In late June, I visited Colorado and decided that we had to do a 14er. I realized only later that we’d never been above 13,000 before in our lives (except in airplanes, and that doesn’t count), and if I’d known, I probably would never have even considered doing something that high, but since I didn’t know, I chose the highest 14er I could find that looked like it had an easy trail. Thus, we found ourselves climbing Grays Peak, a 14,270 ft. mountain just south of I-70 in central Colorado. Just think: when we were at the top, we were higher than Mt Shasta in California!
To get to the trailhead, take I-70 to Exit 221 (Bakerville), and head south until the road T’s, left and just across the bridge for those coming from the east (Denver), just off of the exit to the right for those coming from the west (Loveland Pass). Go to the somewhat left/straight, and take the dirt/gravel road that leads upward towards Stevens Gulch and Stevens Mine (there may be signs for Grays Peak Trailhead). The dirt road is accessible for those without 4-wheel-drive, although I would recommend high clearance. It isn’t necessary, but would probably be helpful—I saw plenty of cars at the trailhead, but if you’re driving a car, be sure to take it slow. The road squiggles its way up for about 4 miles before coming to a parking area that is probably full, unless you’re there in the evening. You can continue up the road past the primitive toilets to find other places to park. The trail starts next to the bridge and signs, across from the primitive toilets.
Grays Peak is the 12th highest peak in the continental US, and the 9th highest peak in Colorado (Mt. Whitney and Mt. Williamson in California, and Mt. Rainier in Washington are the higher peaks outside of Colorado). In other words, this is a really high peak, and the air at the top gets quite thin, especially for those of us who are used to living at 500 or so feet above sea level! You can also add a couple of extra miles to the hike and go up the 14,267 ft. Torreys Peak, which stands right next to Grays Peak. Together, the trails up these peaks are 9 ¼ miles round trip.
We started up the trail around 10:30am—much too late to start hiking to a high peak on a summer day. Most of the people we met were coming down, because they had the sense to get off of the mountain before the chance of afternoon thunder showers. The trail was well-maintained, and although we did have to cross a stream, there were plenty of stepping stones. Also, there was a snowfield or two that we needed to cross, but it really wasn’t bad, and plenty of people had done it before us. The first mile or so of the trail is somewhat flat, as it is following a stream though an alpine valley. But, the mountains loom ahead, and give the feeling that you won’t be hiking on anything too flat forever!
After the trail crosses the creek the real hike begins. It switchbacks its way up the side of the mountain with no real let-up. I had picked this mountain because people on the internet had joked that the park service was planning on making it wheel-chair accessible. I suppose that it could be with some work, but it is still steep, and the steepness is accentuated by the fact that you start at 11,000-something feet, and then climb to 14,000 feet. The air simply isn’t as full of oxygen up here! When you’re up this high, be sure to wear sunscreen—at 12,000 feet, sunscreen does you about half as good as it would do at sea level, because the atmosphere is thinner, and thus the sun’s rays are more intense. In other words, if you’re using 50 spf sunscreen at 12,000 ft, it’s like you’re using 25 spf sunscreen…wow, now there’s a revelation…
Eventually, you will come to a sign pointing out the trail to Torrey’s Peak. You can either take the trail up there now, or climb up to Grays Peak, and then take the ridge over to Torreys. Either works. We decided to bag Greys, since it is higher, and we weren’t sure what the weather was doing. White clouds were filling the sky, and we were hoping these wouldn’t turn into thunderheads.
As we neared the top, several of us began to experience a little altitude sickness, such as breathlessness, headache, very slight nausea, etc. One of my brothers said later that he couldn’t even talk straight (but I think part of that was trying to help one of the 5-year-olds up the trail—he needed all of his breath for getting himself up, not dragging someone else as well!). If you develop symptoms like these, you’re supposed to head back down immediately, but I guess we didn’t feel it bad enough to turn back within a half a mile of the top.
We finally made it to the top around 1:30. Although I had read that it is usually overrun with people, we had the entire peak to ourselves. But, as I said, they all knew better than to be up on a 14,000 ft. peak with threatening thunder showers. We heard a few rumbles in the distance when we were at the top, so we had a quick snack, took a few pictures, and quickly headed back down for the safety of our vehicle, now close to 4 miles away. After what we’d gone through to get to the top of Grays, and with the weather the way it was, we decided to leave Torreys for another day.
We stopped a mile or so down the trail for a more substantial snack, and as we did, it started to rain. Let me warn you, get an earlier start than we did, so that you don’t get in a thunderstorm. It rained, hailed, and thundered (I only saw one flash of lightning, though) the entire way back to the parking area. After we got back, the rain did stop, but we ended up spending the next morning drying out. There weren’t any signs about not camping, and we were well off of a paved road and in a national forest, so we set up camp along the road beyond the parking area. There is also some old mining stuff in the area which might be interesting to check out sometime. If we ever do this again, I think we’ll camp beyond the parking area and get an early start, instead of driving from Breckenridge the morning of the hike.
Other Colorado Posts:
Ute Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park