Fourteeners—mountains that rise more than 14,000 feet high—abound in Colorado, with 54 peaks claiming the designation. If you’re interested in climbing a fourteener, keep in mind that not all mountains are created equal. Difficulty levels for fourteeners vary from Class 1 (clear, well-worn trail) to Class 5 (technical climbing requiring a rope), and even Class 1 peaks have different trail lengths, elevation gains, and exposure levels.
So with so many fourteeners to choose from, where do you start? We asked the experts, Vacasa’s local Colorado managers, for the best fourteeners for beginners.
Well-traveled and easy to get to from I-70, Grays Peak and neighboring Torreys Peak are both excellent choices for your first fourteener. Grays Peak is also the highest mountain in Colorado’s Front Range.
As a Class 1 fourteener, Grays Peak has a gentle, easy-to-follow trail. It’s eight miles round-trip and has a modest elevation gain of 3,000 feet, making it one of the easiest fourteeners in the area.
Grays Peak is close to Keystone, Breckenridge, and Silverthorne. Each one has the trademark laid-back vibe of a Colorado ski town, although Keystone is the smallest, Breckenridge is the most walkable, and Silverthorne is closest to Lake Dillon.
Since the Grays Peak trail is both beginner-friendly and easy to get to, it often gets crowded during peak season (June through October). Arrive early for the best chance of beating the crowds.
Torreys Peak is slightly more difficult than Grays Peak and has all the same advantages and disadvantages—a gentle trail, an accessible trailhead, and plenty of crowds.
Although it’s a Class 2, Torreys Peak is only slightly more difficult than Grays Peak—in fact, they share a trail for part of the ascent. The trail to Torreys Peak is also eight miles round-trip with a 3,000-foot elevation gain.
Keystone and Silverthorne are closest to the trailhead, but Breckenridge is the largest of the three towns and arguably the most popular.
If you’re feeling ambitious, it’s possible to hit both Grays Peak and Torreys Peak and get two fourteeners for the price of one. Once you get to the summit of Grays Peak, it’s a relatively easy climb over to Torreys Peak.
Although only three feet separate Huron Peak from lesser mountains, this fourteener is a quintessential Colorado hike that passes through alpine meadows and pine forests. At the top, you’ll be rewarded with awe-inspiring views of the Three Apostles and Hope Pass.
Huron Peak is a Class 2 fourteener with a good trail leading to the summit, although some scrambling (climbing with your hands) is required toward the end. This seven-mile hike has an elevation gain of 3,500 feet, so it’s rather steep, but switchbacks make it easier.
Leadville and Aspen are decently close to Huron Peak, at 30 and 60 miles away, respectively. Aspen is known as a luxury ski retreat, while Leadville boasts an impressive historic district that provides a glimpse of the town’s early years during the silver mining boom.
If you aren’t used to living at a high altitude, give yourself a few days to acclimate before attempting this hike—and that goes for all the fourteeners on this list. Get plenty of rest, drink a lot of water, and know the symptoms of altitude sickness.
Although it’s the tallest mountain in Colorado (and the second-highest in the lower 48 states), Mount Elbert has a well-deserved reputation for being a gentle giant of a fourteener. The hike is challenging but forgiving, making it one of the best fourteener in Colorado for beginners. When you make it to the top, you’ll have clear views of the Sawatch Range and dozens of other fourteeners.
Another Class 2 fourteener, Mount Elbert has a wide but steep trail that will take you all the way to the summit. At nine miles round-trip, this is one of the longer hikes, and with an elevation gain of 4,700 feet, you’ll need to build in plenty of time for breaks as you ascend.
Mount Elbert is in the same neighborhood as Huron Peak, but it’s closer to Leadville, which is less than 20 miles away. Breckenridge is about 60 miles north, and the drive is about two hours long on winding mountain roads; however, the town’s walkability, culture, and proximity to outdoor activities make it an appealing place to stay.
Since the Mount Elbert hike is lengthy and steep, you’ll want to get started early. Colorado is prone to sudden thunderstorms on summer afternoons, and the last place you want to be when it’s thundering is exposed on top of a mountain. Try to hit the summit by mid-morning to give yourself plenty of time to get back down before the storms hit, and aim for a pace where you gain 1,000 feet of elevation per hour—so, if you want to be at the summit by 11 a.m., you should start climbing by 5 or 6 a.m.
One of a trio of fourteeners in Chicago Basin, Windom Peak is easier than neighboring Eolus Peak (Class 3) and Sunlight Peak (Class 4) but arguably has better views. Getting to the trailhead is almost as fun as hiking to the peak if you take the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
If you ride the train to Needleton, you’re looking at a 17-mile round-trip hike with an elevation gain of 6,000 feet. Another Class 2 fourteener, Windom Peak features a steep trail punctuated by boulders and a few easy scrambles.
Durango is a bustling college town nestled on the Animas River about 35 miles south of Windom Peak. In addition to offering easy access to Chicago Basin via the railroad, Durango is close to Mesa Verde National Park and Vallecito Lake and has an impressive array of local restaurants and breweries.
Keep your eyes out for mountain goats! They’re frequently spotted along the trail.
If you’re an experienced hiker and used to high altitudes, try Longs Peak. This definitely isn’t a hike for beginners, but if you’ve done a few Class 2 peaks and are ready for something more challenging, Longs Peak comes highly recommended—most locals consider it a rite of passage.
Although the route is well-marked, Longs Peak is a Class 3 fourteener through and through. This hike is 14 miles round-trip and has an elevation gain of 5,100 feet, so you’ll want to start early (around 3 a.m.) to avoid those pesky thunderstorms. The last portion of the ascent, known as the Homestretch, is mostly scrambles.
The Longs Peak trailhead is 10 miles from Estes Park and 40 miles from Boulder. Estes Park is known for its proximity to Rocky Mountain National Park as well as its abundance of art galleries and bustling downtown area. Stephen King fans know that Estes Park is also home to the Stanley Hotel, which served as King’s inspiration for his novel The Shining.
With its early start time and moderate difficulty, Longs Peak sounds like a hard sell, but the gorgeous sunrise, boundless early-morning stars, and incredible summit make this one of the most beautiful hikes in Colorado. Be aware that the trail can get crowded at times, and be sure to pack plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen, and lip balm.
Hiking a fourteener is a challenging but memorable way to spend one of your vacation days, and many people consider it a Colorado bucket list item. Regardless of how experienced you are at hiking, make sure to familiarize yourself with mountaineering safety prior to attempting a fourteener or any other strenuous hike. If you stay hydrated and take it easy, you’re sure to have an enjoyable and rewarding experience. And once you’ve conquered the best fourteener for beginners, you’ll be ready to move on to the more challenging peaks.
Featured photo courtesy of Jerry and Pat Donaho