You don’t have to climb big walls to bag some of the best peaks in Colorado. Presenting the best eight unknown summit scrambles in the state.
First, a piece of advice: If you’re going to lose your keys on the top of a mountain, you had better make it one of Colorado’s wildly popular 14ers. Losing anything—keys or otherwise—on a mountain like “Peak G” or “Point 12,414” pretty much guarantees your valued possessions will end up in the paws of marmot search and rescue. Trust me on this one.
Rodent opportunists aside, there’s plenty of reasons to explore the truly wild side of Colorado. Those who complain about the throngs of red-faced, wheezing Midwesterners stumbling up Longs Peak in jeans and college-themed sweatshirts need to remember there are at least 3,000 other fine mountains you can climb, very few of which you’ll encounter someone sporting a Hello Kitty backpack. I don’t blame out-of-staters for wanting to hit up the glory peaks, but for those of us lucky enough to call Colorado home, there’s a lifetime of incredible summits waiting to be had. Sure, they might not carry the bragging rights hiking a mountain someone’s actually heard of does, but isn’t that part of the allure? If you’re like me, following well-worn trails can start to feel a bit too tame. Exploring new terrain opens up a new world of wildlife, flora and geography. Lesser-known summits (like Bison Peak) can make you feel like you are in another wilder, state—or possibly on another planet.
A word of caution, however, to those embarking on their first-ever off-the-beaten-trail adventure. If you’re looking to lighten your mental load, get in touch with nature and marvel at the splendors of the natural world, plan wisely so that you don’t end up lost in a mosquito-filled alpine swamp, or stumbling over miles of loose scree only to bumble your way to an unspectacular summit. No, if you’re going into the unknown, you want there to be at least be the prospect of adventure and excitement minus the prospect of having a helicopter search arranged in your honor.
So without further adieu, I encourage you to tap into your wild side by exploring at least one of these eight spectacular peaks. They’re well worth the walk.
1. Mount Silex (13,619 ft.) • San Juan Range
Mount Silex is just one of the amazing peaks in the seldom-visited Grenadier Range of the San Juan Mountains, but it is without doubt one of the best. The majority of the mountains in this region emerge from a high-alpine terrain that starts at about 10,000 feet. Because the area is barely developed, the Grenadiers stand as one of Colorado’s truly remote wilderness areas. You’ll need to carve out at least a few days to make the trip, good off-trail mapping and navigation skills, and plenty of pioneer spirit to reach the top of Silex. With beautiful backpacking and backcountry opportunities, set yourself up a fine base camp and get ready to play. Mount Silex requires good route-finding on very solid class-2+ and thrilling (but not overly difficult) class-3 terrain. While you’re in the area, check out Arrow Peak, Vestal Peak, Storm King Peak and The Guardian, if you’re on a peak-bagging mission.
2. Eagle Peak (13,100 ft.) • Northern Sawatch Range
As one of the more remote 13ers, Eagle Peak’s generic name belies the incredible adventure needed to reach its summit. What’s nice about Eagle Peak—and the surrounding summits in the area—is a well-maintained trail that leads into the basin and is a fine place to set up base camp. Charles Lake and Mystic Island Lake both offer great camping (when the bugs aren’t too crazy) and the start from Fulford Cave trailhead means passenger cars can make it no problem. Once in the basin, great class-3 scrambling begins where the trails end. Neighboring Fools Peak, Pika Peak, Point 12,940 and Gold Dust Peak offer mountain explorers plenty to see.
One of the great advantages of not having a formal name means people are less likely to find out about hidden treasures like The Citadel. While not officially named on maps, locals have known for years about this wonderful peak and chances are you’ve probably admired it from a distance while driving Loveland Pass in the winter (when snow-covered, it’s also affectionately known as Snoopy’s Doghouse). The Citadel is close to the metro area and easy to drive to (start at I-70 exit 218, Herman Gulch Trailhead). A well-traveled trail ends at Herman Lake, but your adventure continues up to the twin summits of the Citadel, where some easy class-3 scrambling gets you to the top. If you want more, traverse over to Hagar Mountain or Pettingell Peak, which, at 13,553 ft., is the highest point in Grand County.
4. Casco Peak (13,908 ft.) and French Mountain Traverse (13,940 ft.) • SAWATCH Range
If you like hiking in the style of Sawatch 14ers but want to get away from the crowds, try pairing up these two peaks for a fun day in the mountains. Casco Peak and French Mountain are connected by a gorgeous class-2 ridge and offer unique views of classic neighboring Colorado peaks such as Mount Elbert and Mount Massive. The standard start for these peaks begins a few miles down a 4×4 past Mount Elbert trailhead. Head this way for a good, long day with no technical climbing and very little scrambling plus the chance to see old mine ruins along the way.
5. Bison Peak (12,431 ft.) • TARRYALL MOUNTAINS
Unlike most of the mountains on this list, Bison Peak is an easy-going class-1 jaunt suitable for man and dog alike. The kicker to this amazing hike is the summit plateau, which is populated by enormous monoliths of rock akin to the desert landscape in Moab. This area is more like a “Garden of the Gods” than the eponymously named location in Colorado Springs. In spring, this area is even more of a treat as large fields of wildflowers bloom between the rocky outcrops. Bison Peak is one of the most unique landscapes in the entire Rocky Mountain region.
6. Red Elephant Mountain (11,552 ft.) and Big Agnes Mountain (12,059 ft.) • PARK Range
It takes a special kind of woman to get a peak as enormous as Big Agnes to serve as her namesake, but a visit to the Steamboat Springs area brings you face to face with that very peak. Both Big Agnes and Red Elephant Mountain are great destinations to hit while backpacking the pristine Mount Zirkel Wilderness. Due to their relatively low elevations and northerly latitudes, both offer a glimpse at a more fertile and lush landscape than can be encountered on most Colorado mountains. A trek over Red Dirt Pass opens up access to both of these mountains (as well as the high point in the region, Mount Zirkel). Expect mostly class-2 terrain with a little bit of scrambling on Big Agnes.
Hidden in the shadow of Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle, Mount Adams is an aesthetically stunning mountain with a knockout class-3 ridge to the summit. The entire Sangre de Cristo Range—a spine of mountains with flat, bucolic land surrounding the peaks—erupts from the land like a cartoon in a pop-up book. . A trek to Adams begins with a suggested overnight to Horn Lakes Basin, where you can rest up and get ready for the 1,000-foot “hill” that leads to the base of Adams’ impressive ridge walk. Views are stunning and the terrain is the perfect place to unleash your inner mountain goat.
8. Mount Cirrus (12,797 ft.) • NEVER SUMMER RANGE
Not far from the popular ranges of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) lie the Never Summer Mountains, a rocky expanse of peaks that are lined with rivers of talus and scree (sounds fun, huh?). For those willing to endure a bit of wobbly terrain, the rewards are incredible. Spacious views extending into Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Range are complemented by the gentle giants to the east in RMNP. The class-3 ridges are exciting and airy, meaning you can expect to encounter a few real-life mountain goats on the slopes. This is a rough-and-tumble landscape that puts the rock in Rocky Mountains.
Looking for more? Here are a few more worthy hikes you can find on your own. For the best in autumn aspen views, try East Beckwith Peak (12,432 ft.) in the Elk Range just outside of Crested Butte. A rare class-3 experience can be found in Lavender Peak (13,220 ft.) in the southerly La Plata Range. And finally, see if things are all quiet on the western front to find Lone Cone (12,614 ft.) at the far reaches of the San Juan Range. •
James Dziezynski is the author of Best Summit Hikes in Colorado. You can follow his endless adventures at Mountainous Words (mountainouswords.com).