What are Colorado 14ers? And why are they a big deal?

Morgan Tilton

Author Morgan Tilton on the summit of Castle Peak.Photo provided by Morgan Tilton

A smattering of the country’s highest-reaching peaks decorates each quadrant of Colorado and stands 14,000 feet or more above sea level. Those summits are colloquially known as fourteeners or 14ers.

Fifteen mountains in California rise to an elevation of 14,000 or more, reports the American Alpine Institute. Washington is home to three points above 14,000 feet, outlines world-class mountaineer and guidebook author Gerry Roach. At least 22 peaks in Alaska rise to an elevation of 14,000 feet or more, according to the U.S. Department of Interior.

However, exceeding every state nationwide, Colorado is home to 58 mountains that reach 14,000 feet above sea level, according to the Colorado Geological Survey. Meaning more than half of the country’s known 14ers are in the Centennial State.

Views of Conundrum Peak and Cathedral Lake from the Northeast Ridge of Castle Peak.Photo by Morgan Tilton

Why do some lists say there are 54 Colorado 14ers?

Various organizations report different numbers regarding the qualified 14ers in each state including Colorado. For instance, some sources say that Colorado has 54 fourteeners or that California has a dozen.

The exact number depends on the criteria used.

Most 14,000-foot peaks are officially named and recognized on United States Geological Survey (USGS) maps while others are not. Not every 14er list includes both.

In Colorado, some 14ers are side-by-side and connected by a saddle, which is a ridge that sags between the two summits like a bow.

Some organizations only recognize a 14,000-foot peak that has at least 300 feet of prominence from the saddle that connects to the nearest, higher peak. Meaning, the elevation difference between the low point in the saddle and the summit needs to be at least 300 feet. If prominence is met, the peak is given a verified or “hard” rank among the 14ers in that list.

A reflection of Snowmass Mountain on Snowmass Lake.Photo by Morgan Tilton

For instance, 14ers.com, a widely used and trusted resource for climbing 14ers in Colorado, features a list of 53 fourteeners that are properly ranked, because they meet the rule of prominence. Then the source lists five additional peaks that are legitimately named by the USGS but unranked.

Gerry Roach, the author of Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, of which a 4th edition was released in May 2022, extensively covers 14er routes and variations. His guidebook includes the five peaks with sanctioned names that are unranked plus the 53 ranked peaks.

For peaks without specified elevations on a USGS topographic map, Roach extrapolates the elevations of summits and interpolates the elevations of saddles to determine if they are hard ranked.

One peak in his book is soft ranked, North Massive: The peak does not have a listed elevation but based on contour lines, which usually have 40-foot intervals, it could rank.

For a bonus, Roach adds another 14 points that reach 14,000 feet but are not rightfully named or ranked. According to that checklist, Colorado boasts nearly 73 summits for ultra-achieving aficionados.

Looking toward Capitol Peak from the Southeast Ridge of Snowmass Mountain.Photo by Morgan Tilton

Why peak baggers want to hike the Colorado 14ers

There is no formal reward, certificate, or database for climbers that complete all of Colorado’s 14er ascents.

A handful of websites allow you to track your personal summits including Peakbagger.com and 14ers.com.

Simply put, the bucket list is iconic among mountain travelers, fun and interesting to pursue, and each person has their own select style.

Certain hikers aim to hike one 14er while others want to summit all the 14ers in the mountain range that is closest to where they live.

Others want to summit all the peaks in the summer. Only a handful of adventurers seek to complete all the 14ers in the winter.

Views of Snowmass Lake, Snowmass Peak, and Hagerman Peak (L to R) from the southeast ridge of Snowmass MountainPhoto by Morgan Tilton

Guidelines for summitting Colorado’s 14ers

If your aim is to complete all Colorado 14ers, it’s up to you to decide which list to refer to—54 or 58 14ers—and the guidelines.

Broadly, an ascent is bona fide when someone ascends from the base of a peak to the summit under their own foot power.

Purist climbers also believe that you should ascend at least 3,000 vertical feet for the summit to count. Meaning, that if you want to summit two 14ers connected by a saddle, you’ll need to climb the entire approach twice instead of bagging a two-for-one.

Descending the northeast ridge of Castle Peak.Photo by Morgan Tilton

How many people climb Colorado’s 14ers?

Roach estimated that nearly 3,000 mountain climbers had summited all of Colorado’s 14ers, according to the third edition of his guidebook, which was published in 2011.

Last year, an estimated 303,000 people hiked Colorado’s 14ers, which was down from the year prior due to wildfire smoke, closures, and access issues, according to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. That number was lower compared to an estimated 415,000 hiker use days in 2020.

Despite that year-over-year dip, climbing the tallest peaks in Colorado continues to become more popular.

Remember, regardless of which list you choose to follow, you can set your own goals!

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Adventure journalist Morgan Tilton covers the outdoors with a focus on travel, industry news and human endurance. Featured in more than 70 publications, she’s a recipient of more than a dozen North American Travel Journalists Association awards.

Crested Butte, CO

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