When people think about Colorado, undoubtedly the mountains come to mind! With the Southern Rockies spread throughout the western portion of the state, there are thousands of peaks to discover. This grants Colorado the status as the state with the highest average elevation. Below, we cover:
- Mountain Ranges
- Other Peaks, Mesas, Hills, Buttes, and Rock Formations
14,000+ Foot Mountains in Colorado
Mount Elbert is the largest peak in Colorado at 14,439 feet of elevation. This puts it into a special tier of mountains called fourteeners. These impressive 14er peaks range from 14,000 to 14,439 feet in Colorado and there are 58 of them spread around the state.
13,000+ Foot Mountains in Colorado
Colorado boasts 637 peaks that range between 13,000 and 13,999 feet. Known as 13ers, these often overlooked (for their 14er cousins) can be just as spectacular and thrilling of a hike. Consider trekking up some of the state’s top 13ers on your next hiking trip.
Mountain Ranges in Colorado
Some of Colorado’s towering peaks come together to form larger mountain ranges. Names like the Front Range, San Juan, and Sangre de Cristo are all among the most popular stretches of peaks in the state. And they hold an array of natural features and recreation to uncover.
Other Peaks, Mesas, Hills, Buttes & Rock Formations
Aside from the state’s tallest peaks, there is a myriad of other magnificent mountains, hills, and buttes to explore. From local hikes in the Denver Metro area like Green Mountain and Lookout Mountain to the Pawnee Buttes on the Eastern Plains, finding a scenic day hike is as easy as hopping in your car and driving a little bit.
Everyone has heard of the Continental Divide that runs north and south throughout North America. But…
Guide to Mountains in Colorado
Colorado is home to the Rocky Mountains, which feature some of the most extensive and rugged terrain in the world. Running 3,000 miles from western Canada to the southern U.S. state of New Mexico and passing through several other U.S. states, including Colorado, the Rockies are the largest mountain range in North America.
The formation of the Rockies dates back nearly 80 million years to the Laramide orogeny. A majority of the mountains were created by a number of tectonic plates that began to slide underneath the North American plate.
While most of the Rockies in Colorado were formed by tectonic activity, there are some that were formed by volcanic activity. Examples include the San Juan Mountains, where there are 15 known calderas (large depressions formed when a volcano erupts and collapses).
The mountains of Colorado are what define more than half of the state and lure travelers here year after year. Home to 58 14ers (14,000+ foot mountains) and 637 peaks that lie between 13,000 and 13,999 feet in elevation, Colorado is a popular destination for mountaineering, hiking, climbing, and more.
There are a total of seven primary mountain ranges in Colorado with numerous subranges and extensions.
The most popular range, due to its dominance over the western skyline of Colorado’s largest cities, is the Front Range. Iconic mountains like Longs Peak, Pikes Peak, and Mt. Evans are located here; the Front Range is also home to Rocky Mountain National Park. Along the eastern side of the Front Range, unique red rock upthrusts that emerged during the Fountain Formation form the geologic base of the famous Red Rocks Amphitheater, Garden of the Gods, and Roxborough State Park.
A little further west, we have the Tenmile-Mosquito Range. This compact range includes a handful of ultra-popular mountains like Quandary Peak, which is the most hiked 14er in the state, and a quad of additional fourteeners around Kite Lake, known colloquially as the Decalibron.
Historically separated by name at Hoosier Pass (Tenmile to the north, Mosquito to the south), there isn’t really a big geographic or geological separation between the two, so they are often grouped together.
Continuing southwest, we arrive at the Sawatch Range, which includes 15 of the state’s 14,000-foot mountains along with the tallest mountain in the state, Mt. Elbert. The mountains are massive and bulky, with generally rounded profiles and substantial elevation gain necessary to reach the summits. Funky mountain towns like Leadville, Buena Vista, and Salida are located to the east of the range.
If you drew a line west from the Sawatch, you’d end up in the Elk Mountains. This is a serious mountain range with many of the hardest 14ers in Colorado, including the always intimidating Capitol Peak and the Maroon Bells. Arguably one of the prettiest multi-day backpacking adventures in the state is located here and is called the Four Pass Loop.
The town of Aspen lies on the Elk’s northeastern slopes, and Crested Butte is located on the southern slopes.
Sangre De Cristo Mountains
Southwest of the Front Range, the Sangre de Cristo mountains reign supreme. The range is over 400 miles long and terminates just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. These pencil-thin but razor-sharp mountains include Colorado icons like the Crestones, Blanca Peak, and Kit Carson. Great Sand Dunes National Park is nestled along its western side. Towns alongside the range are few and far between but include Westcliffe on the eastern side and Alamosa on the western.
The San Juan Mountains
The San Juan’s, which occupies the southwestern corner of the state are Colorado’s largest set of mountains. They contain 14 separate 14ers and 250 of the states’ 637 13ers. With such an incredible offering of mountains, it’s no wonder many people call the San Juans the most spectacular range in the state. Prominent towns in the San Juans include Durango, Telluride, Pagosa Springs, and Ouray.
The Park Range
Lastly, we have the Park Range, which is geologically and geographically important but much lesser known than other ranges and contains zero 14ers. From north to south, the range actually begins in Wyoming before heading into the Routt National Forest and the beautiful Mt. Zirkel Wilderness near Steamboat Springs.
The middle portion of the range is low, tree-covered, and contains a lot of remote camping and solitude. The incredibly rugged southern part of these mountains is called the Gore Range. Steamboat Springs, Vail, and Silverthorne are the most prominent towns near the range.
Canyons, Mesas, Grasslands, and Valleys
Other prominent topographical features complete the make-up of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. There are roughly 10 mesas in the state, with the Gand Mesa in western Colorado claiming the title as the largest flat-top mountain in the world. The prominent canyons of Dinosaur National Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Glenwood Canyon are also significant, cutting up Colorado’s western slope geography.
In addition, the Centennial State has three significant high-elevation grassland areas known as parks. North Park lies between the Park Range and the Northern Front Range. Middle Park also lies between the Park Range and the Front Range, is the smallest of the three, and contains popular recreation areas like Lake Granby, and Winter Park.
South Park (yes, just like the show), is the highest and largest of the parks, with an average elevation of around 10,000 feet, and lies between the southern Mosquito Range and the southern Front Range.
The San Luis Valley, while not known officially as a park, is also a high elevation flat area between the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the western San Juans.
With the highest average elevation of any US state, the Colorado mountains are the source of major rivers that impact millions of lives. The largest among them is the Colorado River, which originates in Rocky Mountain National Park before flowing west through southern Utah and into Arizona, where it’s responsible for creating the Grand Canyon.
Originating in the San Juan Mountains, the 1,900 miles long Rio Grande River flows into New Mexico and eventually forms the border between the state of Texas and Mexico. The nearly 1,500-mile Arkansas River, which originates in the Sawatch Range, flows southeast through multiple states before joining the Mississippi River near Little Rock, Arkansas.
There are 11 national forests, 4 national parks, and numerous state parks that help keep the mountainous terrain of Colorado protected and able to be enjoyed by all. The mountains are the perfect place to start your outdoor adventures, so what are you waiting for?