Looking up at the 14,253' summit (to the left) from the boulder field (about 12,000’). The summit is a 3 hour hike from this point.
Tidbits: Highest mountain in the Rocky Mountains National Park
Time Zone: GMT -7 hours
When to go:
Mid-July through late-September offers the mildest conditions, although snow and storms are possible at any time.
I decided to do a day hike using the Keyhole Route which is 15 ½ miles (roundtrip) and starts at an altitude just over 9,000’.
Hotel and Climb Reservation:
Permits are only required for overnight stays and should be obtained in advance from the National Park Service. Overnight permits are issued the day of the climb at the ranger station at the base of the trail. I have climbed this mountain three times and noted that there have always been permits available, even during high season (although I never climbed this mountain on a weekend). Information can be obtained from the park service website at http://www.nps.gov. Numerous hotels and lodges are available in nearby Estes Park, Colorado; however, this is a resort area and it may be a little difficult to find satisfactory accommodations during certain periods in the summer and on weekends.
For a day hike, I packed about 2 quarts of water and food to last 15 hours (the time it takes me to climb roundtrip, including stops along the way). You will need to leave the trailhead by 2:30am in order to be off the summit by noon when the fierce lightening storms typically come in during the summer. Bring two light sources since it will be impossible to find your way without light once you hike above tree-line. On my latest trip (late August), winds were over 50 miles an hour above the keyhole and temperatures were in the upper thirties (without calculating wind-chill). I typically start the climb with a wicking under-layer, covered by a light Goretex jacket. Gloves are essential (you will need to use your hands to keep your balance when you climb up “the trough”). I found that trekking poles for this climb were more of a nuisance, than an aid, due to the treacherous terrain and large boulders that must be climbed.
From Estes Park, travel on Rt. 7 for approximately 20 minutes until you reach the Longs Peak access road on your right. This road is clearly marked. Parking is available at the trailhead, although when the lot fills, you will need to park some distance away along the side of the road in authorized places or in auxiliary areas. There are rest rooms available at the trailhead, and a ranger station with an emergency phone, but there is no payphone. My cell phone did not work from the parking area.
A view of the keyhole from the Boulder Field about 12,500’
I reached at trailhead at 2:30am. There is a sign-in sheet located about 100 yards up the trail. You are encouraged to use it since this can aid the Park Service is your rescue should you become injured (although there are usually so many people on the trail that it is unlikely that more than 15 minutes will go by without someone walking past you). The first few hours are spent walking on a well marked trail through the woods. The trees quickly become smaller as you gain altitude (this area is called Goblin’s Forest and there is a designated camping area off on a side trail). A small stream runs to the left of the trail and there are one or two pleasant spots along the way where you can sit beside small waterfalls and rest (although you can’t appreciate the waterfalls due to the darkness). Tree-line is reached at about 10,500 feet. There is a prominent sign warning of lightening danger. If there is even a remote chance of lightening, or you hear thunder in the distance, turn around immediately or seek cover. Many people die on this mountain, and a large percentage of these people die from lightening strikes.
Once above tree-line you will traverse scree slopes for another 90 minutes. You will pass a solar toilet at one of the trail junctions. Follow the well marked trail until you see the keyhole in the distance at the end of a long, relatively flat, field strewn with small stones and boulders. At the end of the field, which is about 1 mile in length, is a 500’ pile of boulders which must be climbed in order to reach “the Keyhole”. The keyhole is a prominent “notch” located at nearly 13,000’. Hiking immediately changes from class 1-2 to class 2-3 once you pass the keyhole. The views from the other side of the keyhole are absolutely astounding. The trail becomes vague through the field, and non-existent through the boulder-field, but just about any path you decide on will get you there. There are also two solar toilets located at the base of the boulder-field, along with the designated sites for the camping area. To the left of the keyhole is a small stone shelter. To the left of the boulder-field, the mountain peak can be seen, along with the “diamond”…the sheer area that technical climbers use to summit the mountain.
Once though the keyhole, the trail is a series of red “dots” spray-painted every 20 feet or so along the side of the mountain. It is very steep and a little dangerous. If you do not see a trail marker STOP and backtrack until you find one. I have seen many hikers take false trails (including myself) and wind up in very steep and dangerous areas on the side of the mountain because they lost the main trail.
After walking on the side of the mountain for about 20 minutes, you will come to “The Trough”. This is a 900’ steep pile of boulders that you will need to scramble up (don’t bother looking for the red marks here…any direction is equally difficult and dangerous. Beware of falling rocks from hikers that are ahead of you and do not feel shy about crying out “ROCK!” as a warning to others if you dislodge one while hiking.
The side of the mountain once you pass “the keyhole”.
A view looking down at “The Narrows”. Note steepness and trail width.
At the top of the trough, you need to hoist yourself up 6-8 feet onto a rock ledge. This begins “the narrows” (sometimes called “the ledges”). Whatever they call it, it is scary as hell. The ledge is about 18 inches wide and you have the side of the mountain face to your left, and a 5,000’ drop straight down to your right. It is not particularly difficult, but it does hold your attention (once I got caught in this section when it started to hail and the entire ledge became a sheet of ice. Another fun moment is when you come across another hiker traveling in the opposite direction and you need to pass each other…it doesn’t get any better than this (my advice is to hug tightly against the wall and allow him/her to pass)!
Once you pass this section you are at “the Homestretch”, a very steep (35-degree?) slope that leads to the summit. Going up isn’t as bad as coming down, which I did half by walking and half sliding down on my backside. The bottom on the homestretch falls abruptly off the cliff, so be careful. Another word of warning…when the rock gets wet, it becomes as slick as glass (remember the part about the abrupt edge…). I once slipped in this area (the same day that the narrows iced up) and the only way to stop was to dig the flesh in my hands against the rock…it was a bloody mess.
Anyway, once you reach the summit, you have outstanding views in all four directions. The summit is the size of several football fields and can easily accommodate the large numbers of people that make their way to the top, without you feeling crowded in.
When heading down, be particularly careful for icy and wet patches. I want to emphasize again that at the first hint of rain or thunderstorms, GET DOWN FAST…you have at least an hour of hiking to get back to the keyhole and another 3 hours to get back to tree-line.