Climb Grays Peak: Popular Colorado Fourteener

Grays Peak is one of Colorado’s Most-Climbed 14ers

Grays and Torreys Peaks are named for famous 19th-century botanists.
Grays Peak (left) and Torreys Peak, in the Front Range, are two of Colorado easiest and most popular Fourteeners to climb. Photograph copyright Wayne Boland/Getty Images

Elevation:  14,278 feet (4,352 meters)

Prominence: 2,770 feet (844 meters)

Location: Front Range, Colorado.

Coordinates:  39.633883 N /  -105.81757 W

Map: USGS 7.5 minute topographic map Grays Peak

First Ascent: 1861 by Charles C. Parry.

Where is Grays Peak?

Grays Peak rises south of Interstate 70 and Loveland Pass on the Continental Divide, the twisting mountain spire of North America which separates the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean watersheds, in the Front Range west of Denver in central Colorado.

Grays Peak Distinctions

Grays Peak, by virtue of its height, has many mountain distinctions:

  • 10th highest mountain in Colorado.
  • 10th highest Colorado Fourteener or 14,000-foot mountain.
  • 39th highest mountain in North America.
  • 25th highest mountain in the United States.
  • Highest point on the Continental Divide in North America.
  • High point of Clear Creek and Summit counties in Colorado and 11th highest Colorado county high point.
  • Highest mountain in Colorado’s Front Range.

Arapaho Name for Grays and Torreys Peak

The Arapaho, a Native American tribe that called themselves Hinono'eino or “the people,” lived in northern Colorado and roamed the Front Range mountains. The Arapaho Indians called Grays and Torreys Peaks, prominent landmarks on the mountain skyline, “The Ant Hills” or heenii-yoowuu.

Miners Called Them Twin Peaks

Grays and Torreys Peaks were simply called The Twin Peaks by miners prior to 1861.

These miners were part of the 1859 gold rush to the placer deposits along Clear Creek and the gold diggings around Central City. 

Three Peaks Named for Three Famous Botanists

In 1861, however, botanist Charles Christopher Parry, after making the first recorded ascent of Grays Peak, named the two mountains and a lower nearby peak for a trio of famed American botanists who explored the Colorado Rockies and discovered and named numerous plant species.

Parry wrote, “I have endeavored to commemorate the joint scientific services of our triad of North American botanists, by giving their honored names to three snow-capped peaks in the Rocky Mountains.”

Gray, Torrey, and Engelmann

Grays Peak was named for Asa Gray (1810-1888), the leading botanist of the 19th century and author of Gray’s Manual, a comprehensive field guide still used today. Torreys Peak was named for John Torrey (1796-1873), an acclaimed botanist and mentor to Asa Gray, while a nearby mountain was named Mount Engelmann for George Engelmann (1809-1884), another esteemed botanist who described the flora of the Rocky Mountains. That mountain, however, was later named Kelso Peak, while a 13,368-foot (4,075-meter) to the north was named Engelmann Peak.

Three Prospectors Rename the Three Peaks

After Parry named the three mountains in 1861, a trio of “famous prospectors” explored the area in 1865 and took the narcissistic liberty of naming them for themselves. At that time, of course, there was no firm convention about naming geographic features. Names were assigned at the whim of explorers, miners, and pioneers and sometimes those informal names stuck. It was not until The Board of Geographic Names was established by the U.S. Department of Interior in 1890 that a formal process was created for naming.

Dick Irwin, Jack Baker, and Fletch Kelso, the three miners, prospected the area in the summer of 1865 looking for silver and trying to avoid competing prospectors. Frank Fosset wrote about the mountain naming in his 1871 book Colorado: “Further on, two snow-capped peaks…seemed to pierce the very clouds. The sharp, conical one, which appeared to be the highest, was called Irwin’s. It still bears that named among Coloradoans, notwithstanding the recent attempt of a Harvard professor to appropriate the honor. Grays Peak, however, is a title often applied to both points of this grand old mountain.”

1872: Gray and Torrey Climb the Peaks

There was a lot of arguing about the names of the mountains over the next few years. Some folks wanted both mountains simply called Grays Peak, while others called the higher one Grays and the lower one Irwins.

The controversy came to an end in 1872 when both esteemed botanists Gray and Torrey climbed the highest peak. Asa Gray described the ascent in a letter: “A large party…started the afternoon before…the night was passed in a mining tavern cabin, and the ascent, some going on horseback, some on foot, was made the next morning. Speeches were made on the summit, and resolutions passed to confirm the names Gray’s and Torrey’s peaks given in 1862 by Dr. Parry, who was himself happily with the party.”

2014: Grays Peak Renamed Decker Peak

On January 29, 2014, Grays Peak and its Fourteener neighbor Torreys Peak were renamed in a tongue-in-cheek proclamation by Colorado’s Governor John Hickenlooper. The Governor granted the new names for Super Bowl Sunday, February 2, in honor of the Denver Broncos, who faced the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey. The temporary new name for Grays Peak was Decker Peak, for wide receiver Eric Decker (now with the New York Jets), while Torreys Peak was dubbed Thomas Peak, for all-pro wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. The Broncos were soundly defeated by the Seahawks 43 to 8, to the chagrin of Colorado climbers.

Grays Peak is an Easy and Popular Climb

Grays Peak is one of Colorado’s easiest and most popular Fourteeners for climbers and hikers. The mountain, rising just south of busy Interstate 70 on the east side of the Eisenhower Tunnel, is quickly accessed from the Denver metropolitan area. Hundreds of people climb Grays Peak and its neighbor Torreys Peak on summer weekends.

It is best to plan an ascent for a weekday to avoid the crowds. There is also plenty of free camping on the road to the trailhead and on the lower slopes of Grays Peak. Remember to camp responsibly and to follow a Leave No Trace ethic to avoid polluting and damaging the fragile high-altitude environment. 

Grays Peak Trail Statistics

The Grays Peak Trail, which ascends from the trailhead to the summit, begins at a parking area in Stevens Gulch northeast of the mountain. The well-marked and well-traveled trail is easy to follow. Watch for avalanche danger in winter and lightning danger in summer on the higher slopes and summit.

Difficulty: Class 1

Trail distance: 4.0 miles. 8.0 miles round-trip.

Total distance: 14 miles round-trip. This includes hiking 3 miles up the rough road and returning to the lower parking area.

Type of hike: Out-and-back along same trail unless Torreys Peak is climbed.

Exposure: Minimal.

Starting elevation: 11,280 feet.

Summit elevation: 14,270 feet.

Elevation gain: 3,000 feet.

Directions to trailhead: Drive on I-70 to the Bakerville Exit (#221). Drive about a mile south to a dirt parking area at the start of Forest Road 189. Park here unless you have a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. Hike up the extremely rough road for 3 miles to the official Grays Peak Trailhead, where there are restrooms and dispersed camping sites.

Best Climbing Guidebook

The best guidebook for climbing Grays Peak as well as other interesting nearby mountains is Climbing Colorado's Mountains by Susan Joy Paul, Falcon Guides, 2015.

This comprehensive book offers detailed hike and climb descriptions for 100 Colorado mountains, including the high points of every Colorado mountain range.

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Green, Stewart. "Climb Grays Peak: Popular Colorado Fourteener." ThoughtCo, Mar. 8, 2016, thoughtco.com/climb-grays-peak-popular-colorado-fourteener-3988934. Green, Stewart. (2016, March 8). Climb Grays Peak: Popular Colorado Fourteener. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/climb-grays-peak-popular-colorado-fourteener-3988934 Green, Stewart. "Climb Grays Peak: Popular Colorado Fourteener." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/climb-grays-peak-popular-colorado-fourteener-3988934 (accessed November 18, 2017).