The great Colorado ‘fourteener’ road trip

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With 53 mountains rising at elevations above 14,000 feet, Colorado is home to far more ‘fourteeners’ than any other state (second-place Alaska has 29.)

While the rugged peaks have inspired countless mountain adventurers who race each other to see who can climb them all in the shortest amount of time, you don’t have to be a crazy pro climber to enjoy the majestic beauty. Just hop in the car and follow our guide to the best places in the state to see them. There’s plenty of delightful small towns and unique adventures to experience along the way.

Flowers grow in the median of a street in the small mountain ski town of Telluride, Colorado with one of the Rocky Mountains looming in the background © Jay Gentile / Lonely PlanetThe Telluride, Colorado town center still has palpable old-time charm © Jay Gentile / Lonely Planet

Colorado Springs

Nearby fourteeners: Pikes Peak (14,115’)

Attracting more than 500,000 visitors a year, Pike’s Peak is the most visited summit in North America. Not only is it the only fourteener near Colorado Springs, it is the only fourteener you could summit by train. The world-famous, 127-year old Pikes Peak Cog Railway (the highest railway in North America) recently ceased operations indefinitely for repairs, but you can still hike to the top of ‘America’s Mountain’. Take the strenuous 13-mile Barr Trail or make the more leisurely scenic drive to the summit along 19-mile Pikes Peak Highway.

Framing up a cloudy Pikes Peak from the Siamese Twins Rock Formation at Garden of the Gods, Colorado © Ronda Kimbrow / Getty ImagesSome of the best views of Pikes Peak are from the nearby Garden of the Gods © Ronda Kimbrow / Getty Images

You can enjoy views of Pikes from in and around Colorado Springs as well as the funky nearby tourist town of Manitou Springs, but the Instagram-breaking Garden of the Gods is the best place to admire the mountain. Stand with mouth wide open as you peek at the summit through stunning red rock formations.

Estes Park

Nearby fourteeners: Longs Peak (14,259’)

As the largest peak within Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak is one of Colorado’s most iconic fourteeners. The only fourteener north of Denver, it attracts significant attention from non-professional climbers with around 15,000 people attempting to summit the mountain every year. While not technical it is a grueling 12.4-mile slog requiring a 3 am start, and it has a success rate of less than 50 percent.

Long's Peak lights up at sunrise as a rural country road leads into the fall trees © Ronda Kimbrow / Getty ImagesLong’s Peak lights up at sunrise in Colorado. © Ronda Kimbrow / Getty Images

But no matter – there are gorgeous views of Longs Peak from many roads and hikes within the park or throughout the town of Estes Park, a charming tourist-friendly gateway. While in town, stop off at The Wheel Bar for drinks with locals before grabbing a delicious Italian dinner of seven-cheese alfredo or lobster baked ziti at the almost incomprehensibly cute Dunraven Inn.

Georgetown

Nearby fourteeners: Mt. Evans (14,271’), Mt. Bierstadt (14,065’), Torreys Peak (14,274’), Grays Peak (14,278’)

Georgetown is one of the first mountain towns outside Denver that skiers encounter while driving west along I-70 to Colorado’s main ski resorts. While most visitors are content to merely gas up the car or pick up some ‘snowboarding enhancements’ at local marijuana dispensary Sergeant Greenleaf, the historic town and former silver mining camp is worth sticking around for a while. And remember: Those ‘enhancements’ are legal in Colorado, but it’s a different story when you cross the border. Stay informed.

A man runs along an alpine ridge on a crisp Fall day, with Torreys Peak (14,267 ft) in the background © Randall Levensaler / Getty ImagesTorreys Peak (14,267 ft), is along the Continental Divide © Randall Levensaler / Getty Images

Stroll the charming downtown and grab a beer at local brewery Guanella Pass or hop aboard the historic narrow-gauge tourist rail car Georgetown Loop to get a more intimate view of the peaks.

About 30-plus minutes beyond Georgetown, you can also get a good glimpse of area fourteeners like Torreys and Grays from the slopes of Arapahoe Basin. One of the closest ski areas to Denver, it’s famous for its intimate vibe and late spring ski season which includes parties in its parking lot known as ‘The Beach.’

Breckenridge & Alma

Nearby fourteeners: Quandary Peak (14,271’), Mt. Bross (14,178’), Mt. Lincoln (14,293’), Mt. Democrat (14,155’)

As you start entering Colorado’s main ski territory around Summit County, the peaks start coming into view more frequently as the fourteeners start to bunch up around the Continental Divide south of I-70. Breckenridge is one of Colorado’s most iconic ski towns, and well worth a stopover if for no other reason than to stroll down its picturesque Main Street or drink beer in the sun on the back patio at Kenosha Steakhouse (or go skiing, of course.)

A small, snow covered mining town is shown with the backdrop of a stunning and huge mountain © Wesley Hitt / Getty ImagesSet at the foot of the marvelous Tenmile Range, Breckenridge is a surviving mining town with a vibrant historic district © Wesley Hitt / Getty Images

The best way to scope the area’s fourteeners is by driving south along Colorado State Highway 9 to Alma, the highest incorporated municipality in the U.S. and a sleepy town packed with colorful characters. Roll down the windows to snap photos of fourteeners like Quandary and Mt. Lincoln on the road into town before stopping off at Alma’s funky general store Al-Mart or the South Park Saloon, the highest saloon in North America.

Leadville

Nearby fourteeners: Mount of the Holy Cross (14,011’), Mt. Massive (14,428’), Mt. Elbert (14,440’), La Plata Peak (14,361’), Mt. Sherman (14,043’)

Located across the Continental Divide from Alma is Leadville, the highest incorporated ‘city’ in the US (Alma is a municipality) at 10,152 feet. Sometimes called the ‘Two-Mile City’ due to its elevation rising roughly twice as high as Denver, the Leadville Historic District is like an old Western movie come to life.

Mount Elbert Reflecting in Twin Lakes Near Leadville, Colorado © Getty ImagesWith a home base in Leadville, you can climb the two tallest peaks in Colorado © Getty Images

There are dozens of mines and historic structures to gawk at, like the Tabor Opera House. And the 1879-established Silver Dollar Saloon is a popular spot to fuel up on beer and burgers before you make your way into the vast wilderness that surrounds the town. There you can spot Colorado’s highest peaks along the Sawatch Range including Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive.

Buena Vista & Salida

Nearby fourteeners: Huron Peak (14,012’), Missouri Mountain (14,074’), Mt. Belford (14,203’), Mt. Oxford (14,160’), Mt. Harvard (14,421’), Mt. Princeton (14,197’), Mt. Columbia (14,077’), Mt. Yale (14,200’), Mt. Antero (14,276’), Tabeguache Peak (14,162’), Mt. Shavano (14,235’)

The monsters of the Sawatch Range, which features eight of Colorado’s 20 highest peaks, continue to dominate the landscape as you make your way south on US Route 24 towards Buena Vista. Spanish for ‘good view,’ the area around this peaceful town is packed with the highest concentration of fourteeners in the state and attracts a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts from mountain climbers and bikers to fishermen and whitewater rafters.

A caravan of whitewater rafts bobs down the Arkansas river in Colorado © Getty ImagesWhitewater sports, including whitewater rafting and kayaking are popular on the roiling Arkansas River near Highway 24 in Buena Vista Colorado © Getty Images

Whether you’re climbing the mountains or just taking in the view as you drive down the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway towards Salida (where you’ll spot nearly a dozen fourteeners), be sure to soak in the hot springs found all around the Buena Vista/Salida area, such as Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort.

Aspen

Nearby fourteeners: Capitol Peak (14,137’), Snowmass Mountain (14,099’), Maroon Peak (14,163’), North Maroon Peak (14,014’), Castle Peak (14,279’), Pyramid Peak (14,025’)

Yes, everyone has heard of Aspen. But not everyone has heard of Maroon Bells. Despite being the most photographed peaks in Colorado, pictures can’t do justice to the stunning landscape you will encounter when you see these twin beauties (fourteeners Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak) up close. Easy to access via a short tourist trail but hard to leave, you’ll want to linger long after you’ve drained your camera’s battery.

Sunrise hits snow dusted peaks of Maroon Bells while being reflected in a lake below, along with Aspen trees in their full fall foliage display of golden colors © Steve Whiston / Getty ImagesIt will be hard to pull yourself away from the stunning views of the Maroon Bells © Steve Whiston / Getty Images

While in the area, hit the Belly Up in Aspen for live music and be sure to check out the delightfully offbeat town of Woody Creek, famous for the legendary Woody Creek Tavern – once a favorite hangout of former resident Hunter S. Thompson.

Crestone & Alamosa

Nearby fourteeners: Kit Carson Peak (14,171’), Humboldt Peak (14,070’), Crestone Peak (14,300’), Crestone Needle (14,203’), Mt. Lindsey (14,048’), Blanca Peak (14,351’), Little Bear Peak (14,043’), Ellingwood Point (14,048’), Culebra Peak (14,053’)

The tiny town of Crestone (population 127) makes an excellent base for exploring the fourteeners of the Sangre de Cristo range which dominate the landscape of Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s one of Colorado’s most overlooked scenic treasures, featuring the tallest sand dunes in North America.

Sand dunes and mountain peaks are lit with evening light at Great Sand Dune National Park, Alamosa, Colorado © Dan Ballard / Getty ImagesFor all of Colorado’s striking natural sights, the surreal Great Sand Dunes National Park, a veritable sea of sand bounded by jagged peaks and scrubby plains, is a place of stirring optical illusions where nature’s magic is on full display © Dan Ballard / Getty Images

While the dunes only top out at around 750 feet, the majestic mountains of the San Luis Valley provide a unique backdrop in a region known as a spiritual center, attracting everything from Buddhists and Hindus to Catholics and New Age practitioners. From the Sand Dunes, drive south along Colorado State Highway 150 to peep the last collection of fourteeners in the area (including Blanca Peak and Mt. Lindsey) before you wind up in the famously UFO-friendly town of Alamosa. Sixty miles southeast of Alamosa you will find the southernmost fourteener in the state, Culebra Peak.

Telluride & Ouray

Nearby fourteeners: Mt. Sneffels (14,150’), Uncompahgre Peak (14,321’), Wetterhorn Peak (14,021’), Red Cloud Peak (14,041’), Handies Peak (14,058’), San Luis Peak (14,014’), Mt. Eolus (14,090’), Sunlight Peak (14,065’), Windom Peak (14,093’), Wilson Peak (14,023’), Mt. Wilson (14,252’), El Diente Peak (14,165’)

Not only is the San Juan Skyway one of the most beautiful drives in America (if not the world), it’s also a great way to see a large number of fourteeners bunched up near the southwestern corner of the state. Telluride is the most famous (and most beautiful) of the old mining towns in the area, where a simple stroll down Main Street is a mind-blowing affair. The upscale town hosts world-renowned festivals, including Telluride Bluegrass Fest and Telluride Film Fest, but any day is a good day to sip drinks on the rooftop of the New Sheridan Hotel or explore the abundance of hiking trails that extend from its stunning downtown.

The Mountain Village Ski Area gondola passes overhead as people walk through the historic, snow covered town © Walter Bibikow / Getty ImagesSurrounded on three sides by mastodon peaks, exclusive Telluride is quite literally cut off from the hubbub of the outside world © Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

Nearby Ouray and Silverton are also more than worthy of a diversion, with a larger number of fourteeners making their home near the stretch of Highway 550 known as the Million Dollar Highway, named for its million-dollar views. Seeing fourteeners here is the easy part. The hard part is keeping your eyes on the road.

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