Colorado is home to more 14,000-foot peaks than anywhere else in the Lower 48. If the thin air doesn’t take your breath away, the view might. It’s an unparalleled feeling to push yourself to that summit and look out over the landscape, a small speck on top of the world. But hiking Colorado fourteeners,  even an “easy” one, will test the physical and mental endurance of any first-timer and bring you into an ecosystem fraught with natural dangers. Falling rocks, dangerous drop-offs, sudden snowstorms, and dangerous lightning all contribute to the extreme nature of this pursuit. Here’s what you need to know to get started.

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Gear

    1. True hiking boots with good traction, as both loose scree and lingering snow are common at higher elevations.
    2. Several layers of clothes, including synthetic wicking under-layers for the ascent and a warm fleece and windbreaker for the summit, which will be much colder than the trailhead.
    3. Ice axe and crampons for winter, spring or early summer climbs.
    4. Rock helmet on peaks that involve a lot of steep scrambling or loose rock.
    5. Water, and lots of it.

 

Longs Peak-Chasm Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, John Fielder
Longs Peak and Chasm Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo Credit: John Fielder.

Getting Started

The best beginner fourteeners are ones with roads that will take you high on the mountain, making for a shorter hike and an easier bailout if you find yourself overexerted or caught in unexpected inclement weather.

  • Mount Sherman near Fairplay is a great starter — 5.5 miles round-trip and 2,100 feet of climbing.
  • Another good option is Mount Bierstadt off Guanella Pass — seven miles round-trip and 2,850 feet of climbing.
  • Before you ascend a fourteener on foot, it’s a good idea to test how your body reacts to altitude that extreme. Drive up either the Pikes Peak or Mount Evans toll roads, and linger on the summit. If you start to feel dizzy or light-headed, drive down to a lower elevation and work your way up.

 

Pro Tips

  • With the exception of a few technical mountains, most fourteener hiking simply involves putting one foot in front of the other, no extra safety gear necessary. Work your way up to a more technical climb by getting to know fourteener terrain on less technical hikes.
  • Work on your cardiovascular fitness long before you attempt a fourteener, and prepare yourself by climbing some mountains with less elevation and less lengthy routes.
  • Sometimes, shifting earth and wind and water erosion can obscure trails in the high country. Study terrain maps before you leave, and always bring the map, written directions, and a compass with you on a climb. It’s unlikely that you’ll have cell service as you ascend.
Mount Yale - Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. Photo Credit: John Fielder - OutThere Colorado.
Mount Yale – Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. Photo Credit: John Fielder.

Safety First

  • Rule Number One: Don’t oversleep on the morning of your hike. Because of afternoon storms, it’s a good idea to be off the summit by noon, so get an early start during the summer storm season.
  • When the weather isn’t right or it’s getting too late in the day or there’s more snow than you were prepared for, don’t be afraid to turn around. The mountain will still be there next time.
  • Don’t assume because fourteeners are popular that there will be an obvious and well-marked trail. Poor weather, lingering snow and social side trails can make route-finding difficult, so bring a map, compass and good directions. I know we said that already, but it can’t be stressed enough.
  • Bring everything you would on any long hike, including a first aid kit, extra food and water, sunscreen, a headlamp, and rain gear.

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Glossary

Some of the things you’ll encounter high in the Rockies:

  • Marmot — Large chirping rodents that dwell in the rocks above timberline. Be careful, as some are fearless and have been known to chew into backpacks.
  • Scree — Small and broken rock fragments that can cover an entire mountainside. It’s not the most pleasant thing to climb through.
  • Talus — Larger, flatter rock shards that are only slightly less miserable than scree to climb on.
  • Cairns — Above timberline, trails are often marked with small (and sometimes very large) piles of rocks left behind by other hikers. Learn to keep an eye out for them.

Learn More

The website 14ers.com is the best resource, with detailed directions and maps and tons of expert advice.

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