FATMAP difficulty grade
Longs Peak is a true Colorado icon.
At 14,259 feet, it’s one of the state’s proudest 14ers, and the only one within Rocky Mountain National Park.
It looks imposing from every side, but the “Keyhole” notch allows passage to the summit.
The Keyhole Route is one of the most popular 14er routes in Colorado, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
The fame of Longs Peak draws more people toward its summit than rightfully belong there.
Nearly half who attempt it do not reach the top.
You must be very fit and accustomed to exposed scrambling at high elevation in order to climb Longs efficiently.
You must know your limits and use good judgment in order to climb it safely. The first 5 miles are on a maintained trail.
It’s steep and sustained, but not tough enough to discourage any seasoned hiker.
The trail conveys you to the high alpine at 12,800 feet, then it disappears in a valley of endless talus called the Boulderfield, where the Keyhole is visible above.
It’s an auspicious opening in a sheer-walled ridge.
Trudge up a long talus slope to reach it, then pass through the portal to the other side of the mountain. This is where the journey becomes less of a hike and more of a mountaineering route.
The rest of the way to the summit is marked by red and yellow bull’s eyes painted on rocks.
Pay attention to them for safe passage, but be prepared for some minor route-finding to follow the path of least resistance in between.
Of course, there will likely be a line of other hikers on the route as well, assuming you have decent weather.
Conditions can change quickly in the alpine, however.
If the weather turns bad, or if you begin to feel unwell from altitude or fatigue, remember that there’s no shame in turning around.
Making it to the bottom is more important than making it to the top. Beyond the Keyhole, you’ll first negotiate a series of ledges to traverse steep and somewhat loose terrain.
Descend slightly to reach the base of The Trough, a wide gully that leads upward toward the summit.
Punch up the center of this, through talus and loose scree.
Watch out for falling rock from hikers above, and be careful not to dislodge any on hikers beneath you. After the Trough comes the Narrows, a long ledge strewn with detached blocks.
Test them and use only the stable ones for handholds as you traverse above a sheer drop.
This section is intimidating, but only requires care to stay safe.
Next comes the final obstacle, dubbed the Homestretch.
It’s a steep granite face requiring hands and feet to scramble up.
Follow the cracks for the most secure holds.
After that, it’s easy walking to the broad, flat summit. The snow-free season on Keyhole Route is narrow, typically lasting mid-July to mid-September, which is also Colorado’s monsoon season.
The route is a different beast with snow and ice, especially on The Narrows and Homestretch sections.
Unless you are skilled in winter mountaineering, it’s better to brave the storms than the ice.
Because the route typically takes 10-15 hours to complete, you should start well before dawn in order to return from the alpine zone before afternoon storms brew.
There are a few storm shelters along the way, in case of emergency.
Remember that going down is half the journey, and often the most dangerous part.
Don’t push yourself so hard that you can’t safely complete the whole trip. There is the option to break the climb into more than one day by camping, but sites are limited and must be reserved in advance.
The best place to camp is at the Boulderfield, where a few designated sites are tucked among the rocks.
Camping is not allowed at the trailhead, so if you haven’t reserved a site, plan to get a very, very early start from wherever you are staying.
Try to reserve a site at the nearby Longs Peak Campground if you can. Sources: https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/upload/longs_peak_faq.pdf https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/upload/keyhole_route_2011.pdf https://www.14ers.com/route.php?route=long1&peak=Longs+Peak