Rocky Mountain National Park is known for its breathtaking scenery and challenging hikes. There are more than 53 summits and the mountain terrain is extreme, to say the least. Longs Peak is a bucket list item for many hikers with its drastic terrain, extreme elevation gain and stormy conditions. But trust me, when you get your first view across the continental divide, you’ll forget about the return trip and marvel at the vast beauty of the Rockies.
Longs Peak is a keyhole hike, consisting of 16 demanding miles and 4,855 feet of elevation gain. The trail can be narrow, slippery and loose in many places, so if you’re not solid on your feet, you might want to tackle a safer summit in the park. The Longs Peak trailhead can be reached at Longs Peak Ranger Station just South of Highway 7 near Estes Park.
If you plan on camping overnight, you’ll need to plan well in advance as there are only four backcountry sites. But if you plan to attempt the climb in one day, start early (I mean early) and be prepared to face very crowded trails. Longs Peak keyhole hike is a very popular route for Rocky Mountain National Park visitors.
Still, the No. 1 factor to consider while planning this hike is the weather report. If there’s a storm moving in, you’ll want to delay your hike until the weather clears. The high elevation and dry climate creates a perfect recipe for thunderstorms, especially in the afternoons, so always keep your eye on the horizon. If you see a storm approaching, get to cover immediately.
On average, lightning strikes kill 11 people annually in Colorado. I suggest reviewing storm and lightning safety during your road trip as it may be some of the most useful knowledge you equip yourself with when tackling multiple summit hikes. If you can see lightning, you’re already within striking range and need to get to cover immediately.
In Maine, the northernmost end of the Appalachian Trail sets the stage for the awe-inspiring peak of Mount Katahdin. Not only is the peak the highest point in the state, but it boasts one of the most beautiful summit views of any other hike in North America. The popular route to take is the Hunt Trail, which launches you 5,720 feet in just under five miles. Before you know it, you’re standing in the clouds looking down and out over the broody dark forests of Maine.
Hunt Trail, like Longs Peak Trail, consists of some very dangerous terrain, so be sure to pack the necessary gear before hitting the trail. You’ll benefit from high ankle boots, a large supply of water and trekking poles for the final, and most challenging, leg of the descent. The foothills of Mount Katahdin seem to be swallowed up by the inland forests, so always be prepared with a map, compass and headlamp or flashlight. You’ll want to be equally as wary of rogue storms and weather warnings, so plan ahead and hit the trail when the day is clear. Always start early and watch the time — you don’t want to be picking your way back down the trail in the dark.
If you’re looking for a summit hike that’s truly wild, look no further than Desolation Peak. We’ve saved the best for last, because hiking Desolation Peak is not for the faint of heart. The trailhead is reachable only on a reservation basis, as you must first cross the vast waters of Lake Ross resting far below in the jagged shadows of Hozomeen Mountain. Once on the trail, you won’t need to worry about crowds and people given that Desolation Peak is the most isolated hike on your summit hikes road trip.
In fact, Desolation Peak is arguably one of the most remote hikes in the U.S. and one of the most isolated spots in the Cascade Range. So, to remain safe in a location as remote as this, make sure you take extra steps to ensure your safety and survival. Consider investing in a GPS or beacon as a backup if things go south, and make sure you have a cellphone with strong reception.
It’s roughly five miles to the summit from the shores of Lake Ross with a whopping 4,500-foot elevation gain. The trail will wind you up and up, through meadows and old growth until you reach the astonishing view at the summit. At the summit of Desolation Peak, there is an old fire lookout and Jack Kerouac’s little pagoda.
Standing there, you’ll look past the sharp peak of Mount Hozomeen rising sharply from below and out across the Cascade Range to the frosted mountain peaks in the distance. I promise the view from Desolation Peak is the perfect way to wrap up your ultimate U.S. summit hikes road trip.