Published: April 20th 2008August 3rd 2007
Distance: 6 miles
Finally, my first 14er! Admittedly, I had never really been too gung-ho about climbing any of Colorado’s 14,000 foot mountains, but after having enough friends and co-workers tell me about their experiences, I decided to give it a try. With my dad in tow (or perhaps I was the one in tow… I’m not sure) I decided to head up to Guanella Pass and climb Mt. Bierstadt, one of the “easier” 14ers. Now, when someone refers to a 14er as easy, it is of course relative to other 14ers. From a day hiking standpoint, even the easiest 14ers are steep, high altitude hikes that can be quite strenuous. The more difficult mountains are generally even longer hikes or require some sort of technical rock climbing skill. Mt. Bierstadt is certainly not one of those, but it was still one of the more difficult hikes that I went on this year.
The routes up 14ers are grouped into five difficulty classifications with Class 1 being the easiest. Class 1 climbs generally involve hiking on a trail the entire way. Mt. Bierstadt is actually a Class 2, which means that there may be some off-trail climbing
involved in the ascent that may require the use of hands in a few places. Class 3 climbs are more difficult and definitely involve some scrambling (Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park is a good example of a Class 3, especially along the dangerous sections called the Narrows). Class 4 routes are typically done with climbing ropes due to sheer and dangerous drop-offs. Class 5 routes involve actual technical climbing skill and gear.
Mt. Bierstadt is one of the more popular 14ers in the state thanks to its easy access and close proximity to the Denver area. The mountain is just to the west of Mt. Evans (one of three 14ers visible from the Metro Area). Bierstadt is reached using Guanella Pass, which connects Georgetown along I-70 to the small town of Grant along US 285 to the south. Guanella Pass Road also covers the entire western end of the Mt. Evans Wilderness (see the Three Mile Creek entry). Mt. Bierstadt is connected to Mt. Evans via a ridge that also includes the aptly-named mountains known as the Sawtooth. In fact, the Sawtooth stands out as the more imposing peak compared to its taller neighbors. The route up
to the summit of Bierstadt takes hikers through several dramatically different biological zones including the infamous Bierstadt Willows closer to the trailhead. At one time, the dense, boggy willows presented a major obstacle for climbers attempting to find a direct route to the summit. Fortunately, the Forest Service has constructed a series of good boardwalks and clear trails through this area.
From the trailhead just off of Guanella Pass Road, the trail begins by descending for several hundred feet through the willows to Scott Gomer Creek (a little over a half mile in). After crossing the creek, the trail remains moderate for a short time before beginning the steep climb up to a ridge. At the ridge, there are some impressive views of the summit, the Sawtooth and the surrounding mountains around Guanella Pass. The trail levels out again for a brief time before the relentless and strenuous climb up to the summit. As the trail continues to climb, there are numerous sections that are crossed by nearly year-round runoff, creating occasional loose footing. The last few hundred feet to the summit is over boulders and there is no official route. This is the part of the climb that
gives Bierstadt its Class 2 distinction, so it is good to have hands free if you are hiking with poles. It should come as no surprise that the view from the summit is quite impressive. The view to the west includes most of Guanella Pass and the mountains beyond (including Grays and Torreys Peaks off in the distance). To the east, the summit of Mt. Evans is visible. With binoculars, one may even be able to make out the tourists who have driven to Evans’ summit. The top of Bierstadt offers plenty of places to sit and relax before the descent. We were a bit surprised to see a group of hikers break out an elaborate picnic involving beer, French bread, and cheeses. I guess that’s not exactly what I would consider trail food, but who am I to judge…
Using a much more difficult Class 3 route, climbers can actually combine Mt. Bierstadt and Mt. Evans in one hike. This route involves climbing over the Sawtooth’s steep and rugged summit using some harrowing ledges before reaching Evans’ summit. This route is only recommended for experienced mountain climbers. The trailhead at Guanella Pass also offers another shorter route to
the summit of Mt Evans via a steep gully that bypasses the Sawtooth. While this Class 2 route is shorter than the Bierstadt-Evans combination or the eastern approach via the Chicago Lakes trail, this ascent does not use an official trail.
Due to the very high elevation, any attempt at climbing a 14er should be started very early in the morning. The goal of any climber should be to reach the summit by mid-morning in order to avoid the likely afternoon storm. While we were on the summit of Bierstadt, a storm rolled in over Guanella Pass and all but obscured the western side mountains. Fortunately, the storm seemed to stall out before threatening the eastern side of the pass.
Directions: From the Denver area, take I-70 west to the Georgetown Exit 228. Follow signs through town to the Guanella Pass Scenic Byway. Guanella Pass Road winds its way up hill for about 12 miles before reaching the top of the pass and the Mt. Bierstadt trailhead. This side of Guanella Pass Road is a combination of rough paved and gravel road that should present no trouble for any car with a normal clearance. Parking is very limited
and will fill up quickly on weekends. Overflow parking is along the road and may add some significant distance to the hike. The state has been doing an extensive renovation of Guanella Pass for a few years now. During our visit, there was a bit of a traffic jam caused by construction vehicles moving slowly along the road.
There are more photos below