There is no easy 14er, but there are some that are better to start out on if you are a beginner. Mt. Bierstadt West Slopes trail is a great one to get you started, but it is still not without its challenges.
The Mt. Bierstadt West Slopes trail is classified by 14ers.com as a Class 2 hike, meaning it is slightly more difficult than simply walking up the mountain.
According to 14ers.com, a Class 1 is easy hiking and usually a good trail. I hiked Mt. Elbert (the highest 14er in Colorado) and it was labeled a Class 1. It about killed me. It was a great trail and very easy to walk on. But it was long and steep with 4,100 feet of elevation gain in five miles.
If I was that tired from a Class 1, I worried if I wouldn’t be able to make it up the Mt. Bierstadt West Slopes trail, a Class 2. However, I did more than OK. The Class 2 status comes at the end when you have about a 200-foot boulder scramble to the summit.
A Class 2 is described on 14ers.com as, “More difficult hiking that may be off-trail. You may also have to put your hands down occasionally to keep your balance. It may include easy snow climbs or hiking on talus/scree. Class 2 includes a wide range of hiking and a route may have exposure, loose rock, steep scree, etc.”
And really it is only on the last 200-foot pitch to the summit that required me to use my hands. The boulders were not hard to navigate either. I did take the wrong route a few times and had to hop or retrace my steps to find another way.
Finding the trailhead and camping
The Mt. Bierstadt West Slopes trail is an extremely popular trail. This is not a trail if you want to escape the crowds. One reason it is so popular is that it is easy to get to. The road to the trailhead might have several hairpin curves, but is paved the whole way.
The trailhead is at Guanella Pass on the Guannella Pass Scenic Byway. There is a nice large parking lot and pit toilets.
There is a campground a little lower toward I-70, but I simply slept in my car at the trailhead. Camping is not allowed at the trailhead. There is also designated parking along the road, but no camping.
To find the trailhead, take the Georgetown exit on I-70. Follow the signs to Guannella Pass Scenic Byway. The pass is about 12 miles up the road.
Trailhead to Ridge
One aspect this flatlander had to get used to while hiking in the Colorado mountains above the tree line, is being able to see your end goal … way off in the distance. I couldn’t understand how the end of a three and a half mile trail could be so far away. It was a little daunting at first, but then I also noticed how far I had already been.
The trail begins by going down a little ways, which isn’t great on the return when you are tired and have a last little uphill push.
Even though the trail begins above the tree line, you start off by walking through willows, which are like tall bushes that engulf you.
There are several boardwalks to keep hikers out of the mud and water from the mountain stream. I loved hiking through this ecosystem.
Looking to train for a 14er? This is what I did to get in shape.
As you get higher the willows thin and the trail turns and heads toward the northeast. The trail heads toward a ridge, and you can see the hikers in front of you disappear over the top of it. But you know it’s not a false summit because the real summit looms over you the entire way.
Ridge to Summit
Once the trail gets to the ridge, it turns toward the southeast and climbs steadily up the ridge. The path is nice and easy to walk on. I took many breaks to catch my breath as I climbed higher and higher in the thin air, so it took me a while.
The views of the Saw Tooth, a ridge between Mt. Bierstadt and Mt. Evans, are amazing on this part.
But I eventually made it to the top ridge. Along the top ridge the trail turns and heads back to the north to the summit. As you get closer to the top ridge, the boulders get larger and harder to walk on. It’s important here to follow the cairns, as the path fades into boulders.
At the base of the boulder scramble, you have amazing views to the east. You can see the drop from the summit (about 2,000 feet) to an alpine lake. There was a snow field there when I was there. I love seeing snow in August!
The summit is atop a large boulder field – like a giant piled up a handful of pebbles. Here the trail is almost nonexistent. I followed a man for a little way, but then took another route. Some other people followed me for a little bit, but then I came to a dead end and had to turn around. I felt bad for leading them astray.
The weather was beginning to move in, and I got in a hurry. I fell and banged my shin on the edge of boulder.
However, coming down the boulder field wasn’t near as scary as I feared. It was actually pretty easy.
Crowds and the Mt. Bierstadt West Slopes Trail
The Mt. Bierstadt West Slopes trail is a popular one, so be prepared for crowds of people. One reason the trail is so popular is because the road is paved to the trailhead. It is also a fairly easy – for a 14er hike. Another reason is that it is fairly close to Denver.
I started my hike at 5:30 a.m., and still met tons of people going up. The path is wide and you can tell it’s a well hiked trail.
But even with all that, it’s still a wonderful trail.