When the snow melts and the Colorado Rockies are covered with sunshine and wildflowers, the mountains over 14,000 feet become a popular destination for people seeking the most beautiful views in the United States.
A popular activity mostly within the summer months, hiking a 14’er is something visitors love checking off their bucketlist. The official count for peaks over 14,000 feet in Colorado is 53 mountains (although there are more, it’s apparently difficult to count them as 14’ers) and the ability to summit all 53 is not accomplished by many.
The official 14’ers range in difficulty so most people opt for the “easy” mountains making them very busy in the summer. But, let me make this clear, there are “easy” fourteeners, but climbing a 14’er is not easy! The word “easy” is thrown around when comparing mountains, but hiking any 14’er will be a challenge.
One of my favorite local hikes, Quandary Peak Trail, takes you to the top of Mt. Quandary at 14, 255 feet (4348 meters). The trailhead can be found about 15 mins south of Breckenridge. As you are driving south on Highway 9, you will see a small sign for Quandary and the lower parking lot near the road. There is a very small upper parking lot very close to the trailhead that often gets filled first thing in the morning.
Do your best to arrive early, even as early as 5-6 AM to secure a parking spot, and avoid parking in front of homes. I’ve witnessed one homeowner yell at people and threaten to tow all cars who were parked near the entrance of the lower lot. I’ve also heard rumors of parking tickets so I advise everyone to be cautious.
The trailhead is a short, slightly uphill, walk from the lower parking lot. When you find the trailhead, you’ll immediately embark on an uphill climb that will quickly give you an idea of how challenging the hike is. After climbing up through the trees, you’ll find yourself significantly higher as the pines get shorter. The remainder of the trail will leave you exposed as you hike past treeline and make your way to the summit. The entire hike is 6.7 miles RT with an elevation gain of 3,339 feet.
Here are some quick tips to remember:
Not only should you try to secure parking, but this hike can take a total of 5-10 hours depending on ability. In the summer, thunderstorms roll in around the afternoon so you’ll need to summit before a storm to avoid being struck by lightning. If you’re near the top and start to hear thunder rumbling or the clouds are looking stormy, turn around! I have been on a mountain with someone who was struck. It’s terrifying.
Pack Essentials Such as Water, Food, Sunblock, and Extra Layers.
A rule of thumb is to bring 1 liter of water for every 2 hours of hiking. It’s a tough climb and along with the heat, you’ll find yourself sweating significantly. In addition to water, I also like to bring electrolyte tablets like Nuun to throw into my water bottle. You’ll need to stay hydrated to do your best on this hike.
I often find myself eating energy bars and energy gummies on my way up. My favorites are Stinger Organic Waffles and PROBAR BOLT energy chews. When you arrive at the summit, you’ll find other hikers unloading their packs to have a quick lunch before heading back down. We like to bring fruit and peanut butter sandwiches. It’s always a good idea to refuel while you rest so the hike down is easier.
Sunblock is a must when hiking anywhere in Colorado. The lack of humidity and the proximity/exposure to the sun is the perfect combination for sunburn. Do your best to cover up! A long sleeve hiking shirt, a hat, and sunglasses will go a long way to protect you from the elements. Also, extra layers will help when you’re resting at the top of the mountain. It can get incredibly cold and windy, often a significant difference in temperature from the entire hike. I recommend bringing a sweatshirt and windbreaker for your time at the top.
Know Your Limits and Prepare!
When hiking a 14’er, you will encounter steep climbs, rocky trails, and high altitude. Be aware of your limitations and prepare yourself for what you may encounter. For example, I’ve had bad knees since I was a child. I always bring hiking poles to ease the tension on my knees on the way down and I always wear sturdy hiking boots to keep from slipping on the trail. Altitude sickness is also very common on these hikes if you’re not used to the elevation. I recommend bringing cans of oxygen, taking several breaks, or just turning around if you don’t feel well.
When hiking these big mountains, you will often encounter wildlife such a moose, mountain goats, marmots, and picas. It’s a great experience to be so close to these animals, but you have to remember, they are wild! Keep your distance and try to pass safely. During one hike on Quandary, we were chased down by a male mountain goat. I’m unsure what provoked him, but every time we tried to stop to rest, he would stomp his feet and start running back and forth. We took the hint and ran down as fast as we could!
A hike up Mt. Quandary, or any 14’er, is a tough yet unforgettable experience. There will be times on the trail where you will feel like giving up, but once you make it to the top, you’ll realize that the effort was worth it. It’s like that saying, “the toughest climbs always lead to the best views.” You will literally feel like you are on top of the world and I can’t think of many experiences where regular people like ourselves get to feel that way. So go climb that mountain, and I’ll see you at the top!