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
- Distance: 20.4
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.
Location: 40.275007, -105.56473
Stay on East Longs Peak Trail by veering left at the Y-junction.
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.
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.
Location: 40.270847, -105.584262
The trail swings back to the left toward Mills Moraine.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
Location: 40.260897, -105.620766
Start the slow scramble down the 1.2-mile-long Boulderfield.
Location: 40.264222, -105.615773
Privy in the Boulderfield
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.
Location: 40.265661, -105.592596
Close the loop back at Mills Moraine. Turn left at the 3-way junction and backtrack to the trailhead.
Location: 40.254213, -105.615199
Below the Summit
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The last stretch is steep, and wee exposed.
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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.