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Climbing a 14’er is an exhilarating experience that tops every Colorado adventurer’s summer bucket list. But climbing a 14’er isn’t like hiking any regular ole’ trail, which is why it’s SO important to be prepared by doing research ahead of time. If you’re reading this, you’re already on the right track!
If this is your first time tackling a 14’er there are some important things that you need to know to stay safe on the trail and have an enjoyable hike. This post dives into the most important information that you need to know before climbing your first Colorado 14’er, including what to expect on different trails, what to pack, and how to decide which 14’er to climb first!
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What is a 14’er?
A 14’er is a mountain that reaches over 14,000 ft. in elevation. Colorado has the greatest number of 14’ers in the continental United States with 53 official fourteeners and 58 14’ers total. There are 5 peaks that don’t have enough prominence to be considered official 14’ers, but their summits still reach over 14,000 ft.
Colorado’s 14’ers are found across 6 mountain ranges: the Front Range, Tenmile Range, Sawatch Range, Elk Range, Sangre de Cristo Range, and San Juan Range. The 14’ers in the Front Range are easily accessible from Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs, which means they are very heavily trafficked. The San Juan Range is the furthest from Colorado’s major cities and where you can find a quieter experience (it’s also home to some of the state’s more difficult peaks, which helps keep heavy crowds away).
Climbing 14’ers has become an extremely popular activity in Colorado, so you can expect to encounter other hikers regardless of the mountain you choose. If you’re looking for true solitude in the mountains, climbing a 14’er isn’t the way to find it!
The Best Time of Year to Climb 14’ers in Colorado
The best time of year to climb a 14’er in Colorado is during the summer and early fall from late June/early July-late September/early October. Popular routes will be largely snow free during this time of year. Depending on the previous winter, snowpack can linger into July, and new snow can arrive as early as September.
Some people prefer climbing 14’ers in the spring when the weather is nice and there’s still snow in areas that may not be pleasant to hike in when they’re dry (like loose, rocky gullies). This isn’t something I’d recommend for your first 14’er unless you’re going with people who are experienced and you know how to use an ice ax. Do not attempt climbing your first 14’er during the winter unless you have prior mountaineering experience!
What You Need to Know Before Climbing Your First Colorado 14’er
If you’re planning on hiking a Colorado 14’er this summer, here are the most important things you need to know in order to stay safe and have a good time on the trail:
1. Prepare for the altitude. High altitude hiking can be a real challenge for even the most experienced adventurers, so make sure you acclimate ahead of time. If you’re traveling to Colorado from out of state, spend a day or two in a lower elevation city like Denver or Grand Junction before heading up to the mountains. I’d also recommend working your way up to a 14’er with a few hikes that take you to 12,000+ft. first. Keep in mind that altitude can affect you differently on every hike, so take things slowly, make sure that you’re well hydrated in the days leading up to your hike, and carry electrolytes on the trail. If you start experiencing signs of altitude sickness, which includes feeling dizzy, nauseous, or a severe headache, don’t be afraid to turn back.
2. Check the weather. Colorado is known for its unpredictable weather patterns, so it’s essential to be prepared for sudden changes in temperature or precipitation during your hike. Mountains can create their own weather systems and storm clouds can move in quickly. Afternoon thunderstorms are common during the summer, so it’s recommended to be off the summit and back below treeline before noon. The best weather for climbing your first 14’er is a sunny, bluebird day. You can check the forecast in the mountains on Mountain Forecast.
3. Research your route. The best resource for climbing 14’ers in Colorado is 14ers.com. The website, run by Bill Middlebrook, has comprehensive information about each 14’er, including detailed route descriptions, photos, trailhead information, and stats. Consulting the route description on 14ers.com is absolutely essential before heading out on your hike. I personally recommend taking screenshots of the route description along with the photos of the route, especially for more difficult 14’ers, just so that you have something to reference during your hike if you run into any issues with route finding.
4. Start early. The best time to start your hike up a 14’er is as early as possible (I recommend a sunrise start at the latest). Not only will starting early give you plenty of time to complete the hike safely before any afternoon thunderstorms roll in, but it will also allow you to avoid the crowds that can often gather on popular 14’ers.
5. Bring the right vehicle. Getting to the trailhead is the first step to climbing a 14’er, so you want to make sure that you’re driving the proper vehicle to get there. Some 14’er trailheads are located along paved roads, while others require a 4×4 vehicle to access. Most are somewhere in the middle down rough dirt roads that may or may not be suitable for low-clearance vehicles. 14’ers.com has the information you need to make sure your vehicle can make it to the trailhead.
6. Leave No Trace. The rise in popularity of climbing 14’ers has come at the expense of greater ecological impacts to the mountains we love. It is absolutely imperative to practice Leave No Trace when climbing a 14’er. This includes being prepared, staying on route and off of the fragile alpine tundra, packing out ALL waste, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors. Remember uphill hikers have the right of way (obviously use your judgment in more technical terrain). If you want to give back, consider donating to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, which helps protect Colorado’s 14’ers through stewardship and public education.
How to Choose Your First Colorado 14’er
Not all 14’ers are created equal. The different routes up a 14’er are ranked on a scale of 1 through 5, with routes getting progressively more difficult as you move through each class. Every 14’er can be climbed on a route that is between Class 1-Class 4. Many peaks also have alternate routes meant for more serious climbing and mountaineering.
Here is a breakdown of what to expect with each class according to 14’ers.com:
Class 1: Hiking on a trail.
Class 2: More difficult hiking that may require off-trail travel or the use of your hands for stability. Can include scree, talus, and loose rock. There’s a pretty wide range of difficulty, exposure, and terrain you may encounter on a class 2 route.
Class 3: Scrambling required. You must use your hands to navigate the terrain, which may have some exposure.
Class 4: Climbing required. You must use your hands and feet to climb up steep, exposed, terrain. Falls may be fatal in class 4 terrain.
Class 5: Technical rock climbing that requires the use of a rope and belay.
Keep in mind there is no such thing as an easy 14’er. Some routes are easier than others, but hiking up a 14,000+ ft. mountain is going to be physically taxing on your body. Every 14’er is classified as either a difficult or extremely difficult hike. The best first 14’er for you is going to depend on your personal fitness levels, outdoor experience, and hiking/climbing experience.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when choosing your first Colorado 14’er:
Where is the mountain located?
How do I get to the trailhead?
How long is the route?
What’s the total elevation gain?
What class is the route?
The Easiest 14’ers in Colorado
Remember, even the easiest 14’er is still considered a difficult hike. If you’re looking for a casual hike in the mountains, there are plenty of hiking trails at lower elevations that will still take you to epic views.
The most popular mountains for a first 14’er include: Handies Peak (Class 1), Quandary Peak (Class 1), Grays and Torreys Peaks (Class 1), Mt. Elbert (Class 1), Mt. Bierstadt (Class 2), and Mt. Sherman (Class 2). While Mt. Bierstadt and Mt. Sherman are classified as Class 2 peaks, the terrain isn’t very difficult. They’re also both on the shorter side, which is why many people choose them for their first 14’er in Colorado (Mt. Bierstadt was my first in 2016).
What to Pack to Climb a Colorado 14’er
Being unprepared in the mountains can have serious consequences, so it’s important to make sure that you carry the right gear to climb a 14’er. Keep in mind search & rescue in the mountains can take hours, and inclement weather can hinder rescue operations, so it’s important to be prepared to possibly spend the night in the event of an emergency.
- Backpack. Hiking pack recommendations are incredibly subjective. I personally use and love the Osprey Sirrus 24L. I think this is the perfect size for a 14’er because it allows you to pack everything you need and carry extra layers.
- Hiking boots or trail runners. The best hiking shoes to wear while climbing a 14’er is going to depend on personal preference. Traditional hiking boots or trail runners are both appropriate, as long as they have good traction!
- Water/water filter. Your body is going to lose water while climbing a 14’er faster than it normally would thanks to the altitude and intense physical exertion. Water sources vary depending on the trail and time of year, so it’s important to carry sufficient water on your hike (I recommend 3L) and carry a water filter as a backup.
- Extra snacks. It takes a lot of energy to climb a mountain. Plan to carry more snacks than you usually would on a hike and make sure that you fuel up before hitting the trail. My favorite snacks while climbing a 14’er include bagels with Justin’s maple almond butter, Go Macro bars, Cliff Builders bars, sour gummy worms, and Biena roasted chickpeas.
- Layers. Remember the summit of a 14’er is going to be colder than it was at the trailhead. You may also encounter stronger wind gusts thanks to the exposure. I recommend carrying and/or wearing a baselayer, midlayer, and outerlayer (like a puffy), along with a light windbreaker. You can always take layers off, but you don’t want to be stuck on a mountain without the proper attire!
- Headlamp. If you get an early enough start you’re going to find yourself hiking in the dark, making a headlamp essential. Even if you’re starting after sunrise it’s never a bad idea to carry a headlamp in case your hike takes longer than expected and keeps you out after dark.
- Sun protection. You will be extremely exposed to the sun when hiking above treeline, so wearing sun protection like a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen is essential. I also recommend wearing a sun shirt to help block even more UV rays. You can learn more about my favorite sun shirt here.
- Emergency shelter. Injuries that may require a hiker to spend an emergency night on the trail are not uncommon on a 14’er, so it’s important to carry an emergency bivy or space blanket to help you stay warm and comfortable during an emergency event.
- First-aid kit. A well stocked first-aid kit should always be in your pack as one of the 10 essentials, but while climbing a 14’er make sure you have moleskin, bandaids, and ibuprofen or Tylenol. Including a packet of electrolytes can also come in handy!
- Navigation. You can download maps for each 14’er on AllTrails, but keep in mind that they may not accurately reflect the actual route, especially for 14’ers with more technical terrain. I always recommend carrying a map & compass to help keep you on route, in addition to the route photos from 14’ers.com.
- Knife. A knife can come in handy for a variety of purposes on the trail from cutting up an apple to fixing your gear. Plus it’s one of the 10 essentials, so it’s a good item to keep in your pack!
- Emergency device. If you’re climbing a difficult 14’er or are heading to a remote area, carrying an emergency device like a Garmin inReach mini can be the difference between life and death. This will allow you to quickly contact emergency officials and provide them with the exact coordinates of your location in the event of an emergency.
- WAG Bag. Nature has a funny way of calling when you least expect it. Alpine tundra is not a suitable environment to dig a cathole for pooping. Not only does it damage sensitive terrain, but the soil lacks the bacteria necessary to break down human waste in a timely fashion. Always carry a WAG bag while climbing a 14’er so you can be prepared to pack out your waste if nature calls.
- *Helmet: If the route you’re climbing is Class 3 or above make sure to carry a climbing helmet to protect yourself from potential rockfall or injury.
- *Trekking poles: Trekking poles are optional but highly recommended to aid in momentum during your ascent and help your knees during your descent.
Interested in a first-hand experience from one of my favorite 14’ers? Check out my trip report from Redcloud Peak in the San Juans!
Have any questions about climbing a 14’er in Colorado? Let me know in the comments!