Explore Colorado

Your Guide to Conquering Colorado’s 14ers

Considering a hike up to one of the state's highest peaks? Read this first!

Just another reason Colorado is great: Hiking is possible year-round, and it’s spectacular. When beginning to plan a trip to one of the state’s 53 peaks that reach above 14,000 feet, however, there’s a brief window of time when you can safely summit.

Each summer, thousands of hikers flock to the high country to pull up their wool socks and tackle these beasts on more than 130 trails. Just take one look at the ever-growing line of parked Subarus leading to the trailheads to know this to be true. But as glib as people can be about making such trips, climbing a 14er is something to take seriously as much as it is to have fun with. And by keeping a few key considerations in mind, you’ll be set to start bagging peaks and using the jargon to match in no time.

Wake-Up Call

When the sun won’t be up for hours but you already are—shoveling down lukewarm oatmeal no less—starting a hike this early might seem ridiculous. That’s fair. But at noon when clouds begin moving in and you’ve already descended your way back to treeline, you’ll be glad you started at dawn. Getting an early start is one of the most crucial parts of responsible 14er-hiking; you’ll be at much higher elevations than Colorado’s already-high altitude, where storms move in abruptly and lightning strikes can reach ground from nearly 10 miles away. To play it safe, plan to be at the trailhead ready to go no later than 6 am.

(Don’t) Dress to Impress

Layering is key for all kinds of hikes, but this is especially true for lengthy ones with a significant elevation change. Make sure to wear a base layer with a wicking material underneath everything else. This will pull moisture away from your skin so that when you stop for a break you won’t suddenly get cold from your sweat, which can lead to increased chances of hypothermia. Also consider that the temperature and weather can and will change several times from when you start your hike to when you return to the car.

Mount Elbert
Spectacular views of neighboring peaks are exposed atop any 14er (©Elizabeth Escobar).

When packing for your hike, include these items:

  • Fleece
  • Water-resistant raincoat
  • Sturdy shoes/hiking boots with good traction and ankle support
  • Base layers
  • Warm hat/gloves (it gets quite cold near the summit)
  • Extra pair of wool socks
  • Day-hiking pack
  • Sun hat and sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Several liters of water
  • A couple snacks
  • Trekking poles (if deemed necessary, and other equipment if the trail calls for it)

Coming Up Short

As great as it is to summit a 14er, a smart hiker knows when today just isn’t the day to do so. Sometimes the weather throws you a curveball (remember to watch the clouds!), or your body does, and it’s time to back down.

Aside from lightning, Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is something to pay attention to. Though most people—even Coloradans—will experience mild symptoms that aren’t necessarily deal breakers, which include headaches, heavy legs and slight shortness of breath, AMS can get serious fast and can be fatal. One way to help prevent or combat AMS is by pacing yourself, since your body’s exercise capacity at high altitudes is incredibly reduced. Also, look for ginkgo biloba at a health foods store to take a few days before your hike which can help prevent or lessen any AMS symptoms. If you do start feeling bad, turn around; no mountain views or bragging rights are worth your health.

Mount Elbert
Mt. Elbert’s summit is exposed and far above treeline at 14,433 feet (©Elizabeth Escobar).

The Lingo to Learn

Scramble: The ability to maneuver your way over exposed rocks and terrain without using ropes, and it can speak to either climbing up or going down. If a route requires scrambling it’s usually rated class 2 to class 4 (check out www.14ers.com).

Class: Most of the state’s 14ers are rated by class. Classes 1 and 2 generally mean that there’s a clear path most of the way to the top. Routes that are classified as 3, 4, or 5 are considered to be climbing routes—this ranges from scrambling (3) to climbing (4) to technical climbing requiring a rope (5). For these more difficult classes, a helmet is recommended.

Saddle: A high pass between adjacent peaks.

Scree: Small, loose rocks that you have to watch your footing on.

False summit: The summit(s) you see before the real summit is visible to you, giving false hope.

Traverse (in the verb sense): Climbing in a horizontal direction.