Summer is over, days are getting noticeably shorter, the aspen are changing and three or four ski areas say they hope to open next month.
That doesn’t have to mean your hiking season is over, though. Fall can be a great time to hike Colorado’s higher peaks. They aren’t likely to be as crowded as in summer, the risk of afternoon thunderstorms isn’t as great and there’s bound to be great leaf-peeping opportunities while driving to the peaks.
If you yearn to get in one more good hike before the snow flies, here are three 13,000-foot peaks close to Denver we that we highly recommend:
Located on the Continental Divide, James Peak is a prominent high peak on the western horizon as seen from the scenic Buffalo Herd overlook on Interstate 70 at Genesee. It also overlooks the Winter Park ski resort, which lies only four miles to the west. From the summit of James, you can see the skyline of downtown Denver 38 miles away.
This peak is normally climbed via St. Mary’s Lake and St. Mary’s Glacier near Idaho Springs. A Colorado Mountain Club guide book, “The Best Indian Peaks Wilderness Hikes,” puts the round-trip hike distance at 7.2 miles via that route (some trail descriptions have it slightly longer), with an elevation gain of 2,950 feet. It’s also accessible via mining roads northwest of Central City, via the little town of Apex, but four-wheel drive vehicles with high clearance are recommended.
After you summit James, you can knock off two other nearby thirteeners, Parry Peak (13,391 feet) and Mount Bancroft (13,250), all of which are connected by short ridge walks. Bancroft is about 1.25 miles from James and Parry is about 0.7 of a mile from Bancroft.
We love this peak for multiple reasons. First, it’s prominently visible from much of the metro area, appearing as a distinctive hump-backed mountain in the Indian Peaks northwest of Boulder, so you get to relive your experience up there every time you see it on the western horizon.
It is accessed via the picturesque Brainard Lake Recreation Area, one of the most beautiful spots in the Front Range. And best of all, we think the views from the summit are as good as you will see from any Front Range peak. This summit is worth it just for the view of neighboring Mount Toll, a striking triangular peak that looms just a mile to the southwest.
Longs Peak, a majestic fourteener that is the tallest peak in northern Colorado, beckons 10 miles to the north. The hike to Audubon’s summit is 3.8 miles one way from the Mitchell Lake trailhead at Brainard Lake, according to a national forest route description. Just remember before you go: Entry reservations are required at the Brainard Lake Recreation Area.
Square Top Mountain
While hordes of fourteener climbers swarm Mount Bierstadt on the east side of Guanella Pass, you’re likely to encounter far fewer folks heading up Square Top on the west side of the pass.
This is a beautiful hike, 6-7 miles roundtrip, with an elevation gain of about 2,500 feet. The views of Bierstadt and adjacent Mount Evans to the east are grand, and an amazing panorama awaits climbers who reach Square Top’s summit. Four miles to the northwest are the twin fourteeners, Grays and Torreys, while the summit of Bierstadt is five miles to the east.
There’s a flat spot about three-quarters of the way up from the trailhead to the summit at 13,000 feet that we’ve found to be a great place to sleep under the stars and catch the sunrise coming up over Bierstadt, although it might be too cold to do that in the fall.
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