Mt. Bierstadt is considered by many a good beginner fourteener, so it tends to be packed-full of hikers on the weekends. If you enjoy communal hiking and waiting in line to walk up the trail, go ahead and press the snooze button a few times. But if you’re hoping for a glimpse of blushing pink mountains and a solitary hike, hit the trail before sun-up. My group left Denver at 3:30 in the morning, and were hiking by 5:15. This view alone was worth the sacrificed sleep.
Colorado’s fourteeners are ranked on a 1-5 scale, from “easy hiking” (1) to “technical climbing” (5). Mount Bierstadt, ranked a 2, involves some off-trail hiking. Because of the steepness of the climb, especially as you get closer to the peak, you might find yourself using your hands to keep your balance and pull yourself up over rocks. The first segment of our route, however, was green and lush—flowers dotted the ground next to a well-traveled, easy-to-follow trail.
As the trail starts getting steeper, it’s easy to fixate on the peak and wish away the upward climb. Resist this urge: the burn you feel in your legs and hard-to-take breaths are all part of the fourteener experience. Don’t forget to take breaks during the upward journey and turn around. The view behind you is just as satisfying as what’s up ahead.
We reached the final scree field (an area completely covered in rocks) just after 7 a.m., and enjoyed the view of endless mountains. The only thing standing between us and 14,000 feet was an upward scramble. Cairns (rock piles), placed every few hundred feet, helped us navigate the rocky jungle gym to the top.
We crested the peak just before 8 a.m. The view was breathtaking and it was surprisingly cold. The sun hadn’t worked its way through the cloud cover just yet and strong wind gusts cut right through my layered clothing.
The hike can end here: go back down the way you came and arrive at the parking lot in less than two hours. But with Mount Evans so tantalizingly close, many people can’t resist the urge to earn a little extra credit and hike two fourteeners in a day. The Sawtooth Traverse serves as a saddle between the two peaks. Ranked a 3, Sawtooth involves vertical rock scrambling and unroped climbing, a hefty step up from a 2.
After two and a half adrenaline-filled hours on the backbone of Sawtooth, our group made it across the saddle. One last treacherous ledge shuffle along the side of Sawtooth and a final vertical scramble up loose rock got us out of this segment of the trail. It was an intense experience, both physically and mentally, and our reward was a sweeping view of the surrounding peaks.
After completing Sawtooth, our group split: A few people continued on to Mount Evans while others started the downward descent. I joined the latter group and we hiked down between Sawtooth and Mount Spalding: a cairn-trail marked drops you down into a valley that Scott Gomer Creek runs through. After a very muddy hike through the creek, we found our way back to the trailhead where we’d started eight and a half hours earlier. This was the first of many fourteener sagas I hope to embark on.
Cresting a 14,000-foot peak is a source of pride and a rite of passage for many Coloradans. And with many of the peaks only a few hours from Denver, it's also a feasible day trip. As a recent Colorado transplant, I decided it was about time I joined the fourteener club. Mount Bierstadt, accessible from the Guanella Pass and only a little more than an hour from Denver, was my first choice. Click through the photos above to get a play-by-play of my first fourteener experience.