For outdoor enthusiasts and adventure travelers, Rocky Mountain National Park happens to be 415 square miles of paradise. Featuring more than 350 miles of hiking trails, a half-dozen campsites, excellent fishing and miles of scenic cycling routes, the park is an alpine playground set in the Front Range of Colorado. It also happens to be home to one of the most well known and accessible “14ers” in the entire state.
What’s a 14er you ask? Good question! In Colorado a 14er refers to any mountain that is 14,000 feet in height or taller. The state has 53 of them and they are a source of considerable pride amongst the very active outdoor community there. Many climbers even make it a goal to stand at the summit of each and every one of those peaks, including the only 14er located inside Rocky Mountain National Park itself, Longs Peak.
Named after Major Stephen Long, who explored the region back in the 1820s, Longs Peak stands 14,259 feet in height. During the winter months it presents a fairly significant technical climbing challenge that requires the use of crampons, ice axes and other specialized gear. But in the summer the trails are cleared of snow and ice, removing most of the technical obstacles and allowing just about anyone in reasonable physical condition to hike to the top.The most popular and accessible path to the summit is known as the Keyhole Route. This tough but manageable trail starts at about 9400 feet and winds its way to the top along a path that is well marked with a series of bull’s-eyes. Along the way hikers will need to negotiate a large boulder field and scramble up to a rock landmark known as the Keyhole, which is located at about 13,000 feet and gives the route its name. From that point on the climb gets a bit more harrowing as exposed ridges and rocky outcroppings add a new element to the trek, but hikers that take their time and attempt the final push to the top in good weather should have little difficulty in reaching the summit.
Those that do make the hike are rewarded with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Longs Peak is the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park and from the summit you can see for miles in all directions. That view is not only well worth the climb, but it will also make you forget about all the hard work it took to get to the summit in the first place.
Despite the fact that Longs Peak is very accessible to non-climbers there are a few things to keep in mind before attempting the climb. First, the trail is about 15 miles in length round trip, so be prepared to start early and expect a long day. The route features approximately 5000 feet of vertical gain as well, which means climbers will be working hard – at altitude no less – while on the ascent. Additionally, the thin air can cause all kinds of issues including shortness of breath, headaches, nausea and so on. For many hikers this isn’t a major issue, provided they go slow, take breaks and don’t overexert themselves.
The weather conditions on Longs Peak can also have a major impact on the hike. When the route is dry it is a fairly straightforward ascent, but in the summer, late afternoon thunderstorms are not uncommon and can cause the rock to become quite slippery, greatly increasing the overall level of difficulty. Also, due to the high altitude, it is possible for it to get cold, or even snow – even at the height of summer. Climbers should be sure to dress appropriately and bring extra clothing just in case.
The best time to hike Longs Peak is between July and September. During that period the mountain is at its safest thanks to warm and predictable weather. The route can get a bit crowded at times, particularly on weekends, but that adds a level of camaraderie to the trek and makes it a bit easier to follow the path to the summit.
If you decide to add Longs Peak to your Summer Bucket List, I’d recommend making nearby Estes Park your base camp. The town has surprisingly diverse options for both dining and accommodations and serves as a gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. In fact, after you’re done conquering the mountain, spend a few extra days in town enjoying whitewater rafting, mountain biking, kayaking or simply lounging about and enjoying the fantastic scenery.
If you’re looking for a great summer adventure and you’ve always wanted to climb a mountain, then a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park should be on your list of must see places. Longs Peak provides a great challenge with a fantastic payoff and when you’re done, you’ll have just 52 more 14ers before you’ve bagged them all.