The only thing better than a day hike up a fourteener is an overnight backpacking trip! Adding one or more nights in the mountains before or after your climb is a great way to add more adventure, acclimate, and break up long treks into shorter chunks. It’s also enjoyable in and of itself, with opportunities for wildlife viewing, late nights around the campfire, and long naps in your sleeping back or hammock. I put together seven of my favorite 14er backpacking trips, ranging from short 1-2 night trips to more involved 3-4 night treks. First, here’s a quick refresher on backpacking in the Colorado mountains.
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14er Backpacking 101: A Refresher Guide
The most significant difference between single-day 14ers and overnights is the need for significant gear. You will most likely need:
- A sleeping bag and sleeping pad
- A backpacking bag with 50-70 liters of capacity
- Trekking poles for support
- A backpacking stove, fuel, meal kit, and food
- A water purification system, like a filter or iodine tablets
Backpacking campsites in most Colorado wilderness areas are dispersed, which means you’ll need to find your own campsite, ideally picking a previously used site to help concentrate your impact. Learn more about picking a campsite here. Some people prefer to hike all the way to the tree line to reduce their distance to the summit. Others experience dislike the potential for altitude sickness and harsh winds and stay lower down in the trees. The choice is ultimately up to you. On summit attempts, leave your camp and most of your gear behind and bring only the ten essentials to cut weight.
In terms of planning your trip, you can stay out a single night before your climb or take another day to relax before hiking back out. You could string together multiple 14ers along a route or use an out-and-back approach. All 14er backpacking trips can be customized to fit your exact needs. Be sure you bring a bear-proof container for food or a bag and ropes to hang a bear bag. With these best practices, here are my seven favorite 14er backpacking trips.
Short Trips (1-2 Nights)
Most of these 14er backpacking trips are short out-and-back trips involving one or two peaks. They’re great for weekend adventures and short holiday visits. They’re also better for beginners to 14ers and backpacking.
Mount Massive Southeast Slopes
This short backpacking trip was my first fourteener overnight. It’s not a very long trip, consisting of an out-and-back hike and scramble up Mount Massive, the second tallest 14er. There are three major creek crossings below the tree line, each with good dispersed camping sites. Many of them have good cell phone signals due to the line-of-sight to Leadville. This is helpful for those nervous about spending their first night out on the mountain. From the sites, it’s a quick hike up to the summit the following morning. You can spend another night at your site by the creeks or hike out to the trailhead for a quick overnight trip.
The Crestone Needle and Peak
Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle are two of Colorado’s more rugged fourteeners, originally named by European explorers more than 200 years ago. The approach hike up to these peaks is long and arduous, leading to camping areas surrounding South Colony Lake. It’s a pristine area that sees few visitors due to the long hike. If you have a 4WD vehicle, you can cut this down substantially. From the Lake, you can climb either or both of the peaks, usually over two days, making this a potential 1, 2, or 3-night trip, depending on what you want.
Snowmass Lake & Snowmass Mountain
Snowmass Lake is one of the most spectacular areas in the state, surrounded by snow-covered peaks and lush evergreen forests. The long backpacking hike to reach it keeps things quiet in the area, along with the difficulty of the class 3 Snowmass Mountain beyond it. It’s one of the few 14ers commonly climbed using crampons and an ice ax, which adds to the weight of your pack. You can break this trek into a more extended period by spending one extra night along the trail or take an extra night at the lake after your climb. This is the only one of these 14er backpacking trips that require snow climbing skills.
Kit Carson Peak & Willow Lake
The area around Willow Lake is among my favorite anywhere in Colorado. This high alpine lake is fed by an 80-foot waterfall that pours down a cliff into its depths. You can camp in an established camping area just below the lake and enjoy your dinner sitting on its shores. The next day, you can climb class 2 Challenger Point, and if the weather is good class 3 Kit Carson Peak as well. These aren’t easy 14ers, so the extra acclimation is helpful. Regardless of your reason, you won’t regret spending a few days in this stunning part of the state. It’s the prettiest lake and area of all of these 14er backpacking trips.
The Longs Peak Boulderfield
The boulder field is probably the oldest and most famous of the 14er backpacking trips on my list. Located just below the Keyhole on Longs Peak, this high alpine campsite is nearly 1,000 feet above the tree line. Grounds are sheltered by low stone walls constructed by hikers and climbers over many decades. These sites require reservations and permits well in advance, so start checking requirements nine months or so before you hope to do your climb. I warn you that this site is exposed to wild weather and winds. Between that and the altitude, few people report getting much sleep here. But then again, if it were easy, everyone would do it – that’s what makes it great.
Long Trips (3-4 Nights)
These treks are longer in duration, better for holidays and longer vacations. They’re more customizable, with 3 or more peaks to choose from of varying difficulty so you can create an adventure ideal for your experience level. Here are three longer 14er backpacking trips to plan on for this summer!
Four Pass Loop & Elk Mountain 14ers
The Four Pass Loop is one of Colorado’s better well-known 14er backpacking trips. Located in the Elk Mountains, it takes you over four major mountain passes over 3-4 nights: West Maroon – 12,500 ft.; Frigid Air – 12,415 ft.; Trail Rider – 12,420 ft.; Buckskin – 12,500 ft. I recommended taking it in a clockwise direction, but either way will work. The route includes many 14ers that can be added on to your itinerary, including Maroon Peak, Pyramid Peak, and Snowmass Mountain. In addition, you’ll see wonderful wildflower blooms if you take this trip during the prime July wildflower season. These 14ers are more dangerous, so save this trip until you’re a more experienced peak bagger and backpacker.
The Chicago Basin 14ers
The Chicago Basin is home to four major fourteeners: Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, Mount Eolus, and North Eolus. However, it takes both a train trip and a 6-mile backpack to reach this wilderness area deep in the San Juans. You can also forgo the train for a longer 11.5 miles trek into the mountains. The Basin is increasingly popular as more people work to climb the 14ers, so be careful to follow signs with guidance on where you should camp and avoid straying too far off the main trails. You can make this an intense long weekend and do 1-2 14ers, or spend several days in the Basin to climb all four.
Pine Creek and the Collegiate Peaks
The last of the 14er backpacking trips on my list is one of the longest, with the most options of all to customize your trip and itinerary. The Pine Creek Trail takes you deep into the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, very close to Mount Harvard, Mount Columbia, Mount Belford, Mount Oxford, and Missouri Mountain. There are many different trails and ways to link up any or all of these peaks. My tip is to build flexibility into your plans in case the weather does not cooperate. It isn’t fun hiking 10 miles out through mud after two full days of nonstop thunderstorms.
14er Backpacking Trips: 7 Fantastic Options
As you can see, there are tons of great options in Colorado when considering 14er backpacking trips. You can do a short overnight, out-and-back climb on the weekend or take five days to climb multiple 14ers in a ‘choose your own adventure’ style trek. Regardless of how you plan your trip, remember to follow core safety practices: research your route thoroughly, check the weather forecast, bring the ten essentials, and leave your plans and expected check-in time with someone dependable. If you follow these guidelines, all of your 14er backpacking trips will be safe and successful! Good luck with your planning, and safe travels on the trail!