When you live in or travel to Colorado, it doesn’t take long until you hear people talk about hiking a “14er”.
When I first heard it I had to immediately ask, “What’s a Colorado 14er?”
A “14er” is a mountain peak 14,000 feet above sea level. In Colorado, there are 53 peaks rising above 14,000 feet and higher! The peaks range from do-able hikes to tough technical climbs.
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While most of my day hikes are around Fort Collins, hiking a 14er is a special experience. I try to check off three new 14ers every summer, and you should absolutely give a 14er a try too!
You’ll see some of the most incredible views Colorado has to offer. Not to mention, there’s a great sense of pride knowing you hiked one of the highest mountains in the country.
Before you tackle your first 14er, learn a few tips that will make it a better, safer hike. Follow these 8 tips when you hike your first Colorado 14er.
1. Choose an Easy 14er for Your First Hike
First, do your research and pick a peak that’s appropriate for your skill level. Many of Colorado’s 14ers involve technical climbing or rugged trails.
The easier 14ers to start with are 7-9 miles long round trip and climb about 3,000 feet in elevation.
There are 4 peaks that are great entry points: Bierstadt, Grays, Quandary, and Elbert.
These 4 are also accessible from Colorado’s front-range. You can drive to them from Denver in 1.5 to 3 hours.
Mount Bierstadt is considered by many to be Colorado’s easiest 14er. It’s 7 miles round trip and you’ll climb 2,850 feet in elevation. There’s a few steep sections, but for the most part it’s a gentle climb.
If you’re feeling ambitious, Mt. Elbert is the highest of Colorado’s 14er, reaching 14,433 feet. And it’s still a very do-able 14er to start with too.
To plan your hike, check out 14ers.com for trail conditions and maps.
Summit of Mt. Elbert
2. Leave Early in the A.M.
This is perhaps the most important piece of advice here – leave early! If you can, leave before the sun rises. At the latest, don’t leave past 9am.
You must be off the summit by lunch! Plan your departure time according to your skill level and how quickly you’ll be able to reach the summit.
Colorado weather is unpredictable at high-altitude. Even if the forecast say you’ll have clear weather all day, expect storms on the mountain tops in the afternoon.
Storms roll in and you’re above tree-line. Being the highest point around in a storm isn’t a good idea. Every year people get hit by lightning because they don’t take the storms seriously.
3. Bring Plenty of Water
It may seem obvious to bring water on a hike, but water is crucial to summit a 14er, especially if you aren’t used to high altitudes.
At higher altitudes the air is drier, so you will need more water than your typical hike.
Bring at least 3 liters of water when hiking a 14er. (A typical Nalgene is 1 liter, so that isn’t enough!)
The symptoms of dehydration and altitude sickness are similar. You also need to stay hydrated so that you can differentiate between the two. Know the symptoms of altitude sickness, so you can turn back if it comes on.
Hiking Gray’s Peak
4. Sunscreen is a Must
Once again, you need to be prepared for the elevation.
At 14,000 feet the sun is much stronger. You’re also above treeline for most of the hikes, so there won’t be any shade. The treeline in Colorado is typically between 11,000 and 12,000 feet. Hikes like Gray’s Peak is entirely above the treeline, leaving your exposed for the whole hike.
5. Bring Extra Layers
When you start off early in the morning, it will be chilly. The sun will quickly heat up the trail and you’ll be sweating from the effort! By the time you’re at the summit, it will be windy and you’ll be cold again because of the sweat moisture on your clothes.
This is how every 14er trek has gone for me – cold, then hot, then cold again. Be sure to bring layers.
I also always bring a rain jacket (even if the forecast predicts clear skies.) As I mentioned above, weather on a 14er is unpredictable. You may have some showers during your descent.
6. Take Snack Breaks Frequently
If you need a break, take it.
Pacing yourself is the key to getting to the top. Bring plenty of snacks that you can eat on the go. I recommend trail mix, jerky, or other no-cook backpacking meals.
Hiking a 14er is tough, and you need to keep up your energy.
7. Push Past that Initial Mile
The first mile or two is always the hardest. It’s early. You’re cold. You’re likely already out of breath from the altitude. And the car is right there! It would be so easy to turn around…
But keep pushing past the first mile! Once you’ve tackled that first mile, the motivation to reach the summit really kicks in. Take breaks as you need them, but keep on continuing forward.
8. Enjoy the views
Last, but certainly not least, enjoy the summit! Give your fellow hikers a high-five, take some photographs, and then sit back and enjoy the views.
As a final reminder – leave early enough so that you also give yourself enough time to enjoy the summit.
The views at 14,000 feet are stunning. And you’ve earned it!
Summit of Grey’s Peak
About the author:
Rebecca Bowden is an adventurer & foodie. She writes about her culinary and backpacking adventures at The Backcountry Kitchen. She’s based in Fort Collins, CO. During the winter you can expect to find her skiing and during the summer she’s camping and hiking. She pretty much tries to be in the mountains as much as she can!