Among those who live on Colorado’s East Slope, Mount Bierstadt is one of maybe four 14,000-foot peaks that end up being their first to climb.
Its proximity to Denver, easy access and short, straightforward route make it an ideal introduction to the state’s high peaks – not too risky, but at 14,060 feet still a summit that requires some effort for the uninitiated.
For the experienced hikers and mountaineers, Bierstadt is a peak to be avoided during the summer months, as its heavily trafficked west slope trail attracts, quite literally, hundreds of people. Sure, you can go up the mountain’s more difficult east ridge, but you’ll be greeted by a sizable crowd at the summit. That’s a huge turnoff for some (though it can’t be quite as weird as the parking lot and gift shop at the top of Pikes Peak).
I can’t say this one was high on my list of mountains to hike or climb. But many times, it’s more about the company you keep than the mountain itself. Back in 2009, me and my two brothers, Mike and Steve, made the short trip from Breckenridge to one of the most well-trodden trails of all Colorado’s high summits.
This mountain is different from most of the ones I’ve hiked and climbed. The entire route is in view from the trailhead parking lot. The only greenery, aside from the alpine grasses, are thickets of low-lying willows (with a few trees here and there). Absent is the normal blanket of pines and aspen stands common throughout the rest of the Rockies.
You also lose elevation before starting to gain it again, dipping downhill from the parking lot before crossing a stream and heading up again.
Bierstadt’s west slopes used to be more arduous than they are now. Not too long ago, hikers were forced to slog their way through the marshy tangle of willow thickets low on the mountain for nearly a mile – easily the toughest part of the route, aside from the challenges of elevation higher up. All of that is circumvented by a convenient wooden plank walkway that keeps you above it all.
Once you cross Scott Gomer Creek, the uphill portion begins.
The incline is fairly gentle, mimicking the graceful sweep of the mountain’s west slopes. The trail, well-marked and maintained, is easy to follow and gives you an excellent view of the striking connecting ridge between Bierstadt and its taller neighbor, Mount Evans.
Evans is the centerpiece summit overlooking Denver, but here it’s that ridge – the Sawtooth Ridge – that inspires a bit of awe. It’s long, jagged and foreboding. Traversing the ridge is a rocky and exposed route that can make for a long day for climbers who chose to do it. The Sawtooth is seen as a bit of a test piece for people who seek to overcome fears of steep, towering drop-offs. Conquer the Sawtooth and bigger challenges beckon. Those who are exhilarated by it take the bait; those who are not chalk it up as an accomplishment and leave it at that.
The Sawtooth was not on our agenda that day, but it didn’t mean we wouldn’t be without a little fun. Even though we were ascending on a weekday, summer crowds were still pretty thick. We saw all sorts, including one guy hiking the route barefoot. I might have nicknamed him Frodo if he wasn’t so tall.
Eventually we made our way to the summit ridge, which had us doing a little boulder-hopping and the occasional scramble. I’m not sure why, but I find boulder-hopping and scrambling kinda fun, a sort of mental break from the constant one-foot-in-front-of-the-other that goes on for miles and miles on most walk-up peaks. I don’t have a problem with mountain hikes, it’s just that sometimes a change in terrain – and the methods used to go higher – add more to the experience.
On the summit we see more of Bierstadt’s wilder sides. There’s a bird’s-eye view of the Sawtooth, but also a great look at the mountain’s formidable east ridge and Point 13,641. (The east ridge is highly exposed Class 3, and for the more ambitious, there is a short Class 5 section going up the subpeak).
Aside from that, we had company. Dozens of people were up there, as were not just a few marmots and pikas looking to score a free meal from the peak’s visitors.
The folks up here weren’t much different than me and my brothers. Everyone I saw was with someone, making it an outing with friends and family. For us, this was a poignant time, as Steve was months away from a deployment and, unbeknownst to all of us at the time, a sort of last hurrah for Mike.
For the novice, Bierstadt is the goal and the prize. For others, it’s something else. For the three of us, it was about brotherhood in the truest sense. Leaving behind the lives we led in our hometowns in three different states, there we were – aged a bit, maybe not the picture of youthful vibrancy we once were. But this new experience, mixed with all those memories from childhood, made for the kind of stew that satisfies. The mountain was beautiful and memorable, but in this case, it was appreciated most of all for its ability to be a venue for some good times shared with a couple of dudes who just happen to be two of the most important people in my life.
Mount Bierstadt is a first for many and an afterthought for some. For me, it’s a place of importance.
GETTING THERE: If you’re coming from Denver on Interstate 70, take the Georgetown exit. Drive through Georgetown and follow the signs for the Guanella Pass Scenic Byway. Drive 12 miles to the top of Guanella Pass and park in one of the two large, paved parking areas on either side of the road. The Bierstadt trail starts near the parking area on the east side of the road.
ABOUT THE ROUTE: The early part of the route is mixed trail and wood plank walkways that go across a sizable patch of willows. They lead to a crossing at Scott Gomer Creek, which entails a little rock-hopping to get across dry. Continue following a well-maintained trail as it winds its way up the west slopes, eventually leading to a rockier approach to the summit ridge. From here, follow the summit ridge to the top. The route is classified Class 2 with very mild exposure; it’s about 7 miles round trip.
EXTRA CREDIT: From the summit, head down to the Sawtooth Ridge connecting Bierstadt and Mount Evans. Rated Class 3 with higher exposure. Or gain the summit via the east ridge, Class 3 with high exposure.
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