Due to its close proximity to the Denver metro area, as well as its location within Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak is the most frequently climbed of all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot summits. However, attaining the summit of Longs presents a daunting challenge that often catches inexperienced climbers off guard.
Every year, people run into trouble on Longs Peak’s standard route due to a combination of the length of the trail, the technical challenges, and the high elevation weather. But those who come prepared will discover that climbing Longs Peak can be an amazing experience.
The standard route to the summit of Longs is known as the Keyhole Route, which covers about 7.5 miles (one way) and 4,855 feet of elevation gain. The final 1.5 miles of the route are considered Class 3, indicating that handholds and footholds on the rocks are needed to “scramble” at times, but never to the extent that the use of ropes and technical climbing gear are necessary (assuming the trail is dry).
The best time of year to climb Longs Peak is typically from July through September, when the route is most likely to be completely snow free. However, this varies from year to year, depending on both the previous winter’s snowpack as well as the first significant snow event of the fall.
As is the case throughout the central Rockies, thunderstorms are the most notable hazards on Longs Peak during the summer. When the summer monsoon season kicks off across the Rockies, as plumes of moisture stream northward from Mexico, thunderstorms can be expected after noon nearly every day, and sometimes earlier during active periods.
Longs Peak is an especially prominent and exposed mountain, so an early start is necessary to ensure that you reach the summit and can descend below the exposed sections early enough to avoid the thunderstorms. Lightning is obviously a major threat on Longs, but what many fail to realize is that slippery rocks resulting from heavy rain present just as much of a danger as lightning during storms.
As a result of the aforementioned hazards, a reasonably fit hiker should aim to start hiking between 2-3 a.m., with the goal of summiting by 9 a.m. (or at the very least, no later than 10 a.m.). As far as gear and clothing is concerned, you will need to bring plenty of water (about three liters), extra layers of clothing, including a jacket and ski hat, a sturdy pair of gloves (Petzl makes excellent leather climbing gloves), a climbing helmet, a headlamp, sunglasses, sunscreen, and a pair of trail shoes or boots with good traction.
Begin your hike at the Longs Peak Trailhead, which is located south of Estes Park on the border of Rocky Mountain National Park (you do not need a park pass to access this trailhead). This trailhead is relatively small and fills up quickly, which is another reason to start hiking very early in the morning.
The well-marked trail steadily gains elevation as it switchbacks through a forest of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir, before reaching treeline above 11,000 feet in elevation (about 2.5 miles into the hike). Upon reaching treeline, the trail continues a steady, but gradual ascent until reaching the Boulderfield at six miles. As you hike above treeline in the dark, admire the views of the Front Range city lights far below you, and the star-filled sky above you.
The aptly named Boulderfield sits at an elevation of about 12,600 feet, and is located just below the daunting north face of Longs Peak. It is actually a designated backcountry camping area, which is quite popular with Longs Peak climbers. While this presents an option for a two-day trip with a shorter summit day, keep in mind that the Boulderfield is typically very windy and also exposed to thunderstorms, which sometimes occur at night.
Upon leaving the Boulderfield, the route is no longer considered a hike, but instead a climb. You’ll boulder-hop a short distance to a saddle on Longs Peak known as the Keyhole (the shape of the rock resembles a keyhole). The Keyhole is a wind tunnel and is typically very blustery, but don’t be discouraged as the winds usually calm once you move past this area. When you cross through the keyhole, you will emerge onto the backside of Longs Peak, where you’ll be greeted with amazing views of the Glacier Gorge area of Rocky Mountain National Park.
This is the point where the route becomes a Class 3 scramble, but fortunately the granite you will be scrambling on is very solid, unlike the crumbly rock that is found in some of Colorado’s mountain ranges. Also, due to the popularity of the route, the National Park Service has marked the route with bulls-eye paintings on the rocks, so the route-finding is very straight-forward as a result.
First, you will scramble along the side of the mountain across a section known as “The Ledges”, where elevation gain is minimal. Next, you will arrive at a steeper gully, known as “The Trough”. This is the toughest part of the climb, since you gain a significant amount of elevation over a short distance. You will encounter some loose rock in The Trough, so be careful not to kick down rocks onto climbers below you, while also being aware of climbers above you who could knock down rocks (this is why it’s a good idea to wear a climbing helmet).
Once you reach the top of The Trough, you will cross through another notch and enter the next section, known as “The Narrows”. This section involves a traverse across a steep ledge with exhilarating exposure. The Narrows will mentally test anyone with a fear of heights, but fortunately the route across these ledges is relatively short and straight-forward, and the rock quality is exceptional.
After crossing The Narrows, you’ll reach the final section of the climb known as “The Homestretch”. From here, you will scramble up a section of “slabby” rock, where you will want to take advantage of the numerous handholds and footholds available. Once you reach the top of The Homestrech, you will emerge onto the flat, expansive summit of Longs Peak.
If you arrive early enough and the weather is good, the summit is an amazing place to spend some time on. To the east, you can look out onto the Great Plains, to the north and west, you’ll have views of the many craggy peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, and to the south, the Wild Basin area, the Indian Peaks, Mt. Evans, and even Pikes Peak, 106 miles away!
On the summit, you’ll also have a bird’s eye view of the weather conditions, and will be able to determine whether or not there are storms brewing in the area. Look for vertical growth in the clouds, and remember that you have a long climb down before you are out of harm’s way. The down-climb from the summit to the Boulderfield will take just as long if not a little longer than it took you to climb up.
The Keyhole Route on Longs Peak is a great introduction to Class 3 scrambling for those who have climbed some “easier” Fourteeners (i.e. 14,000-foot mountains), but want to step the difficulty level up. For the well-seasoned mountaineer, Longs Peak presents numerous opportunities for more adventurous routes.
The Loft route is an excellent, lesser-traveled Class 3 route to the summit, which also offers access to neighboring Mt. Meeker, which stands just barely below 14,000 feet. For snow climbers and ski mountaineers, Kiener’s Route and the Lambslide Couloir are excellent options, and when snow conditions are just right, even the North Face has been skied by the more hardcore mountaineers. For technical rock climbers, the North Face offers a fine alpine route, and of course, the world-renowned Diamond face is an absolute classic for well-seasoned rock climbers.
Whether you are new to mountaineering or very experienced, Longs Peak is a beautiful mountain that offers a wide array of options for attaining its summit. But one must always keep in mind that it is a serious, high altitude mountain that should not be taken lightly by those who climb it.