I climbed Longs Peak last month!
Longs Peak, for the uninitiated, is among Colorado’s most famous 14,000+ foot peaks. At 14,259 feet, it’s far from the tallest mountain in the state (that would be Mount Elbert), but it’s a much more difficult hike.
Climbing Longs was the realization of an idea I’d been kicking around for more than three years — ever since my first trip to Estes Park back in 2017. At the time, I had nowhere near enough hiking experience to make it to the top. The culmination of that trip was Hallet Peak, which is about 2/3 the length and elevation gain of Longs, and a significantly less technical trail.
Thinking of conquering Longs for yourself? Read on for my best advice
1. Longs is a terrible first 14er
Longs isn’t the most difficult 14er out there, but it’s not exactly a chilled-out hike. In fact, the National Park Service technically doesn’t consider it a hike at all — more like entry-level mountaineering. I wouldn’t go that far, but it requires a solid amount of scrambling and has several highly exposed, Class 3 sections, meaning falls can be fatal.
I bagged 8 other 14ers before attempting Longs, mostly on Class 2 routes where there might be a bit of scrambling, but any falls are somewhat well-protected.
14ers.com is an amazing resource for mountain and route selection. Mount Massive, Mount Evans, Mount Lincoln, Mount Democrat and Mount Sherman are just a few excellent first 14ers with detailed route descriptions and trip reports.
2. Get yourself comfortable with long, exposed hiking
I’ve been hiking for years, but rarely ever ventured beyond Class 2 terrain before this year. To make sure I could handle the exposure and the 15+ mile day Longs requires, I did two specific training hikes. The first was the Kelso Ridge route up Torreys Peak, which involved some sustained Class 3 scrambling and a knife edge crux. But at around 6.75 miles, it’s far shorter than Longs.
I’m not going to lie — the knife edge wigged me out. But I learned from Kelso that overall, I didn’t have a huge problem with exposure while hiking. If you have any technical rock climbing experience, especially outdoors, you’ll likely be fine with Class 3.
The next portion of the training was a few days later, when I spent a long day along the Ten Mile Range. The full hike is more than 20 miles, up and down 10 peaks, two of which have sustained Class 3 moves. My partner and I called it quits after Peak 6, but it worked out to be an elevation gain and total mileage similar to Longs. When we weren’t completely wiped at the end of the day, we knew we were ready.
A word about altitude: If you’re coming from sea level, even in excellent shape, Colorado can leave you winded. Even after several months of living here, including significant time living and sleeping above 9,000 feet, I still get bouts of dizziness and nausea when doing strenuous activity above 12,000 feet. Spend at least a few days doing acclimatization on less strenuous hikes and monitor yourself carefully for signs of altitude sickness. There’s no shame in turning around if you start to feel ill.
4. They’re not kidding about the alpine start
Longs is a slog. Before clamoring through the keyhole, you’ve got 6 miles of sustained upward hiking. To safely be off the mountain in time for afternoon thunderstorms, you’ll be starting in the wee hours. Most hikers start between 1:30 and 3:30 a.m. We started at 2:30 and made it to the boulder field — right before the hardest part of the hike begins — right around sunrise, which was perfect. Starting much earlier would have meant navigating angled rocks by headlamp. Not my idea of a good time.
The parking lot can fill as early as 2 a.m. on weekends. For our 2:30 start on a Saturday, we ended up parking on the side of the road but fairly close to the trailhead so it didn’t feel like added mileage.
Note: Due to Covid-19 restrictions, Rocky Mountain National Park has implemented a timed entry system during normal operating hours. If you’re starting the trail before 6. a.m. (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED), the ticketing system won’t apply to you.
5. The Keyhole will be windy AF, no matter what
When we arrived at the Keyhole, I was shocked to find so many parties turning around, citing wind. But we’d watched the weather closely, and knew it was only supposed be 10-12 mph, far from the 40+ mph howlers that sometimes hit the mountain.
By nature, the very break in the ridge line that makes Longs a doable hike is something of a wind tunnel, even on a moderate day. If you can stomach the scramble over, it’s much less windy as soon as you hit the ledges.
6. Navigation isn’t too hard
Past the Keyhole, well-labeled bull’s eyes will lead you straight to the top. And Longs is a popular enough mountain that there will almost always be people around to generally lead the way. The more technical part of the climb is split into four main sections: The Ledges, The Trough, The Narrows and The Homestretch.
The Ledges, immediately past the Keyhole, are exactly what the sound like. Relatively narrow areas to scurry along. Keep a hand on the wall as an extra point of contact, but this section isn’t a big deal.
The Trough was perhaps my least favorite part of the whole hike. After navigating the Ledges, you’re faced with 600-foot rock scramble that’s exposed enough to kill you if you fall. And there’s plenty of loose rock for people above to kick down. I wore a helmet as a precaution, as did about half of the other hikers.
The crux of the Trough is a rather awkward, sheer set of boulders with a narrow crack up the middle. It’s a choose your own adventure situation. I’m no good at crack climbing so I opted to find some sketchy footholds in an adjacent rock and scramble my way around them, but plenty of people tried shimmying using the crack.
The Narrows are often cited as the scariest part of Longs. They’re like the ledges, but perhaps only 18 inches wide, with nearly-sheer drop offs. The wind can get pretty nasty in this section too. Navigation around other hikers could be tricky, but overall this part of the hike wasn’t too bad. Keep a hand on the wall and don’t look down.
The final section, the Homestretch, was another challenging one. Think the Trough, but with sheerer rock and more crowding. It’s also pretty dang exposed, and falls here have been fatal. Inch your way up the crack in the center. I did the whole thing as something of a bear crawl, but saw some very adventurous trail runners doing it nearly upright.
The summit of Longs is secretly a flat top, and probably the size of a football field. Enjoy your time taking in the views. You’ve earned it!
7. Don’t underestimate the way down
After 7.5 miles of strenuous hiking, you’ve got 1.5 miles of pretty dicey terrain in front of your descent. Take it slow, particularly on sheer sections like the Homestretch. Every hiker we encountered was very cautious and lovely in terms of giving people space to maneuver on challenging rock.
8. There’s no shame in turning around
The summit rate on Longs is said to be around 50%. Plenty of people make the boulder field their final objective, and that makes for a great 12 mile/3,300 foot day. There are days that the wind is so bad no one can safely make it through the Keyhole and the other most technical parts of the terrain, and weather can change quickly. Not only is being above the treeline during a thunder storm extremely dangerous, but dealing with slippery rocks on any point of the last 1.5 miles of the trail would quickly transform it from challenging to treacherous.
If it’s daylight when you turn around, you’ll be greeted with some truly spectacular views of Longs and surrounding peaks on the way down. There are also several shorter trails starting at the Longs trailhead that lead to beautiful views and have minimal exposure.
9. It’s a long day
My full Longs trip, including all stops and a pretty long summit break, took around 11 hours. That’s fairly typical — the National Parks Service advises travelers to budget 10-15 hours. We took it slow and got passed a lot. Someone who is acclimatized and in excellent shape could probably do this hike in 7-8 hours.
Longs marked 14er #9 for me and I think I officially have summit fever. These days, I’m based in Crested Butte, which has a slight dearth of actual 14ers, but I’ve scrambled up enough 12ers with views of the Maroon Bells to have those on my list.
Have you climbed Longs Peak or another Colorado classic? Let me know!