How to Climb Capitol Peak: Colorado's Hardest Fourteener

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Climbing Capitol Peak: Route Description for Capitol Peak

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. copyright Don Grail/Getty Images
  • 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 the 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-meter) 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 ax. 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 on 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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Climbing Capitol Peak: Trailhead, Camping, and Hiking to the Saddle

A climber scoots across the famous Knife Edge ridge on Capitol Park. The sharp granite blade is the crux of the route with lots of exposure. copyright Kennan Harvey/Getty Images

Northeast Ridge is the Regular Route

While Capitol Peak can be climbed in a long day from the trailhead on the regular route, called The Northeast Ridge or sometimes The Knife Edge Route, most parties take two days to climb it. The route is rated Class 3, requiring scrambling on exposed rock, on a fair-weather day or Class 4 if conditions are bad or much snow is on the route. A rope, crampons, and ice axe should be carried if snow is on the route.

Finding the Trailhead

Drive on CO 82 from either Glenwood Springs and I-70 or from Aspen to Snowmass Creek Road on the south. Turn onto the paved road and drive 9.9 miles to the trailhead. First, drive 1.7 miles to a road junction and keep right on Capitol Creek Road. Follow this road for 6.5 miles until the road turns to dirt. Continue on a rough steep road (may be slick when wet) for another two miles and the end of the passable road for two-wheel-drive vehicles. Park here or if you have a 4x4, continue another 1.5 miles to the end of the road and the Capitol Creek trailhead.

Backpack 6.5 Miles to Capitol Lake

The hike and climb up Capitol Peak are 7.8 miles one-way from the trailhead to summit, with an elevation gain of 5,345 feet. If you are like most climbers, you will start from the trailhead at midday and then spend the first-afternoon backpacking 6.5 miles up a wide trail along Capitol Creek into a cirque on the northwest side of Capitol Peak. Camp at designated sites on a knoll just north of Capitol Lake or just before the lake.

Follow Good Trail to a Saddle

Start early the next morning, preferably before sunrise, so that you can reach the summit before the usual afternoon thunderstorms, which can have heavy rain and lightning. From the lake, find a trail below the lake. Follow the trail for about a half-mile up switchbacks on grassy slopes and loose talus to 12,480-foot Daly Pass, a high pass that separates Capitol Peak to the southwest from 13,300-foot Mount Daly to the north. The pass is the end of easy hiking on the ascent.

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Climbing Capitol Peak: K2, the Knife Edge Ridge, and the Summit

Climbers scramble across the Northeast Ridge to the Knife Edge on Capitol Peak.
The last part of the Northeast Ridge Route follows the obvious ridge across the Knife Edge to a notch below the final summit pyramid. To finish, either go left to the East Ridge or scramble up to a notch and finish up the Northeast Ridge. copyright Stewart M. Green

Keep Left and Climb up K2

From the saddle, hike south on intermittent trails and talus slopes on the left side of the rocky ridge up to K2, an intermediate point between Daly Pass and Capitol Peak’s summit. Continue across talus and occasional snow slopes until you’re past the cliffs, then head up steep rock slopes toward K2, a rock point above. While you can climb to the top of K2, most climbers go around the right side of its summit and contour onto the exposed west side of the point. Scramble across steep slopes to an obvious notch on the ridge between K2 and Capitol Peak. It’s worthwhile, however, to climb to K2’s summit since the view of Capitol from there is spectacular. If you do climb K2, descend steep loose rock (Class III/IV) to the regular route.

Decision Time is Now

This notch is where summit decisions should be made. If you got an early start, you should have plenty of time to finish the route to the summit and then descend back to here before the afternoon thunderstorms rumble. If it’s later in the day or if your party is inexperienced, it’s wise to perhaps turn around here. The ridge ahead is time-consuming and exposed—not a good place to be in bad weather with beginners.

Climbing the Famed Knife Edge Ridge

Scramble across the rocky ridge to the dreaded Knife Edge, one of the most famous features on all of Colorado’s Fourteeners, at 13,600 feet. The Knife Edge is a narrow section of the ridge about 150 feet long, but with over 1,000 feet of cliffs and exposure below your heels. Experienced climbers will scamper across the ridge, hand-traversing along the left side of the edge with boots smeared on edges while some daredevils will almost casually stroll across the sharp apex. Other scramblers will tentatively negotiate the ridge just like Hagerman and Clark did on the first ascent—with a leg on each side like they’re straddling a horse and their third point of contact—the buttocks—firmly placed atop the Knife Edge. It’s a great idea to bring a rope, a 9mm line works great, to belay beginners across the edge, especially if the weather is changing.

Scramble up the Ridge to Capitol’s Summit

The rest of the route is somewhat anticlimactic after the Knife Edge. Continue scrambling along the loose ridge, which while still exposed is a lot less airy than the Edge. About 0.1 miles from the Knife Edge, you reach a notch. Cross the notch, and then traverse across rocky slopes left and below the crest of the broad ridge until you reach the base of Capitol Peak’s final summit pyramid. There are two ways to climb this northeast-facing wall. The easiest way is to traverse below the upper cliffs, and then scramble up the broken upper east ridge to the summit. Alternatively, scramble up granite slabs to a wide notch, then finish up the airy north ridge to the top. Use caution early in the season since snow may cling to the upper part of the route.

Capitol Peak’s Rocky Summit

The view from Capitol Peak’s summit is simply breathtaking. Below scatter the jewel-like Pierre Lakes in the huge cirque to the east and to the south rises Snowmass Mountain, another Fourteener, at the end of a long shattered ridge. Farther to the east are red-striated peaks, including the Maroon Bells, Pyramid Peak, and Castle Peak, while the long ridge of the Continental Divide hangs against the eastern horizon. Enjoy the view and your lunch—you earned it but don’t linger too long on top. Those regular afternoon thunderstorms are busily building and the Knife Edge is no place to get caught in a lightning storm.

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Your Citation
Green, Stewart. "How to Climb Capitol Peak: Colorado's Hardest Fourteener." ThoughtCo, Feb. 28, 2017, thoughtco.com/climbing-capitol-peak-colorados-hardest-fourteener-755734. Green, Stewart. (2017, February 28). How to Climb Capitol Peak: Colorado's Hardest Fourteener. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/climbing-capitol-peak-colorados-hardest-fourteener-755734 Green, Stewart. "How to Climb Capitol Peak: Colorado's Hardest Fourteener." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/climbing-capitol-peak-colorados-hardest-fourteener-755734 (accessed November 19, 2017).