Whether you’re a Colorado local or just traveling through, here are some interesting tidbits about each mountain range in the Colorado Rockies. In this post, we’ll chat about any pertinent facts about each mountain range, along with noteworthy hikes and peaks.
Tips before heading to the mountains
If you’re heading to big mountains in the winter or spring –check an avalanche map! If you’re not trained at all in any sort of avalanche awareness or rescue – please, please, please just avoid high-risk avalanche areas. If you do want to get into backcountry skiing, or more remote snowmobiling and snowshoeing, take the recreational track of avalanche courses before heading out. It’s heartbreaking to keep seeing the reports of more and more people dying each week in avalanches in CO and throughout the west. Not that taking a course guarantees survival – but it greatly decreases your risk by helping you make informed decisions about where to go, how to better read snow conditions to identify risky areas, and what to do if you are near or in an avalanche.
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If you’re going in the late spring or summer, start training as much as you can – focus on both cardio and weight training. The more fit you are, chances are the better you’ll feel at elevation. If you’re a couch potato at home, you’re probably going to feel like even more of a couch potato at elevation. If you’re very active at home, you may feel slightly less active than usual up here, but you’ll still be able to do all the fun things 😉
Days before, load up on water + electrolytes. Be sure you are very well hydrated in the 2-3 days before your trip, the day of, and the day after traveling. This is key – adverse reactions to high elevation are generally triggered or exacerbated when dehydrated and it’s significantly harder to recover and rehydrate once that happens. If you aren’t sure you’re getting enough water, drinking half your body weight in ounces of water, plus clean electrolytes like Nuun or Ultima, is a good rule of thumb to follow for a typical day, if you’re working out or hiking hard – you may need even more water than that.
The day after traveling, be sure to eat something, even small meals or small snacks to keep your body up and running. Differences in elevation can play tricks on your gut and appetite, but not giving your body the fuel it needs won’t do you any favors.
Gradually work up to higher elevations if you can. For example instead of going from sea level to 10,000 ft in one day, see if you can plan your trip to spend a night or two at 5,000 ft first, then travel up to 10,000 ft.
Take it easy the first few days. It is kind of a bizarre feeling but your body may not be able to do the things you know it can do at lower elevations. You might be able to normally run a few miles with no problem, but here your muscles quickly fatigue and you can hardly catch your breath. It’s not your imagination and you’re not out of shape, it’s just the elevation. If you’re a very active person, doing some light activity like a short, easy hike or walk in the first few days at higher elevations to help your body adjust to the elevation more quickly. If you’ve been taking the winter off or haven’t been training as much as you’d like, take that first day or two very easy, I’d even consider them rest days – laze around your lodge, or hang out in town the first day or two – while staying hydrated to let your body adjust.
Be ready for any weather. It might be 70 and sunny in any given mountain town, but as soon as you start hiking up a couple of thousand feet the temperature can drop by 30 degrees or more, the trail still may be under snow, if you’re above treeline the winds are typically more extreme and can blow in hail and lightning storms at a moment’s notice. Many of the peaks where I live are still under snow well into the summer months, and anything below the peaks could be flooded out or stream crossings could be swift and dangerous from the snow melting off the mountains. I don’t mean to say that to scare you – we all should have a very healthy fear of the quickly changing weather and exposure at higher elevations. Be mentally prepared to turn around in unsafe conditions or conditions you don’t have the gear and clothing for.
Know the signs of altitude sickness, descend and get help immediately if you even suspect you, or anyone in your group is struggling. You can learn more about altitude sickness here.
Most of all, enjoy it! The majority of us don’t get to experience the thrill of that top-of-the-world feeling too often, so make the most of it while you’re out there, take a thousand pictures and selfies and take your time descending back down to lower elevations.
What Makes A Mountain A Mountain?
A ‘mountain’ is actually geologically defined as something that rises at least 1,000 feet above the surrounding land. It’s safe to say anything less than that is a ‘hill.’
What Makes A Mountain Range A Mountain Range?
A ‘mountain range’ is a series of mountains, closely connected by high ground and separated from other ranges by mountain passes, valleys or plains. The interesting thing is that the individual mountains within one range do not necessarily all have the same geologic structure or petrology – meaning they may not have all been formed the same way or from the same uplift and may likely include several different rock types.
The Sawatch Range, made up of massive, relatively gentle contoured mountains, got its name from the Ute word “sawup” meaning sand dunes. Stretching over 80 miles, it includes 8 of the 20 highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains, including Mt. Elbert, which is the highest at 14,440 feet, along with 14 other 14ers.
Noteworthy Hikes and Peaks In The Sawatch
La Plata Peak
Mount of the Holy Cross
The Collegiate Peaks and the Colorado Trail
The Collegiate Peaks is a series of peaks: Mounts Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Belford, and Oxford. The CO Trail also runs through this area and is one of my favorite sections! It’s hard to find a hiking trail in the Collegiate Peaks region that isn’t absolutely stunning and the surrounding mountain towns and hot springs are well worth the visit.
Sangre De Cristo Mountains
Named after the Spanish term “Blood of Christ,” the Sangres cover 242 miles of the southern most subrange of the Rocky Mountains. While not 100% confirmed, it is believed to have gotten it’s name from the dramatic shades of red that reflect off the mountains at sunrise, sunset and during alpenglow, especially when covered in snow.
Noteworthy Hikes and Peaks In The Sangres
Lakes Of The Clouds
Willow Lake Trail
Lower Sand Creek Lake Trail
San Juan Mountains
Located in the Colorado Mineral Belt, the San Juans, this region is well known for its mining history and ghost towns. Their high altitude plateaus and peaks (including 6 14ers) make them unique, even for Colorado. The San Juan Mountains were named by the Spanish for explorer Juan Maria Rivera.
Noteworthy Hikes and Peaks In The San Juans
San Luis Peak
Columbine Lake Trail
Crater Lake Trail
The Mosquito Range is about 40 miles long and includes 4 peaks over 14,000 feet. The story goes that the Mosquito Range got its name from Judge Wilber Stone, who couldn’t think of a name for his new mining company – until a mosquito landed on the incorporation paperwork and it became the Mosquito Mining Company, which later became the name for the entire range.
Noteworthy Hikes and Peaks In The Mosquito Range
The Front Range is the first mountain range you’ll bump into after traveling west over the Great Plains of North America and serves as a gateway to the Rocky Mountains. The Front Range possibly got its name from the Spanish word Frontera which means border or Frontier.
Noteworthy Hikes and Peaks In The Front Range
Grays and Torreys Peak
St. Mary’s Glacier
Located in west-central Colorado, the Elk Mountains are home to the popular Maroon Bells. Rich in silver and coal mining history, the Elk Mountains stretch over about 30 miles north to south.
Noteworthy Hikes and Peaks In The Elks
Four Pass Loop
This 77-mile long-range in north-central Colorado was named for Lord St. George Gore. Gore claimed to have killed over 2,000 buffalo, 1,600 elk and deer, and 100 bears purely for sport, leaving their bodies scattered across Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas.
In September 2020 a formal request was submitted to the national USGS Board of Geographic Names to change the name of the Gore Range to the Nuchu Range, which would not only take away George Gore’s honor and recognition but instead honor the Ute Indians who had been the true stewards and inhabitants of the range for thousands of years.
Noteworthy Hikes and Peaks In The Gore Range
Buffalo Mountain Loop
Rock Creek Loop
Pitkin Creek Trail
Medicine Bow Mountains
Running over 100 miles in northern Colorado, the Medicine Bow range has an interesting story behind its name. The widely accepted legend is that Native Americans found mountain mahogany in the area, which enabled them to craft exceptional bows and weapons. Tribes gathered there each year to make bows as well as perform medicinal healing ceremonies. The terms for making medicine and making bows eventually became so closely associated that they became Medicine Bow.
Noteworthy Hikes and Peaks In The Medicine Bow Mountains
Blue Lake Trail (on its own, or veer off-trail to Cameron Peak)
Ruby Jewel Trail (on its own, or veer off-trail to Clark Peak)
Devils Causeway Loop
The Flat Tops range is known for its unique topography with mountains rising out of a high elevation plateau which was formed by glaciers carving out steep valleys on either side. One of the most popular hikes and geological features is known as Devil’s Causeway, a narrow strip of land on the plateau, with several hundred foot drop offs on either side, where two eroding glaciers almost collided but remained separated by only a few feet of rock that’s still standing.
Noteworthy Hikes and Peaks In The Flat Tops
Devil’s Causeway Loop
Chinese Wall Trail
Trapper’s Lake Trail
Rabbit Ears Range
The Rabbit Ears Range, named after a rabbit-ear-like rock formation, isn’t nearly as glamorous or well-known as some of the surrounding ranges in north central Colorado, but there are a few things that make it unique. One being that the mountain range itself runs east to west instead of north to south, and second, some of its prominent peaks require climbing skills and technical gear to ascend even their easiest routes.
Noteworthy Hikes and Peaks In The Rabbit Ears
The Continental Divide Trail (hike to Parkview Mountain at least, farther if you wish!)
This 40 mile long range in north western Colorado includes greatly varying terrain that stretches into Wyoming. Some peaks in the Park Range seem like rolling hills while others are steep or even technical climbs.
Noteworthy Hikes and Peaks In The Park Range
Gold Creek Lake Trail
Mount Zirkel (take Gold Creek Trail to this Red Dirt Pass to Mount Zirkel)
White River Plateau
Also known as the White River Uplift, this unique mountain range is roughly circular. The White River Plateau Timberland Reserve was the first official reserve designated in Colorado and second in the US, covering 1.1 million acres, although its boundaries were shrunk years later.
Noteworthy Hikes and Peaks In The White River Plateau or White River National Forest
Four Pass Loop (no parking at trailhead, parking and shuttle reservations seem tricky)
Conundrum Hot Springs
A mesa is a large, flat-topped hill or ridge, held up on all sides by steep drop offs and surrounded by distinct plains. Grand Mesa located in western Colorado is home to the largest flat topped mountain the world and rises 6,000 feet above the surrounding valleys. The top of the mesa is sprinkled with over 300 lakes and reservoirs, many of which are used for drinking and irrigation water.
Noteworthy Hikes and Peaks In Grand Mesa
Grand Mesa Crag Crest Loop
Flowing Park Loop
Palisade Rim Trail
Named after the Laramie River, the Laramie Mountains begin in northern Colorado and extend into Wyoming, some sources show the Laramie range to only be in Wyoming. They have also given their name to the Laramide orogeny – which is the period of time, approximately 70 million years ago that created the uplift that is now known as the Rocky Mountains.
Noteworthy Hikes and Peaks In The Laramie Mountains
Medicine Bow Peak (honorable mention in Wyoming)
Crater Lake Trail
Named after the Ute word for ‘dirty water’ or ‘rocks that make the water red,’ the Uncompahgre Plateau is a distinct uplift of the Colorado Plateau in western Colorado. Averaging about 9,500 feet in elevation, the large mesa is broken up by large canyons which include tributaries to the Colorado River.
Noteworthy Hikes and Peaks In The Uncompahgre
Long Draw Gulch
Bridal Veil Falls
This small mountain range in the southwest corner of Colorado is often identified as one large mountain, also known as Sleeping Ute Mountain. The range lies on the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Reservation and still plays a role in their ceremonies. Outside of Mesa Verde National Park, this means that recreational access to the range is severely restricted.
For more Colorado hiking trails, check out some of our favorites:
- Backpacking The East Inlet Trail In Grand Lake, CO
- Bowen Lake Trail In Grand Lake, CO
- Hiking Columbine Lake In Fraser, CO
- How To Hike The Manitou Incline
About the author, Mallory Moskowitz:
After studying Recreation, Park & Tourism Management, Mallory spent several years teaching environmental education, guiding hikes, and leading backcountry trips. Her life-changing trek from Georgia to New York on the Appalachian Trail is what sparked the creation of Your Adventure Coach, to share backpacking tips and resources with as many new hikers as possible.