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Weekend Getaways

Discover the highest point in Colorado

Colorado is home to some of the most breathtaking natural scenery you will ever see. From majestic mountains to rushing rivers, there is something for everyone in this beautiful state.

It is the state with the highest average elevation in the country, home to 58 fourteens (peaks that are more than 14,000 feet above sea level) and more than 600 thirteen.

With elevations like these, Colorado is a premier destination for hikers, photographers, and nature lovers of all kinds.

How the Colorado mountains were formed

About 80 million years ago, tectonic activity near the Pacific coast led to an event known as the Laramide Orogeny.

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As the North American continent slowly moved away from the fragmented Pangea landmass about 80 million years ago, tectonic activity near the Pacific coast led to an event known as the Laramide Orogeny. This was a period of intense mountain building resulting from the collision of several large tectonic plates – the North American Plate and two Pacific Plates, the Kula and the Farallon.

The clashing of these plates pushed the earth’s crust up, creating much of what would later become the Rocky Mountains. This process lasted an estimated 30 million years – the exact start and end point of the Laramid orogeny is not known for sure.

Volcanic activity in Colorado

Typically, when tectonic plates shear against each other, one plate is pushed up while the other is pushed below. These processes are known as uplift and subduction.

As the Pacific Plates subducted deeper into the Earth beneath the North American Plate, they began to heat up and melt. This molten liquid rock, called magma, rose through cracks and weak points in the earth’s crust, causing volcanic eruptions that further helped form these mountains.

You can see evidence of this volcanic activity in the 15 calderas (large, crater-like depressions formed when a volcano collapses in on itself) of southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

The largest of these calderas, La Garita Caldera, is the site of perhaps the largest volcanic eruption in all of Earth’s history.

This volcanic activity has also deposited large amounts of minerals and other valuable natural resources throughout the region. The mineral-rich mountains (including gold, silver, copper, lead, and uranium) of Colorado have long been a source of great wealth and prosperity for the state and its people.

The Rio Grande Rift

The other major geological event that contributed to the rise of the Colorado Rocky Mountains is the Rio Grande Rift.

After the Pacific Farallon Plate was fully subducted under the North American Plate, the North American Plate began to spread and extend westward. This stretching caused the Earth’s crust to thin and crack, creating a large rift that runs from central Colorado down to Chihuahua, Mexico.

The Rio Grande Rift is still an active geologic feature and continues to expand at an incredibly slow rate of about 2.5 millimeters per year. And as it expands, the land around it is gradually pushed upwards, further increasing the height of nearby mountains — at roughly less than a millimeter per year.

While this may seem insignificant and unnoticed on a human timescale, over the course of millions of years it can have profound effects on the landscape. In some areas it is estimated that the Rio Grande Rift caused the mountains to be raised by as much as 9,000 feet!

This, along with extensive water erosion, ultimately created the Colorado highlands we see today.

The top 5 highest points in Colorado

5. La Plata Peak – 14,343 feet

La Plata Peak Colorado
La Plata Peak is famous for its large silver deposits.

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The fifth highest peak in Colorado is La Plata Peak, located in the Sawatch Range in central Colorado.

“La plata” means “the silver” in Spanish, referring to the large silver deposits found in the area in the late 19th century. There are two ghost towns nearby, Winfield and Hamilton, both founded during the silver boom and later abandoned.

There are a few different routes you can take to reach the top of La Plata Peak. The standard route most people take on the Northwest Ridge is labeled a Class 2 hike, meaning it requires no technical rock climbing but is moderately difficult due to its steepness.

4. Blanca Peak – 14,351 feet

Blanca Peak Colorado
Blanca Peak is the highest peak in the southernmost range of the Rocky Mountains.

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Blanca Peak is the fourth highest mountain in Colorado and the highest peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (the southernmost part of the Rocky Mountains).

The first recorded ascent of Blanca Peak was made in 1874 by the Wheeler survey team for the US Geological Survey. But when they reached the top, they found that someone had beaten them to it – there was already an artificial stone structure up there. This is thought to have been brought there by either the Ute indigenous people, who have long considered the mountain sacred, or possibly by Spanish explorers who traversed the area.

Of the 5 peaks on this list, Blanca Peak is considered the most difficult to climb. All routes to the summit are either “Grade 2” or higher due to the long hike (15+ miles), difficult terrain and high risk of falling rocks.

3. Mount Harvard – 14,421 feet

Mount Harvard
You can climb both Mount Harvard and Mount Columbia on the same hike.

Jessie Meredith/Shutterstock.com

The third highest mountain in Colorado is Mount Harvard, located in the Collegiate Peaks. It got its name in 1869 when members of the Harvard Mining School explored the area. Soon after, many other nearby peaks were named after Ivy League colleges, including Oxford, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia. These form the so-called Collegiate Peaks, of which Mount Harvard is the highest.

In the 1960s, a group of Harvard graduates carried a 14-foot pole to the top of Mount Harvard. They placed it there with a sign on it proclaiming it the second highest point in the contiguous United States (although it probably wasn’t).

If you’re interested in climbing Mount Harvard, you’re welcome to take the trail that also climbs over nearby Mount Columbia, although it may require some extra effort.

2. Mount Massive – 14,428 feet

Valley below Mount Massive
Mount Massive is home to five distinct peaks that span its three-mile summit ridge.

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Mount Massive is the second tallest peak in Colorado, the third tallest in the lower 48 states, and the fourteenth tallest by area in the contiguous United States (that’s why it’s called Mount Massive). Its elongated shape is home to 5 different peaks, all over 14,000 feet, with a summit ridge over 3 miles long.

Since Mount Massive is only a few feet from the tallest mountain in Colorado, some climbers brought rocks to the top to pile them up and try to make it higher. But these cairns were eventually torn down by supporters of Mount Elbert.

The standard route to climb Mount Massive is classified as a Class 2 hike and takes you through the beautiful Mount Massive Wilderness Area in the San Isabel National Forest.

1. Mount Elbert – 14,440 feet

Twin Lakes Reservoir
Mount Elbert’s summit is the highest point in Colorado and relatively easy to climb.

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The highest point in Colorado is Mount Elbert. It is also the highest point in the Rocky Mountains and the second highest peak in the contiguous United States (after Mount Whitney in California).

There are 3 main trails leading to the summit of Mount Elbert, two of which are designated as Class 1 trails – the easiest trail rating. The third trail is Class 2 – slightly more strenuous, steeper and more difficult, but still climbable without any particular mountaineering or climbing skills.

These make Mount Elbert one of the most popular Fourteeners in Colorado, suitable even for novice hikers and rock climbers. If you want to see the world from the second highest peak in the contiguous United States, Mount Elbert is a fantastic option for an unforgettable experience.

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