Hiking Longs Peak Trip Report – The Keyhole Route:
We arrived at the trailhead at 5:30 AM on a Sunday morning in mid-summer. We were prepared to spend three days in the wilderness hiking Longs Peak via the most popular route known as the Keyhole Route. The plan was to head up to the Boulder Field, overnight there, ascend Longs the following morning, and then make our way down to Chasm Lake. We would then finish off the long second day by camping out at Goblin’s Forest. This was a good plan in theory, but the Goblin’s Forest camping area is only about a mile from the trailhead (I thought it was further in) so unless darkness was creeping in I prefer my memory foam mattress to the camping pad.
At 5:30 AM the Longs Peak parking lot was already full up and we had to park down the street closer to the intersection for the Longs Peak Campground. This isn’t that far away from the trailhead parking and it was an easy hike up the road.
Into the Woods
The trail starts out in a dense pine forest. For us, it was still relatively dark as we made our way through the trees. The trail starts outs with only a moderate incline. At 0.5-miles in the trail forks. The path to the right leads towards Storm Pass and the one to the left is for hiking Longs Peak. This is a heavily trafficked trail and is well signed all the way to the Boulder Field. The trail steepens as it makes its way towards treeline. While it is steep it had yet to feel like a 14er. Most 14ers have a much steeper grade.
Through Goblins Forest
While the serene hike through the woods is nice the only feature of note is in a small cascading stream near to the turn for the Goblins Forest camping spot. As the trail approaches treeline it does cross over the stream at another larger cascade. This is the last sign of water along the trail before reaching the Boulder Field.
Out of the Trees
Around 2.25 miles and almost 10,750’ the trail emerges from the forest and enters the subalpine zone. The views back across the valley towards Estes Park and Allens Park are amazing. On our early morning hike, the clouds were below us and hadn’t yet been burned off by the sun.
Sighting the Many Peaks
We continued our ascent and received our first views of Longs Peak rising in the distance along with Mount Lady Washington and Mount Meeker. About 2.5-miles in is the junction for the group camping site known as Battle Mountain Campsite. This would be a great location to use as a base camp for exploring Chasm Lake and even Longs Peak, but as it was just Jennifer and I weren’t a large enough party to be classified as a group.
The Chasm Lake Intersection
The next mile of the trail climbs up very rocky terrain and feels a lot more like the 14ers I am used to. At 3.5-miles and 11,540 feet, the trail arrives at the Chasm Lake intersection. There is a Privy perched on the outcropping and from the junction, Peacock Pool (a small lake) can be seen down in the valley to the left fo the Chasm Lake Trail. The trail to Chasm Lake is to the left from the intersection. We set off to the right and made our way around the slope of Mount Lady Washington. The trail over the saddle is very visible from the Chasm Lake intersection and looks very easy, but the winds had picked up and it was slow going for us along the rocky terrain.
At about 4.2-miles and 12,080’ of elevation, we climbed into the saddle between Mount Lady Washington and Battle Mountain known as Granite Pass. Here the wind was howling and we found the junction for the path leading to the Bear Lake area 7.3 miles away. It would be nice to do this as a through hike instead of an out and back. I’m just not sure legalistically how a hiker gets from Bear Lake back to the Longs Peak parking area. Hitchhiking is probably the best option.
The Switchbacks of Mount Lady Washington
We pushed through the wind as we continued to climb up the switchbacks on Mount Lady Washington. The path here is surprising. The park has taken great effort through this section to make the trail as flat as possible. It is steep but the rocks are laid out flat like a road rather than steps. It is a very pleasant change of pace.
Views Across Rocky Mountain National Park
As the trail climbs hikers are rewarded with views into the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park. Before the trail turned away from the ledge towards the Boulder Field we could see Bear Lake in the distance. We could also see much of the park including the Trail Ridge Road area. Unfortunately, there was a lot of smoke being blown in from a fire near Aspen, Colorado which put a haze on the landscape. The hike out the following day was much clearer.
Beware False Cairns
Once past the switchbacks, the trail turns towards the Boulder Field and becomes a very moderate hike. The path can be hard to discern as it passes through the rocky terrain. If you can maintain the trail it is well laid out, but if you lose it you will find yourself rock hopping over massive boulders. There are cairns to help with trail location, but some false cairns have been built that easily lead hikers astray.
The Boulder Field Campground
At 6-miles in and at an elevation of 12,760 feet, we arrived at the Boulder Field Campground. There are 18 tent sites located inside the Boulder Field and they all require a permit. They can be difficult to obtain. We got ours for a Sunday in late July in early May. Saturday night was already sold out by that time. As the weather report wasn’t great for this night we ended up being one of two tents in the entire backcountry camping spot. A real shame because it is an experience that is truly special to this park.
After we picked out a site and set up the tent we had lunch and debated tackling the summit. It was about noon and the clouds were rolling in. The weather report had predicted rain around 1:00 PM, but the forecast for tonight was snow. If it did snow the path to the summit could be extremely dangerous as the granite is very slick with the slightest bit of moisture.
Agnes Vaille Memorial Shelter
There is a shelter built adjacent to the keyhole as a memorial to Agnes Vaille, the first woman to summit Longs in the winter. While she made it to the top she fell on the descent near the keyhole and froze to death before help could arrive.
Jennifer and I decided to climb on to the keyhole where we could get a better view of the weather blowing in from the west. If we needed to wait out a storm we could take shelter in the Agnes Vaille structure.
Climbing to the Keyhole
Hiking up Longs Peak to the Boulder Field is just that, a hike. Beyond the Boulder field, this trail is a climb. The climb up to the Keyhole formation (13,200’) is the hardest traverse to maintain the actual path along the entire trail. Again there are cairns in the section to help climbers maintain the route, but they are easily lost and other false cairns can lead travelers astray. Either way, the path is over large boulders and steep terrain. While using hands and feet climbing is necessary through this section, the worst that could happen is a busted ankle or perhaps a broken bone. No place to fall very far. The path climbs roughly 500’ up from the Boulder Field to the Keyhole in about a 1/3rd of a mile.
Views of Glacier Gorge
Once in the Keyhole Jennifer and I sat down in the windy pass to survey the weather conditions and the path ahead. The views into the Glacier Gorge area from this perch are stunningly beautiful. The dark clouds that had been threatening our ascent at the Boulder Field had dispersed and the view to the west was clear although still smokey. The wind, however, was howling. Jennifer decided she was done but encouraged me to continue hiking Longs Peak to the Summit. When a fellow hiker came through the Keyhole I decided to join him for the remainder of the climb. I, however, did leave my hiking sticks and the steady cam with Jennifer to make the ascent easier.