $50 to $750 fine and include jail time. The trail down from Bross zigzags inside the cirque and is littered with steep declines and pea gravel. Hikers will want to de-layer as they descend and stop to dip their toes in the creek near the hike’s end. —Lindsey R. McKissick
TICKTOCK Based on a moderate pace, the suggested Decalibron Loop start time is no later than 6:30 a.m. This is made easier by snagging one of the free camping spots just feet off Buckskin Street near the trailhead. Show up midafternoon on the day before your hike as the free sites often fill up in the late afternoon. Or take your chances with the five nonreservable paid sites at the Kite Lake Campground, which cost $15 per night ($12 for camping, $3 for parking).
GETTING THERE From Breckenridge, take Colorado Highway 9 about 16 miles south to Alma, Colorado. Take a right on CR 8/Buckskin Street and drive about six miles to the Kite Lake Trailhead. The closer you get to the trailhead, the dirt road turns from passable washboard to a treacherous four-wheel-drive path. Park and walk if you’re concerned about your vehicle’s clearance.
Should permits be required to climb our famed peaks?
Coloradans like to think of the Rocky Mountains as pristine wilderness, but the truth is many of the state’s popular fourteeners—like Longs Peak, Mt. Bierstadt, Mt. Elbert—are experiencing overexposure. To combat the degradation and overcrowding, local wilderness officials have been discussing a permits system, which would decrease the number of people who climb Colorado’s high hills. One such proposal surfaced in 2010 for the South Colony Basin, a spot known for its access to three fourteeners. The U.S. Forest Service began kicking around a $10 day-use permit to pay for necessary maintenance. The proposal met with resistance but is still under consideration, according to the U.S. Forest Service’s Jim Bedwell.
Bedwell concedes there are problems with permitting, including the cost and staff necessary to manage the paperwork and the patchwork system of organizations that would need to issue said permits. Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI), shares those concerns (the nonprofit itself has no formal position on the issue), and adds limiting use doesn’t always mean limiting damage.
That’s why CFI and other similar organizations focus on building trails that can mitigate harm caused by thousands of footfalls. Athearn says a permits system could hurt his organization’s efforts: Hikers who have to pay to climb may be less willing to donate to organizations like his, and more important, money from permits doesn’t always necessarily go toward on-mountain maintenance—which means a permits system could be a detriment to the only solution anyone’s found for rescuing our state’s too-trampled fourteeners. —Dan England