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Backpacker Magazine – June 2012

Best Day: Longs Peak via Clarks Arrow and the Keyhole

Scramble up a 12.7-mile sneak route to the park's highest peak.

by: Kim Phillips

Your goal for the day: Summit 14,259-foot Longs Peak (the Rockies’ northernmost Fourteener) before noon, when thunderheads often charge the Front Range. Get a 3 a.m. start to reach the scrambly off-trail portion by sunrise. Follow East Longs Peak Trail (1) up Alpine Brook to a three-way junction on Mills Moraine (2), where ptarmigans are perfectly camouflaged against the grayish rocks in summer. Bear left on the Chasm Lake Spur Trail toward Longs’s sheer 1,000-foot Diamond Face.

If you’re on pace, dawn will begin to drench the alpine landscape in rosy hues just as the trail ends east of Chasm Lake at mile four (3). Climb a user trail southwest across rocky tundra into the broad, boulder-filled gully below 13,911-foot Mt. Meeker (you’ll scale nearly 1,900 feet in the next .8 mile). Pick the path of least resistance through the stepped cliff bands and rock ramps at mile 4.6 (4). (Tip: If you venture into class 4 terrain, you’re off-route.)

After cresting The Loft (5), a broad, slightly sloping boulder field between Meeker and Longs, connect cairns northwest to the top of a steep, loose class 3 gully (6). Downclimb it nearly 200 feet to a ledge that runs to the base of the Palisades cliffs (look for the faded Clarks Arrow, painted on a west-facing boulder by former park ranger John Clark).

Next, traverse gullies to Keplinger’s Couloir (7) and crawl up scree to a wide ramp that links to the Homestretch (8). Scale airy, cracked slabs of granite for the final 450 vertical feet to the summit. Longs’s blunt, larger-than-a-football-field crown overlooks alpine lakes cupped by glacial rubble and Powell, McHenrys, and Chiefs Head Peaks—a ridgeline of Thirteeners two miles west that form the Continental Divide.

After cautiously crab-walking down the Homestretch, traverse exposed ledges to The Trough couloir (9), which typically holds snow into mid-July. Descend boulders (watch for rockfall), then contour north to the Keyhole’s window-like rock notch (10). After a slow scramble down the 1.2-mile-long Boulderfield, turn right on Granite Pass (11); close the loop a mile later back at Mills Moraine.

GPS data Get free GPS data and print custom maps for this route at


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