Throughout the Rockies of Colorado, there are nearly 700 peaks that rise over 13,000 feet. No other state in the country comes close to that, at least not in sheer volume.
Among that number are 58 summits topping 14,000 feet, again, unique to Colorado. In this mix are mountains that run the gamut: large, hulking lumps, craggy, vertical spires and behemoth peaks that dominate the surrounding landscape. Some are hikes, requiring only a strong set of legs and lungs to reach the top. Others play harder to get, if you get my drift.
Pikes Peak is probably Colorado’s most famous, towering over Colorado Springs and visible from Denver. Mount Evans is the centerpiece of the Rocky Mountain skyline from Colorado’s capital city, its distinct concave bowl easily discerned. And back in the day, Mount of the Holy Cross had special allure: Its cross-shaped couloir became the desired sight of many travelers, and the subject of numerous painters’ canvasses. Mount Elbert rises gently over Twin Lakes and Leadville, the state’s highest point and the second-loftiest peak in the contiguous 48 states. Capitol Peak is known as the toughest of the state’s highest 58.
All of these and more have their own claims to fame. But if I were to pick one to rule them all, it wouldn’t be Colorado’s most famous, highest or whatnot. I’d pick one that could take the same place that Rainier has in Washington, dubbed simply as “the mountain” by those in the Upper Left. If you had to pick one in Colorado to get that designation, it would have to be Longs Peak. Let me make my case.
Longs Peak, at 14,255 feet, isn’t even the highest in the Front Range, though its bulk sets it apart from its three higher siblings to the south. It’s visible from Denver, the centerpiece of Rocky Mountain National Park, and to borrow some terminology from a friend I know, it’s one burly mountain.
Because of its proximity to a number of east slope cities (and being smack in the middle of a widely visited national park), more people attempt to climb it than almost any other peak in the state. A paved road takes you to the trailhead. But Longs’ proximity and accessibility belie its challenge: About 50 percent who try don’t reach the top.
Longs also has a reputation for risk. More fatalities have occurred on Longs Peak than any other in Colorado, about 60 at last count. There are plenty of stories about people getting injured, lost or otherwise stranded on the mountain, underestimating its difficulty or getting marooned by bad weather that can pounce much more quickly than most realize. Longs Peak was named by Outside Magazine as one of the 20 most dangerous hikes in the world.
The route to the top is lengthy, no matter which one you choose. At a minimum, expect at least 14 miles of hiking and climbing to get to the top. And getting to the top, even by its easiest route, is still a significant undertaking –much more so than most of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks. A lengthy hike takes you to a rugged and taxing place called the Boulder Field, a rock-hopping, joint-jarring and awkward ascent to a feature in a ridge called the Keyhole, which serves as a gateway to another mile of narrow traverses, steep climbs and airy drop-offs for the final 1,000 feet or so of the ascent.
The mountain’s other routes are a tad shorter, but more steep, more exposed, and more dangerous: the steep and often snowy Loft route by Chasm Lake, and, at its most difficult, a vertical, multi-pitch rock climb up Longs’ most recognizable feature, the Diamond, a sheer wall as high as most skyscrapers in America.
There are other ways to the top — none as hard as a trip up the Diamond, but all difficult nonetheless. No matter which you choose, count on giving yourself a lot of time: Most people start the hike around 2 a.m.
These facts are all well and good, but for me it goes beyond that. Longs Peak has to be seen and experienced in a more personal way. You’ve got to see the huge summit block at sunrise, and gaze on the dark, forbidding rock that towers overhead. You have to absorb its scale, and that of the features that make it distinct — the Diamond’s imposing wall, the twisted tower of the Ship’s Prow, the dark outline of nearby Mount Meeker, a daunting peak in its own right.
You need to feel the blast of wind that greets you at the Keyhole (if that’s the route you choose) and marvel at the swirl of clouds that rushes by.
I am by no means an expert mountaineer, but in 12 years of bagging peaks I can say that I’ve never seen a more dramatic, more muscular peak in Colorado than Longs Peak. It embodies everything that its kin scattered across the state possess — sweeping, wooded slopes, vertical rock spires, imposing cliffs and dizzying heights. It’s everything that any 14er in the state is, but more of it.
And I might add, it’s beautiful, particularly up close when the rays of the morning sun bounce off the summit.
Many will rightly note that there are more than a few mountains that are more difficult, and certainly several are higher. But when you add up everything that makes Longs Peak what it is, I think it goes beyond being the monarch of Rocky Mountain National Park. Crown it the state’s king. It’s Colorado’s Rainier.
It’s The Mountain.
Got another take on this? Or a good story of your own from Longs Peak? Let’s hear about it in the comments, and be sure to take the poll.