Hiking 14ers in May: A Seasonal Guide to Colorado’s Most Iconic Peaks
With temperatures heating up in Denver and Colorado Springs by early May, a lot of people wonder if they can get an early start to their 14er season. However, May is a transitional time in the mountains, with significant variation from one year to the next. In light snow years, you may have clear trails by late May; in heavy years, snow may linger on trails into mid or late July. You need to research the weather and peak conditions extensively to ensure you are prepared for what the 14ers throw at you.
Although the conditions can be more challenging than in the summer months, the experience can be incredibly rewarding. This guide will help you prepare for a successful May 14er hike by offering advice on selecting an appropriate peak, checking conditions, essential gear, and much more.
Table of Contents
Section 1: Picking a 14er in May
When planning a 14er hike in May, it’s essential to choose a peak and route that are both accessible and relatively safe. Due to lingering snow and closed trailheads, lower elevation peaks and routes with southern exposure are often more suitable. Research your chosen peak carefully, paying attention to potential avalanche paths, snow depth, and trail conditions. Online forums like 14ers.com are a great resource for gathering information and connecting with experienced hikers.
If you’re new to hiking 14ers or have minimal experience, we recommend starting with these four peaks during May: Mount Bierstadt, Quandary Peak, Mount Elbert, and Mount Sherman. These mountains are generally more accessible by early May, have little to no avalanche risk along the standard routes, and are popular destinations, ensuring that others will be around in case of emergencies. Additionally, these peaks offer relatively short climbs, allowing you to complete them within a single day, unlike many other 14ers in May that require overnight treks due to trailhead closures.
1. Mount Bierstadt
While Guanella Pass does not open until the Memorial Day weekend, you can still hike to the summit of Mount Bierstadt in May without too much difficulty. The key is starting early to avoid getting bogged down in snow, slush and mud in the willows section towards the beginning of the summer route. Click here for more route info.
2. Quandary Peak
Quandary Peak’s winter trailhead is only 300 feet or so away from the summer trailhead – and the parking permit system does not kick in until late May/early June. This makes the peak the most popular 14er on this list during May. The east ridge is very straightforward. Follow the winter variation to avoid avalanche risk by staking directly on the ridge instead of veering off to the left as normal in summer just above the treeline. Click here for more route info.
3. Mount Elbert
As the highest peak in Colorado, many visitors and peak baggers want to reach the summit of this 14er. The east ridge route has very low avalanche risk and is relatively busy, despite a trailhead closure that adds 2-3 miles to the summer route distance. Regardless, it is a great trip if you have snowshoes and are prepared to use them. Click here for more route info.
4. Mount Sherman
Mount Sherman’s access road begins melting out in early May and you can usually reach the Leavick Mill site 1-2 miles below the summer trailhead. The summer standard route usually feature a significant cornice you should be wary of – if it is a concern, the south slopes is a preferred route. Check condition and trip reports on 14ers.com for updated info on the status of the peak. Click here for more route info.
Section 2: Checking Conditions
Before setting out on your hike, check the weather forecast, avalanche conditions, and peak conditions. Websites like the National Weather Service, Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and 14ers.com offer up-to-date information that can help you plan your adventure. Keep in mind that conditions can change rapidly in the mountains, so be prepared to adjust your plans if necessary.
Here are some links to bookmark for easy access in the future:
Section 3: Gear and Clothing
Proper gear and clothing are essential for a successful May 14er hike. In addition to the ten essentials, you will need additional items for traction on the snow and ice. I recommend Kahtoola microspikes. Do not attempt to use crampons or an ice axe without training and practice or they may be more of a risk than an aid. Wear gaiters to keep snow out of your boots. Dress in layers and opt for moisture-wicking materials to stay dry and comfortable.
The Ten Essentials for May 14ers
Section 4: Getting to the Trailhead
Before embarking on your hike, check trailhead conditions on 14ers.com and the weather conditions along the drive to ensure you can reach your destination. When driving in the mountains, snowy conditions are common in May. Consider using snow tires or chains, giving yourself plenty of time, and practicing caution on mountain roads. Keep extra blankets, food, and water in your car. If possible, carpool or use a shuttle service to reduce congestion and environmental impact.
Section 5: Snow & Avalanche Safety
May is a transitional month in the mountains, with lingering snow and potential avalanche risks. Be aware of the major types of avalanche risks, including slab avalanches, wet avalanches, and cornice collapses. Watch for warning signs such as cracking or collapsing snow, and always carry proper avalanche safety equipment. If you plan to climb frequently in snowy conditions, consider taking an avalanche safety course.
Section 6: Emergency Preparedness
In case of injury, illness, or getting lost, it’s crucial to have a plan in place. Familiarize yourself with basic first-aid skills, carry a well-stocked first-aid kit, and know the location of the nearest emergency medical facility. Always inform someone of your planned route and expected return time.
If you think you are lost, remember the acronym STOP:
- S: Sit down and take deep breaths to calm down.
- T: Think about the situation and your priorities.
- O: Observe your partners, gear, the weather, and other relevant details.
- P: Plan what to do to survive until you are found (assuming someone knows where you are).
Section 7: Leave No Trace in May
Protect the environment by following the seven Leave No Trace principles, including planning ahead, traveling on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly, leaving what you find, minimizing campfire impact, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
In May, be mindful of walking on snow or dry ground to avoid trampling fragile vegetation or contributing to trail erosion. When crossing muddy areas, stay on the established trail instead of creating new paths.
Section 8: Frequently Asked Questions
Hiking 14ers in May can be safe if you are well-prepared, choose an appropriate route, and monitor weather and avalanche conditions closely. It’s essential to have the proper gear and training for snow travel and to be prepared to turn back if conditions become unsafe.
You may need additional gear for hiking 14ers in May compared to the summer months, including microspikes or crampons, an ice axe, trek poles and gaiters. Always carry the ten essentials and dress in moisture-wicking layers to stay dry and comfortable. I also recommend a SPOT device or satellite messenger as less people are around and help is further away if something goes wrong.
Online resources like the National Weather Service, Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and 14ers.com offer up-to-date information on trail and snow conditions. Additionally, online forums and social media groups can provide firsthand accounts from recent hikers.
Dress in moisture-wicking layers to stay dry and comfortable during your hike. Start with a base layer to wick away sweat, followed by an insulating layer to keep you warm, and finish with a waterproof outer layer to protect against wind and precipitation.
Not all 14ers are easily accessible in May due to lingering snow and closed trailheads. It’s best to choose lower elevation peaks and routes with southern exposure for a safer and more enjoyable experience.
Yes, you can climb 14ers in May, but it’s essential to be well-prepared and choose an appropriate peak and route. During May, lingering snow and closed trailheads can make some 14ers more challenging than in the summer months. It’s important to monitor weather and avalanche conditions closely, carry the proper gear, and be prepared to turn back if conditions become unsafe. Some 14ers are more accessible and beginner-friendly in May, such as Mount Bierstadt, Quandary Peak, Mount Elbert, and Mount Sherman.
The best months to climb 14ers in Colorado are typically from June to September, when the weather is more stable, and most of the snow has melted. During these months, the trails are more accessible, and there is a lower risk of avalanches and adverse weather conditions. However, climbing 14ers outside this window is possible, but it requires additional preparation, gear, and experience, especially when dealing with snow and potential avalanche risks. Always monitor the weather and trail conditions before embarking on any hike, regardless of the season.
Section 9: Additional Resources & Links
- 14ers.com: Comprehensive resource for 14er information, trail conditions, and trip reports.
- Colorado Avalanche Information Center: Up-to-date avalanche forecasts and safety resources.
- National Weather Service: Accurate weather forecasts and alerts for mountain regions.
- Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: Information on responsible outdoor practices and the seven Leave No Trace principles.
- Upcoming Public Avalanche Training Courses: A list of AIARE training courses in Colorado and other parts of the country.
- The Ten Essentials of Mountaineering: A helpful guide on the critical gear and equipment that could save your life one day.
Hiking 14ers in May: The Final Word
Hiking Colorado’s 14ers in May can be a challenging but rewarding experience. By carefully selecting your peak, monitoring conditions, packing the right gear, and practicing safe hiking habits, you can enjoy the beauty of the mountains while minimizing risks. Always remember to follow Leave No Trace principles and be prepared for emergencies.
If you have experience or advice to share about hiking 14ers in May, please leave a comment below to help fellow hikers plan their May 14er adventures. Happy trails!
Alex is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.