Castle Peak and its neighbor Conundrum Peak - both featured on Colorado 14ers Map 10 of 16 - are the first peaks of the Elk Mountains of central Colorado near Aspen this blog will examine. Usually hiked together since the summit of Conundrum Peak is only 0.6 miles from the summit of Castle Peak, only one of these (Castle) gets the distinction of being a real, ranked 14er, since Conundrum only rises 240 feet above the saddle between them and is lower. (Remember: a rise of at least 300 feet from a connecting saddle is widely considered necessary to be a separate, ranked 14er).
Tucked into the southeast corner of the Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness in the heart of the Elk Mountains, these two peaks represent the most accessible and comparatively easiest 14ers of the Elks. As with so many high peaks in Colorado, members of the Hayden Survey in 1873 are credited with the first recorded ascent of Castle Peak as well as for naming the peak "Castle" as its features are reminiscent of the turreted walls of a castle.
Conundrum Peak - "conundrum" meaning a difficult problem - was named by prospectors who were unable to find the source of alluvial gold in nearby similarly-named Conundrum Creek (the gold found in creek beds in which miners pan for gold is most often washed down from a larger lode or massive deposit upstream).
There is only one main approach to Castle Peak that is normally used: via Montezuma Basin to the north and east of the Castle Peak summit. For those in 2WD and low-clearance vehicles, this involves a considerable amount of walking along a 4WD road for most of the route. Starting where Castle Creek Road ends about 13 miles south of the traffic circle just before Aspen, the 2WD trailhead (elevation 9,750') is located where the Pearl Pass Road splits off. From this trailhead, one must walk along the 4WD road following Castle Creek for about 2.5 miles before the Montezuma Road turns off north. Make sure to go right at this point or you'll continue along Pearl Pass Road well away from Castle Peak.
Follow the Class 1 (trail walking) Montezuma Road north and west along the mountainside for another 2.2 miles to the upper 4x4 Trailhead (12,775' elevation) where the road ends and the trail begins.
From the upper 4x4 trailhead at the end of Montezuma Road, the 1.6 mile Class 2 (more difficult hiking) trail begins by heading south eventually climbing and gaining the east ridge of Castle Peak where the route becomes somewhat more difficult to follow (though not hard) to the summit itself. From the 2WD trailhead, this route gains a net of 4,500 feet in elevation over 6 miles (one way). Driving up to the upper 4x4 trailhead (warning: high clearance required and lots of exposure!) makes for a much easier day with a 1.6 mile (one way) hike to the summit with an elevation gain of only about 1500'.
From the summit of Castle Peak, the route to Conundrum is a Class 2 hike down to the saddle between them and then up the 240 feet elevation to the summit of Conundrum - only a 0.6 mile hike (1.2 mile round-trip back to the summit of Castle).
Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak make great introductory hikes for Elk Mountain 14ers - as all of the others are significantly more challenging, dangerous and often more difficult to access as well. However, these are difficult peaks for those unprepared; other ranges offer better introductory peaks for 14er beginners. For those up for the challenge, safety is paramount and it's important to stay hydrated, respect your fitness levels, start early to avoid afternoon Elk Mountain thunderstorms (but monitor the weather no matter when you start!) and don't forget your 14ers Maps and compass. Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak are two of the five fourteeners found featured on Outdoor Trail Maps Colorado 14ers Series Map 10 of 16.
Directions to Trailheads:
From the traffic circle just west of Aspen, take the Castle Creek Road 'branch' south and follow this road for about 13.5 miles where the road ends and Pearl Pass Road continues to the right/west. This is where there 2WD/low-clearance parking lot is found.
For 4WD vehicles, you can continue up to the junction where Montezuma Road leaves Pearl Pass Road (2.5 miles up from the 2WD trailhead) or all the way up Montezuma Road to the upper 4x4 trailhead.