Climbing above 14,000 feet in the Colorado is never what you’d call easy–unless you’re a Sherpa–but this circuit puts a fit, acclimatized hiker on top of three Fourteeners (two official, one unofficial) with far less effort than most. Credit an unusally high-elevation trailhead–Kite Lake sits above 12,000 feet–and a series of trails with moderate grades and good (read: not eroded) footing. The payoffs are a good workout and some of the biggest views in the Rockies–only two hours from Denver. Halfway between Leadville and Vail, this swath of peaks in the Mosquito Range features broad, open summits connected by tundra-carpeted ridgelines that seem to go on forever. Below, deep valleys dotted with tarns and old mining ruins hold the promise of solitude-filled camping. In the distance, sharper and more forbidding peaks line the horizon in every direction.
For years, access to this cluster of peaks has been complicated by private land holdings and dangerous open mine shafts. Mining companies that own a patchwork of land here closed it in 2005, worried about liability should a hiker fall into a mine. Thanks to the town of Alma, the U.S. Forest Service, and efforts by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative and other trail groups, the area was reopened in spring 2009 that makes this loop possible once again. (Mt. Bross, a Fourteener just steps away from this route, remains off-limits. Don’t poach it: You may ruin future negotiations to open it to the public!)
For this trip report, my partners were Kris Wagner (BACKPACKER’s map editor), Dennis Lewon (executive editor), and Lath Carlson (a friend from Pennsylvania). We started from Kite Lake just before 9 a.m.; an even earlier start is wise, especially as thunderstorm season arrives, to make sure you get off the exposed summits and long ridgelines by early afternoon. The sweet part about this route–the miles you hike on gentle tundra ridges above 13,500 feet–also lengthen any escape should lightning start flashing.
Waterproof, high-top boots were essential for our attempt due to plentiful snow above 13,000 feet, but won’t be come mid-July. Sunblock and a good hat are also key, as there is zero shade on the entire route, not even a boulder to crouch beneath. Wind is also very common; we got hit with a stinging graupel storm about two-thirds of the way through the loop, so come prepared with a shell, gloves, and hat.