The difficulty of the jumbled rock-piled trail escaped my mind as my body tried to inhale as much oxygen as possible at an elevation of 13,000 feet. The sun rose an hour ago and the air felt slightly warmer than in the beginning of our hike at 2 a.m. Even for the middle of August, we are lucky to have had prepared for the freezing temperatures. Only 1,000 more feet till the summit but the dangerously steep (and icy) incline slowed my pace just a tad. I find myself perched on one of Colorado’s most iconic 14ers, Longs Peak. Recognizable from Denver, Longs Peak soars to 14,259 feet.
14er =a mountain 14,000 feet (or above)
With a variety of different routes offered to bag this bucket-list beauty, Longs Peak draws attention to hikers and climbers alike. We decided to take the Keyhole Route, one of the most popular trails to reach the summit of Longs. Being some of the first people to reach the summit that day, we stepped onto the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park at 7 a.m., greeted with a sunny and clear view.
The sun beamed brightly at the summit giving the perfect opportunity to reveal a 360 view: the snow-capped depths of the Rockies to the west and the front range of Colorado with a clear view of Fort Collin’s Horsetooth Mountain seen from the east.
At the heart of every true Coloradan is a 14,000 foot mountain. Summiting a 14er, especially a scrambler like Longs Peak, deserves boasting. However, Longs Peak is not a beginner hike. Caution should be taken for the trail features steep pitches, narrow drop offs, climbing and scrambling all while handling the oxygen deprived air like a champ.
South of Estes Park, Longs Peak is located in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Rocky Mountain National Park is northwest of Denver.
Although snow and ice conditions can arise any year on the Keyhole Route, the summer months of June, July and August are the most recommended times to summit Longs Peak. Do be prepared for inclement weather such as lightening, hail, rain, snow, icy patches, and cold.
Longs Peak is not a day hike spanning a few hours. Round trip, the hike will take from 9-12 hours depending on your speed, weather, and trail conditions. The best way to approach Long’s Mountain would be to camp the night before the hike to the summit. Camping will allow you to adjust to the higher elevation and promise an early enough start for the hike.
Since Colorado in the summer promises rain showers nearly every afternoon, an early hike is the only way to approach Long’s Peak to see a clear summit view and avoid the weather which turns the trail into a very dangerous endeavor.
Be prepared to start hiking at 2 a.m.
For such an early start, camp at the Longs Peak campground ($20) or the Meeker campground ($11). The Longs Peak campground is first come, first serve. If you do not arrive early enough to find a spot in the Longs Peak campground , Meeker campground is two miles away.
The trailhead is near Longs Peak campground.
Also recommended: There are backcountry campsites half way up the Keyhole route at the boulder field. You could camp the night before at the boulder field and be closer to the summit allowing you to start later. You must purchase a backcountry permit and hike your gear and supplies up.
WHAT TO BRING:
This list is for those not backcountry camping. Since you will start at 2 a.m., a head lamp is essential for nearly four hours of your hike. The only water found along the trail is in the lower elevation. No water is found after you pass the Keyhole. Since temperatures on the summit can be around freezing, do dress for warmth. The Keyhole route should be approached with proper footwear such as hiking shoes or boots.
Food-breakfast, lunch, snacks
First aid-Band-Aids, ibuprofen, hand sanitizer
Beanie & Gloves
KEY HOLE ROUTE
Elevation gain: 5,100 feet
Mileage (one way): 7.5 miles
The Keyhole Route begins on a steady incline with switchbacks. The first part of this trail is simple enough to complete in the dark. Within two hours you should reach above alpine but the switchbacks do continue. The trail will become rockier as you reach the boulder field.
The trail becomes rockier and eventually no longer exists as you follow cairn rock piles up and around different sizes of boulders. The sun should be rising and the keyhole becomes more apparent.
The Keyhole connects the boulder field to the narrows. Crossing over the keyhole puts you on a trail with a beautiful view of the west. The trail is now ‘blazed’ with a yellow and red bullseye. The trail is difficult and will remain difficult until the summit. Expect scrambling and light climbing. You are now 1.5-2.5 hours away from the summit depending on your speed.
The Narrows should be approached with extreme caution. The Narrows squeeze you through tight and dangerous spots with a very steep drop off. Take your time and watch for ice on the trail.
The 20 feet up to the summit is steep. Examine the right route for your body and skill. The top of Longs Peak is a relatively flat plain made of different size boulders. Make sure to take a picture with the sign which is found in a metal tube underneath the highest boulder on the summit.
Always check the weather: The most important aspect of your planning for the trail is to always check the weather. Hiking in bad weather ruins a wonderful experience.
Drink water: In the high altitude, water evaporates quickly from your body. Drink water often.
Bring food and eat it: Do not forget to eat.
Leave early: If you leave later than 6 a.m. from the trailhead, you will most likely not reach the summit.
Know the odds: Only 50% of hikers who attempt Longs Peak actually complete it. The reasons behind those who turned back are from lack of preparation, unknowledgeable about the trail and its difficultly, unprepared for weather, or left too late.
Account for coming down: Do account time, water, energy, and food for the hike down.
Hike your own hike: Do not get discourage if others pass you. Be courteous and allow faster traffic to go ahead. Hike your own hike and you will reach the summit when you reach the summit.
Find a route for you: Since half of the Keyhole Route is scrambling which is marked by bullseyes on boulders instead of defined by a walking path, evaluate certain routes for your body type. For example, a route for a six foot man might be different for a five foot girl.
If you are not physically prepared for the summit of this 14er, do keep in mind that Colorado has a variety of 14ers catered to the beginner or intermediate hiker.
Check out THIS source for 14ers for beginners
Check out THIS source for other trails in Rocky Mountain National Park
Photos by Madison Dragna of CollectiveLifestyle.com