13,000-foot peaks prove size doesn’t always matter

grenadier range colorado 13ers
The Grenadier Range in the San Juan Mountains tower above the Animas River.Tiona Eversole

Many of us tend to head to the mountains to escape the crowds, not to be a part of one. However, the lure of bagging 14,000-foot peaks — or 14ers — has caught the eye of many outdoor enthusiasts. The popular 14er trailheads are crammed with cars on the weekends as hikers scurry to the summit of Colorado’s tallest peaks. Meanwhile, the 13,000-foot peaks — or 13ers — stand amongst these overrun mountains, many of which see only a few visitors a day, if any at all.

13ers san juan mountains
Live in Southwest Colorado? The San Juan Mountains are home to 314 13ers.Tiona Eversole
The Overlooked 13ers

Colorado has 637 13ers that range from an easy day hike to a technical multi-day backpacking excursion. For the outdoor enthusiast looking to escape it all while still achieving spectacular 360-degree views, 13ers are your absolute best bet. While they might not make the 14,000-foot cut, many fall just short like 13,998-foot Grizzly Peak in the Sawatch Range.

The 14,000-foot elevation measurement should not be the only distinction of success either. Many 13ers are much more technical and difficult than their 14er counterparts. Six 13ers maintain a Class 5 difficulty, including Lizard Head near Telluride and Jagged Mountain near Silverton. Not one 14er is categorized as a Class 5; six hold a Class 4 difficulty.

mount massive halfmoon trail
A hiker makes his way up the southern slope of 14,421-foot Mount Massive, with Mount Elbert in the background. Despite being Colorado’s highest mountain at 14,439 feet, Elbert is one of Colorado’s most hiked 14ers.
The Problem With 14ers

Colorado has 53 14ers, much less than the 637 13ers in the state. Fewer 14,000-foot mountains equate to a shorter bucket list — 637 peaks is quite a bit more daunting than 53. And while most 14ers offer multiple routes to reach the summit, many alternate routes still see heavy traffic — especially on holiday weekends.

In a study by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, an estimated total of 334,000 hikers attempted 14ers in 2017. With close proximity to the Front Range and Denver, Mount Bierstadt was the most climbed with 35,000 to 40,000 hikers. Grays Peak, Torreys Peak and Quandary Peak were also among the Front Range 14ers that saw high traffic. Mount Elbert — Colorado’s tallest mountain at 14,439 feet — also ranked high in popularity with an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 hikers.

sultan mountain summit colorado
43 percent of Colorado’s 13ers are in the San Juan Mountains, along with 14 14ers. From the summit of 13,373-foot Sultan Mountain another 13er, Grand Turk, is seen in the foreground with the Grenadier Range in the background.Tiona Eversole
Getting Started With 13ers

It’s important to keep in mind that 13,000 feet is still pretty high. Planning to climb a 13er takes the same preparation as a 14er — read the trip report, check the weather before heading out, pack a map and pack accordingly. Always follow proper high country safety procedures when attempting to summit a 13er. 

Many 14ers have “extra credit” summits, most of which are 13ers that follow a saddle across or connect to a ridge. To earn these extra credit peaks while pursuing 14ers, try starting a little earlier and snag a couple more summits while you’re up there.

If you’re just getting started with 13ers, begin by looking for Class 1 and Class 2 peaks in your area. We recommend the following peaks: