Nolan’s 14 traverses through Colorado’s Sawatch mountain range and challenges the toughest endurance runners; but when taken at a slower pace, even mere mortals can enjoy the experience
For backpackers looking to raise the bar — really high — welcome to the Nolan’s 14, a route popular with high-endurance runners that links 14 Colorado summits above 14,000 feet elevation.
It’s a get-dirty, body-aching haul that starts near Leadville, the highest city in the United States, and meanders along the valley to Salida, traversing the peaks and ridges that make up the backbone of the Sawatch — one of the most scenic mountain ranges in Colorado.
While runners can usually finish the roughly 90-mile route in 60 hours or less, my girlfriend and I slowed it down, enjoying the route as a seven-day backpacking experience without the necessity to reach every summit. Creating memories and refreshing our spirits took precedence.
To keep this adventure fun and stress-free, it’s worth emphasizing one of the more important aspects of this excursion: navigation.
If you are not familiar with route-finding using GPS, maps and compass, this trip may not be for you. Along the way there are well-marked trails and roads, but you will not be following an established route from start to finish. You will leave the trail numerous times, and it’s up to you to stay on course. You will also be finding your own campsites each day, at which we recommend practicing Leave No Trace ethics to avoid tarnishing the pristine environment. Please refrain from building a campfire unless the campsite has a pre-existing fire ring.
Let’s get going.
The Highline Trail near the Leadville Fish Hatchery will get you started toward Mount Massive (14,421’), the first summit of the Nolan’s 14. From the summit of Massive, you will descend on the North Half Moon Trail toward Mount Elbert (14,443’), the tallest peak in Colorado. After a round of well-deserved high-fives on the summit, follow the steep southern trail off the summit (Black Cloud Trail) until you reach treeline near Independence Pass and pitch camp somewhere in your comfort zone.
To officially follow the Nolan’s 14 route, the trek winds up Independence Pass to the south fork of Clear Creek Road (aka the La Plata trailhead). This route connects to La Plata Peak (14,361’) and over to Huron Peak (14,003’). However, I suggest leaving camp and following the Collegiate West (Colorado Trail) starting at Willis Gulch and hiking over Hope Pass down into Clear Creek Reservoir. This route provides more trail and a break along moderate terrain before tackling what lies ahead.
We slowed down in this section because it is just simply magical, replete with alpine lakes, waterfalls and large open spaces. As you come off the Colorado Divide Trail take the .2 mile detour to County Road 390 (Clear Creek Reservoir Road) and backtrack to the Missouri Mountain Trailhead.
Now it gets exciting.
From the start you will get your fair share of switchbacks. As you cross the creek about a mile up, notice the massive avalanche path that Mother Nature created this spring. Although it appears the forest has been devastated, new growth has filled in among the toppled forest, including an abundance of Rocky Mountain Columbine, Colorado’s state flower. It’s truly amazing to see what follows an enormous avalanche, turning destruction into beauty.
Breathe, and take in what’s around you. Feel the breeze on your dirty cheeks and embrace the pleasure of the high country.
Heading into Elkhead Basin – or, simply put, paradise – find a campsite within the willows and creeks and take some weight off your shoulders. It’s a great place to recoup before launching a climb of Missouri Mountain (14,067’). The summit was a highlight, where we had the pleasure of hanging out with the marmots and the occasional mountain goat. We sat, lingering to breathe in the beauty and reminisce about the journey and contemplate the days ahead. Sitting at 14,000 feet, beholden to the mercy of Nature and all her awesomeness, raises an intense appreciation that we covet more than anything.
Descending back to camp is a loose slippery challenge — heads up, and move slowly. Missouri Mountain and Mount Belford tower over camp, where we attempted to count the stars on our starry night. It was impossible.
After a few cups of coffee, pack up and start your day for the back-to-back fourteener hikes of Mount Belford (14,197’) and Mount Oxford (14,153’). Looking down into the valley of Pine Creek, you will notice just how far Pine Creek drains into the mighty Arkansas River. On the descent, take a moment to check out Bedrock Falls. A splash of this Rocky Mountain water on a sun-kissed face feels so damn good. Ascending the north shoulder of Mount Harvard (14,420’) is a steep challenge and it doesn’t let up on the descent into Horn Fork Basin. Mountain goats and marmots were again our companions, the best kind.
We chose to camp at Kroenke Lake where we rewarded ourselves with a cold skinny dip. Feeling the long days in our feet and back, the cold water brewed in these high summits made it all worth it.
Fishing in this lake is fairly good, which could put dinner over your fire. Find one of the pre-existing campsites with a view of Mount Columbia (14,073’) for the perfect lullaby.
At daybreak, I recommend heading south to the Colorado Trail (Segment 13). It’s easy to follow with a gradual elevation gain, passing under the mighty Mount Yale (14,196’) and Mount Princeton (14,197’). Take your time, enjoy sharing this section of trail with your partner rather than scrambling to those high peaks (unless that’s your mission, of course).
As the day comes to a close, you’re near enough to civilization that you can opt to treat yourself to the relaxing, healing waters of Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort, which has a general store, restaurant and lodging. Afterward, hike or hitch a ride up the 2 miles to Bootleg Campground to end another great day along the Nolan’s 14.
We awoke to the smell of neighboring campfires and the sound of chirping birds. Our final day had arrived to this adventure-of-a-lifetime. Over coffee we discussed the Mount Antero (14,269’) approach, and decided to head up Baldwin Creek Road toward the summit of Antero.
After a long hike sharing the road with Jeeps and ATVs, Mount Antero’s magnificent summit came into view to the east, bringing us to the question of the day: A short hike over the summit or a descent to Browns Lake? Proceeding to the lake and finishing this amazing trip today was all I could think of. Off we went.
At this point, we were feeling burned out, but arriving at the lake provided a much-needed boost. There is something about a high alpine lake that clears the thoughts, vision and perspective – and inspires — so up we went, shooting for the top of Mount Shavano (14,229’), skipping Tabeguache Peak (14,155’). We may have had only a couple more hours of sunlight to drive us to the top, but we also had the anticipation of the descent of Shavano — our final descent — awaiting the other side.
At the summit of Shavano, we witnessed the most amazing sunset imaginable – reds, purples, yellows – filling the surroundings. At the saddle below, we hit the trail and the colors faded to grey. We paused, reminiscing how just months ago we were clicking into ski boots from this very spot. Headlamps on, descending to the valley floor, we were filled with love for one another and for nature’s amazing ways – and for the sight of our car that we had not seen in six days.
Ryan Kempfer is a photographer with a passion for the outdoors. As an avid skier, hiker and biker, Ryan uses his photography to inspire people to cherish Mother Nature and her creations. Ryan spends his time skiing the Sawatch Range with his girlfriend, Chris, and their dog Nala.