May is a transitional time in the mountains with many challenges for peak bagging. Reaching a 14er summit during this season is unpredictable due to variable snow and weather conditions. Depending on the year, you could experience a blizzard or summer-like conditions. Due to the snow that will almost certainly be along the trail, you will also need gear for traction and knowledge to watch out for avalanches and other threats. Not all 14ers are a good option in May; many trailheads remain closed due to snow until early June or later and many peaks have significant avalanche risk along their route.
The Challenges of Hiking May 14ers
Here’s what makes this time of year so challenging, and why the peaks below are a good idea for May hikes and climbs:
Snow and Trail Conditions: In May, many 14ers still have significant snow coverage, which can make trails more challenging to navigate and increase the time required for ascents and descents. Snow can also obscure trails, making route-finding more difficult compared to the summer months.
Avalanche Risks: Although the risk is generally lower in late spring, avalanches can still occur in May, especially on slopes that hold a considerable amount of snow. Hikers should be aware of the potential for avalanche risks, monitor avalanche forecasts, and know how to identify and avoid hazardous terrain.
Weather Variability: The weather in May can be more unpredictable compared to the summer months. Rapid changes in temperature, sudden storms, and persistent snow can make hiking more challenging and increase the risk of hypothermia or frostbite. Proper preparation, including checking weather forecasts and packing appropriate clothing and gear, is essential.
Limited Access to Trailheads: Due to lingering snow and trailhead closures, access to some 14ers may be limited in May. This can result in longer approaches, requiring hikers to cover more distance and potentially increasing the difficulty of the hike. It’s essential to research trailhead access and plan your hike accordingly.
1. Mount Bierstadt
Mount Bierstadt: A popular and accessible peak with stunning views and a well-defined trail. The closure of Guanella Pass adds 2 miles to the route but it is along an easily-travelled road and the area is much less crowded than during summer. This is one of the better times of year to visit Mount Bierstadt if you want solitude on the summit.
2. Mount Elbert
Mount Elbert: As the highest peak in Colorado, Mount Elbert is a must-hike for beginners, offering a moderate incline and clear trail. The east ridge has very low levels of avalanche risk and is popular with backcountry skiers as well. The upper trailhead remains closed until the snow melts out – in light snow years, that could be during May, but it is usually later in June.
3. Mount Sherman
Mount Sherman: With its relatively short distance and gentle slopes, Mount Sherman is a great introduction to 14ers for less experienced hikers. The route includes a number of historic structures from the gold and silver mining era, including the remains of a massive aerial tram that carried ore down the mountain from the mines to the mills. The standard route usually holds a cornice into May that may be hazardous – if so, consider taking the South Slopes route instead.
4. Quandary Peak
Quandary Peak: A straightforward hike along a well-traveled route, offering great views and a moderate challenge. This is typically the busiest 14er in May because the winter trailhead is only 300 feet away from the summer trailhead. The route follows a ridge that and is well travelled – microspikes are more than adequate from a traction standpoint for the east ridge route.
May 14er Safety Tips
Start Early: Begin your hike early in the morning to ensure you have ample time to complete your climb and descend before afternoon thunderstorms become a threat. Snow also tends to be firmer and more stable in the early hours, reducing postholing and avalanche risks.
Know Your Route: Familiarize yourself with the route you plan to take, including any potential alternate routes. Snow can obscure trails in May, making navigation more challenging. Carry a map, GPS device, or a smartphone with a reliable mapping app.
Practice Snow Travel Techniques: May hikes often involve snow travel, so ensure you’re comfortable with techniques such as self-arrest, using an ice axe, and wearing crampons or microspikes. Consider taking a snow travel course to boost your skills and confidence.
Be Prepared to Turn Back: In May, mountain conditions can change rapidly. Be prepared to turn back if you encounter dangerous conditions or if the weather worsens. Remember, the mountain will always be there for another attempt.
Stay Hydrated and Well-Fed: The combination of high altitude and physical exertion can deplete your energy reserves quickly. Bring plenty of water and snacks to stay hydrated and maintain your energy levels throughout the hike.
Monitor Avalanche Conditions: Snow conditions in May can be variable, and avalanche risks might still be present. Stay informed on current avalanche forecasts, and familiarize yourself with the signs of potential avalanche risks. Avoid crossing avalanche-prone slopes and be prepared with the proper avalanche safety equipment.
The Best 14ers in May: Now You Know
Tackling a 14er in May can be a rewarding and memorable experience, but it’s crucial to choose the right peak to ensure a safe and enjoyable hike. The four peaks mentioned in this blog—Mount Bierstadt, Quandary Peak, Mount Elbert, and Mount Sherman—are ideal choices for May hikes, as they are relatively accessible, have low avalanche risks, and can be completed within a single day. As you prepare for your adventure, remember to monitor weather and trail conditions, pack the appropriate gear, and follow responsible hiking practices. With careful planning and preparation, you’ll be well on your way to conquering these iconic Colorado peaks during the beautiful month of May. Happy trails!