Despite standing 13,553 ft. and being the highest point of Grand County, humble Pettingell Peak sees few visitors. Crowds are more apt to visit its more popular neighbors across the street — the 14,000 ft. twin peaks of Grays and Torreys. Overlooked (literally) by higher mountains, Pettingell nonetheless is an excellent adventure, especially for those looking for a moderate but thrilling ridge scramble close to Denver.
It’s an easy drive to the trailhead from the Denver/Boulder area, only about an hour – perfect for a weekend day trip. Parking is right off the highway at exit 218, Herman Gulch. The well worn Herman Lake trail sees heavy use but nearly all the hikers who come this way are here to see the lakes and alpine meadows. Pettingell has no established trails to its summit and it must be said that from the vantage point of the Herman Lake trail, it doesn’t look like much of a great ascent. There are easy class 2 slopes on the south face of the peak that make for an easy walk-up but the real gem of Pettingell is a class 3 scramble on the east ridge.
Starting from the Herman Gulch trailhead, 3 miles of on-trail hiking ascend through pine forests and gorgeous alpine meadows. Right before reaching Herman Lake, it’s time to get off-trail and ascend the ridgeline either by plodding up steep, class 2 grassy slopes or scrambling up a broken but relatively solid class 3 arete. After gaining the mellow ridge, it’s time to head over and get rolling on the 0.75 mile east ridge to the summit.
From a distance, the line looks daunting. Several jagged towers start the scramble and an imposing fin looms just before the final ramp to the summit. Never fear, all these obstacles become much more manageable up close. From the “start notch” where the slopes go from grassy to rocky, stay climber’s left to skirt around the ridge proper on welcoming, solid class 3 ledges (though the airy class 4 scramble atop the ridge may be just what you’re looking for!) Mostly solid rock and moderate route finding continue for the first half of the ridge, where the left (south) side provides nice lines. After dropping into a few small notches about halfway through, the north side begins to offer possibilities for class 2/3 workarounds as well. This is an excellent route for those new to off-trail route finding, as it’s always easy to back off if you find a bad line. Or just stay high on the ridge for some thrilling scrambles.
The final obstacle to the top, that dastardly looking fin of rock about 80 feet high, turns out to have an easy bypass on the left (south). Even staying directly on the ridge near the fin is nothing more than class 3+. Popping out on the fin reveals a flower-laden path to the summit, where a well-built wind shelter provides the perfect place to take lunch and enjoy amazing views of several mountain ranges. When it’s time to descend, the friendly south facing slopes will quickly lead back to Herman Lake (and may even provide a fun snow glissade if the snowfields are still in). Once back on trail, enjoy the three mile hike back to the parking lot and say hello to the many, many people and dogs you’re likely see on the way down.
Budget 6-8 hours and about 8 miles of hiking for this beauty. Bring a helmet and possibly an ice axe for the glissade. Note that snow may be present on this ridge as late as early July, which adds a degree of difficulty. Skiing the south slopes is a popular activity in late spring.
For a printable free guide with directions, visit the Pettingell Peak East Ridge guide at Mountainous Words.