Colorado’s 54 highest peaks, the fourteeners, are already deep into fall. It’s one of the most beautiful and peaceful times to climb a fourteener. The crowds have thinned, the aspens are turning, and the threat of lightning has eased. But at 14,000 feet, autumn, like summer, is measured in weeks, not months, so the time to cash in on this golden season is running out.
About 500,000 hikers attempt to climb Colorado’s 54 fourteeners each year. The easiest peaks regularly see more than 400 hikers a day, according to the nonprofit Colorado Fourteener Initiative.
After Labor Day, the number of hikers drops off dramatically. And with good reason. The summits usually get a good dusting of snow in the latter half of September.
Winter rolls in when the leaves are still green along the Front Range. Once it’s here, only climbers with balaclavas, goggles and various pointy metal tools will be found in the mountains.
But there is a three- or four-week window in the fall when hikers can enjoy summer weather without summer crowds.
“I love climbing this time of year; all the people are gone,” says Eric Hunter, a guide for the Pikes Peak chapter of the Colorado Mountain Club. “Your pack needs to be just a little bit heavier because you need a few more clothes. The weather can be unpredictable.”
The fall often means fewer thunderstorms, although Hunter says, “Sometimes it just means you get snow and thunder at the same time.”
But generally, the skies are clear. “The best part, though, is that the aspens are really starting to change,” Hunter says, “so the hike up can be gorgeous.”
A peak-bagger’s packing list
• Plenty of water and
snacks (don’t assume you’ll find water above tree line)
• Comfortable shoes (running shoes are fine for most easy peaks; sturdy boots should be used for more difficult peaks)
• Thick socks • Raincoat and pants
• Non-cotton clothing, including three top layers
• Warm hat
mittens or both
• Sunscreen • Hat and sunglasses, ski goggles if you have them
•Headlamp/flashlight, even if you’re not going overnight
• First-aid kit
• Map (usually photocopied pages of a guidebook will do)
• Gaiters (in case of snow)
Three of the easier climbs
A beginner fourteener with great summit views and minimal driving.
Elevation: 14,060 feet Elevation gain: 2,850 Round trip: 7 miles To get there: (Call 303-569-3251 before you go, because Guanella Pass was closed this summer from the Georgetown approach.) Take I-70 west. Drive just over 30 miles to the Georgetown exit (Exit 228). Drive through Georgetown and follow the signs to Guanella Pass. Drive 12 miles to the top of Guanella Pass (11,700 feet) and park in one of the two parking areas on either side of the road.
Mount Bierstadt is the large mountain to the east.
The hike: The trail starts near the parking area on the east side of the road. Hike east on wooden bridges through a muddy willow thicket. The trail crosses Scott Gomer Creek after 0.5 mile. Soon the trail begins to climb switchbacks out of the willows to a point at 12,300 feet on the north end of the northwest shoulder of the peak. The trail climbs south up the shoulder and becomes a bit more rugged. Gain the top of the ridge at nearly 13,800 feet.
Follow the trail left up the ridge to the summit.
A straightforward, gorgeous peak with an easy-to-follow trail to an abrupt summit.
Elevation: 14,265 feet Elevation gain: 3,450 feet Round trip: 6.75 miles To get there: From Denver, take I-70 west. At Frisco, head south on Colorado Highway 9. After passing through Breckenridge, about two miles before the top of Hoosier Pass, turn right onto Blue Lakes Road (County Road 850). Drive a few hundred yards and turn right on the McCullough Gulch Road (County Road 851). There is a sign for the Quandary Peak Trail at the junction. Drive about a mile to a small, signed parking area on the right side of the road. This is the trailhead.
The hike: From the trailhead, walk a short distance up the road to a sign where the trail climbs left through the forest. Follow a great trail southwest through the forest. In less than a mile, it emerges above tree line. Cross a flat, open area near 11,600 feet and continue to the base of a steeper section near 11,700 feet. The summit will come into view a mile ahead.
Stay on the ridge and follow a clear trail to the summit. Above 14,000 feet, the slope begins to ease.
The easiest fourteener: a high trailhead leading to a narrow summit that offers nice views of neighboring peaks.
U.S. Fairplay. where on County Road). ing mine townsite. after slowly the Elevation: 14,036 feet Elevation gain: 2,000 feet to 2,800, depending on where you park on the road.
Round trip: 5.25 to 8.5 miles To get there: From Denver, take U.S. Highway 285 southwest, past Fairplay. After passing the intersection where Colorado Highway 9 hits 285 on your left, take the first right onto County Road 18 (Four Mile Creek Road). Drive 10 miles west to a parking area at 11,250 feet, just after a large mine building. This is the Leavick townsite. The road starts to get rough after this point, but passenger cars can slowly drive another 1.5 miles before the road gets harsh. There are some small pull-offs before a gate at 12,100 feet.
The hike: Hike continues up the road, past the gate at 12,100 feet, and leads to a cluster of mine shacks at 12,300 feet. Turn right on the main road and follow the road as it winds northwest toward a clear saddle to the west and hooks back south to a prominent mine building. Shortly after the mine, look for a cairn and trail that turns right and climbs to the saddle. From the 13,140-foot saddle, turn right and follow the ridge 1 mile north to the summit.
(c) 2010, The Gazette (Colorado Springs) — MCT