Rocky Mountain National Park: Longs Peak via Clark's Arrow and the Keyhole

Climb this iconic summit on an uncrowded sneak route.
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Climb this iconic summit on an uncrowded sneak route.

No fewer than 78 of the Rockies' 100 highest peaks lie in Colorado, but even with all of that competition, 14,259-foot Longs Peak is in a class by itself. Credit its striking profile, excellent rock, and spectacular approach. Not surprisingly, crowds of hikers storm the standard Keyhole Route in good weather. Avoid this bottleneck—and goose the adrenaline factor—by taking the 13-mile Clark's Arrow Loop. The clockwise traverse ascends 6,300 feet via the scrambly Loft/Clark's Arrow Route and descends the Keyhole.

Start at 2 a.m. at the Longs Peak trailhead and hike 4.5 miles to Chasm Lake, beneath the gigantic East Face Diamond. From Chasm, scramble steep slabs, then a straightforward but very narrow ramp (class 3) that leads south across cliffs to The Loft, a wide saddle between Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker. Cross the broad, flat Loft and drop down a steep, loose gully until you reach the base of the Palisade Cliffs.
Find the faded paint splotch called Clark's Arrow, then begin a 1,500-foot, class 3 scramble up Keplinger's Couloir, until you intersect the Homestretch, the upper section of the standard route. Ascend the final 350 feet to the broad summit. Complete the loop by returning on the Keyhole Route, which rejoins your inbound trail at Chasm Lake Junction. Caution: Snow, ice, rain-wet rock, and thunderstorms can complicate any climb on Longs.

INFO For information on permits, current trail and camp conditions, and wilderness guidelines, go to nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm

PERMIT A wilderness permit is required for all overnight camping in the backcountry. Reservations accepted ($20 administrative fee for permits during peak season). nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/backcntry_guide.htm

CONTACT Rocky Mountain National Park, (970) 586-1206; nps.gov/romo

-Text by Steve Howe, howephoto.us

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 20.4

Waypoints

LON001

Location: 40.272232, -105.556786

Get a pre-dawn start to achieve the goal for the day: Reach the off-trail portion by sunrise and summit 14,259-foot Longs Peak before noon, when billowing thunderheads often charge the Front Range. Follow East Longs Peak Trail under the glow of your headlamp; the path climbs steadily up the Alpine Brook drainage for three miles. Slower-paced hikers: Sleep at the Longs Peak Campground for a 1:00 a.m. start.

LON002

Location: 40.275007, -105.56473

Stay on East Longs Peak Trail by veering left at the Y-junction.

LON003

Location: 40.273108, -105.570674

Pass Goblins Forest on the left, a primitive campsite (permit required). Ahead, listen for the rushing waters of Alpine Brook as you climb a short series of switchbacks.

LON004

Location: 40.273196, -105.58015

Cross two footbridges over Alpine Creek. This is a good spot to top off water bladders, grab an early morning snack, or soak your tired dogs on the return trip. In a short bit, the trail leads above treeline (roughly 10,900 ft.) with the first sweet views of Longs Peak.

LON005

Location: 40.270847, -105.584262

The trail swings back to the left toward Mills Moraine.

LON006

Location: 40.265661, -105.592529

At the three-way junction on Mills Moraine, bear left (southwest) on Chasm Lake Spur Trail toward Longs’s sheer 1,000-foot Diamond Face. (Need a pit stop? The privy at this crossroads is the last one until mile seven.) During daylight hours, scan the open expanse for camouflaged ptarmigans, whose summer plumage perfectly blends into the grayish rocks of the moraine. In half a mile, cross Chasm Lake’s outlet stream above Columbine Falls, which pores over a 100-foot cliff band into Peacock Pool.

LON007

Location: 40.259216, -105.600398

The maintained trail ends east of Chasm Lake just as dawn begins to drench the alpine landscape in rosy hues. (The path on the right leads 1,000 feet to Chasm Lake.) Continue past the lake on a user trail that climbs southwest across rocky tundra into the broad, boulder-filled gully below 13,911-foot Mt. Meeker. Keep the aptly-named Ships Prow ridgeline to your right. Ahead: You’ll scale nearly 1,900 feet in the next .8-mile stretch.

LON008

Location: 40.256772, -105.602018

Stay to the left of the Ships Prow ridgeline and follow the user path that winds to the base of The Loft.

LON009

Location: 40.251773, -105.605328

The seemingly vertical cliffs at the base of Mt. Meeker pose a challenging route-finding problem. Pick the path of least resistance through the stepped cliff bands and rock ramps. Tip: If you venture into class 4 terrain, you are off-route. Backtrack and try again.

LON010

Location: 40.250446, -105.607238

Reach 13,450 feet on The Loft, a broad and slightly sloping boulder field perched between Mt. Meeker to the southeast (sidehike .2 mile to tag it) and Longs Peak to the northwest. Hike northwest across this saddle, connecting cairns to the top of a steep, loose class 3 gully on The Loft's western slopes.

LON011

Location: 40.251326, -105.613916

Downclimb the gully nearly 200 feet to a narrow ledge that runs below the Palisades cliffs, and look for the faded Clarks Arrow (a white arrow inside a circle painted onto the west-facing rock face by former park ranger John Clark). Next, traverse west to Keplinger's Couloir.

LON012

Location: 40.251658, -105.615799

Scramble up scree and boulders in Keplinger's Couloir toward The Notch, a deep gash separating the Palisades from Longs's summit block.

LON013

Location: 40.253198, -105.614533

Before you reach The Notch, connect to the wide ledge that runs northwest and follow it to the bottom of the Homestretch.

LON014

Location: 40.254237, -105.615416

The standard Keyhole route joins up with Clarks Arrow route at the Homestretch. Scale airy, cracked slabs of granite for the final 450 vertical feet to the summit.

LON015

Location: 40.254846, -105.615986

Longs Peak (14,259 ft.): The blunt and larger-than-a-football-field-size summit of Longs Peak (the park's high point and the northernmost fourteener in the Rockies) offers unrivaled sky-high views of alpine lakes cupped by glacial rubble and hundreds of other cloud-scrapping peaks, including a ridgeline of 13ers—Powell, McHenrys, and Chiefs Head Peaks—that form the Continental Divide two miles to the west.

LON016

Location: 40.254001, -105.615907

After cautiously crab-walking back down the Homestretch. Bear left and traverse exposed ledges on Longs south face that lead west to The Trough couloir.

LON017

Location: 40.254344, -105.618696

Descend boulders and rocky rubble in the The Trough (watch for rockfall from hikers above), which holds snow into mid-July (check trail conditions at nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/trail_conditions).

LON018

Location: 40.255949, -105.620617

Angle right and contour north along the Ledges’s rock shelves to The Keyhole (the route is marked with painted yellow and red bull's-eyes).

LON019

Location: 40.260517, -105.621239

Rest tired legs at The Keyhole, an overhanging rock notch high above Glacier Gorge, a glacier-dozed valley rich with vivid blue alpine lakes. Next, hike east through the Keyhole and start the slow scramble down the 1.2-mile-long Boulderfield.

LON020

Location: 40.260897, -105.620766

Start the slow scramble down the 1.2-mile-long Boulderfield.

LON021

Location: 40.264222, -105.615773

Privy in the Boulderfield

LON022

Location: 40.274177, -105.605427

Turn right at the Y-junction on Granite Pass and descend a mile to close the loop back at Mills Moraine; retrace the outbound route 3.3 miles to the trailhead.

LON023

Location: 40.265661, -105.592596

Close the loop back at Mills Moraine. Turn left at the 3-way junction and backtrack to the trailhead.

Homestretch

Location: 40.254213, -105.615199

Below the Summit

Location: 40.254229, -105.61743

The last stretch is steep, and wee exposed.

Ledges

Location: 40.259551, -105.620928

West side of Longs Peak in May.

View of Longs Peak

Location: 40.265086, -105.613761

Looking at the north side of Longs Peak from the Boulderfield.