Climbing Colorado 14ers has become an extremely popular hiking goal. Collectively, the 14ers see over 330,000 visits per year.
Interestingly, the state is also home to 584 named 13ers that barely get noticed by comparison.
My friend K. tells the story of climbing Fletcher Mountain (13,998′) in the summer and being the only person on top. As she was enjoying her solitude, she looked over at neighboring Quandary Peak (14,265′) and counted at least 50 people on the summit.
Even though Fletcher was just two feet shy of 14K and had the same jaw-dropping views, she had it all to herself.
Now, if you’re committed to becoming a Colorado 14er finisher, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re interested in branching out and trying some less crowded but equally breath-taking summits, here are some good reasons to make it happen.
1. The Colorado 14ers are getting extremely crowded.
I’m actually old enough to remember when you could drive to the Grays and Torreys parking lot at 8 a.m. on a July Saturday morning, grab a space, pee in the bathroom without waiting in line, and hit the trail alone.
Those days are long gone! The last time I climbed Kelso Ridge on a weekend, I arrived at 6 a.m. The lot was full, and cars were parallel parking about half a mile down the road. Leaving the trailhead felt like marching in a parade.
This is not the solitude most people picture when they come to the mountains to climb Colorado 14ers.
Now, you can often avoid the crowds by climbing on a weekday, climbing outside of the peak summer season, or using a less-traveled route. (Make sure it’s still well within your skill level, as the main route tends to be the easiest.)
By contrast, when you climb a Colorado 13er, parking is easy, and you may be the only person you see on trail all day.
When my friend and I climbed Mt. Ouray in 2017 (pictures in this post), we were the only car parked at the trailhead. We saw a couple on top of the mountain (who had come up a different trail) and passed one other hiker coming down. Other than that, we were alone all day.
The funny thing is, Mt. Ouray is 13,971 ft. tall, so it’s just a few feet away from being a 14er. The views from the top were just as spectacular, and we didn’t feel ripped off that we were 29 ft. short of 14er status.
2. Colorado 13ers tend to attract experienced, considerate hikers.
One of the most frustrating things about climbing Colorado 14ers is watching people completely trash them. Visit Mt. Bierstadt on any weekend, and you’ll see clueless hikers:
- Trampling the tundra
- Cutting switchbacks
- Littering the top with summit signs
- Blasting music from backpack speakers
- Leaving dog poop bags beside the trail (or letting poop lie or kicking it out of sight)
As someone who cares about the environment and adheres to Leave No Trace principles, hiking a crowded 14er can make your blood boil.
Fortunately, some people are starting to realize that our 14ers need protection. Groups like the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative provide usage monitoring, education, and trail maintenance that encourages hikers to stay on route. If you climb Colorado 14ers, I highly encourage you to check them out and get involved!
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that encouraging more people to climb Colorado 13ers is going to be great for conservation.
Because unless we do more to educate hikers, the 13ers are going to end up looking as rough as some of the popular 14ers.
But if you have the skills and desire to tackle the road less traveled, 13ers can be very rewarding climbs.
Instead of following a badly eroded trail, you may have to route find where there’s no trail at all. You’ll also experience an alpine environment that’s less disturbed by humans — which will hopefully help you realize how much help our 14ers need!
You’ll also find that 13er hikers tend to be more considerate, knowledgeable, and concerned about the environment. Granted, this is a sweeping generalization. But to put things in perspective, I’ve never met anyone blasting a backpack speaker on a 13er hike.
3. Colorado 13ers include some very cool climbs.
When it comes to mountains, size really doesn’t matter all that much. 😉
While some people attach almost mystical significance to the 14,000-ft. barrier, it’s silly to believe that Colorado 14ers are inherently better than 13ers. Or even 12ers on down.
Here’s a photo from the summit Mt. Olympus in Washington. It’s quite possibly the coolest, most challenging mountain I’ve ever climbed. Its elevation? A lowly 7,980 ft.!
So instead of thinking about the size of the mountain, start thinking more about the quality of the route. Will it be beautiful? Interesting? Challenging? What’s the solitude factor?
And instead of checking off an arbitrary list based on elevation, make a list of things you enjoy in a hike (difficulty, distance, location, etc.). Then spend some time researching routes that fit your criteria.
When you plan your hiking this way, you’ll find that the enjoyment factor goes way up.
Colorado 13er safety and enjoyment tips
Colorado 13ers tend to be more remote and less traveled than 14ers, so make sure you’re well prepared for your climb. Some resources to help you get ready:
- These 61 14er climbing tips also apply to 13ers.
- Unlike 14ers, relatively few 13ers have a well-defined trail to the top. Check out my wilderness navigation post to learn more about finding your way off trail. Consider investing in a navigation class if you enjoy this type of hiking.
- Carrying your 10 essentials is always important, but it’s even more important on remote, less-traveled routes.
- Always leave a trip plan with someone at home, and considering carrying a satellite messenger like Spot Gen3.
Some resources for learning about Colorado 13ers:
- 14ers.com – also has information and trip reports about many 13er routes
- SummitPost – data and many trip reports for Colorado 13ers
- Climb 13ers – this is a newish website created by a couple who has climbed all 584 ranked 13ers in Colorado. Let me know how you like it!
- Gerry and Jennifer Roach just released a new addition to their classic 13er climbing guide.
There you have ’em. My 3 top reasons that Colorado 14er lovers should check out the 13ers too.
Are you are 13er climber? Comment to share what you love about 13ers.
Originally published March 19, 2019.