Climbing Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks has become one of the defining adventures in the Rocky Mountains. Part of the fun is the sheer variety found on the 53 peaks that make up the generally accepted roster of summits. Using the most popular standard routes, the difficulty ranges from modest walk-ups to exposed, class 4 scrambles, but never quite tips into class 5 territory— though it’s completely fine to use ropes on some of the more difficult summits. Our fourteeners package takes a look at new ways to scale these classic peaks, the best fourteeners for your canine companions, and finally, our top five toughest summits. See you at the top.
FIVE BEST FOURTEENER ALTERNATE ROUTES
West Ridge, Quandary Peak (14,265 feet)
Quandary Peak is one of the most heavily trafficked fourteeners, thanks to a relatively easy walk-up along the broad ramp that makes up the east ridge. A less crowded and more thrilling line is along the west ridge, a class 3 scramble that features more exposure, challenging navigation and a few thrilling down climbs. The trail starts at the Blue Lakes Trailhead and also puts you in striking distance of a class 2 walkup on neighboring 13,951-foot Fletcher Mountain. Descend the loose but direct Cristo Couloir and you’ll see your vehicle from the summit!
Cyclone Creek to Tabeguache Peak (14,155 feet)
This route starts just west of the old Jennings Creek standard route up Tabeguache (now closed for revegetation). There are no established trails, but the path is straightforward: Follow Cyclone Creek above treeline and hike up to 13,663-foot Carbonate Mountain, then traverse over to Tabeguache. Return down to the ridges to the west above Jennings Creek or continue to fourteener Mount Shavano and down the new standard route for a point-to-point.
Kelso Ridge, Torreys Peak (14,267 feet)
This class 3 scramble has become a favorite line for those looking to avoid the typical weekend summer crowds on Grays and Torreys. The rock is solid, the scrambling is a lot of fun, and the crux of the route is a short-but-thrilling knife edge along a block of white quartz rock. Top out and enjoy a walk down along the Grays Peak Trail or traverse over to Grays Peak itself before descending. Or, if you really want to make a big day of it, go point-to-point over Torreys, over 13,427-foot Grizzly Peak and down to Loveland Pass.
Northwest Ridge, Mount Lindsey (14,042 feet)
Over the years, the standard route on Mount Lindsey has eroded to the point where it would qualify as a class 2+ route with a few class 3 moves at the top of a loose gully. The northwest ridge avoids the scree and sticks to solid boulders and rock outcrops. It’s a little exposed at times, but there’s always solid hand and foot holds. Descent is by the standard north face route, which nearly overlaps the northwest ridge.
Mountain Bike Mount Antero (14,269 feet)
Now here’s something different. Despite its tremendous bulk, Mount Antero is a rather tame walk up, usually done along a 4×4 road that climbs to 13,800 feet (yes, it is driveable by 4×4 enthusiasts). If you want to try a good challenge, bring your mountain bike. While it’s possible start pedaling at the very bottom of the 4×4 road up Antero’s west slopes, it’s a more enjoyable ride if you park at Baldwin Gulch (just before a river crossing) and ride from there. It’s tough, but most of the road is bikeable by fit cyclists. A brief, sandy section before the top of the road is tough to ascend but not bad coming down. Leave your bike at the top of the road and hoof it 500 vertical feet to the summit—or if you’re like me, carry your bike to the top. The ride down is a speedy one!
FIVE BEST FOURTEENERS FOR DOGS
Handies Peak (14,048 feet)
Handies offers a great adventure for your dog (and for you, too, human), with plenty of water along the way and great, panoramic views at every stop. The class 2 trail to the top isn’t exposed and the trail sees light foot traffic. As with any fourteener, wildlife encounters are a concern for dog owners, but beyond that, this is a great walk up that dogs will love.
San Luis Peak (14,014 feet)
San Luis may be the very best dog-friendly fourteener out there. It’s a bit remote so there are rarely any crowds. The well-maintained trail to the summit passes through lush meadows of wildflowers and creeks trickle along for the bulk of the route. There are no major cliffs or technical obstacles (some even rate it as class 1, so it’s relatively easy) and the wide-open views help you keep an eye out for wandering mountain goats.
Mount Democrat (14,148 feet)
For the experienced mountain dog, Mount Democrat’s east slope offers a fun scramble, though it may be tough on the pads for less-traveled pooches. It’s a rather abrupt trail, but the shoulder of Democrat is broad, without a lot of perilous perches. The views are great and there are often patches of non-corniced snow for your dogs to roll around in. It’s only four miles out-and-back but it’s a fine workout for man and beast alike.
Mount Elbert (14,433 feet)
Colorado’s highest mountain has an excellent, well-maintained trail to its summit from the north (called either the Mount Elbert Trail or the North Mount Elbert Trail). If you have a friendly dog who is good with people and other pups, it’s quite an honor to ascend the tallest Rocky Mountain with your dog. It’s a long day with over 4,400 feet of elevation gain, so make sure you have some trial time in before attempting this one. And make sure to bring plenty of water for you and your pup—there’s not much to be found above the trailhead.
Redcloud Peak (14,034 feet)
Redcloud is one of the most scenic fourteeners, thanks to its oxidized iron rock skin. It’s also a fine dog peak, thanks to an excellent class 2 trail—and it can easily be combined over a weekend with Handies Peak, since they share the same trailhead. Redcloud as an out-and-back is a ideal dog-and-human adventure, with wide-open basins and no cliffed out terrain. The walk over to nearby Sunshine Peak (14,001 feet) adds mileage but is fairly manageable as an out-and-back (the shortcut off Sunshine has been discouraged in recent years and isn’t great for dogs due to sharp rock scree).
FIVE TOUGHEST FOURTEENERS
Capitol Peak (14,130 feet)
Capitol Peak requires nerve, endurance, route-finding, good weather, and solid scrambling skills—and that’s what makes it so great. The approach to the northeast ridge (the only non-technical line) is burlier than most fourteeners are as a whole. And, once on the ridge, there’s a dicey skirting of a sub-peak called K2 before you hit the crux of the climb, a 150-foot-long, wildy exposed fine of solid rock known as the knife edge. Past the knife edge, class 3 and 4 scrambling heads up to the impressive summit. And on the return, you get to hit all the crux spots again! It’s 17 miles roundtrip, so this one is usually done with a night of camping at Capitol Lake.
Little Bear Peak (14,037 feet)
Little Bear shares an approach with two other fourteeners, Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point, but it claims a much more difficult standard route. It’s mostly class 2 and 3 hiking with the exception of a narrow, 150-foot chimney called the Hourglass. Here’s the rub. This gully is easiest when there’s snow in it, but most hikers tackle it in the summer months, when rock fall funnels down the class 4 chute. Handholds are copious but the rock can be deviously wet. A suspect rope used to assist climbers here is replaced on a regular basis, but don’t count on it for safety. Above the Hourglass, the scrambling is easier but still challenging. Downclimbing the dicey Hourglass, however, may be the true crux of this route.
North Maroon Peak (14,014 feet)
By Colorado Mountain Club standards, North Maroon Peak isn’t technically a fourteener—it doesn’t rise high enough from its neighbor, 14,156-foot Maroon Peak. Nonetheless, it’s on most fourteeners hit lists and it’s part of the standard 53. Route finding is especially challenging and there are multiple sections that require exposed scrambling. Most hikers end up scrambling up tough class 4 or easy class 5 sections (a short rope isn’t a bad idea). The descent navigation can be tricky on the upper mountain and helicopter rescues happen from time to time on North Maroon.
Pyramid Peak (14,018 feet)
Unlike its neighbors the Maroon Bells, the rock on Pyramid is mostly solid. With good route finding, the scrambling won’t exceed tough class 3 or easy class 4 (for only a move or two) but of course, that route finding is part of the challenge. There’s a stiff, steep approach to the saddle that hits the northeast ridge, which is usually done in the blackness of night. Those who can see good, solid climbing lines will enjoy Pyramid’s terrain, which might explain why it’s so popular with mountain goats.
Longs Peak (14,255 feet)
So many people attempt Longs Peak that it’s easy to forget that the Keyhole Route is a major undertaking. It’s a long day, around 15 miles, and the two miles beyond the Keyhole require exposed traverses on dicey ledges, a grind up a loose couloir to 14,000 feet and a final push on steep, solid (but airy) rock. And of course … the return has you face-to-face with the precipitous drops and pucker-worthy cliffs. Add to that the busy throngs on the mountain, some of which can cause bottlenecks in key passages, all while the weather builds.
Both Mount Wilson (14,246 feet) and Sunlight Peak (14,059 feet) are punctuated by a single, gutsy move, that, in both cases, is near the summit. Crestone Needle (14,197 feet) offers up very solid conglomerate rock, but the navigation is difficult (on par with North Maroon), so it’s easy to get off-route.
-— EO Contributing Editor James Dziezynski is the author of several Colorado guide books, including Best Summit Hikes in Colorado and his newest release Best Summit Hikes: Denver to Vail (see page 8). Dziezynski completed all of Colorado’s 14ers in 2003, and he has been back to visit them many times since.