NOTE: This is the second in a series of Rocky Mountain trip reports. Part 1 was Quandary Peak, Part 2 is Mount Bierstadt and Part 3 will be Wheeler Peak.
Ah, Mount Bierstadt. Much traveled, much maligned, much misunderstood. The 14,060-foot peak about an hour’s drive from Denver has become one of the most popular Colorado peaks to climb, a perfect starting place for people wanting to bag the summits of that state’s highest mountains. So much so that some might argue that ascending its slopes has become cliché.
So that’s the mindset I had, at least to a degree. Much of the time, hiking in the high country boils down to the company you keep, and since I was enjoying this with my two brothers, I was able to put my preconceived notions about this Front Range peak on the back burner. And I’m glad I did.
Yes, Bierstadt can be overrun with people, especially on summer weekends. High traffic means a higher number of careless trekkers who don’t do their part in taking care of the mountain. But when you reach the trailhead and behold the mountain, well, I can’t imagine coming away being anything but impressed.
Mount Bierstadt is beautiful. Its landscape is, in parts, dramatic. And different than most peaks, as it isn’t draped in pines. Instead, its lower slopes are covered with thick willow alders that drink from a network of creeks, lakes and ponds. There’s a few pines, sure, but most of the mountain is without the pine and spruce so common in the Rockies. (Don’t get me wrong, I love pine and aspen forests. I’m just saying, it’s different and not in a bad way.)
Road construction up Guanella Pass made the going slow, so we got a late start, about 7:30 a.m. From the trailhead, you actually lose elevation as you hike down into the willows and make your way across to the foot of the peak. Not long ago, this was one of the worst parts of the trip, as it meant slogging through alders and tromping through a muddy, bog-infested marsh. No longer. The trail is good and places that used to be difficult passage are now traversed on wood plank boardwalks. I can’t think of a friendlier trail than the low portion of Bierstadt.
At the foot of the peak is a stream crossing at Scott Gomer Creek. You can either hop over some rocks or gingerly make your way across two thin logs. I suggest the former. The trail then rises gently until you get to an outcropping of rocks that makes for a nice spot for photos. Then it gets steeper. As we hiked further, there was a small break of flatter trails, then resumes going up in earnest. By now, the willows are long gone and it’s just tundra grasses and rock. But the trail is still excellent and easy to follow.
During our occasional stops, I was struck by the contrasts of Mount Bierstadt. Its west slopes are fairly gentle. But the connecting ridge between it and Mount Evans is a rocky, forbidding formation called the Sawtooth Ridge. The ridge can be traversed, but it’s not for the faint of heart. It has relatively high exposure to falls and requires a great deal of scrambling. And it makes for a long haul. For the purposes of our trip, the ridge was just something really cool to look at.
As was the case two days before, I was being outpaced by my brothers. I was slow and steady, but gradually fell about 200 yards behind them. By the time I approached the ridgeline, I was doing the “50 steps and stop” thing again which seemed to help me chew up the route in Quandary Peak days before. I must have passed and been passed by the same people half a dozen times. That pattern would end soon on the final pitch.
Before that, I have to mention something odd. It’s nothing new to see strange things in the high country. But my brothers and I were a bit perplexed by one climber who was heading up the trail barefoot. I can’t see why this would appeal to anyone, and what it would prove. But it is the weirdest thing I’ve seen on a mountain and made for a good laugh that day.
After awhile, the trail up Bierstadt disappears. To attain the summit, you have to climb over boulders and basically find your own way to the top. For me, this was a reward of sorts. As my brothers Mike and Steve started up the rocks, Mike said this would be where I would gain some ground. “This is his element,” he said.
And this turned out to be true. Finding routes, using your hands to ascend — all these things are interesting to me. It was fun, and sure enough, I caught up to them pretty quickly. People I’d been seeing along the way picked their way over the boulders more slowly and were left behind. There were a few patches of snow that had to be crossed carefully, as they were somewhat icy and slick. But it wasn’t anything too difficult.
Greeting me at the top were a number of people and some of the most impressive alpine scenes I’d ever seen. The Sawtooth Ridge on one side, Abyss Lake on another. To the west I could see Grays Peak and Torreys Peak, two other Front Range giants. Further away, I could see Quandary Peak, the mountain we’d scaled two days earlier.
The weather was perfect — light winds, warm temps and bright skies. Marmots and pikas darted about, looking for handouts. And for the second time in three days, the three of us relished in our successful summit bid.
One of the best things about Bierstadt is the forgiving trail on the downclimb. A year earlier, I was punished by Mount Yale’s steep, scree-filled route. Shavano’s rocky trail punished me back in June. And though Quandary was kinder, I still felt beaten down when we’d finished that one.
Not so on Bierstadt. The trail is free of a lot of the loose stones, exposed tree roots and jutting rocks that other trails possess. By the time you cross the creek, the walk is an easy one. I actually felt invigorated when we reached the trailhead parking lot.
Including a few breaks and a good half-hour on the summit, we finished this peak in a little over five hours. The total length, round-trip, is about seven miles.
Despite the crowds, Bierstadt is a peak I’d recommend, and it’s now among my favorites. But I’d also advise doing it during the week and not on a weekend. Folks had told us that on the previous weekend there were more than 100 people on the summit, and that’s a bit too much.