After hiking the tallest peak in New Mexico (see blog post about Taos, NM), I had some blisters for a few days. We stuck to some smaller hikes in central Colorado while my feet healed. Finally, we felt ready to take on the 14ers we had made a goal to do before the end of the trip! If you aren’t familiar, a “14er” is a mountain over 14,000 ft. Colorado has 58 of these available to hike!
Hiking a Colorado 14er is a huge accomplishment and many people make a goal to hike all 58 of the peaks. There are some considered more beginner friendly than others for a few reasons, but it’s important to remember that even an “easy” 14er is still going to be extremely tough and strenuous. Never underestimate the elements up at 14,000 ft….
I’d for sure call myself a beginner in the 14er game. I’ve only hiked two so far (many more to come) and I did the more “beginner” friendly ones. I’m staying “beginner” because both hikes had different elements that made them more challenging or easier than the other. Here’s what ya need to know!
This was my first 14er ever, and I’m so glad it was! I feel a little spoiled by how great this hike went for us.
I think Mt Sherman is a great beginner trail because there are a few flat areas to catch your breath and the elevation gain doesn’t feel too serious until towards the end. Some other big summits just feel like they are uphill the entire way. Not to say this isn’t a lot of uphill, but there are definitely one or two flat spots to stop or take it slow. One of the reasons it may not be the best beginner trail is because of access. It’s 2 hours from Denver but the last 30 minutes is all unpaved roads that requires 4wd and high clearance. Here are some things to know about Mt. Sherman:
Mt Sherman can technically be accessed through Leadville, but the main trail head used is over near Fairplay. We were in Leadville when we decided to hike this because we could see it from where we were, but decided to drive about two hours to the other side of the mountain where the main trail head was. From my research, the Leadville side was way way harder in terms of elevation gain, so the extra two hours was worth it. You can access the trailhead location by literally typing in “Mt Sherman Trailhead” into google maps and finding the Fairplay one. Here’s the address just in case: 4 Mile Creek Rd, Fairplay, CO 80440
The road to get here is NOT paved. The road gets worse the closer you get to the trail but the beginning isn’t too bad. Definitely plan to take a car with 4wd and high clearance.
There are multiple campgrounds you can pay to stay at OR you can always free camp! One place you can camp is at the trail head itself. This would be great if you are sleeping in your car specifically. Otherwise, there are random areas of dispersed camping along county road 18 (the road the trail head is on). Just look for signs about private property, but there are plenty of places to camp. BRING BUG SPRAY!
Length and Elevation Gain
According to All Trails, the hike is 6.5 miles round trip and 2,460 ft of elevation gain. The very beginning of the hike is pretty steep with some elevation gain and then some flat areas to catch your breath in the middle. Once you are at the base of the summit, this is when you get a lot of loose rock and have to scramble in some areas. The last part is probably the hardest, but you are almost done so it’s motivating to keep going.
This is my number one advice for all hikes ever (unless you want to do a night hike). START EARLY! I mean like before the sun is up type early. This is for multiple reasons, one being to avoid people. There will be others starting early, but not nearly as many that will be showing up later. The trails can get very very crowded during the summer! Another reason to start early is because of afternoon thunder storms that will come out of nowhere. You do not want to be up at 14,000 ft when lightening strikes. Another great thing about starting early is that you are back at the car before noon and have the rest of the day to do whatever you want!
What to Wear/bring
Of course the weather starting out is a lot different than what it ends up being at 14,000 ft. I always recommend pants or zip off pants because it will be cold at the top and you have no idea what that wind is going to feel like till you are up there. Everyone I see in shorts looks so so so miserable at the top. Avoid cotton in case of rain and pack a rain jacket. I wore a water wicking shirt, pants, a base layer/sweatshirt, synthetic down jacket, beanie, wool socks, and boots. I took on/put on so many layers during this hike. One thing I WISH I had for the hike are gloves.
Bring lots of water! I always take a 2 L camelback and an extra L just in case. I also suggest bringing real food in addition to snacks, just in case. I always bring at least a pbj sandwich!
This was our second 14er of the trip. The views were great but there were some differences between Bierstadt and Sherman that were trade offs, depending who you are. Bierstadt is considered a good beginner trail, but I personally thought the climb was harder than Sherman. It was flat at first but once it was going straight up, it didn’t stop. The reason I think Bierstadt is seen as a more beginner friendly location vs Sherman is the actual location. Bierstadt is a lot more accessible from Denver/Boulder area. A huge thing is that the road is completely paved and there is a parking lot with pit toilets. This means you don’t need a 4wd or high clearance vehicle, making it accessible by everyone…. and let me tell you…. everyone goes to this one. The accessibility is really great at Bierstadt, but the crowds are the reason I won’t do this hike again. Here are some things to know before doing Bierstadt:
Bierstadt is only located about an hour away from Denver/Boulder area making it super accessible and a popular trail. The entire way is paved and super easy to get to. All you have to do is put the trail head location in your phone and there will also be signs once you are taking the paved switchbacks up to help.
Camping gets a little more complicated near Bierstadt. Park rangers are really cracking down during the pandemic. There are multiple campgrounds you can pay to stay in, but of course I’m going to tell you about free camping cause we are on a budget. There are multiple pull offs you can park your car and then there are signs that say you cant camp within a certain amount from the road. This is a good option if you are tent camping, just make sure you hike in a little bit to set up tents. If you are in an RV or car camping, you can camp at the trail head. You aren’t supposed to straight up set up a tent, but you are welcome to sleep there overnight. A lot of people do this because some people start as early as 3 am to get there for sunrise. You can also tent camp here, but you will need to walk on the trail and be a certain distance from the parking lot to do so. We slept in our car and the only issue is how busy the parking lot is throughout the night. We went on a Tuesday night thinking it wouldn’t be as crowded (we were wrong) and people were coming into the parking lot to camp and even starting their hike the WHOLE night so it was a little hard to stay asleep.
According to All Trails, this hike is 6.8 miles round trip and 2,719 ft of elevation gain. This is a little more elevation gain than Sherman, which is why I personally thought this one was more challenging. Bierstadt actually starts out flat and a little downhill for a mile or so, but is then straight uphill with scramble the rest of the way.
This advice is still the same because you still are risking afternoon thunderstorms. However, you are unfortunately not going to be able to avoid people. There are hikers as early as 3 am in my experience. The earlier you go, the less people for sure, but you won’t have the trail to yourself. You still should start early to avoid the INSANE crowd of people you will see after 9-10 am. I mean, it’s insane.
What to Wear
I’m recommending the same as above, but i will say that this hike was a lot warmer and a lot less windy. I didn’t need to put my synthetic down jacket on at all. I’m not sure if it is always this way, so still dress prepared for elements.
To sum all of this up, both of these 14ers have their challenges and beginner friendly elements. The hike will still be harder than your typical hike for a few reasons, but you can read the information above to decide what is best for you. There are 58 14ers in Colorado, so always do research on other mountains you might be interested in doing before going! Stay aware and be safe.