Longs Peak dominates the Estes Park and northern Colorado skyline with its 14,259 of elevation and its relentless beaver climbing to its summit. You can see Longs Peak from Denver and from the terminals at Denver International Airport.
While visiting Estes Park, many serious hikers plan on climbing the peak. And of course, many serious hikers come to Estes Park just to climb Longs Peak.
It’s an arduous climb that usually opens to nontechnical hikers the first week of August and runs into early September. Before tackling the big guy, smart hikers coming from lower elevations climb one or two smaller mountains to acclimate to the high altitude and to test lungs and legs. Good choices are the steady uphill climbs of Twin Sisters (3.4 miles with an altitude gain of 2,253 feet) and Flattop (4.4 miles with an altitude gain of 2,874 feet).
Climbing Longs Peak is a long, demanding trek, eight miles one way with an altitude gain of 4,859 feet. Follow these tips for a better chance of success:
- Prepare your backpack with food (cheese, crackers, energy bars, dried fruit and trail mix), water (bottles will do but hands-free hydration systems are better), rain poncho, hat, and medical kit. Also, consider a helmet and water filter.
- Sturdy boots are the choice over light footwear like tennis shoes.
- Start early so you are off the summit and below treeline before the afternoon storms roll in. That means a 3 a.m. start with a headlamp to light the trail.
The first part of the hike is a long, uphill walk through thick forest. Once you reach treeline, you are tired and drenched with sweat from the forced march, but the rising sun will perk up your spirits. Stop here for a snack to boost your energy for the tough climb before you. Next up is the Boulder Field, where you must hop boulders the size of Buicks. It takes agility and attention so watch your step.
At the Keyhole, the hike ends and the climb begins. The often howling wind in the Keyhole threatens to yank away your cap as you gaze at the spectacular view of Glacier Gorge and the Colorado Rockies spread out before you. The Keyhole is also a good checkpoint for a go-no-go safety decision. How is your team feeling? Does everyone have enough water? Is anyone suffering altitude sickness? Are storm clouds starting to build? If it’s necessary to turn back, know that reaching the Keyhole is an accomplishment in and of itself. Of course, Longs Peak will always be there for another summit attempt.
For those continuing to the summit, you enter a stretch known as the Ledges – a narrow path with steep drop-offs. Follow the bullseyes along the west side of Longs until you reach the Trough, a jumble of rocks and boulders that seem to take forever to climb. Be extra careful not to dislodge loose rocks that may tumble onto the hikers below. Wearing a helmet is a good idea.
At the top of the Trough, scramble over one last tough stretch to the Narrows. The drop off in the Narrows is astounding, and you’ll see a large black rock below affectionately dubbed, “the hearse.” At the base of the Homestretch, look up at the long expanse of flat rock that angles steeply to the summit. On hands and feet, follow one of the two parallel cracks to the top, a flat, rocky area about the size of a football field.
Sign the logbook, snap a photo, grab a snack and take in the 360-degree panorama of the plains and mountains in the distance. You can even see Pike’s Peak far to the south. If clouds are building, it’s time to start down before the lightning begins.
Longs Peak is a difficult, and often spiritual challenge. Do not underestimate it. The almost 5,000-foot elevation gain is a killer, especially for flatlanders. The path is narrow in places and the drop-offs are hundreds of feet. Longs has taken the lives of more than 60 hikers and climbers. But achieving a Longs Peak summit is an accomplishment that can never be take away or diminished. It will become a lifelong memory. And of course, it does qualify you to buy that “I Climbed Longs Peak” t-shirt you had your eye on in downtown Estes Park.
Written by Steve Mitchell