Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most challenging and popular fourteeners in Colorado and an accomplishment for any serious hiker in the state.
The 8-mile Keyhole route that corkscrews around three-quarters of the mountain to the 14,259-foot summit begins nearly 5,000 feet below at the Longs Peak Ranger Station. Because the average time most hikers take to complete the round trip is 12 hours and due to thunderstorms that regularly strike the peak on summer afternoons, many people begin walking well before dawn, some as early as 2 a.m
The trail begins next to the ranger station, rises through a forest and crosses two streams before reaching timberline, where Longs Peak and its famous vertical east face, the Diamond, come into view.
About 2.5 miles from the trailhead the path forks. One way heads to Chasm Lake at the base of the Diamond, and the other leads to the top of the mountain.
The trail angles along the side of the mountain to Granite Pass and then works its way up the north slope in long switchbacks to the Boulderfield. The lower part of the Boulderfield is fairly level and the trail is easy to follow, but after passing several campsites, which hunker down behind stone walls, the path becomes steeper and harder to follow as it hops across the boulders. Cairns mark the way. There’s no danger of getting lost. Follow everyone else toward the Keyhole, which is the notch along the skyline at the upper end of the Boulderfield.
Next to the Keyhole is the beehive-shaped Agnes Vaille Hut, named for a woman who died Jan. 12, 1925, on the peak. Herbert Sortland died trying to rescue her.
Looking through the Keyhole provides a glimpse of what’s to come – the Ledges that lead to the Trough on the west side of the mountain – and for a lot of people, the exposure, steepness and buffeting wind are frightening and overwhelming, prompting them to turn around.
For those who go on, the route is no longer a path and is slow going all the way to the summit. It follows red and yellow targets painted on rocks. The Ledges, which lead to the bottom of the Trough, come first. This section traverses along the side of the mountain and occasionally requires the use of hands to get up a slab or past a boulder.
The Trough is a steep U-shaped chute that runs directly up the side of the mountain. Climbing it is a long grind as people zigzag upward through the scree and boulders. A 10-foot-high nearly vertical slab, which requires some basic rock-climbing skills or a boost up from a friend, marks the top of the Trough.
From there, the targets lead along the south side of Longs through a section known as the Narrows, ledges about the width of a sidewalk with airy drop-offs a few feet away. Compared with the Trough, this section is short and level.
Next is the Homestretch, the final leg before reaching the summit, and most people lean into the mountainside and use their hands to help scramble up the cracks and ledges.
With all the steep hiking after the Keyhole, the broad plateau on top of Longs can seem anti-climactic, but the accomplishment of reaching the top and the view, which stretches about 150 miles to Pikes Peak near Colorado Springs, are very rewarding.
Return by the same route.
Distance: 8 miles one way
Elevation of Longs Peak: 14,259 feet
Elevation gain from Longs Peak Ranger Station: 4,854 feet
Best time to do this hike: July through mid-September
Parking: The parking lot at the ranger station fills very early, often before dawn. Park along the road if it’s full.
Dogs: Not allowed
Restrooms: There are two privies along the way – one at the Chasm Lake trail junction and the other in the Boulderfield.
Camping: There are 26 first-come, first-served tent sites at the Longs Peak Campground near the trailhead. Backpackers can find spots at Goblins Forest, 1.2 miles from the parking lot, and in the Boulderfield, 6 miles from the trailhead. Call the park’s backcountry office at 970-586-1242 for availability.
Directions: Take Highway 7 south from Estes Park or north from Allenspark to the sign pointing west toward the Longs Peak Ranger Station.
Caution: Scores of people have died on the mountain, and rangers rescue injured hikers and climbers every year. Carry clothing suitable for cold, wet weather. Watch for storms building around the peak and turn back before it’s too late. Expect to be tired by the end of the hike. Thousands of careful people reach the summit each year and return safely to the trailhead.