I started hiking more seriously this year and decided to climb my first 14er. But I had two requirements. It had to be easy to access, with no entrance fees, and I didn’t want the mountain to destroy me. I decided on Mount Bierstadt.
The problem was the weather didn’t cooperate. July and August 2023 in Colorado was unusually wet and stormy, and hiking up (or down) a mountain in a thunderstorm wasn’t my idea of a good time. I had to wait.
Finally, a high-pressure ridge settled over the Front Range, and I got my chance. A friend and I loaded up our stuff and hopped in the car. The forecast was accurate; we arrived under an indigo sky with just two wispy clouds in sight.
I strapped on my gear, cinched it tight, and set out to climb Bierstadt. Now I’m here to share my preparation, tips, and the highlights of my journey.
Map of Mt. Bierstadt Hiking Trail
Preparing for Mt. Bierstadt
On average, this hike takes five to seven hours to complete. I did it in about six hours. However, I did take multiple breaks and lingered at the summit for 30 minutes.
Full disclosure: I’m not in the best of shape, even though I work out and hike regularly. So if you’re in decent shape, take your time and you’ll also be able to do it.
When to Hike
A couple of factors influence when you want to arrive. The first is the time of year; the second is the day of the week. Of course, you’ll find more hikers during the summer and on the weekend.
With that in mind, get to the trailhead at or before 5 a.m. during peak season, to dodge any hazardous weather. At high elevations, conditions change rapidly, and thunderstorms regularly roll in by mid-afternoon.
If you’re lucky enough to hike during the week, you can show up a bit later, but the proximity of the hike to Denver means there are no parking guarantees.
I found parking on a road parallel to the trail around 7:30 a.m. on September 7th. Had I arrived later, I would have had to park at overflow parking below and walk up to the trailhead.
What to Bring
Hiking a 14er is no walk in the park. You’ll want to bring the following to ensure a safe trip.
- At least three liters of water
- Calorie-dense food like jerky, protein bars, or your favorite hiking snack
- Sturdy hiking boots with good ankle support
- Gloves and a hat
- Extra layers of clothing
- Sun protection (UPF-rated clothing, sunglasses, sunscreen)
- A headlamp and batteries (if starting before sunrise)
- Rain gear (just in case)
- Trekking poles if you need extra support
I used AllTrails+ for directions to the trailhead and the path up the mountain. AllTrails+ is a useful smartphone app that lets you download offline maps, check trail conditions, estimate elevation gains, and a lot more.
You’ll need a paid AllTrails+ account to get offline maps. Download those at home, while you still have access to wifi. In the high country, your phone will have few if any bars.
If you want to avoid paying, check out maps.me. However, I can’t speak to its mapping of Mt. Bierstadt, so you may want to research that first.
Getting to the Mt. Bierstadt Trailhead
The trailhead is located near Guanella Pass
One of the main reasons for Mt. Bierstadt’s popularity is its proximity to Denver and the Front Range metro area.
From Denver, take I-70 westbound to the Georgetown exit or 228. Travel south on County Road 381 (a.k.a. Guenella Pass Scenic Byway) for 9 miles until you see the parking lots.
From C470, exit west onto Highway 285. Take the Grant exit and head north on Guanella Pass Road.
FYI: Guenella Pass is a winding mountain road teeming with wildlife; I saw a moose on the way up and a mob of rams on the way down. Take the posted 15 MPH speed limit seriously — wildlife can pop out of the brush unexpectedly, and the cars ahead of you may brake suddenly.
Hiking the Mount Bierstadt Trail
Mount Bierstadt is rated as one of the easiest fourteeners to climb, but reaching the 14,060-foot summit is not for the faint of heart. The trail has a few 40% grades and an overall elevation gain of 2,736 feet. For casual hikers like me, that means aching legs at day’s end.
And remember: the hike starts at over 11,600 feet. If you’re from sea level, consider acclimating to the lower oxygen levels by staying in Denver (or higher) for two to three days beforehand. You’ll look better in your souvenir photos if you’re not gasping for air.
Altitude sickness is no joke. Even if you live at, say, 4,000 feet, plan on a slow but steady hike, and don’t be surprised if you still run out of breath occasionally or get dizzy. Also, be sure to drink lots of water to avoid high-altitude dehydration.
And, of course, keep an eye on the weather. It’s often quite windy up there, and bad weather can blow in quickly. If you get soaked, or your hair starts standing on end due to nearby lightning strikes, you’ll quickly realize how exposed you are, perhaps miles from any shelter.
Walk the Planks
Your hike starts with a slight descent through a field of willows and shrubs and to a boardwalk. This elevated path takes you through the marshland vegetation and protects your boots from the muck and branches below.
The gentle pitter-patter of my boot soles on the planks nearly lulled me to sleep. But with Mt. Bierstadt in the distance, I had to keep my focus.
The marshland planks eventually gave way to solid earth, but soon you’re likely to be hopping across small creeks fed by melting snow. Since this was summer, the crossings were small and easy, and my boots stayed dry.
Ascend the West Slopes
After crossing the creek, you’ll encounter a series of mellow switchbacks that continue a gradual climb up the mountain. But soon you’ll reach steeper inclines that will banish any illusion of an easy hike.
At this point, the hike became a slog for me. I climbed and climbed and climbed, scanning for the trail cairns ahead for the route that would guide me to the summit. The rapidly thinning air required far more rest breaks than I thought I’d need on a 7.2-mile hike.
At this elevation, some hikers may experience vertigo, as I did. At one point, I stopped to look behind me, and an eerie dizziness came and went, but never entirely took hold.
Look Back, Go Forward
Vertigo be damned, I just had to look back at the lovely vistas. For example, the top-left portion of the photo above shows a splash of red painted on one of the mountainsides. As I climbed higher, I couldn’t help but marvel as that splash grew into a large trowel stroke.
The rocks eventually gave way to boulders, and then the trail became spotty and harder to follow. However, the cairns kept me on track. Then the wind picked up considerably.
As I clambered over the boulders, an experienced Mt. Bierstadt hiker gave me some good advice. He recommended hugging the left side of the cairns as I ascended and soon a clearing would appear. I followed his advice, and the summit slowly came into view.
Summiting Mt. Bierstadt
After I reached the clearing, I had one more big push to reach the top. Like most of the hike, it’s relatively straightforward and was actually a relatively fun scramble.
I picked my way through the boulders, creating solid contact with each and enjoying the challenge of navigating the rocks using both my hands and feet. It can feel dicey up there, but I realized that the trail was mostly solid underfoot.
The wind was a constant companion, reminding me of its presence with each whip to my eardrum. Taking my glove off briefly froze my fingers for about thirty minutes, even once the glove was back in place. Lesson learned: stay geared up because the wind can quickly suck heat out of your body.
Mountaintop vistas are why we climb in the first place, and Mt. Bierstadt delivers 360 degrees of melt-your-eyes beauty.
I spotted the lakes and swampy areas to the west, near the trailhead parking lot. Then I looked east to catch Mount Evans surrounded by a chorus of other high-elevation peaks.
I found a homemade sign jammed in the rocks, a gracious gift from a previous hiker — and I’ll bet you find one, too. I wasn’t so sure about taking the picture, but I figured it would provide excellent fodder for dating profiles. All that was left to do was to descend on my somewhat rubbery legs.
Final Thoughts: Hiking Mt. Bierstadt
Mount Bierstadt challenged me. I’d never before hiked an incline that steep, and I was happy to finally reach the top. I needed more rest stops than expected, and it took conscious effort to keep the occasional vertigo at bay.
Experienced hikers and climbers will probably chuckle at my newbie drama, but those brutal uphill stretches felt like they would last for days. But those stunning vistas from the summit made it all worthwhile.
What was your first fourteener like? Or have I got you thinking about scheduling your first one? I guarantee it will be an eye-opening experience you’ll never forget. And if you prepare well, stay hydrated, and don’t get discouraged, you’ll reach what feels like the very top of the world.
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Last Updated on October 14, 2023