The Ultimate Guide to Hiking Longs Peak

Nestled within Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Longs Peak is one of the most iconic and challenging peaks for hikers in the United States. At 14,259 feet elevation, it towers over the park and offers incredible 360-degree views. One of the most popular starting points for summiting Longs Peak is Bear Lake trailhead, which brings hikers through beautiful alpine meadows and lakes before the final ascent.

This 9-14 mile roundtrip hike is best suited for experienced hikers who are prepared for a difficult, full-day excursion. The route from Bear Lake up Longs Peak involves scrambling up steep, exposed terrain, making good fitness and preparation a must.

If you’re up for the challenge, read on for everything you need to know for hiking Longs Peak via the Bear Lake trail.

Overview of the Hike

Distance: 9-14 miles roundtrip

Elevation Gain: Approximately 5,000 feet

Difficulty: Very strenuous (Class 3 climbing near the summit)

Approximate Time: 12-16 hours

The most direct route up Longs Peak from Bear Lake is the 9 mile Keyhole Route. Most hikers add extra miles by stopping at Dream and Emerald Lakes on the way, adding up to 5 extra miles roundtrip.

No matter which route you take, hiking Longs Peak via Bear Lake makes for an extremely long, tiring day. The standard Keyhole Route usually takes between 12-16 hours roundtrip, depending on pace.

Detailed Route Description

The hike begins at the Bear Lake Trailhead. Follow the easy path around Bear Lake itself before connecting with the Longs Peak Trail.

At 1 mile in you’ll reach Nymph Lake, a beautiful alpine lake at 9,240 feet elevation. Stop here briefly before continuing on past Dream and Emerald Lakes around the 2-3 mile mark.

After soaking in these peaceful green-blue lakes, the trail ascends into the Boulder Field around 4 miles in. This stretch involves a steep, rocky climb up the shoulder of the peak.

Once in the Boulder Field, hop across this expansive field of massive boulders on your way up to the Keyhole, roughly 5 miles into the hike. Reaching the iconic Keyhole landmark offers incredible views and a chance to rest before tackling the most challenging part of the hike.

From the Keyhole, the last mile to Longs Peak’s summit requires ascending steep ledges using hands and feet. This Class 3 scrambling section has significant exposure and consequences for falls, requiring your full attention.

The final stretch traverses narrow ledges like the Ledges, the Trough, and the Narrows before a last steep push up to Longs Peak’s summit.

After enjoying the hard-earned views from the top, carefully descend back down the ledges to return the same way you came from Bear Lake trailhead.

Tips for Hiking Longs Peak

Due to the length, difficulty, and exposure on the Longs Peak hike, it’s crucial to prepare properly. Here are some tips:

  • Start early, no later than 5am, to avoid afternoon storms.
  • Bring microspikes and trekking poles for slippery sections.
  • Pack high energy snacks and at least 3 liters of water.
  • Know how to navigate Rocky Mountain’s notoriously changeable weather. Start hiking at first light to maximize your summit chances.
  • Bring layers and wind/rain shells for storms and temperature drops at high elevation.
  • Don’t attempt the hike if there is rain/snow in the forecast. Lightning on the final summit ridge is extremely dangerous.
  • Get an early start on the Keyhole route to avoid crowds.
  • Train aerobically for the long mileage and high elevation gain. Strength training focusing on legs and core is also helpful.
  • Feel confident in your route finding, scrambling, and exposure skills before tackling the final stretch.
  • Register at the trailhead and leave an itinerary with a friend. Unlike other RMNP peaks, this hike has ranger-staffed trail register to log your plans.

Proper preparation and fitness will help ensure you have an epic yet safe hike up one of Colorado’s most famous peaks!

Wildlife You’ll See on the Trail

The hike to Longs Peak offers a chance to see a variety of alpine wildlife. Some animals you may spot include:

  • Yellow-bellied marmots: These large ground squirrels make a distinctive high-pitched whistle in the rocky alpine tundra. They hibernate for over half the year in the harsh conditions.
  • Pikas: These tiny, mouse-like mammals with rounded ears live among the boulders. They don’t hibernate, surviving harsh winters by gathering “haypiles” of grass to eat.
  • Clark’s nutcrackers: Listen for these loud, jay-like birds with grey plumage and black wings. They cache food like nuts and seeds for winter.
  • Bighorn sheep: Keep an eye out for these sure-footed wild sheep grazing on rocky cliffs and ledges. The males have large, curled horns.
  • Elk: Look among willow thickets around lakes to spot these large tan deer with sweeping antlers. Males make a loud bugling call.
  • Pine martens: Watch for these cat-like weasels with orange throats climbing through trees near treeline. They hunt small mammals and birds.

Seeing these high alpine creatures is a special treat on the scenic journey up Longs Peak. Always observe wildlife from a safe distance and give them space.

Flowers & Vegetation on the Trail

A wide variety of alpine wildflowers and plants thrive along the hike. Some include:

  • Columbines: Colorado’s state flower comes in blue, white, red, and yellow varieties. Spot them blooming in summer near streams and meadows.
  • Alpine forget-me-nots: These beautiful blue flowers bloom in summer around lakes and ponds.
  • Marsh marigolds: Look for these bright yellow flowers in marshy areas in summer.
  • Wild iris: These purple blooms thrive in summer near wet meadows and streams.
  • Fireweed: Blooming pink flowers on this tall plant are a common summer sight, especially near treeline.
  • Willows: These shrubs with long narrow leaves fill riparian areas around lakes and streams.
  • Lodgepole pines: Hardy trees that dominate the forest up to treeline before giving way to rocky tundra.

Enjoy this diversity of colorful wildflowers and rugged alpine vegetation on your journey up Longs Peak.

When to Hike Longs Peak for the Best Experience

Due to extreme winter weather, the hiking season on Longs Peak is relatively short:

  • The park’s Bear Lake Road opens in late May, allowing access to the trailhead.
  • July-September are the peak months for Longs Peak hiking. Snow has melted and most ledges are exposed, while weather is most stable.
  • The popular Keyhole Route becomes inaccessible due to ice and snow starting in October. Some hikers attempt the Loft route in fall instead.
  • November-April/May sees the most severe alpine conditions on Longs Peak. Attempting winter/spring ascents requires mountaineering skills and gear.

Within peak season, your best odds for good weather are in July and August. However, this coincides with summer crowds. For fewer people consider September, though be ready for variable weather that year. Proper preparation and planning helps ensure a great experience any season.

Why Longs Peak is Considered Colorado’s Most Iconic Fourteener

At 14,259 feet tall, Longs Peak towers over Rocky Mountain National Park as the tallest and most prominent peak for miles. Along with its height, several factors contribute to Longs Peak’s legendary status:

  • The peak is one of the most challenging and technical Fourteeners to climb in Colorado due to its steep, exposed routes.
  • The stunning vertical East Face rising over 2,400 feet is the highest cliff face in the state.
  • Longs Peak boasts Colorado’s highest sheer vertical drop of 2,940 feet due to the East Face.
  • The mountain has a high level of biodiversity, with several different climate zones.
  • There are multiple route options, but the classic Keyhole Route is very scenic and iconic.
  • Longs Peak offers some of the most expansive views in the state from its summit.

Whether you view it from afar or accept the challenge to climb it, Longs Peak is undeniably one of the crown jewels of the Colorado Rockies. It’s easy to see why it’s revered by hikers, climbers, and outdoor enthusiasts.

Essential Gear to Hike Longs Peak

Due to the length, difficulty, and potential for extreme weather on the Longs Peak hike, packing adequate essential gear is a must:

  • Sturdy hiking boots with ankle support and good traction
  • Trekking poles to ease the climb and descent
  • Windproof/waterproof outer shell jacket and pants
  • Warm layers including base layer, fleece, gloves, and hat
  • At least 3 liters of water and electrolyte drinks/powder
  • High energy, high calorie snacks such as nuts, bars, gels
  • Sun protection including sunglasses, hat, lip balm, and sunscreen
  • First aid kit with bandages, gauze, athletic tape, pain reliever
  • Headlamp with extra batteries
  • Lightweight backpack to carry it all
  • Bear spray as a precaution
  • Trekking pack cover, trash bags, or waterproof layers to protect gear if it rains

Packing properly for the demands of this alpine hike, especially unpredictable mountain weather, helps keep you safe and comfortable on the trail. Don’t underestimate Longs Peak!

Training for the Longs Peak Hike

Climbing Longs Peak via the Keyhole Route is akin to climbing a 14,000 foot staircase on uneven, exposed terrain. Training your body properly helps make summit day more enjoyable.

Focus on building aerobic endurance with hikes, trail runs, or stairclimbers. Work up to hitting over 10 miles and 4,000 feet elevation gain in training hikes.

Strength training for legs, glutes, hips, and core also helps enormously on summit day. Squats, lunges, deadlifts, and core work 2-3 days a week will build muscle to power you up the mountain.

Test your routefinding skills on less technical routes. Summit a few less demanding Rocky Mountain peaks like Flattop Mountain to gauge your conditioning.

Arrive at Longs Peak feeling confident in your cardiovascular fitness, strength, and technical hiking skills. Taking time to properly train and test your abilities helps ensure this challenging climb goes smoothly.

With sound preparation and training, you’ll be ready to take on the iconic Longs Peak summit!

Why Hiking Longs Peak is an Unforgettable Experience

A journey up one of Colorado’s most famous and stunning peaks is an adventure you’ll never forget. Here’s why Longs Peak is considered a classic must-do hike:

  • The rewarding 360 degree views from the summit are jaw-dropping.
  • You’ll gain a sense of personal accomplishment after pushing your limits to summit this iconic peak.
  • Being immersed in the stunning alpine environment with glacial lakes, tundra, and wildflowers is magical.
  • You’ll see wildlife like bighorn sheep you rarely encounter elsewhere.
  • Overcoming the final steep scrambling stretch to the top requires focus and concentration, leaving you present in the moment.
  • You’ll join a long legacy of adventurous climbers dating back to the late 1800s.

The combination of stunning scenery, challenging terrain, rewarding payoffs, and historic significance makes Longs Peak an iconic Colorado experience. Don’t miss out on hiking this extraordinary peak!

Conclusion: Hike Longs Peak for Your Epic Colorado Adventure

For hikers seeking a challenging, unforgettable alpine experience in Rocky Mountain National Park, summiting iconic Longs Peak is an essential rite of passage.

While not an easy hike, completing the 9-14 mile journey from Bear Lake trailhead to the top of Longs Peak and back delivers huge rewards. You’ll stand atop the park’s tallest summit, taking in unmatched 360 degree views, surrounded by rugged alpine beauty.

Just be sure to train and prepare properly for this strenuous, technical hike at high elevation. Utilizing this guide’s tips for gear, timing, routefinding, fitness, and wildlife/vegetation will help ensure you have an amazing yet safe adventure hiking Longs Peak.

Ready for the challenge? Start planning your Longs Peak summit bid today!