While May in Denver is warm, sunny, and snow-free, you’ll find very different conditions in much of the high country. This leads to problems when unprepared city-dwellers head to the hills in flip-flops and tank-tops. Grays Peak in particular gets a lot of visits from enthusiastic yet unprepared hikers heading up its slopes in May. Here’s a few tips and route information to help you while hiking Grays Peak in May.
Checking the Weather & Snow Conditions
One of the biggest obstacles to spring climbing is the unpredictable weather and snow. Depending on the week, you may find warm weather with little snow, or freezing temperatures and blizzard-like conditions. Planning your hike around “weather windows” where good conditions are expected is key for a successful and safe hike. While there are a few different places to get weather information, I usually use https://www.mountain-forecast.com/ and https://14ers.com/php14ers/weather.php but you can also utilize http://www.weather.com and use a town or city near the mountain. For the weather forecast, consider the following:
- What is the expected temperature, wind, precipitation and cloud cover on the day of your hike? Plan to be ready for them (with a margin for error).
- Are there any major storm systems or temperature drops before or after your hike? If so use caution, as these may arrive early, or come late.
For snow condition reports, there are great government sources for checking snow depth in the Front Range. This information is key for hiking Grays Peak in May. For a map, visit the NOAA Snow Cover map here. Alternatively, you can compare current year snow totals to average and previous years here to get a better idea of what to expect, compared to the past. You should also check the peak conditions report on 14ers.com here. If the sources indicate there will be a lot of snow, consider checking the avalanche conditions here. You should also be prepared with snowshoes and traction gear. In light years with less snow, it is likely possible to ascend with just micro-spikes.
Packing Gear & Planning Your Trip
If you find a weather window, and snow conditions are reasonable, you can begin planning your trip in earnest. This really means three things. First, you need to pack appropriately. This means bringing the winter ten essentials (there will be snow!), along with layers to keep warm. You can read more about packing in my Guide to Packing for 14ers. Second, you should review the route using maps and trip reports. I recommend using 14ers.com, along with my information below.Third, leave detailed written plans, and your expected return time, with a trusted friend or relative back home.
Hiking Grays Peak in May: The Route
The access road up to the trailhead closes each winter due to snow. In heavy years it will be impossible to reach it in May. Check the trailhead reports here to see if it’s melted, and err on the side of caution. If it’s closed, you will need to hike up nearly 3 extra miles – be prepared. If open, you’ll need a 4WD vehicle with good clearance to get to the trailhead, thanks to the rocky, bumpy ride. Once you’ve reached the trailhead, you can park and get started. Due to Grays Peak’s proximity to Denver, I recommend a pre-dawn start to avoid crowds (in addition to giving you more time before snow conditions deteriorate from melting).
Part 1: The Approach Road
If you do need to park at the bottom of the road, you’ll start your trip with just under 3 miles of hiking up the approach road. The road follows the gorge, passing a few cabins and historical structures from the mining era, as several claims lead up the cliffs to your left. As you near the trailhead, you’ll get great views of Kelso Mountain to your right. This peak’s ridge leads up to Torreys Peak, Grays Peak’s sister 14er. If snow conditions are significant, usually directly following a storm, you’ll need to drop down below Kelso later in the route to avoid danger. At the trailhead, you’ll find bathrooms and a bridge to start your real hike.
Part 2: The Gulch
When snow conditions are safe (check https://avalanche.state.co.us/) you can take the route as listed in maps and the above map. When the snow conditions are avalanche-prone, usually following storms, you need to head straight up the gulch to avoid steep avy-prone terrain on Kelso Mountain. Head straight up the Gulch closer to the creek and then gradually rise to meet the trail where it enters the moraine area around 12,100′. Either way, you will pass through significant willow thickets. There will likely be snow and mud, so be prepared to get a bit gross while hiking Grays Peak in May.
Part 3: Along the Moraine
You’ll pass a creek here before hiking up a moraine which will begin to lift you above the gulch to your left. As you take broad switchbacks, you’ll pass the junction for the Kelso Ridge route up Torreys peak to your right. Be careful not to accidentally follow someone up this difficult Class 3 climb… stick to the main trail and stop to check if things don’t seem familiar. You’ll end this section at the base of Grays Peak’s steep North Face.
Part 4: The North Face Crux
This is your last step hiking Grays Peak in May. You will likely be able to make out the switchbacks heading up the peak’s broad face – these are your aim. If there is significant snow at this level (which there may yet be), microspikes and an ice axe are recommended. If you come across slippery conditions you aren’t prepared for, be ready to call it a day and return after a few more weeks of snow. However if conditions are good, you should have no problem making your way to the summit!
View From the Summit
Grays provides you a great view of the city of Silverthorne and Dillon far below to the west. If you look southwest, you’ll see another popular set of 14ers: Quandary Peak and the Democrat group. To the East, you’ll see Mt. Bierstadt and Mt. Evans, and Longs Peak to the North. Torreys Peak, another 14er, is just a short hike and scramble away. Take time to review this last optional route – if you have energy yet at the summit, it’s easy to tag this second peak with just a short, relatively easy traverse. Good luck hiking Grays Peak in May!
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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.