10 Things to Know Before Hiking Longs Peak

Hiking the Narrows section of Longs Peak.
Hiking the Narrows section of Longs Peak. James Dziezynski
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I included Longs Peak in my hiking guide Best Summit Hikes in Colorado because it truly is one of the best adventures in the Rockies. This 14,259 ft. behemoth of a mountain occupies a strange fascination for many hikers who have never climbed one of Colorado’s 14,000 ft. peaks (of which there are 53 official summits, as designated by the USGS, and 58 by aficionados of 14er bagging). This despite the fact it is generally considered to be in the top ten most difficult 14ers to ascend -- 9th or 10th by many rankings. Whether it’s the impressive summit block, its imposing reputation or its place in Colorado climbing history, Longs casts a siren’s song over many people who are looking to test their mettle in the mountains.

And many hikers end up biting off more than they can chew.

Done as a single day outing, the standard Keyhole route on Longs entails 15+ miles of hiking, 5,000 ft. of elevation gain, exposed scrambling with fatal fall potential and difficult terrain above treeline, where storms roar in with regularity. Add to that, many summer days are crowded with a wide variety of hikers, from couch dreamers to professional athletes -- many of whom will be knocking rocks down or causing a time consuming bottleneck. More than 60 people have died on Longs Peak and the majority of those have been on the Keyhole route.

Longs is a fantastic mountain, one that is a serious undertaking and must be undertaken with respect. If you’re considering climbing Longs, here are 10 things to know that will help ensure a safe, strong experience on the mountain.

Early morning at the boulder field.
Early morning at the boulder field. James Dziezynski

1 - More than 50% of those who attempt Longs don’t reach the summit.
Rocky Mountain National Park statistics report an average of 15,000 people attempting to ascend Longs per year (by all of its various routes). Recent records show about a 47% successful summit rate. Factors such as weather, late starts and underestimating the physical fitness needed for the hike all play into this number. The silver lining is that it shows that many people are smart enough to realize it won’t be their day -- a humbling lesson Longs is adept at teaching. Not reaching the summit shouldn’t be considered a failure however -- many people will learn a great deal about themselves and the mountain in the process and go on to successfully summit at a later date.

2 - Longs is not a good first 14er.
Over and over again, many hikers decide that Longs will be their inaugural 14er. Unless they already have a lot of mountain experience under their belts, especially at higher altitudes, Longs can be a rude awakening. Even at a quick clip, Longs can take 10 hours to hike and many people will spend 12 - 15 hours on the mountain. If you are new to 14ers, it is a very good idea to start with some of the less difficult summits: Grays Peak, Torreys Peak, Mount Sherman, Quandary Peak and Handies Peak are all much better mountains to serve as a first 14er. While it is not as difficult as the toughest summits (Little Bear Peak, Capitol Peak, Crestone Needle, Sunlight Peak), Longs has plenty of difficult, class 3 scrambling. Even though the route is well marked, it’s still possible to get off track. Work up to Longs and you’ll enjoy the experience much more than suffering through a long, hard day.

Mark Byzewski

3 - Longs is not a great place to bring your out-of-town friend for a little hike.
Many visitors want to hike Longs because it is one of the two most popular 14ers (along with Pikes Peak). Unless they are fit, experienced and acclimated, there are much better summits for them to enjoy (many well under 14,000 ft.). If they are insistent in climbing Longs, doing one or two warm-up mountains over 13,000 ft. is a good idea. They may just get their fill on those peaks!

4 - Starting early is essential.
A general rule is that you don’t want to be starting the Keyhole portion of the hike after 6 AM -- and it’s 5.5 miles from the parking lot on a long trail and a big boulder field before arriving at this locale. Getting on the trail at 2 - 3 am is considered a best practice (though if you can score a camping spot in the boulder field, you can obviously push that start time back). Even fit hikers should give themselves 12 hours round trip.

The Keyhole is the gateway to more difficult climbing.
The Keyhole is the gateway to more difficult climbing. James Dziezynski

5 - You’ll have over 5 miles of hiking before beginning the climb.
Over 10 total miles of the Keyhole route is the approach and descent. For those looking for thrilling scrambling from the start, Longs is sure to disappoint. Many inexperienced hikers begin too fast in the early morning and wear themselves out before passing through the Keyhole and onto the class 3 scrambling. Weary legs, lungs and eyes looking at the difficult 2+ mile passage to the summit have often decided to call it a day right then and there. Physical conditioning is important, but so is the mental aspect. Remember, your day doesn’t really start until the keyhole. Pace yourself and don’t burn yourself right out of the gate.

6 - Weather is always a factor.
Weather can move in any day, any time, with any forecast. In 2014, over twenty people were hit by lightning in Rocky Mountain National Park, resulting in two fatalities. From the time you breach treeline below Chasm Lake to the summit, there are very few places to escape a violent storm. There is a small shelter at the base of the Keyhole proper, but otherwise you’re exposed for several hours. A good rule for Longs is to summit no later than 10 am, though the earlier the better. Even in the heart of summer, bring warm clothes and rainproof layers. If it looks like you won’t reach the summit by 10, consider coming back another day. Storms can form in 15 minutes from a perfectly blue sky.

Tom Pratt

7 - Trust the judgement of Rocky Mountain National Park rangers.
Rangers often patrol the area between the boulder field and the Keyhole, making sure everyone is safe and offering help if needed. These rangers are experts at gauging Longs Peak’s temperament and very often, they will shut down the Keyhole if they see storms, strong winds or rain moving in. Sometimes this may not be apparent to the hiker, but these rangers know what they are talking about -- and they prefer everyone stays safe. Listen to them and don’t be afraid to ask questions; they are the best in the business.

8 - The Keyhole is a very crowded route.
On weekends, the trail up to Longs can seem more like a pilgrimage. If you start early enough, chances are you will make a relatively uncrowded ascent but you’re likely to get mired in the mix on the way down. Despite being a difficult mountain, many people still insist on giving it a go, even if they may not have the experience or fitness to perform well on the peak. Certain areas are prone to bottlenecks, such as the top of the trough and along the homestretch. Consider a weekday ascent to avoid the crowds and as previously mentioned, start early.

Some of the exposed ledges on the Keyhole route (photo taken in mid- August).
Some of the exposed ledges on the Keyhole route (photo taken in mid- August). James Dziezynski

9 - It’s difficult to secure camping.

There are a few designated camp spots in the boulder field but they are tough to secure. You can contact Rocky Mountain National Park to obtain a backcountry permit and reserve a camping spot -- but do so at least 30 days in advance of your climb. If you are attempting a spontaneous summit, you’ll likely have to start from the Longs Peak Trailhead or camp at the Longs Peak Campground at 9,500 ft, a few miles from the start of the trailhead.

10 - When you reach the summit, you are only halfway done.
Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that your are far from finished when you reach the summit of Longs Peak. With its broad, flat summit and expansive views, it is easy to forget your day is far from done. Descending the homestretch is perhaps the most unnerving and difficult part of the day. Returning the to Keyhole requires concentration -- make sure you are hydrated and fueled! Even after reaching the boulder field, do not let your guard down. It’s nearly three more miles to the relative safety of timberline. Once you are back in the trees, its ok to relax a bit more and enjoy the hike out.

For a wealth of information including maps, trip reports, route descriptions and photos, please visit 14ers.com Longs Peak page.

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