Introduction: Ascend Long's Peak Via the Keyhole Route
This guide will provide you with the information you need to successfully and safely reach the summit of Long's Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. There are several routes up the mountain, but this guide describes the most popular one called the keyhole route. This information only applies to attempts made during the summer months (May-September) since winter climbs will require very different equipment and skills. Almost anyone in good physical condition can get to the summit and back in one day. The total distance is 16 miles round trip and takes approximately 12 hours to complete on average. Directions begin from the trailhead, so you will need to look elsewhere for driving directions, where to park, and local regulations. Make sure to carefully review the preparations and precautions before beginning.
The picture below shows the Long's Peak summit from just above the treeline.
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Step 1: Precautions and Supplies
Some precautions before you begin:
The keyhole route on Long's Peak is classified as a class three hike, meaning that scrambling is involved but climbing equipment is not necessary except for personal comfort. Scrambling implies the use of hands will be necessary. It is worth noting that even though no technical skill is required, anyone with fear of heights or falling should not attempt this hike. Also, anyone with unsure footing or poor balance should not continue beyond the keyhole. Overall, the hike is 16 miles round trip with over 5,000 foot elevation gain. (a vertical mile!) If this seems too much for you, it is still rewarding to follow the trail partway up and stop at locations such as chasm lake or the keyhole.
Time of Year
The best time to climb Long's Peak is from June to August when most of the snow and ice is melted. During May and early June, ice can still be present near the summit, adding significant danger. Later in the year the climb can be complicated by snow, colder temperatures, and more unpredictable weather.
The summit of Long's Peak is 14,255 feet above sea level. At this height, altitude sickness is common and can be deadly. To avoid altitude sickness, it is best to spend at least two days at high altitude (around 7,000 feet or higher). Most towns in the area will have this elevation so get a hotel and relax a couple days before attempting the ascent. If you are from an area with high elevation this should not be necessary. During the hike, make sure to drink lots of water, even if you are not thirsty. Dehydration is a major contributor to altitude sickness. The first symptoms of altitude sickness are headaches and dizziness, so if you experience these it is important to rest until they subside. If these symptoms persist or worsen you need to turn back; do not try to be tough because altitude sickness severly affects the brain and can be fatal.
Severe storms occur almost every afternoon in the mountains. They arrive suddenly and can spell doom for the unprepared. Over 50 people have died on Long's Peak, mostly due to lightning strikes, slipping, and hypothermia: all of which are related to weather. Above 11,500 feet there is no tree cover to shield hikers from rain, hail, and deadly lightning. Your best hope is to avoid the storms altogether. An early departure time is vital in order to be off the mountain by mid-afternoon. If you plan to reach the summit make sure to be on the trail NO LATER THAN 4:00 AM! During the hike, if you see dark clouds or hear thunder turn back immediately.
What to Bring
Backpack - A backpack built for hiking is best, but most backpacks should work fine. A quality hiking backback can cost anywhere from 75 to several hundred dollars.
Hiking Boots - hiking boots provide ankle support and have the better traction than tennis shoes.
A typical pair will cost $100 or less.
Long Pants - Temperatures in the morning are commonly in the 30's so dress accordingly.
Sweatshirt/jacket/other warm clothes - Wear as many layers as necessary to keep warm. Even on the warmest days, the summit can be under 40 degrees fahrenheit.
Plenty of water - Bring at least two quarts per person
Food - Granola bars, dried fruit, and trail mix are good options to bring. Quantity depends on how much you think you will want during a 12 hour hike.
Sunglasses/sunscreen - At high altitudes the sun's effects are magnified so it is extremely important to keep protected.
Rain poncho - Keeping dry in the event of rain will help prevent hypothermia
Head lamp/flashlight - You need to be able to see during the dark morning hours of the hike
Step 2: Starting Out - Alpine Forest
Before heading up the trail, make sure to sign your name in the register. This is an important safety measure to keep track of who is on the mountain. If anyone goes missing, the park rangers will know and be able to send a rescue party. Make sure to start your hike no later than 4am if you plan on reaching the summit that day. Once again, this is important because storms are common in the afternoon and you do not want to be caught in foul weather on a mountain. On my trip, we hit the trail at 3am and there were already over a hundred people signed in ahead of us that day, some as early as midnight.
The trailhead is located at 9,700 feet elevation. The initial portion of the trail consists packed dirt riddled with rocks and roots, so be careful with your footing. You will find a flashlight or headlamp to be useful here since it will still be dark. Follow the trail steadily uphill through the woods for approximately 2.5 miles until the trail emerges from the treeline. You are now just above 11,000 feet and the trail flattens out at this point. Continue another half mile to a trail junction; to the left is chasm lake and to right is Mills Moraine. Take the right fork.
Step 3: Mills Moraine to Granite Pass
Granite pass lies two miles beyond the chasm lake junction. The trail transitions from dirt to crushed rocks and begins another gradual climb up the slope of mills moraine. The picture below shows the condition of the trail across Mills Moraine, looking back towards chasm lake junction. Once you have traversed two miles across the slope you arrive at granite pass (12,000'). The trail forks once again at this point (see the second photo); take the left fork this time. The trail switchbacks up another slope for a mile before reaching the boulder field. The right fork leads to a campground which is popular for people who spend two days on the hike and don't want to spend much of the hike in the dark.
Step 4: Boulder Field to the Keyhole
The boulder field marks the 6 mile point of the hike. The first photo is the view from the boulder field entrance looking towards the summit. When you first enter the boulder field, the trail is well defined. Moving deeper into the boulder field, the trail eventually disappears. Locate the keyhole at the top of the slope in front of you and head that direction (See the first photo). At first the boulder field is more of a rock field as seen in the second photo. The boulders become the size of cars near the keyhole so careful scrambling is necessary to pass. At the far end of the boulder field there is a steep slope at the base of the keyhole. Scramble up the boulders on this slope, being careful not to fall into the large cracks between them. At the top of this slope is the famous keyhole, a location named for the unique shape of the rock formation (see the third and fourth photos). Less than two miles separate you from the summit, but these two miles can take as long as the first 6. This is the turn-around point for many hikers since the path beyond the keyhole is much more physically demanding, treacherous, and exposed.
Step 5: The Keyhole to the Trough
Beyond the keyhole there is no trail. The suggested route is marked by red and yellow dots painted on the rocks. These dots function as cairns (rock pile trail markers) since the slope is too steep to assemble actual cairns. At times it may not be apparent where the next dot is so survey your surroundings before moving on. There are a couple areas where you must cross very exposed portions of the slope. Keep your weight as far left as possible (against the uphill portion of the slope) and make sure to get solid hand holds before moving your feet. As you traverse the back side of the mountain, you lose some elevation before eventually arriving at the base of the trough.
The first photo is the view from the keyhole.
Photo two shows the path leading from the keyhole towards the trough.
The third photo shows one of the marker dots on the trail.
Step 6: The Trough
The trough is by far the most strenuous portion of the hike. It is an extremely steep gully that ascends 600 feet in a quarter mile. When climbing up through the trough, be very careful not to knock rocks down the slope behind you as they could severely injure the people below you. Also keep a good eye up the slope for possible falling rocks. If you inadvertently knock a rock down the slope or see a falling rock yell "ROCK!" loudly so everyone near you will be aware of the danger. It will likely be necessary to take many rest breaks during the trough ascent, so try to stay out of the way of others while resting. The pictures show the view from the bottom and top of the trough. At the top of the trough you will climb over a ridge to the left and enter the most intimidating portion of the route, the narrows.
Step 7: The Narrows
The narrows portion of the route is often referred to as the crux, or the most difficult portion of the route. This section is a horizontal move across a sheer cliff wall; it is not physically demanding but the mental challenge can be hard for some to overcome. The route becomes only a couple feet wide as is passes along a vertical cliff wall. Be extremely careful where you place your feet and try to keep a hold of the cliff wall as much as possible. When passing people who are headed the opposite direction, the person who stops should press against the wall and allow the other person to step around them. Some areas are too narrow for two people to pass each other, so look ahead to make sure nobody is already headed towards you on those sections. Now is not the time to be taking pictures; wait until you are clear of the narrows and standing in the larger area at the other side so you are not in others' way. There can be ice on the rocks here year round, so keep a keen eye open for it. One slip here will send you plummeting over a thousand feet to the valley below. Make sure to move slowly and surely, watch the rocks, grip the wall whenever possible, and don't lose your focus. Once safely on the other side, you are only a couple hundred feet from the summit!
Step 8: The Homestretch
Take a deep breath now that you are safely across the narrows. What lies to your left is the last stretch of the route, thus it is called the homestretch. DO NOT get overly excited and rush to the top. This section is still very steep and exposed, so slipping would still be the end of you. The best and safest way to ascend the homestretch is via the several cracks that run vertically up the slope (see how people in the first photo are in single file lines). These cracks will provide ample holds for your hands and feet as you climb. However, there will likely be significant amounts of ice on this slope. Depending on the recent weather and time of year, the homestretch might not be safely passable without proper equipment (crampons, ice picks, and ropes). Check with a ranger before beginning the hike to get a report on conditions at the summit. The top of the homestretch is the final destination, the summit. You now stand at 14,255 feet, the highest point in Rocky Mountain National Park! Take some time to rest and recover before beginning your descent. The second and third photos are from the summit and looking down the homestretch, respectively.
Step 9: The Descent
The trip back down the mountain is just as tiring and even more dangerous that the ascent. It is much easier to slip or trip while moving downhill than while climbing up. Take great care with your footing and respect the people below you. Always yield to people who are moving up the mountain. The homestretch and the trough are the two toughest portions to descend. It is easier to descend backwards facing the cliff wall, like climbing down a ladder. This makes it much easier to grab a hand hold quickly in case of a slip. Once you reach the bottom of the trough, the rest of the trail is not nearly as steep or dangerous so you can treat it the same as during the ascent.
The three photos show the views down the homestretch, the trough, and the keyhole.
Make sure to sign out of the register once you reach the trailhead so rangers do not count you as a missing person.