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Route Description for Capitol Peak: Climbing Colorado's Hardest Fourteener

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Climbing Capitol Peak: Route Description for Capitol Peak
The Knife Edge Ridge route follows the obvious skyline ridge from Mt. Daly to the summit.

Evening light on Capitol Peak, one of Colorado's most difficult Fourteeners to climb. The Northeast Ridge Route follows the obvious skyline ridge from K2, the point on the left.

Photograph © Spencer Swanger
  • Peak: Capitol Peak 14,137 feet (4,309 meters)
  • Prominence: 1,730 feet (527 meters)
  • Location: West-Central Colorado. West of Aspen and southeast of Glenwood Springs. Located in Pitkin County.
  • Range: Elk Range
  • GPS Coordinates: 39.09.01 N / 107.04.59 W
  • Difficulty: Class 3 or 4, depending on conditions. Hiking, scrambling over talus and boulders, and climbing short rock sections. A rope may be useful for protection.
  • Trailhead Elevation: 9,450 feet at Capitol Creek Trailhead.
  • Elevation Gain: 5,345 feet from trailhead to summit.
  • Round-Trip Distance: 15.6 miles from trailhead.
  • Maps: USGS Quads: Capitol Peak, Highland Peak; Trails Illustrated #128; White River National Forest map.
  • Camping: Primitive camping at designated sites near Capitol Lake.
  • Lodging: Hotels and motels in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, and Aspen.

Capitol Peak: An Impressive Mountain

Capitol Peak, a 14,137-foot (4,309-meters) mountain, lies in the western Elk Range west of Aspen and southeast of Glenwood Springs and Interstate 70. Capitol Peak, considered one of Colorado’s most difficult Fourteeners, is an impressive mountain, much more so than anthill peaks like Mount Sherman on the Front Range. Instead, Capitol is a soaring granite peak with airy ridges, steep rock faces, and a sharp summit that offers stunning views across the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area. Capitol Peak not only looks like a big mountain, but it climbs like one too. After climbing Capitol, you’ll have a sense of satisfaction.

One of Colorado’s Toughest 14ers

Capitol Peak, Colorado’s 32nd highest mountain, is difficult to climb. With a 6.5-mile hike to the base of the mountain, most climbers take two days to ascend Capitol, backpacking up to a high camp at Capitol Lake the first day and then climbing it the next morning. Capitol is not a beginner Fourteener like Mount Sherman or Mount Democrat, but instead requires basic rock scrambling skills and a cool head since the upper route is dangerous with loose rock and exposure to both bad weather and possible fatal falls. If you have novice climbers in your group, bring a rope (a 9mm 150-foot rope works great) so you can belay them across the Knife Edge ridge if needed. A rope is also useful if the weather turns bad on the descent since the Edge is slick when wet. Don't forget to wear a climbing helmet either.

Capitol’s Best Season is Summer

The best time to climb Capitol Peak is from early June through September. Expect snow on the mountain in June and bring an ice axe. Crampons and a rope are a good idea too if conditions warrant them. The route is usually free of snow by early July and stays that way until the snow flies, usually in mid-September. Capitol Peak is rarely climbed in winter since it’s remote, requires a long ski or snowshoe approach, and often has high avalanche danger.

Watch for Thunderstorms and Lightning

Capitol Peak, like all of Colorado’s high mountains, is pounded by heavy thunderstorms accompanied by lightning strikes in July and August. The mountain is dangerous in severe weather since it is difficult to descend to safety from the upper summit pyramid and the long ridge between Capitol and K2. Thunderstorms regularly brew up almost every afternoon and move quickly onto the peak. It’s best to get an early start before sunrise and plan to be off the summit and ridge by noon to avoid lightning. Keep an eye on the weather to the west as you climb and make smart decisions about continuing or turning around. Carry rain gear and extra clothes to avoid hypothermia as well as carry The Ten Essentials.

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