Colorado is famous for world-class ski resorts, Mile High hipness and Bronco fever. The state is also home to 53 mountains that rise at least 14,000 feet above sea level. Summiting a "14er" (as they’re abbreviated) is tough but achievable for even the moderately fit - if you know which peaks to consider. While the subject is hotly debated among aficionados, here are five of the best choices for new or novice hikers. For more details, visit www.14ers.com, an online guide to Colorado’s highest peaks.
Location: A few miles outside Leadville off of U.S. 24
While the standard route is lengthy at 9 miles round trip, Elbert - the highest point in the North American Rockies - is rated Class 1 (easiest). Beth Parsons launched her 14er-adventures here. “I was unsure whether I would be strong enough,” she says, “but completing Elbert gave me confidence to move forward.” Tip: Be sure to wear layered clothing to adjust to temperature fluctuations as you ascend and descend.
Location: Eight miles from Breckenridge off Hwy. 9.
Quandary boasts a manageable length (6.75 miles round trip), gradual slope and proximity to town. The trail winds through White River pines before heading straight up a long east ridge to the summit. Tip: The ideal hiking season is July through September, but winter climbs are doable, too. In winter, rent snowshoes for about $20 per day from a local ski shop.
Elevation: Belford 14,197; Yale 14,196
Location: West of Colorado Springs, a few miles outside Buena Vista
Both climbs are nontechnical and scenic. “Any car can make it to the trailheads, and the views are gorgeous,” says Joel Kuenning. Once atop Belford, Mt. Oxford is a close saddle away for a second summit. Tip: After hiking, stop into Mt. Princeton Hot Springs for a rejuvenating soak, and then head to Los Girasoles for Mexican fare in Buena Vista.
Elevation: Grays 14,270; Torreys 14,267
Location: Just off Interstate 70 at Exit 221 (Bakerville)
Only 43 miles from Denver, Grays and Torreys are connected by a saddle and often hiked as a twofer. “My son’s first 14er was Grays at age 6, so I would say it’s a good one,” Tim Brogan says. “We started at 6 a.m. and made it back to the car before the afternoon storms rolled in.” Tip: Dangerous thunderstorms appear quickly in the Rockies. Start early, and head down at the first sign of nasty weather.
Mt. Democrat (+ Lincoln, Cameron, Bross)
Elevation: Democrat 14,148; Cameron 14,238; Lincoln 14,286; Bross 14,172
Location: Six miles from Alma at Kite Lake
The Decalibron loop consists of four of Colorado’s most attainable 14ers. The peaks were the perfect entrée for Elizabeth Gilbert, who was over 50 and scared of heights. “My husband and I climbed Democrat first; it was terrific, camping at Kite lake, summiting by 9 a.m.,” she says. “Then, we went on to Cameron, Lincoln and Bross. By the time we came down, we had four summits under our belts and were hooked.” Tip: If hiking to music, include John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High on your 14er playlist. It’s the best song to play while on the trail.
Also meriting strong consideration:
Handies Peak (14,048) is a "spectacular peak" with breathtaking scenery, says Greg Onofrio - especially during wildflower season in July. Mt. Bierstadt (14,060) is only 7 miles round trip and easy to access, says Chris Lawrence, but it’s a step up at Class 2. Mt. Sherman (14,036) is easier but not the most scenic, according to many locals. Humboldt Peak (14,064) gets raves but requires an overnight stay or a long day.