by Fletcher McDonald

The Trailhead is a multipart series on hiking from beginner to intermediate and focuses on preparation, sharing experiences, and enjoying the outdoors. 

See the other articles below:
#1: Starting Somehow, Somewhere
#2: Beginning to Intermediate
#3: Buying Hiking Boots
#4: Going the Distance
#5: 14,000 Feet Above the Sea

You’ve read the above articles (you have read my previous articles, haven’t you?), and you feel like you’re up for a challenge. What is the toughest thing you could do as far as hiking in Colorado? The Colorado Trail comes to mind, roughly 500 miles of mountain trails.

You read that right, and for that same reason, we aren’t going to be talking about that.

(Ain’t nobody got time for that!)

We’ll talk about fourteeners instead, since Colorado’s sweet little portion of the Rockies has a whopping fifty-three of the total ninety-three fourteeners in the United States (over half!). You can hike a fourteener in a day, so an easy fourteener is easy to do on a weekend (Saturday is much better than Sunday – you will want to rest on Sunday). I’m emphasizing easy for a reason – with ninety-three different fourteeners, and multiple routes to the top of each, some are harder than others. Don’t worry about this right now; I’ve got you covered 😉

Hiking a fourteener is similar to hiking a longer trail, and even can be the same or shorter in total distance traveled. For example, hiking to Conundrum Hot Springs (11,200 ft.) is a round trip of seventeen miles, one of the routes for Mount of the Holy Cross (14,005 ft.) is a round trip of fifteen miles, while hiking both Gray’s and Torrey’s (14,270 ft.) is only 8.5 miles total.

The general difference lies in total elevation gain and elevation gain over distance. Again, some boring and basic math; for Conundrum Hot Springs, approx. 3,000 ft. of elevation gain over seventeen miles for almost 200 ft. of elevation gain/mile (3,000 ft/17.0 miles = 176 ft./mile). In contrast,  Grays and Torreys combine for a total elevation gain of 3,600 ft. over 8.5 miles. This is more elevation gain over half the distance, and more than twice the elevation gain/mile (3,600ft/8.5 miles = 424 ft/mile). Twice the elevation gain, and this doesn’t include the descent and gain on the traverse between the two peaks.

Many fourteeners maintain a snowcap into midsummer. 

Simply put, a fourteener is harder. It is harder by virtue of two things; generally increased elevation gain (it is steeper, or a higher grade) and ends at a higher altitude.

For the increased grade, there isn’t much you can do besides hit a stair master. Do it – you had better start now.

*cracks whip*

For the altitude, there are a few things; take frequent breaks, stay hydrated, and be mindful of altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, with a usually slow, twenty-four hour onset, but sometimes between eight to ninety-six hours. See more here. There are severe symptoms, like loss of balance – which can affect you profoundly if you’re hiking on something like a mountain made of mostly rock without nearby medical facilities available.

However, this shouldn’t be confused with the plain conditions of being at high altitude; you’ll get tired quicker, it’ll be harder to catch your breath, and you may experience headaches from dehydration.

For all of these reasons, hiking with a partner and taking breaks to drink water or otherwise rehydrate are good choices to make when attempting such a long and usually difficult hike.

For hiking in general, but especially at altitude, make sure you dress appropriately. The majority of a fourteener is above the tree line; if it is windy, you’ll feel it; make sure you bring layers. Since you’re closer to the sun and there’s less atmosphere to absorb harmful rays, bring and use sunscreen (make sure to reapply it frequently!). Check the forecast the night before; get an early start, and if bad weather rolls in (usually around noon or soon after in the Rocky Mountains), consider calling it a day. Rain and lightning or even snow, later in the season, can make your day miserable if you aren’t prepared.

In short, take food and water; make sure you get a good night’s rest; make sure you and any hiking companions are hydrated and dressed for any conditions that may arise – and I do recommend you bring a companion.

It’s more fun that way.

Mount Bierstadt

Route: Mount Bierstadt – West Slopes from Guanella Pass
Round Trip Distance: 9.25 miles
Brings: Bring hiking boots, water, food, sunscreen, and appropriate clothing, all in an ergonomic pack.

The trailhead in Guanella Pass is accessible from the road (note: Guanella Pass usually opens in May and closes in November. Exact dates can be found here).

You can usually park at the trailhead. Follow the boardwalk across a small bit of marsh and then follow the switchbacks to the summit. Take a picture at the top; pose with your friends. Maybe, you could bring a beer; Bierstadt means “Beer City” in German, after all.

If it gets tough, just place one foot in front of the other, and do that over and over until you reach the top. It’s worth it. And I believe in you.

Feel free to comment or leave any questions below; if this guide was helpful, send me a picture of you at the top.

Only an idiot would hike in early May when the pass is closed…it’s closed for a reason 😉

Happy Trails,

The Trailhead is a multipart series on hiking from beginner to intermediate and focuses on preparation, sharing experiences, and enjoying the outdoors. 

See the other articles below:
#1: Starting Somehow, Somewhere
#2: Beginning to Intermediate
#3: Buying Hiking Boots
#4: Going the Distance
#5: Out and Up: 14,000 Feet Above the Sea


“Conundrum Hot Springs – Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, CO.” – Explore Your America, • Grays Peak and Torreys Peak | Route Description | Grays and Torreys. (n.d.). Retrieved from Peak and Torreys Peak • Mt. of the Holy Cross | Route Description | Halo Ridge. (n.d.). Retrieved from of the Holy Cross • Evans and Bierstadt | Route Description | West Slopes. (n.d.). Retrieved from and Bierstadt
Tree line. (2018, September 07). Retrieved from

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