If you have your eyes set on the summit of Longs Peak, then you’ve set your goals high — quite literally. This famous fourteener offers a 15-mile round trip hike along the Keyhole Route, a route which has over a mile of elevation gain, loose rock, steep slopes, narrow trails near sheer cliff faces, and other trying conditions. It’s crucial to know what you’re getting into before you attempt to summit this peak, since it presents many hazards that should only be attempted by experienced, acclimated climbers.
That said, the summit is attainable, and hundreds of climbers successfully make the journey to the top every year. Preparing for the climb is key, and that’s the main focus of our series: Summiting Longs Peak — feel free to check out Part I: Preparation, if you missed it! For those who are making their first attempt at the summit of Longs, we’ve outlined some of the sections of the Keyhole Route trail, so that you can better understand the obstacles that you will face on the ascent.
A Word of Warning
Before we begin, we’re going to highlight the difficulty and hazards of this climb — if you read our last article you already know: Longs Peak is dangerous! The National Park Service points out: “The Keyhole Route is not a hike. It is a climb that crosses enormous sheer vertical rock faces, often with falling rocks, requiring scrambling, where an unroped fall would likely be fatal. The route has narrow ledges, loose rock, and steep cliffs.”
Be prepared. Be prepared to turn around at any point — do not succumb to “summit fever” if conditions are dangerous. Do not hike alone. Do not attempt to summit too late in the day (when weather conditions are more likely to change drastically in minutes).
That said, preparation and knowledge of the trail can help to make your journey safe. Let’s delve into the sections of the Keyhole route, so you can better understand the path to Longs’ summit.
The Lower Section
For the majority of the hike, you’ll spend your time on a well-maintained trail. The lower section of the trail is clearly marked, and it has been built up over the years into a series of stairs, more or less. You’ll start in a wooded section of Rocky Mountain National Park at the trailhead of Longs Peak. The trail rises gradually as you navigate through numerous switchbacks approaching treeline to the subalpine zone. Here, you’ll be surrounded by delicate tundra that is beautiful and breathtaking. Along the lower section of the trail, you’ll approach a variety of landmarks: At 1.2 miles up, you’ll see the side trail for Goblins Forest Backcountry Campground; at 2.2 miles up, you’ll pass treeline, at 2.5 miles up, you’ll see the side trail for Battle Mountain Backcountry Campsite; at 3.4 miles up, you’ll encounter the Chasm Lake Trail Junction; at 4.5 miles up, you’ll find yourself at the saddle that spans between Mount Lady Washington and Battle Mountain; and finally, at 5.9 miles up, you’ll reach the boulder field and Boulder Field Backcountry Campground. Take note, campsites must be booked in advance and there’s a long wait for most sites.
The Boulder Field & Keyhole
Once you’ve made it to the boulder field, the more technical parts of the climb begin, and the trail is more or less unmarked. At this point, you’ll find yourself in, well, a field of boulders. You’ll scramble over boulder after boulder making your way to the “keyhole” which is a semi-closed hole at the far end of the boulder field. Most of the boulder field is relatively flat, followed by a steep 500-foot climb to the keyhole. You’ll pass through the keyhole, providing you with a view of the boulder field below.
From the keyhole, you’ll begin to navigate “the ledges.” This section features sloped rock that cascades down to the hiker’s right during the ascent. Due to the nature of the terrain, the ledges section is marked with red-and-yellow painted bull’s eyes which indicate a general path for climbers to take to traverse this relatively difficult section. Be mindful that you should map out your path as you go along, and always aim for the next closest bull’s eye within sight. One particularly difficult portion has iron bars anchored in the rockface to aid climbers crossing a constricted space. At the end of the ledges, you’ll find yourself at the base of the trough, which is an ascent up towards the peak, instead of a traverse. Look for a gulley that ascends upward with loose, smaller rocks throughout — this marks the beginning of the trough.
The trough is a steep ascent and it is especially dangerous due to the loose rock over which you’ll have to scramble. Be wary of rock that can fall from above, and call out “Rock!” if you should knock rocks loose, in order to warn hikers below. The trough weaves up the mountain where you’ll find yourself at the top of the gulley where an opening brings you to the next section: “the narrows.”
There’s a reason this section is called the narrows: You’ll find yourself on a narrow ledge overlooking a cliff face on the hiker’s right as you ascend. Fortunately, the narrows are fairly short. Move slowly and cautiously across the narrows and yield to other hikers that have to pass in tight places. A misstep here is dangerous. You’ll find yourself at the base of the homestretch once you’ve traversed the narrows.
Once again, you’ll turn towards the summit of Longs at the final stretch. On the homestretch you’ll face a sloped granite slab which you will scramble up to reach the top. Again, bull’s eyes mark a general route that you can take. Be sure to get steady footing as you climb, and use your hands when necessary. Again, this section is fairly short, and it’s the last push to the top! Be wary that ice and snow may be on the trail, even in summer. The trail may also be wet, which can make surfaces slippery and dangerous.
You’ve made it! The summit of Longs Peak is surprisingly flat, with plenty of room to walk around as you catch your breath, take a break, and prepare for the descent. Be sure to eat a snack and drink water at the top. You’ll also find a marker on the highest rock at the summit, so be sure to find it and snap a photo if you’d like! As always, be wary of rapidly changing weather and don’t linger if it is late in the morning — leave plenty of time to head down safely.
Be sure that you have the energy to make the descent, and be mindful that the dangers of the trail still exist! Be especially cautious descending the homestretch (which may be slippery), the narrows (again, don’t forget to yield to other hikers), the trough (which has loose rock), and the ledges (which can be difficult to navigate). There are markers indicating a general path in the descending direction of the trough, so shoot for those bull’s eyes on the way down. Once you’ve made it past the boulder field and into treeline, hiking conditions are far safer, since you will be less exposed to lightning and weather conditions. Descend quickly if adverse weather conditions arise.
Stay Near the Trailhead
If you’re eager to give the Longs Peak summit a go, then it’s best that you find a place to stay near Rocky Mountain National Park. Here at Rams Horn Village Resort, we’d be ecstatic to have you stay in one of our cabins. We’re just minutes from the entrance to The Park, and a few minutes more to the trailhead for Longs, making our resort the perfect place to acclimate, prepare, and then unwind after a successful climb! Book your stay today!
Check back soon for additional tips on climbing Longs Peak in our final blog in this series: Summiting Longs Peak Part III: The Day of the Climb! Also, for further information on the various sections of the Keyhole Route on Longs Peak, feel free to check out the National Park Service’s informational brochure.