It's "Fourteener" season in Colorado's Rocky Mountains: Follow along as we climb Colorado's 14,060' Mt. Bierstadt in this week's Mountain Dispatch

With over 750 mountain peaks over 13,000 feet in elevation (13’ers) and with 54 of those over 14,000 feet in elevation (14’ers), it’s easy to see why Colorado is often called the Roof of America. But with so many tall peaks with so many different levels of difficulty, it can be easy to get lost in the enormity of it all. That’s where Basin & Range’s Mountain Dispatch series can be helpful.  We aim to minimize some of that overwhelming confusion with entertaining stories detailing everyday, real wold  experiences in the West .  So where’s a good place to start for your first 14’er?  Read on…

Basin and Range Mountain Dispatch Mt Bierstadt

Basin and Range Mountain Dispatch Mt Bierstadt – Photo by Charles Watkins

Getting Started with Your First Fourteener

Hiking around Colorado’s high country is a fantastic and absolutely worthwhile experience, but it does take some preparation ahead of time to minimize your overall risk while ensuring that’s it’s still a fun and rewarding trip.

Because Colorado’s mountains are so tall, you will pass through multiple climate zones as you hike from bottom to top, and back again.  You may start out in 80 or 90 degree weather at the base of your hike and wind up with 55 or 65 degree temperatures when you’re taking your triumphant summit selfie.  Being prepared for the temperature variations as well as changes in wind and solar intensity will go a long in determining how well your hike will go.   The rule of thumb for anticipating temperature changes is to account for 3 degrees of cooling per one thousand feet climbed in elevation.  So if you’re starting at 6,000′ and planning on topping out at 14,000′, you should expect a 24 degree temperature drop.  Dressing in easily removable, sweat-wicking layers will allow you to adapt to changing conditions on the trail.  You will also need to account for your water consumption and your exposure to the sun.  Bring more water then you typically drink in a day and bring more sunscreen then you typically wear when spending a day in the sun.  The higher altitudes of the Rocky Mountains exposes you to more of the sun’s intensity and can cause sunburns more quickly then usually experienced at lower elevations.  Pack your water, a jacket, some food, your sunscreen, your camera, and maybe even a first aid kit in a backpack and bring it with you.  Footwear can vary according to your preferences and the trail conditions.  Consult online resources for the peak you plan on attempting.  Also, It’s considered best practice to start any 13,000’+ mountain hike early in the morning. Getting your start at or before sunrise usually gives you enough time to successfully climb the peak, take some pictures at the top, and descend in time to reduce your exposure to afternoon thunderstorms and the dangerous lightning strikes they can bring.

If you’re coming in to Denver from out-of-town or live anywhere along Colorado’s I-25 Urban Corridor, then it’s not uncommon to go with one of the many peaks on Colorado’s Front Range.  They offer super easy access and manageable round-trip times to the trailhead… not to mention the potential for great experiences and incredible views.  The string of mountains that come together to form the Front Range contain several 14,000 foot peaks including Grays Peak, Torreys Peak, Mt. Evans, Longs Peak, Pikes Peak, and Mount Bierstadt – with Bierstadt being arguably the most accessible peak of the bunch.

Colorado’s high peaks are categorized according to a) which mountain range they belong to, b) their relative difficulty to hike/climb, and c) their altitude. Mt. Bierstadt sits within a cluster of 14’ers just west of Denver along I-70.  Drive times from downtown Denver are usually limited to one hour, traffic depending.  Of that cluster of peaks, Bierstadt hosts the highest, most accessible trailhead and even comes complete with its own bathrooms and a paved parking lot. (Now, for clarity, I’m not including it’s neighbor Mt. Evans since it has a paved road all the way to its peak. As such, Mt. Evans is not often climbed so much as it is driven).

See our recent review of Salewa’s new Gore-Tex Surround boots: the Alp Flow Mid – tested on the trails of Mt. Biersdtat.

From the Trailhead – An account of hiking Mt. Bierstadt

Bierstadt’s trailhead parking lot straddles the high point of Clear Creek County’s Guanella Pass and is situated right at treeline (11,500′). Taking off at about 7:00, the morning sun was just barely peeking over the jagged peak’s eastern ridge as we started the hike and gave a dramatic illumination to the clouds above our heads – making for a colorful and visually stunning start to the day.

The 6 mile long trail is located almost entirely inside the Mount Evans Wilderness area and gains 2,850 feet of elevation. The trail kicks off relatively easily, beginning with a slight dip in elevation as you descend out of the parking lot and into a marshy bottomland. Traversing the marsh includes a couple of stream crossings with muddy terrain so be sure to bring shoes that provide adequate water protection. After you make your way across the plain, you’ll begin the real ascent up Bierstadt’s criss-crossing singletrack through lush alpine evergreen stands. The tree cover doesn’t last long however and before you know it you’re looking down on your progress and your car parked in the lot across the valley below. This part of the hike feels the longest – with intermittent stretches of steep and relatively flat sections switchbacking up and over a shoulder ridgeline. Once atop the ridge, you’ll notice the trail and landscape transform from hardpacked dirt to crumbled up chunks of rock. The elevation gain picks up the pace as you continue up the increasingly rocky ridgeline.

Pro Tips: Be prepared for some crowds if you plan to hike it on a weekend during the summer or autumn months.  Also be sure to bring the leash if you plan to bring your dog since you will definitely run into numerous other traildogs along the way.

The trail’s technical difficulty goes up a notch once you’ve hiked past the upper ridgeline.  Rocks become boulders and the grade goes from hiker friendly to include some sections of minor scrambling and rock-hopping. Remember to rest, hydrate, keep an eye on your time & weather conditions, and eat on the summit.

Once on the summit, take the time you need to take in the views and snap a few pics. Enjoy the scenery here since you’re surrounded by 3 other 14,000+’ peaks. Mt. Evans is your neighboring peak to the southeast and if you look, you may notice the astronomical observatory operated by Denver University. To your north and northeast are Grays and Torreys. Both of those conjoined peaks help form the boundary between Clear Creek county and Summit county. On a clear day, you can see views of Colorado’s infamous South Park (actual home of the famous cartoon series) to your southwest.

If you planned ahead and came prepared, you can attempt the Sawtooth Ridge connecting Bierstadt to Evans. Note that the this section of trail is far less traveled and is less obviously marked. It also includes some Class 3 scrambles along a section called the Glendarme. If you’re not continuing, then downclimb the same way you hiked up.  The descent takes about half as long as the ascent (or less).  Be aware of your footing since injuries commonly occur on the way back down.

Overall you should plan on about a 4 hour round-trip hiking time.  Be prepared to turn back if clouds are building on the horizon.  Storms are your most serious risk in Colorado’s high country.  Your exposure to lightning is significantly higher at elevation than out on the plains or in the city.  Your first distant thunder-clap is your clear signal to turn around and head back down the mountain.

Packing List:

  • A day-pack sized backpack.
  • PLENTY of water (2-3 bottles at least)
  • High protein foods
  • Sunscreen
  • Windbreaker or rain shell
  • Warmer fleece layer
  • Hiking boots or other rugged and supportive footwear
  • Trekking poles for stability
  • Camera
  • A keen eye for storms