A Tale of Two Colorado Summits: Climbing Longs Peak and Mount Sopris

A journey up Sopris is like a rocky walk in the clouds.
A journey up Sopris is like a rocky walk in the clouds. Avery Stonich
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Compare climbing Longs Peak and Mount Sopris, and people might look at you funny. Holding court over the Front Range and Rocky Mountain National Park, the 14,255-foot Longs is one of Colorado’s most iconic mountains, the state’s 15th highest and a magnet for mountaineers.The 12,965-foot Sopris, meanwhile, tends to get lost in the shuffle of Colorado’s 700 tallest peaks, sometimes garnering just a sideways glance on the way from Carbondale to Aspen.

Don’t let the numbers fool you, though: These two mountains may be a world apart reputation-wise, yet can dish up a similar ass-whooping. A climb up Longs’ Keyhole Route, or topping out on the twin peaks of Sopris, requires a significant amount of sweat, a slog of almost 15 miles round-trip, and climbing more than 5,000 feet.

Each mountain offers its own distinct magic. Here, we break down both, so you'll have all the intel you need to climb up either.

Mount Sopris—Stately but Subtle

From Carbondale, Sopris looks like a massive pile of rock.
From Carbondale, Sopris looks like a massive pile of rock. Avery Stonich

If Sopris managed to poke up another 35 feet, it might attract more of the limelight among Colorado peaks. Yet this stately mountain is no shrinking violet: Its vast rocky slopes, with just a modest skirt of trees, rise more than 6,000 feet from the Roaring Fork Valley. To knock out both of its summits—East and West Sopris—is arguably harder than many 14ers. Settle in for an adventure that might span 10 hours or more.

It's hard not to pause at the alluring lakes along the way up Sopris.
It's hard not to pause at the alluring lakes along the way up Sopris. Terry Stonich

The approach to Sopris starts outside of Carbondale at the Thomas Lakes Trailhead, at 8,635 feet. This relatively low start—as far Colorado peaks go—means the trail takes its time busting above treeline, meandering past glimmering aspen forests, open meadows fringed with shrub oak, and the alluring Thompson Lakes along the way.

After several hours, you finally emerge and wonder how so much of Sopris appears to be above treeline when viewed from Carbondale. Now is no time to ponder how far you still have to go.

A rest at Thompson Lakes reveals a long way to go to the top.
A rest at Thompson Lakes reveals a long way to go to the top. Avery Stonich

Fortunately the topography is sufficiently captivating to distract you from your laboring breath. The climb follows an interesting ridgeline littered with talus, before grunting up a seemingly endless rocky slope.

After emerging from treeline, the trail up Sopris follows an interesting ridge.
After emerging from treeline, the trail up Sopris follows an interesting ridge. Avery Stonich

You’ll be fooled by a false summit before reaching East Sopris Peak. Tag the top before continuing along the ridge for a half-mile to West Sopris Peak. You must summit both peaks in order to achieve the mileage and total elevation gain to rival Longs Peak.

A half-mile rocky ridge separates East and West Sopris peaks.
A half-mile rocky ridge separates East and West Sopris peaks. Terry Stonich

The descent is the real kicker. You might find yourself muttering, “I don’t remember there being this much rock.” It’s a quad burner that requires serious concentration on a jagged and unstable slope. At long last, you’ll reach shade. Try not to dwell on how long you have to hike below treeline: The scenery is just as stunning on the way down. When you finish, you will have earned that celebratory beer.

Longs Peak—A Rugged Icon

Visible for miles, Longs Peak stands as a sentry over the Front Range.
Visible for miles, Longs Peak stands as a sentry over the Front Range. Creative Commons - Max and Dee Bernt

And then there’s Longs, considered one of Colorado’s classic climbs, much of it in a dramatic moonscape above treeline. Its fame attracts the masses, so shoot for a fall weekday if your elbows aren’t sharp. The least technical route, the Keyhole, is still serious business, requiring some exposed scrambling. It approaches from the east, passes through the namesake notch, and then wraps around the other side of the peak for the final approach. Seasoned hikers can tackle it with no problem in the right conditions (when there’s no snow and the weather is good), although a healthy level of respect is advised.

Time it right, and the rising sun will light up the Keyhole with electric red.
Time it right, and the rising sun will light up the Keyhole with electric red. Avery Stonich

Climbing Longs Peak requires starting in the wee hours well before dawn. Park at the Longs Peak Trailhead at 9,400 feet, then strap on your headlamp for several hours of straightforward hiking in the dark. Your lack of sleep and limited vision will lull you into a meditative state, before the rising sun jolts you awake and reveals the Diamond, the stately peak’s sheer face.

For best results, time your approximately three-hour approach to the Keyhole so you arrive just as the sun crests the neighboring ridge, lighting up the rocks with electric red. The dawn light is a relief as the terrain morphs into a rocky Boulder Field.

Views from the Trough resemble a moonscape.
Views from the Trough resemble a moonscape. Avery Stonich

Once you pass through the Keyhole (pausing to explore the round rock safety shelter), buckle your seatbelt. Cross a series of ledges, with painted bull’s eyes to lead the way. Then you reach the Trough, a narrow gulley of loose rock that climbs 900 feet to a saddle. Watch your footing.

At the top, venture out onto the Narrows, an exposed stretch of about 250 yards that might give you the willies.

The Narrows traverses a section of ledges with steep drop-offs.
The Narrows traverses a section of ledges with steep drop-offs. Avery Stonich

Finally, you'll make it to the Homestretch, a veritable scramble that requires climbing hand over foot. A lot of people get into trouble here, so be careful. The summit comes quickly, with a broad, flat top and expansive views.

The Homestretch—the final approach up Longs—requires some scrambling. Don't fall.
The Homestretch—the final approach up Longs—requires some scrambling. Don't fall. Avery Stonich

The descent is long and arduous, requiring just as much concentration as the climb. The last three miles will make you beg for your car. After 11-plus hours, you’ll finish bone tired, in the best possible way.

From the top of Longs, you can see down into Estes Park and beyond to peaks farther north.
From the top of Longs, you can see down into Estes Park and beyond to peaks farther north. Avery Stonich

Two mountains. Two vastly different personalities. Each spectacular in its own right. No matter how you slice it, you’re up for a superlative day. Choose Longs if you want bragging rights (our 10 Things to Know Before Hiking Longs Peak is a great starting point) and Sopris if you’re up for a surprise from one of Colorado's most underrated peaks.

To really be struck by how they compare, tackle both within a matter of days. After that, it might take a while to catch your breath.

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