About me, Colorado, Colorado 14ers, Colorado Hikes, Colorado Summits

Colorado 14er #2: Mount Bierstadt

I’ve been hiking since I was too young to remember, and in that time I’ve accumulated quite a few hiking accomplishments. But one thing I’d never done in all 32 years of my life was go hiking alone.

In general, I don’t consider myself an anxious person. Sure, I have my moments of anxiety when something stressful happens. But for the most part I’m pretty calm and rational… that is, until you put me alone in the wilderness. I don’t know exactly why this is, but if I had to guess I’d say it’s because I grew up in grizzly country, hearing news stories at least once a year of someone getting mauled to death by a grizzly bear. Nine times out of ten, that person was hiking alone. And so from a young age, it was a lesson that was reiterated over and over again.

It’s a lesson that has stuck with me, even though there are no grizzly bears in Colorado. As long as I’m with at least one other person, out in nature is my favorite place to be. Alone, any semblance of my typical calmness and rationality vanishes and all my brain can think about is the list of animals that might jump out of the trees and eat me.

Anyway.

It was early July and my hiking plans for the following day fell through. I still really wanted to get outside, and I was craving some time above tree line. So I decided to finally push through the fear and attempt a solo hike. And sure, maybe a hike in which you’re sharing the trail with roughly 300 other people doesn’t count as “solo” … but I’m counting it anyway.

Mount Bierstadt is one of Colorado’s 14,000 foot (4267 m) + peaks, and the second one that I’ve ever climbed. Bierstadt is exceptionally popular due to its proximity to Denver and its status as one of the easier 14ers. Of course, “easier” is a relative term. No trail that starts at 11,500 feet (3505 m) and ends at 14,060 feet (4285 m) is going to be easy. But compared to many of the other 14ers, this one is on the easier end of the spectrum.

The trail is also entirely above tree line, meaning I would always be able to see where I was going… and I wouldn’t be surrounded by trees from which animals could jump out at me. The visibility combined with the fact that there would be plenty of people on the trail made it a hike that I was comfortable doing solo.

So I dragged myself out of bed at 4:00am and pulled into the Bierstadt Trailhead on Guanella Pass at 5:45am. By the time I hit the trail 15 minutes later, the lot was full. Upwards of 500 people hike this trail every day in the summer (not an exaggeration), making the parking situation a nightmare. Waking up at 4:00am is never fun. But every time I get back to the parking lot and see it overflowing with cars, I remember why it’s worth it to get such an early start.

Not pictured: the 40+ cars parked along the road. And this was a Thursday… weekends are twice as busy

So off I went on my solo excursion.

Sunrise at the trailhead
Looking up at Bierstadt from the trailhead

The first mile (1.6 km) or so of the trail weaves through the willows, past Deadman’s Lake, and over a marsh on some boardwalks. Although it was predicted to be a 100°F (38°C) day in Denver, it was a chilly morning up in the mountains. The leaves were coated in dew and there was a thin layer of frost on the boardwalk which made it pretty slippery.

Deadman’s Lake

Next up was the creek crossing… not an easy task on this particular morning. The good news is that we received so much rain on the Front Range this summer that we are officially no longer in a drought! Everything has been so lush and green and lovely. The downside is that rapidly-flowing streams make for precarious crossings. I was thankful to have packed my hiking poles.

Scott Gomer Creek
The crossing

After a relatively flat first mile, a vast majority of the 2850 feet (870 m) of elevation gain now lay ahead of me, spread fairly evenly over the remaining 2.5 miles (4 km) of the hike. It was slow going as always at such a high elevation. I was a little worried; I hadn’t been up above 13,000 feet (3960 m) since the previous summer. But I tried to pace myself and the scenery was so lovely that my frequent photo-taking stops could double as a chance to catch my breath. Before I knew it, I was approaching the summit.

Looking up at Bierstadt
Views from the trail

Aside from the lack of oxygen, the hardest part about this final push to the summit was route-finding through a pile of boulders with the sun shining directly in my eyes. There are periodic cairns; I was mostly able to follow them but occasionally got a little off the route. Really, though, as long as you keep moving in an upwards direction you’ll reach the summit eventually.

Looking up at the summit
Looking back down the final climb
14,000 feet… almost there!

For me, standing on a mountain peak with a 360° view is something that just never gets any less incredible. I love being able to see so far in every direction. I love the feeling of being higher than the surrounding landscape. I love the fresh air and the sunshine and the rugged ridgelines. If I could spend my entire summer above tree line, I absolutely would.

Summit views
Looking east at The Sawtooth
Abyss Lake and Mount Evans
Frozen Lake (foreground) and Helms Lake (center)
Of course I had to take a photo of Pudgey with her summit sign
Believe it or not, sometimes I pose right-side-up for a photo

I spent about 25 minutes on the summit, eating a snack and soaking in the views. Thanks to my early arrival and the fact that it only took me about 2.5 hours to reach the top, it wasn’t too crowded up there yet. As I was departing, though, about 20 people were climbing up the final stretch with at least another 30-40 not too far behind. Once again, my early morning start had paid off.

Back to Deadman’s Lake
All uphill back to the car from here… the worst way to end a hike. Fortunately it was a pretty mild climb.

Pat and I had summited our first (and only) 14er almost three years prior to this hike, after living in Colorado for only 3 months. And honestly… it was a pretty miserable experience. We were gasping for breath and we were light-headed from lack of oxygen and our legs felt like lead and we ended up with headaches and when we got home we both collapsed into bed. Sure, it was pretty up there. And we felt very accomplished. But the misery outweighed the fun, and as a result we weren’t in any hurry to summit any more 14ers.

It took nearly three years, but I’m glad I motivated myself to do another one because this time around it was a much better experience. I’m acclimated now, and it made a huge difference. I was still breathing hard on the steepest sections and I was tired when I got home and sore the next day. But I felt much stronger than before and rather than coming away feeling miserable I felt strong and confident and ready to tackle some more 14ers sometime soon!


The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: the Bierstadt Trailhead is located at the summit of Guanella Pass, a scenic byway that connects the towns of Georgetown and Grant
  • Fees and passes: none
  • Hiking: roundtrip distance is 7.3 miles (11.7 km) with 2850 feet (869 m) of elevation gain; starting elevation is 11,500 feet (3505 m)
  • Where to stay: This can be done as a day trip from Denver/Boulder/the surrounding area. For closer overnight stays, lodging is available in Georgetown and there are a handful of campgrounds on Guanella Pass. Note that dispersed camping is allowed ONLY in marked spots on Guanella Pass, and sleeping in your car at the trailhead is NOT allowed
  • Other: arrive early… between the parking situation and the threat of afternoon thunderstorms (there is basically no shelter on this trail whatsoever), it’s best to start no later than 6:00-7:00am

34 thoughts on “Colorado 14er #2: Mount Bierstadt”

  1. Wow, that’s madness how quickly the car park fills up! Congratulations on your first solo hike. I remember feeling similarly anxious before heading off on a solo hike out in France, but I think what got me through it (that sounds like it wasn’t a fun experience, but it definitely was!) was keeping that sense of perspective that if it got to a point where I felt out of my depth, I could turn back. I still feel on edge walking through woodland/forests, though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience! That definitely helped me too… knowing that there were others nearby and I could turn around whenever. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel comfortable hiking alone in the woods either… but who knows. Maybe someday!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever gone on a solo hike either. Good for you for getting out and enjoying the beautiful weather, even if you didn’t have anyone to hike with. This looks like a wonderful spot. I’m sure it was reassuring to see other hikers on the trail.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s so funny! We’re exactly alike that way. I hike alone but I’m always nervous about it – bears and snakes and such. Even hiking up at the North Shore recently I was banging my hiking poles together, humming loudly, and making periodic yelping noises in case of black bears (one outhouse had a sign warning of recent sightings – glad I didn’t see it until I was finished hiking for the day). Then when I heard people approaching I stopped so they wouldn’t think I was nuts. I’m going to be doing some solo hikes in Phoenix next month before the husband flies out to join me, and again in Sedona on spring break. I think there are even black bears down there. And snakes. Definitely snakes. I will be making all sorts of noises on those hikes. Anyway, enough about me. Congratulations to you on your summit! Bierstadt is on our list for someday, so I’m going to save your post. I know it’s not super close to Denver, but Mt. Sherman from the Fairplay side would be a comfortable solo 14er. (We did it from the Leadville side but could see the Fairplay approach from up high). We recently planned out a June trip to Colorado and we are planning to do the Evans-Torrey combo before heading to Glenwood Springs. I’m going to click on your link to your first 14er and read about that now. (P.S. Time to start collecting 14er patches!) 🙂

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    1. Ah yes, I didn’t even think about snakes. Fortunately rattlesnakes don’t live above about 9500 feet out here, so my summer strategy is to hike up high and avoid snake territory! Luckily I’ve yet to see a bear while hiking in CO. Moose are far more common… they are actually my biggest worry on most hikes.

      I’ve heard Sherman is a good one… maybe I’ll add that to my list for next summer. Yay that you’re coming to CO! Glenwood Springs is so pretty, and driving through Glenwood Canyon is gorgeous. If you guys want a hiking and/or alcohol drinking buddy, let me know! It would be fun to meet up in person 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Definitely on my list for next summer. Congrats on 14er #2!

    As for hiking alone, I hear you; I imagine way too many animal encounters also. I’ve made exceptions, though, and one of them is hiking Lookout Mountain in Golden once a week when we are there. It feels close to town, and the 8 miles are so familiar now that I feel OK being by myself (although high summer with rattlesnakes is a little scarier!) My freakiest solo hikes were in the middle of the night at a hiking endurance challenge, but there were aid stations every mile or so, so I figured someone would hear me scream if a mountain lion grabbed me! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! For whatever reason, I hear a lot of locals say Bierstadt isn’t that great of a hike but I really enjoyed it.

      Middle of the night hiking would be a hard no for me… that sounds terrifying!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, such beautiful mountain views! 🙂 Congratulations on your first solo hike, Diana, that’s a wonderful achievement. When hiking in a group, you’re only as fast as your slowest hiker. When hiking solo, however, you can go at whatever pace you prefer and that’s why I try to escape to the rolling green hills of Sligo by myself once in a while as I can take an opportunity to do a strenuous trail run, take a slow and relaxing trek, or do a little of both. I can also distract myself with photography, and write a journal entry. Thanks for sharing and have a lovely day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I always try to start a hike at sunrise. You get pictures without people! I also usually hike alone and like it. You can go where you want as fast as you want as far as you want. Seems like anytime I take anybody with me except Nate it’s not a good experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That looks like a wonderful hike! Great views and what an amazing feeling of space. Can’t believe that parking but then some of the trails near Vancouver are at least as busy, so I shouldn’t be surprised!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I’m not much of a hiker, but I will say that I’ve done a few (easy) hikes by myself throughout my travels in places like France, Poland, and even within the US (including to Chautauqua in Boulder). Not sure if I’d be keen on scaling a 14er like Mount Bierstadt, but it really is incredible just how many people scale it, especially on a weekday morning! Looks like you, the early bird, really got the worm!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s nuts. Sometimes I think people in Colorado must just not have jobs and spend every day in the mountains. The crowds on some trails is completely off putting. Pat and I have this conversation frequently… as much as we hate getting up early, we do it to avoid the masses.

      Liked by 1 person

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