Capitol Peak in Colorado is an iconic Colorado hike that draws outdoor adventurers from all over the world. Located within the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area, Capitol Peak stands at 14,131 feet above sea level and offers stunning views of the Elk Mountain range.
It’s also known as being one of the hardest 14’ers — mountains with summits more than 14,000 feet above sea level — in the entire state (and maybe the country).
The trail begins at the Capitol Creek Trailhead and climbs to Capitol Lake at around 11,500 feet above sea level, which is where all the campsites along the route are. The next morning, you’ll continue to climb to the summit, which involves crossing an exposed class IV ridge (class V requires rock climbing equipment).
This ridge is considered one of the most difficult technical scrambles on any fourteener in Colorado, so it’s important for hikers to be prepared for extreme conditions. But the summit provides spectacular 360-degree views of glaciers, lakes, forests and distant peaks. A round trip hike generally takes 12 to 14 hours of hiking (or longer, depending on weather and hiker skill level).
About Colorado’s 14’ers
Colorado’s 14’er mountains, also known as fourteeners, are peaks that exceed 14,000 ft in elevation. Capitol Peak is one of 58 Colorado 14’ers and a favorite among experienced mountaineers. The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area is home to several other popular 14’ers, including Mount Elbert, Maroon Peak, and Snowmass Mountain. Climbing all 58 of these iconic summits has become a sought-after goal for many peak baggers, and while some are easier than others, they’re all difficult hikes.
What is the Capitol Peak, Colorado, hike like?
The Capitol Peak hike begins near Snowmass and follows a moderately steep climb to Capitol Lake. From there, the trail transitions from a moderate incline to an exposed class IV ridge scramble. The ridge is where the majority of difficulty lies, as hikers must navigate around large boulders and be wary of loose rocks and falling debris. The section is called the Knife’s Edge and has extreme exposure and high consequences for error. Before making the final push along this scrambly area, you’ll want to check the weather and make sure the conditions are perfect before making the summit attempt. Multiple people have died on this summit — recently.
It’s best to start the second day of hiking early in the morning so you can reach the final part, have time to slowly make your way up the scrambles and Knife’s Edge, and get back below the treeline before potential summer storms move in, which can happen mid-afternoon in Colorado. You don’t usually need to carry ropes or harnesses, but you should be experienced in rock scrambling and possess a strong sense of situational awareness. Reading this article and watching the impressive video above is not enough to prepare for this hike.
It is important to note that this trail is considered one of the most difficult technical scrambles on any 14’er in Colorado, so hikers should be well-prepared for extreme conditions. Although it is possible to complete this summit without a guide, it may be beneficial to hire one if you are new to mountain climbing or need assistance navigating the exposed and riskier areas.
Where to stay and when to go
The best time to hike Capitol Peak is between late May and September. Weather conditions can vary during this time and it is best to check the forecast prior to heading out. Always pack a rain jacket and extra layers regardless of the forecast. Overnight camping is allowed along the route only by Capitol Lake. There are also a host of other regulations and safety requirements you need to follow, including limitations on fires and bear-safe container usage. You’ll want to stay near Snowmass, Aspen, or Ashcroft, and there’s plenty of camping throughout the state.