Longs Peak is the iconic summit in Rocky Mountain National Park. You can see it from almost every point in the park, towering above the eastern range of the Rockies. Because it is one of the few 14,000 ft + peaks that you can summit without climbing gear, it is very popular. On the down side (so to speak), the last stretch of the hike includes significant exposure to sheer drop-offs and narrow ledges, not something I want to face after hiking 4,000 vertical feet. Instead, I hiked to the Key Hole, a prominent feature on the trail that is just short of the summit, but still offers tremendous views. Most importantly, you can get there without facing gut-wrenching exposure or confronting descending hikers on a narrow trail with no room for error.
Whether you plan on reaching the Key Hole or the summit itself, start early. Very early. The trail to the summit is 14 miles round-trip and includes 4,500 feet in elevation gain. Start around 4 a.m. Unless you have a full moon, bring a head lamp. Otherwise, you might be tripping over roots until the sun rises.
The trail starts at the Longs Peak trailhead, on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park:
Longs Peak Trailhead
The Longs Peak trailhead starts outside of Rocky Mountain National Park, off Route 7.
Longs Peak Trailhead, Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak Road, Estes Park,
Let the Climb Begin
From the trailhead (9405 feet), you begin ascending immediately. If you are hiking in the dark, don't worry about missing any glorious views - during the first hour or two a thick forest of lodgepole pine, spruce, and fir surrounds you. Your first break comes after about an hour, when you reach a clearing along a stream from which you can just see over the treetops, back toward the opposite valley and the Twin Sisters Peak. You don't fully break above the tree line until the two-mile mark, at an elevation of roughly 10,600 feet, where the forest finally thins and you enter the subalpine zone. Your reward for a cold, early morning uphill march, is a view of Longs Peak at sunrise, an imposing granite monolith looming ahead of you. Even if you have no intention of reaching the summit, you now understand the urge.
The expansive view give you a burst of energy, but the clear mountain air at this altitude makes the peak look deceptively close. Five miles of rocky trail and thousands of vertical feet of climbing still await.Credit: William Hunter, 2012
First view of Longs Peak
Chasm Lake - a Worthy Destination
At 3.5 miles, and an elevation of 11,540 feet, you arrive at the Chasm Lake trail junction. 13,281-foot Mt. Lady Washington dominates the view towards the west, but you can go left for a short excursion to Chasm Lake, which sits at the base of Longs Peak and is a picturesque destination. If, however, you are in for more punishment and thrills, take a right instead around Mt. Lady Washington and head toward the infamous Boulder Field.
Credit: William Hunter, 2012
Chasm Lake Trail Junction
At this point, as you climb higher above the tree line, you feel more exposed to the elements. Now you know why getting an early start is so important. There is nowhere to hide from a sudden storm or from a cold wind (always bring extra clothing!).
Boulder Field Blues
Around 6 miles in, you reach the Boulder Field. Under different circumstances, you might consider traversing this never-ending expanse of boulder-strewn tundra a fun and challenging adventure. But at high elevation, with a headache and tired legs that don't feel trustworthy anymore, the Boulder Field is more of a mine field. An incorrectly chosen step might lead to a twisted ankle or worse. Depending on the time of year, this stretch can also be quite marshy. In late August though, all that remained of the snow melt were the sounds of trickling water somewhere beneath me as I carefully hopped between boulders.
Your main challenge in crossing the first part of the relatively flat Boulder Field is simultaneously looking for cairns to guide your way, while at the same time watching where you step. Not an easy task. But you can use the Key Hole, which is now visible in the distance, to help guide you.
The second part presents new challenges. Namely, route finding and climbing on all fours. The route becomes increasingly steep as you approach the Key Hole. The last 50 feet of scrambling are the most difficult.Credit: William Hunter, 2012
Campground in Boulder Field (notice the Key Hole in the red circle)Credit: William Hunter, 2012
Resting at the Key Hole
At Last! Arriving at the Key Hole
The Key Hole is narrow, but wide enough to sit down for a well-deserved rest. Looking out from the other side of the ridge you'll have outstanding views of Powell Peak, McHenry Peak, Glacier Gorge and Black Lake. The day I reached the Key Hole was unusually calm, but most days a strong wind funnels through the narrow opening. If you are continuing to the summit, look for the fluorescent markings along the wall to the left of the opening.
View from the Key Hole
Don't linger long at the Key Hole. To get back below the tree line, safe from storms, you have a long hike ahead. The Boulder Field is easier on the descent, but don't get lackadaisical. The hike down from here with a twisted ankle is not how you want to remember this day. You want to remember this day by visions of granite monoliths against clear blue skies, epic mountain ranges on all sides, clear alpine lakes glistening, the trickle of snow melt, herds of elk lounging on sprawling tundra, and the gratitude of having legs strong enough to take you to this awesome spot.Credit: William Hunter, 2012
View from Longs Peak Trail
Whether you hike to Chasm Lake, the Key Hole, or the summit of Longs Peak, you can't go wrong on this trail if you like mountain hiking in the wide open tundra. If you start early, bring plenty of food and water, and pack extra clothing for the frequent weather changes, you are sure to have an enjoyable hike. Good luck.