UPDATE: We are currently looking at modifying the rating system. We enjoy everything from technical climbing to easy strolls around national parks — and everything in-between. Having a rating system that goes from very easy to very difficult is too simplistic to capture the differences between a long hike in Rocky Mountain National Park versus a long climb up a 14er.
We decided that having a rating system could both serve to help illustrate the relative difficulty of each hike to our readers as well as help readers decide if they want to try a hike, or bring grandma along, or set a goal for doing a difficult hike later in the year. Below are general guidelines for how we rate hikes; however, keep in mind that these ratings, no matter who makes them, are always going to be subjective. The most important criteria we use to rate our hikes are length, grade, elevation, and route finding.
Differences in physical fitness between individuals will make a huge difference in perception of how easy or not so easy a hike is, and how fast a hike can be completed. For example, an acclimated climber with good physical fitness may be able to complete Mt. Bierstadt in under 3 hours; but, an out of shape climber from sea level may take 6+ hours to complete the trip.
The hardest part of the rating system is making it consistent. 14ers are not all the same. For example, Mt. Sherman is 5.25 miles and 2,100 ft of elevation gain, while Mt. of the Holy Cross is 12 miles and 5,600 ft of elevation gain — both are about a class 2 climb. Then you have Capital Peak, which has 17 miles of trail and 5,100 ft of elevation gain, but is a class 4. Clearly, Capital is harder than Mt. of the Holy Cross which is harder than Mt. Sherman. Thus, for our system to be consistent across hikes, some 14ers are going to be intermediate hikes.
Conditions also play a huge role in difficulty. These hikes are rated for the normal climbing season, whatever that is for the hike or climb. For a couloir ascent, that may be March, for another hike that may be June. Therefore, if you attempt a climb in December that we rated for June, it will not be the same rating. Keep in mind that mountain conditions change very rapidly.
Below are descriptions of our ratings.
Very Easy: These hikes have paved paths and are typically handicap accessible. These are great hikes to take someone for the first time to get to see some of the beauty of nature without the fear of losing your footing or wondering if you can make it the whole way. These hikes have very low grades, only take an hour or two, are generally at low altitudes, and don’t require any special kind of gear.
Easy: These hikes do not have paved paths. They are great to take someone who is physically fit but hasn’t hiked before. Typically they are at lower altitudes, do not have very steep grades (<20%), and are not very long (3-4 miles). These can be done usually in 2-3 hours.
Intermediate: These hikes are as hard as an easy hike with the added difficulty of either steeper grades (>20%) over a short distance, high elevation (>10,500ft), or a long distance to travel (8+ miles). These hikes to not require the use of hands to scramble over objects and shouldn’t require any special gear.
Difficult: These hikes are as hard as the intermediate hikes, but have a combination of high elevation, steep climbs over short distances, long distances to be traveled, or all three. Often the use of hands is required to scramble short distances to finish the hike. A hiking stick or trekking pole is recommended. These hikes will take half a day to complete (4-6 hours).
Very Difficult: These hikes are as hard as the difficult hikes, but are long and require a full day to complete. It is recommended to reach the summit before afternoon thunderstorms roll in, thus beginning the hike around 2-6 am is generally advised depending on distance to summit. Scrambling is required and the use of both hands and feet is required to maneuver over stretches of trail, ropes may be carried but are not required if climbers stay on route. Trekking poles, good packs, plenty of water and snacks, and depending on the season an ice axe is recommended. These hikes can take 10+ hours to complete.
Technical: These hikes require technical climbing and the use of ropes and proper climbing gear is required. Most of these hikes require a climbing permit and special training to complete. These hikes include ice climbing.