Grays Peak

In the Colorado landscape of towering peaks, Grays Peak is a gentle giant inviting visitors up to its rocky summit.

Name: Grays Peak
Height: 4,352 m (14,278 ft)
Location: Front Range, Colorado, USA.
First Climbed: 1861 by Charles C Parry
Climb Time: 1 day
Best Time to Climb: April-October (possible year-round)

INTRODUCTION TO GRAYS PEAK

It stands at 4,352 m (14,278 ft), gazing out over the State from the top of the two counties that meet on these slopes and, with its nearby twin, Torreys Peak, provides an accessible mountain climb to even the most sedentary of armchair enthusiasts.

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Home to a mining boom in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Grays Peak presents aspects of American society past and present. A summit, reachable via relatively easy routes, allows you to gaze out over a landscape physically marked with a rich history in the surrounding mines and abandoned towns. 

With fascinating hiking routes up and around this mountain, Grays Peak is a great day-trip adventure from Denver or part of a quest to bag a whole much of Colorado 14ers. 

HISTORY OF GRAYS PEAK

Grays Peak was named by the botanist who was the first European to reach its summit. Charles C Parry named the mountain after his colleague Asa Gray. Gray’s crowning achievement was Darwiniana: a book that argued there was a place for both religion and science in the world. He was regarded as one of America's finest botanists of the late 19th Century by prominent figures such as Charles Darwin himself. 

Parry also named Torreys (4,351 m/ 14,275 ft) and Engelmann (4,075 m/ 13,368 ft) Peaks after two other botanist colleagues: John Torrey and George Engelmann. 

Neither Gray nor Torrey saw their mountains until 1872. When they did, 11 years after Parry’s first ascent, Gray and Torrey climbed their mountains together, (partly to stop an argument with local prospectors who had wished to name the peaks after themselves).

Prior to 1861, they had simply been called the Twin Peaks by local miners. The indigenous name, from the Arapaho, for both mountains was heenii-yoowuu, meaning ‘The Ant Hills’.

Dotted around Grays Peak are deserted scars in the landscape, relics of a vibrant history that took place here.

 Photo by  Daidipya

Photo by Daidipya

A little over a hundred years ago, these places would have been hives of endeavour, as miners and prospectors dug down in the hope of finding the riches that would raise them to the upper tiers of this fledgling new nation.

In 1859, flakes of gold were discovered in Clear Creek, the stream after which the county east of the mountain is named. Gold and silver mines sprung up all over Colorado, but these communities were often short-lived. While some mines lasted beyond WWII, others barely limped out of the 19th Century. Populations boomed briefly and then deserted these slopes, leaving only abandoned mines and ghostly townships behind. 

In some ways, this landscape tells a story of that most accelerated notion of nation-building and self-made wealth that has long been the hopeful American narrative.

But the infrastructure that was left has helped build the modern tourist industry in the area. Railroads, road links and existing buildings have created easy access to Grays Peak and the 13ers and 14ers that lie close to this mountain. 

Tourists also come to learn of the mining industry and the important role it played in the US’ creation. That and the great hiking and beauty of the landscape, of course. 

 

GEOGRAPHY OF GRAYS PEAK

The tenth highest summit in the Rocky Mountains, the highest summit in the Front Range and the high point of the Continental Divide, Grays Peak stands out in the Arapaho National Forest. It is also the highest mountain visible from the High Plains, the eastern Colorado section of the Great Plains. 

The Front Range is the first chain of mountains met by adventurers travelling west across the Great Plains and marks the easternmost edge of the Rocky Mountains. Composed largely of granite, the Front Range was for formed within the last 10 million years as the mountains were thrust upwards then carved out by successive periods of glaciation.

Lying on the Continental Divide, Grays Peak was formed by the action of the enormous fault that runs the length of the North American continent, which is responsible for much of the orogeny of the Rocky Mountains. 

Grays and Torreys Peak

Grays Peak is rarely spoken about alone. Nearby Torreys Peak is almost always named alongside it. They are divided by a saddle and hikers will often bag both peaks in one day. Grays Peak normally comes first, followed by Torreys Peak. Grays Peak is marginally the bigger brother, standing just 1m (3 ft) higher.

Argentine Peak (4,189 m / 13,743 ft) is to the south-west of Grays Peak. It is one of Colorado’s six hundred 13ers (there are fifty three Colorado 14ers) and offers excellent views of Grays Peak and Torreys Peak from the summit.

Arapaho National Forest

Grays Peak is located in the Arapaho National Forest, an area of forest and grassland that extends north to the Wyoming border. It is named after the Arapaho Native American tribe who inhabited the Colorado Eastern Plains and extends mainly to the east of Grays Peak.

This 7,420 sq km (2,704 sq-mile) area was established by Roosevelt in 1908 and contains ten discrete wilderness areas. It is managed together with the Pawnee National Grassland, designated in 1960.

It was also the setting for the film Red Dawn, a movie about a group of teenagers who resist their new Soviet rulers in the US against the background of World War III!

WILDLIFE OF GRAYS PEAK

Flora.

WIldflowers grow far up on these shallow slopes. Those higher up the mountain are typical of tundra zones found throughout Colorado and the Continental Divide. 

Moss campion is the ubiquitous grower, though perhaps a less exciting one than the light-blue sky pilot, alpine forget-me-not or the large daisy called old-man-of-the-mountain.

Lower down, among the trees near the trailhead and in the lower sections of the gulch, wolfsbane, blue columbine, fireweed and the bright red paintbrush decorate the ground.

The first of these, wolfsbane, has many names and many species (over 250 variants), most of which are extremely poisonous. It is recognised by its hanging, blue bell flowers on the end of a long stalk. The poison, used around the world to poison arrow tips, is found down in the roots.

Fauna.

The most prominent wildlife on Grays Peak is the large population of mountain goats that inhabit the slopes. With their white coats and slight, pointy horns, these creatures keep the grasses between the rocks in check. Scampering up routes us humans can only attempt to struggle up, they are welcome regular companions to many hikers’ ascents. 

But they are not alone. Small pika and marmot dart around the slopes while mule deer and elk enjoy the lush lower ground in the gulch and back towards the trailhead. In the early parts of the trails (see below), American red squirrels can also be seen, though few venture beyond the tree line.

Above, a common sight is the gray or Canada jay. No relation to this mountain—it is also called the grey jay or whisky jack— this bird is much more commonly found further north, but finds a suitable habitat among the subalpine zone of the high peaks of Colorado. It lives in the forests further down the valleys, and will regularly approach humans for food, cause for their other nicknames: lumberjack and camp robber.

Harder to spot higher up the slopes is the seasonably camouflaged rock ptarmigan. These game birds are known colloquially in the USA as ‘snow chickens’, while the Japanese hold them in higher esteem calling them ‘thunder birds’ and designating them a protected species. You may hear them before you see them, the male’s ‘singing’ a loud, frog-like croaking.

FIRST ASCENT OF GRAYS PEAK

In 1861, botanist Charles C Parry was the first to reach the summit of Grays Peak. In the same year (it is unclear if it was the same trip, though very possible) he also claimed the first ascent of neighbouring Torreys Peak. There is no record of the route he took, though it is unlikely that it would be too dissimilar from today’s Grays Peak Trail standard route.

Parry was responsible for giving both mountains their names, as described above.

CLIMBING GUIDE FOR GRAYS PEAK

An easy walk up, certainly compared to several other of Colorado’s 14ers, Grays Peak (and often Torrey Peak too) can be climbed in a day, and is close enough to Denver to have breakfast and dinner in the city either side of your ascent!

The attraction of summitting one of the highest peaks in Colorado without needing too much kit or technical know-how is a great attraction. It is a mountain that can be climbed year-round (though April-October is recommended for most).

There are four routes to choose from:

• Grays Peak Trail: the standard route.
• East Ridge: a thrilling traverse from nearby Mount Edwards (4,223 m / 13,855 ft).
• South-west Ridge: an alternative to the standard route.
• Lost Rat Couloir: the climbing route, accessible year-round.

The Grays Peak Trail is the standard route to ascend Grays Peak. A class I walk up at 14.5 km (9-mile) return, it is also easy way to bag both Grays Peak and Torreys Peak. The South-west Ridge Route achieves similar goals, so won’t be mentioned in detail here.

The route begins at the Stevens Gulch trailhead (3,414 m/ 11,200 ft), north-east of the Grays Peak summit. The tree line trailhead is reached via a dirt road, often closed in winter. Stick to the left as other turn-offs lead to alternate trailheads. The trailhead is located across a wooden bridge from the car park.

A well-marked trail straight up the gulch, you soon begin a gentle climb of the north-western side of the gulch. Stay on this side of the stream until you reach the foot of the mountain.

As you climb, the walking becomes more strenuous as the terrain becomes more rocky, leading eventually to the switchbacks that are found near the summit. The route forks as the switchbacks steepen further (a short cut to Torreys Peak heads to the right) so keep the left-hand path.

  • What to take on a hike?

From the summit, descend to the saddle and on to Torreys Peak, visible to the north-north-west. Descent is via the same route, with most taking the shortcut below the Grays Peak summit mentioned earlier.

The East Ridge Route can be accessed from a number of trailheads, though the recommended starting point is from either the Waldorf (3,560 m/ 11,580 ft) or Santiago (3,604 m/ 11,823 ft) Mines. These gold mines were abandoned decades ago after the Earth’s treasures had been extracted and are less than a kilometre apart.

From either, ascend the class I walk-up of the eastern slopes of Mount Edwards. Continue west along the narrowing ridgeline, until it drops more steeply, becoming a class II descent and losing 71 m (233 ft) between the summit and the first of three saddles.

Some scrambling is required as you continue this traverse, holding to the centre of the ridge wherever possible. Three false summits will be crested during this traverse, requiring some patience as you walk. Don’t worry, the true summit will arrive in the end!

Like the first, the second saddle you descend into is class II descent (can choose a class III route if preferred). But after this, it is a simple hike up over a third false summit and on to the summit of Grays Peak, sticking to the ridge or the south side of it. It’s about 2km (1.25 miles) between summits.

Return is via the same route. Alternatively, follow the route down to Stevens Gulch Trailhead (if you’ve got someone to pick you up, of course!)

For climbers, the Lost Rat Couloir is the main route.

It begins from the Stevens Gulch trailhead, diverting from this route at the signpost for Torreys Basin after 2.5 km (1.5 miles). Head left towards the couloir. In winter this will be snow-filled, so carry crampons and an ice axe. 

A moderately steep ascent up snow or scree greets you. Head straight up the couloir, which releases you at 4,145 m (13,600 ft) to gain the ridge to the north-east of the summit. 

Simply hike to the summit from here and descend via the standard route or back down the couloir (not recommended).

Year-round, a helmet is needed because of the loose rock in the gully. The risk of rock fall means this route is recommended as a winter climb.

INFORMATION ON TREKKING AROUND GRAYS PEAK

Among the numerous peaks, national forest and grassland that lies around Grays Peak, there are plenty of other adventures to be had, whatever kind of challenge you are searching for. 

A challenging route is the Torreys Peak Kelso Ridge Trail, a loop that connects Torreys Peak to Kelso Mountain (4,012 m/ 13,164 ft). This 12.2 km (7.6-mile) route requires some experience, as it is often exposed and does require some rock climbing expertise. 

Beginning on the standard Grays Peak Trail, the route cuts off towards the saddle between Torreys and Kelso after 2.5 km (1.5 miles). This is gained via a climb through an abandoned mine, part of a route that one hiker said: “kicked my butt”. With no defined path, advice for this popular trail is: “make this trail as difficult as you want”, picking the way up that suits you and your skill level.

The Hermann Gulch Route is another popular day-hike (10.3 km/ 6.4 miles), leading to a small lake surrounded by mountains. For a quieter alternative, you could try the Watrous Gulch Trail (9.3 km/ 5.8 miles). 

Beginning at the same trailhead, the Hermann Gulch route heads north-west, while the Watrous Gulch Route takes you north-east. With the road nearby, the beginning of either suffers traffic noise. Soon enough they both open to stunning views, gently inclining into the mountainous wilderness. 

In a landscape dotted with abandoned mines, there are plenty of access routes that are now being used to aid hikers to get deep into the wilderness. Railroads (often now abandoned too) and ghost towns deserted decades ago will probably be part of your adventure here, as you hike through an area with a strong, recent human history.

You can simply pass these mines as places of interest during your hikes, or even take advantage of tourist tours, where you can pan for gold and learn about the riches that have (mostly) been already drawn out of this rich earth.