If you’re new to Boulder or just new to hiking, you might be wondering what a 14er is and why there’s so much buzz about them. Simply put, a 14er is any peak with a summit above 14,000 feet. In order to be officially ranked, the peak must also rise at least 300 feet above the saddle of the nearest 14er. Our fair state is home to a whopping 54 official 14ers (or 58 if you include the unranked peaks).
Colorado’s 14ers offer a uniquely epic challenge that many hikers are eager to tackle. Physical exertion at high altitude? Check. Extreme terrain and unpredictable weather? Check. Unparalleled 360-degree views of the Rocky Mountains? Check and mate.
While some 14ers require technical skills and serious gear, many are simple walk-ups (Class 1 or 2) requiring little more than trail shoes and the will to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Here in Boulder, we’re fortunate to have several of these “beginner 14ers” within a 2-hour drive. So what’s holding you back from bagging your first 14,000-foot peak?
As the saying goes, if you can walk, you can hike. And if you can walk uphill for a really long time at altitude, then you can hike a 14er. Assuming you put in the training, of course. Luckily for us, Boulder is one of the best training grounds in the world. With 150 miles of trails and 5 summits right in town, you’ll be ready to go in no time. Read on for the Boulderite’s guide to hiking your first 14er.
Step 1: Gear Up
You won’t need an ice axe or climbing helmet for a beginner 14er, but you will need a few basics to keep yourself comfortable and safe out there. Here’s a list of what to wear and what to pack.
- Trail runners or hiking boots (speak with an expert at Neptune Mountaineering or REI if you need guidance)
- Day pack with hydration system
- Trekking poles
- Warm layers plus hat and gloves (yes, even in the summer!)
- Extra pair of socks
- Headlamp (for those pre-sunrise starts)
- Foot traction may be needed – check conditions ahead of time
- Plenty of food and water
- Cell phone and charger
- Knife or multi-purpose tool
- Toilet paper and plastic baggies
- First aid kit
- Navigation tools such as compass, GPS, map, trail apps, etc.
Step 2: Train Well
With its sweeping summits and challenging trails, Boulder is the perfect place for any aspiring peak bagger. If you’re brand new to hiking, you’ll want to spend a couple months building your foundation. Open Space and Mountain Park’s interactive map along with their detailed trail listings can help you find easy to moderate trails to cut your teeth on. Once you’ve established your base, then it’s time to kick it into gear.
Not surprisingly, the best way to train for bagging peaks is to actually bag some peaks. Boulder is home to five unique mountains. From north to south, they go from shortest to tallest and easiest to most difficult. With this range of difficulty and a wide variety of trails, the perfect 14er training schedule is as easy as 1, 2, 3… and 4… and 5.
Begin by mastering the challenging “non-summit” trails. These trails might not take you to a mountaintop, but they’ll get your legs moving and your heart pumping. Royal Arch, the 1st/2nd Flatiron Trail, and Saddle Rock fit the bill nicely. With those under your belt, it’s time for the summits.
Mount Sanitas is first on the list. And though she be little, she is fierce. Clocking in at 6,862 feet of elevation, the Sanitas summit is less than 1.5 miles from the trailhead but it’ll cost you 1,300 feet of elevation gain. The short length combined with close proximity to town makes it a great training summit. Once you get comfortable with it, try doing two or even three loops.
From here, continue south to Boulder’s 4th highest peak, Flagstaff Mountain (7,283 feet). Flagstaff doesn’t get a lot of recognition because the true summit is unmarked and a road intersects the trail multiple times, but that just means fewer crowds and more fun for you. It’s a longer route than Sanitas but a little less steep.
Once you’ve got Sanitas and Flagstaff under your belt, it’s time for the biggies. Enter Green Mountain (8,144 feet), Bear Peak (8,461 feet), and South Boulder Peak (8,549 feet). These peaks can be summited singularly or in a variety of combinations. Bear Peak, in particular, is extremely well suited for training because its length and elevation are the same or even tougher than many 14ers. Fern Canyon Trail, the most popular way to summit Bear, is actually steeper than most beginner 14ers. If you can tame the beast that is Bear Peak, you’ll be ready for the high country.
As you work your way through Boulder’s summits, be sure to alternate your tough climbs with easier recovery hikes. And take those rest days, because you’ve earned them. Once you’ve gotten through Boulder’s most badass trails, it’s time to bag a 14er.
Step 3: Choose Wisely
In the age of the Internet, information abounds and 14ers.com is the official hub for all things 14er-related. If you’re into actual paper, then grab a copy of Gerry Roach’s iconic book “Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs.”
For your first 14er, you’ll want to choose something that is accessible. That is to say, accessible from a fitness perspective but also from a geographic perspective.
The most common beginner 14ers, and for good reason, are Grays Peak, Torreys Peak, Mount Bierstadt, and Quandary Peak. If you’re willing and able to drive even further, there are countless other options.
Step 4: Go Get It
You’ve got your bag packed, you’ve put in the training, and you’ve selected your target. Now it’s time to pick a date and get after it.
Start your hike early. Not only does parking fill up quickly at these trailheads, but the #1 rule of 14ers is this: Plan to be BELOW tree line by 1:00 pm the latest. That means summiting before noon so you have plenty of time to beat the afternoon thunderstorms. Lightning is a real thing and it kills people, especially above tree line where there is no cover, so please do not take this lightly.
Be flexible. If the forecast for your 14er date starts looking abysmal, or if the weather turns while you’re out on the trail, just nix it. Turn around. Reschedule it. The mountain will always be there.
When you finally reach that summit, enjoy it. Have some lunch. Take plenty of photos. Bring a summit sign, but be sure to take it with you (along with everything else) when you depart. Adhering to Leave No Trace is critical to everyone’s enjoyment of these peaks for generations to come. And congrats!
Happy 14,000-foot trails, Boulderites!