A view from the top: Both residents and visitors who want a challenge can tackle Colorado’s lofty peaks.
Galen Rowell/Mountain Light/Alamy

Some are serious and hurried, and others are methodical and slower, but all have the same adventurous goal: to climb the 53 Colorado peaks that measure at least 14,000 feet.

The first sign there would be something different about this peak-bagging adventure was the Geo Metro in the creek. Until then, it had been a routine trip. After that, what with the wobbling Pathfinders and the plane flying below where we were standing, the adventure got a little weird.

Peak-bagging is the art — and in Colorado, with 53 peaks that are 14,000 feet and higher, climbing is an art — of reaching the summit of a mountain peak. When you do that, you have “bagged” it. On this day, the target for our group of six was Castle Peak, which rises 14,265 feet in the Elk Mountains, a few miles south of Aspen.

There are many places where peak-bagging is practiced, but it is especially prevalent in Colorado, home to countless named summits. Those 53 peaks are referred to as “14ers,” because they are all higher than 14,000 feet. The Centennial State makes it easy to set bagging goals that don’t involve frostbite or Sherpas or trips to Nepal.

For the more-motivated, the goal might be to climb the Centennials, Colorado’s 100 highest peaks. For the less-motivated, any mountain is enough. For me and countless other Colorado residents and visitors, the objective is to one day climb all 53 of the 14ers.

That goal is pursued at levels ranging from leisurely to frenzied. The record for climbing all of Colorado’s 14ers in the shortest time span is an astounding 10 days, 20 hours. I’ve been proceeding at a far more relaxed pace, however, and have now bagged 33 (34 if you count driving up Pikes Peak). I’d like to get them all before I die, but we’ll see.
Now You Know: The Pikes Peak Highway was not ­completely paved until 2011.

Although it’s recommended on a few, none of Colorado’s 14ers demand ropes or advanced mountaineering skills, which is nice because I have neither. The necessities are obvious: food, extra clothing, an ample supply of water and the right map. Common sense is also helpful, and climbers must have at least a decent level of physical fitness. Given those minimums, almost anyone can bag at least some of the 53 because in Colorado, you can hike up most of the high mountains instead of having to do any actual climbing. The difference is like walking up something as opposed to mountaineering. Peak-bagging is more about climbing a peak as easily as possible to check it off your list, instead of seeking a challenging route that involves ropes, helmets and climbing gear.

The hike to Castle Peak can be one of the shortest of any of the 14ers, if you have a vehicle that can negotiate the rough road all the way to the base of the permanent snowfield that starts at 12,800 feet. It was our goal to do exactly that, but at the first creek crossing, we found our way blocked by an ill-equipped two-wheel-drive Geo Metro, which was stuck in the middle of Castle Creek, kicking up glorious plumes of water from its spinning tires.

The six of us, riding in a couple of pickups, stopped, and the occupants of the Metro got out and splashed through the creek to talk to us. There were four of them: two young men with punk-rock hairstyles and studded dog collars around their necks, and a young man and woman who appeared to be utterly terrified.

“We’re not really with them,” the girl informed us (and no one was surprised). “They’re giving us a ride to Aspen because our car rolled off the bridge farther up the road.”
“Yeah,” her partner agreed. “We thought it might fall off a cliff, so we just jumped out and left it running.”

Their story seemed exaggerated, but after towing the Metro out of the creek — with much scraping and grinding of its undercarriage on the rocks — we proceeded to the second creek crossing and there, sure enough, we found a Nissan Pathfinder, its engine still running, teetering on the edge of a 30-foot waterfall. The vehicle had done a full roll and was resting on its wheels in the creek after sliding off a narrow wooden bridge that was coated with about 6 inches of ice.

The sight of the precariously perched Pathfinder and the slippery conditions that caused it to roll were enough to give my group pause about any additional driving, so we stopped short of the bridge and resigned ­ourselves to continue the rest of the way on foot. That would make our hike more difficult, particularly with skis and boots on our backs, but it ensured that we wouldn’t end up in the creek next to the SUV.

As we took off, another Pathfinder came driving down the road and stopped before the bridge, so we waited for it to cross, figuring we could help if it rolled too. But the car just sat there until the driver, one of three passengers, called out to us.

“We’re not going to do it,” he yelled, and they got out, leaving the car in the middle of the road, unwilling to gamble driving over the ice-covered bridge. One member of our group had experience with Jeeps, however, and he got behind the wheel, eased the Pathfinder over the bridge and sent the group back on its way.

We continued our hike and in time reached a high saddle on Castle Peak’s western shoulder. We left our skis and packs there and walked up to the summit, where we were rewarded with a cloudless view of the awe-inspiring skyline of central Colorado.

To the south, we could see Mount Crested Butte and the distant San Juan Mountains. To the east was the Sawatch Range (Colorado’s loftiest), home to 15 of the 14ers. North and west of us, the high peaks of the Elk Mountains ran off to the horizon, and far below us in the adjacent Conundrum Valley, we could see a tiny private airplane, a Cessna — which was interesting, because you seldom see a plane flying below the ground you are standing on.

We then donned our boots and skis. The snow was not good, and one of my friends had a frightening moment when he tried to ski across some rocks. But we all made it down uninjured, shouldered our skis and boots and hiked back to the pickups.

We arrived just as the sun was beginning to dip behind the high ridges to the west. There, with the stunning view marred only by the Pathfinder atop the waterfall, we cracked open beers from our cooler and toasted our success. 

With destinations throughout Colorado, American Airlines can get you within hiking distance of many of the state’s mountains. Then it’s up to you to bag the summit.

Aspen will get you near the Sawatch Range, which includes Mount Elbert, which at 14,433 feet is Colorado’s highest peak but is still one of the easiest ones to bag. Castle Peak and the four other 14ers of the Elk Range are practically in Aspen’s backyard, but aside from Castle, the Elks are on the difficult side.

Vail/Eagle is a good starting point for bagging peaks in the Mosquito and Tenmile Ranges, including three — Mounts Democrat, Lincoln and Cameron — that can be summited together in one 7-mile loop hike. Another nearby 14er, Mount Bross, was once part of the loop, but the summit has been officially closed since 2005.

About 90 minutes south of Gunnison, the charming town of Lake City sits near the bases of five 14ers, including monolithic Uncompahgre Peak (14,309 feet), the sixth-highest summit in Colorado.

Durango and Montrose will gain you access to the scenic mining towns and rugged peaks of the San Juan Mountains, including three 14ers — Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak and Mount Eolus — that are reached by riding the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and camping in the heart of Colorado wilderness.

Denver and Colorado Springs sit at the foot of the Front Range, whose six 14ers can get crowded on summer weekends. Two Front Range 14ers, Pikes Peak and Mount Evans, have good roads all the way to the summit. Of course, driving to the top of a 14er isn’t considered bagging a peak.

Todd Hartley is a freelance writer, stand-up comedian and radio disc jockey who lives in Basalt, Colo. His work has appeared in American Cowboy and Golf Getaways. This is his first article for American Way.