California & Colorado are home to the vast majority of the 14,000 foot peaks in the lower 48. Between the two states, 70 named or ranked peaks exceed 14,000 feet that you can hike and climb. However, the Colorado Rockies are very different from the California Sierra Nevada and Cascades. Here are the biggest differences comparing the Colorado and California 14ers.
California 14ers Feature Steeper, Rugged Approaches.
First, many people mention that the California 14ers often include steeper routes that gain altitude rather quickly. Many of the peaks along the Sierra Nevada rise 7,000-8,000 feet above the valley floor, double the prominence of many Colorado 14ers. Mt Shasta in the north also features massive elevation gain (7,200 feet in just a 6 mile trek). For these reasons, expect a real workout if you transition from Colorado to California.
Colorado 14ers Are Generally More Accessible.
Conversely, thanks to our rich mining history, most Colorado 14ers are readily accessible with trailheads close to or above tree line. Many close to Denver and tourist areas include 2WD accessible roads, or are located right on major highways. California 14ers are usually more remote, with 12-25 miles to reach the summit. Most California climbs require multiple days, while Colorado 14er ascents last one day on average.
California 14ers are More Diverse.
All of the Colorado 14ers belong to the southern Rocky Mountains and share a similar geologic history. Conversely, the California 14ers, split between three different ranges, demonstrate greater unique character. These include the Sierra Nevada, the White Mountains, and the northern Cascades. Each of these three provides a slightly different type of rock, unique summit views, and a fascinating geological history. For example Mt Shasta, a stratovolcano built from eruptions over thousands of years, stands all alone. Mt Whitney in the Sierra Nevada resulted from plate tectonics as part of a dense range of peaks.
Guidebooks Rate Colorado 14ers More Conservatively.
Thanks to their rugged nature and inaccessibility, the California 14ers received more conservative rankings from the elite alpinists who first climbed and popularized them. They tend to understate the challenges of any given California 14er route. For example, a route that would be Class 4 in Colorado will often be listed as a Class 3 in California. Keep this difference in mind as you plan routes, and make sure you can handle what you’re signing up for.
California 14ers Require a Broader Range of Skills and Gear.
The diversity of ranges in California also means a broader range of skills and gear is required to climb them all. Many 14ers are similar to those in Colorado. Climb them easily in the summer with basic hiking skills and gear. However other peaks are more complicated, like Mt Shasta, which requires mountaineering boots, ice axe, crampons, helmet, and the snow travel skills to use them. This gives you more ability to create custom adventures with the right mix of skills to fit your needs.
Comparing the Colorado and California 14ers.
When comparing the Colorado and California 14ers, a lot of unique factors come to light. To sum of the differences again, California 14ers are rugged & steep, diverse, and require a broad range of skills and gear to climb. Colorado 14ers are more gentle and accessible, are rated more easily, and usually can be ascended via a simple hike. Generally, Colorado’s peaks work best for beginners, while advanced alpinists may enjoy California more right off the bat. Do you think I left out something in comparing the Colorado and California 14ers? Leave a comment below and share your opinions with the Next Summit community!
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About the Author: Alex Derr
Alex Derr is a mountaineer and blogger based in Denver Colorado. He is working to climb Colorado’s highest 100 peaks, and the 20 tallest peaks in California. He created The Next Summit to share advice, stories, history & reflections from the Colorado Rockies & Sierra Nevada. When not climbing, he is managing the Communications strategy at Visible Network Labs.