Ever since my first trip to the mountains as a kid I’ve dreamed of hiking to the top and experiencing the mountains by foot. It wasn’t until July of 2018 that the opportunity came about when we decided to make a one week stop to Breckenridge on our family vacation and conquer Quandary Peak and visit one of our favorite mountain towns – Breckenridge Colorado.
Quandary Peak is the tallest mountain in Colorado’s 10-mile range located just about 9 miles from the city of Breckenridge.
- Summit: 14250 feet 14’er!
- Elevation Gain: 3450 feet
- Difficulty: Very Hard
- Summary: ~6.7 miles round trip · estimated 6 hrs (my trip was 8 miles!)
- Main Season: June to October – (Otherwise snowshoes & appropriate gear)
Quandary Peak Trail
Directions to quandary peak trail:
Parking is available in several parking spots off the road as well as along the road leading up to the trail head itself.
Hiking Quandary Mountain
Immediately upon setting foot on the trail, you begin your climb. The trail is beautifully maintained and well marked for the lower sections, it’s nearly impossible to get lost.
You will see a ton of these well laid out and freshly maintained logs along the trail. They help keep erosion down and help keep all the hikers going up safely along areas that can get muddy, rocky or eroded quickly.
This section of the trail zigzags across the beautiful lush forest with lots of squirrels zooming around and the chirps of birds. I love the crisp mountain air and fresh pine forest smells here. Just writing about it takes me back there!
Take plenty of breaks and drink lots of water. You want to be well hydrated! Hiking at altitude stresses your body, especially if you’re not used to it already. Better to be well hydrated on this lower section and be ahead of the game than to risk being thirsty and kicking in altitude sickness higher up the mountain.
Through the early sections, you will be walking on hard-pack dirt. For those just looking to get to the tree line and see some amazing mountain views and not summit, this is a fantastic family-friendly section to hike to. The views are beautiful and you can get back down quickly and have plenty of your day left to explore the surrounding area.
Once you have climbed about 1000 feet in altitude (and a mile of trail), you start to break out of the thick forest and come across some exposed areas and clearings and toy with crossing over into the tree line.
Take some time to soak in the views, the mountains across the way give you glimmers of being above the tree line, and the views start to open up. If you haven’t applied sunscreen yet do so here before you proceed as you are in the wide open now and exposed to direct sunlight with no trees.
The climb is still a good pace – mostly just good brisk walk and altitude gain with some logs/steps to turn through a few areas where there is drainage. From here you will start winding your way to a small aspen grove with all the leaves happily waiving to you as you smile and trudge your way on.
I started to feel the burn of the ascent and the drain of altitude right above the treeline. I ended up taking a few rests along the way to relax and recharge.
Above the treeline the mountain changes from soil/dirt trails to rock pack and manicured stone steps. At this point this is the part where I started using my trekking poles – Anything to help with stability and using my arms for additional climbing strength helped immensely.
Make sure to take lots of breaks, enjoy the views and sip water. If you haven’t taken a snack break yet, do so now I found that as I got much higher on the mountain that my digestion and appetite completely changed – That delicious chocolate bar at the beginning of the trail was instant regret when I was much higher up. A banana did me well, just be sure to pack out the peel – Bananas aren’t natural up here. Take it easy, use those poles and enjoy the alpine air! Watch your footing, its all rocks and boulders from here on up.
So far the weather was cooperating and it was still blue skies and visibility for miles.
It seemed this late in the day I was the only human on the mountain so the wild sheep were very inquisitive. It was a pleasure to meet them on my way up and to wonder how they survive and thrive so far up here!
As with all wildlife, keep your distance, take some pictures and don’t try and pet them. The sheep are cute and make funny noises, which is good because you have just now realized you’re only on a false summit and you stare up at another 1000+ foot climb above you.
Afternoon showers started settling in as I got around the 13,000-foot level. Colorado’s monsoon season is during the summer and its almost like clockwork to see storms in the mid to late afternoon. There were only a handful of people on the trail at this point in time.
This is where the trail gets narrow, sometimes hard to find (there was a repair warning when I was up) and its just step after step by step from here. You and your knees will appreciate having hiking poles right now! I wish I had a better photo here (and that my finger wasn’t on the upper left corner), but you can see that even though you’re now at 13k feet on the false summit, that you have a LONG way to go yet. A picture just doesn’t do it justice but that ridge along the left there is where you walk. The trail at this point can disappear so take your time and look for worn out sections and look further up the mountain to see where the path recovers and follow back. The weather can be fierce up here, and it shows! Be prepared!
I must be honest; the last 1000+ feet were the hardest. I stayed in touch with my family at the cabin below because the weather was changing fast and I could see storms in almost every direction around me. What started out as a beautiful clear blue sky quickly turned into rain, sleet, and storms in surrounding areas. At this point, I appreciated my investment in right gear and preparation for the trip as well as the support of my wife helping relay weather and check on my status up here.
Quandary Mountain Summit
Once you’re on top of the mountain, it looks like you can see forever. Very hard to capture these views and the iPhone panorama feature does a decent job of trying to capture a chunk of it.
As I stood on top of Quandary peak, thoroughly exhausted I was overwhelmed with emotions – happiness to finally complete something I had only dreamed of as a kid, strength that as a 40 something I still had the ability to summit a 14k mountains and a sense of awe and wonder that was overwhelming, exciting and scary at the same time. (it’s hard to get selfies and not feel like you’re going to fall off!)
I mean, here you are, standing on top of the world, on a pile of rocks that mother nature is desperately trying to destroy over the millennia and you can see forever in every direction an astounding amount of beauty and wonder. While you stand there, you know you still need to make it down, and the task ahead of you and behind you sink in. You had been so focused to have one foot in front of the other that the sheer scale of everything – the cliffs, the narrows of the trail and such may have escaped you but slowly sink in. It’s not that it scares you or instills fear but its a recognition of yourself and your abilities to push hard, be safe and experience something so dramatic and empowering that it’s life-changing and uplifting.
Don’t forget to get photo proof of being at the top! Nothing beats a picture of the survey marker 🙂
Panoramas are incredible up here. I didn’t get many because the wind/rain and sleet picked up. I had to start down quick since being on top is being in the middle of the elements.
I arrived at the summit around 1 pm. It took me over four hours to get to the top. Had I not walked from our HomeAway Cabin and added another mile all uphill, I would have probably made it up an hour earlier and missed some of the rain.
As I made my descent, it took about 2.5 hours to make it all the way down, and for those 2.5 hours, it was as if I was the only human on that mountain.
Planning your Quandary Peak Hike
To have the most favorable chance of completing your hike its imperative to be prepared with equipment, clothing, and gear you can trust as well as proper acclimation and trail times.
It’s important to get acclimated first. If you haven’t already been staying in the 10k foot range for a few days, I would highly recommend you first get acclimated at a basecamp around the 10k altitude level. Attempting Quandary without acclimation usually leads to massive headaches and other potential health risks, so don’t drive/fly in and then attempt the climb on your first day here. The last thing you want to do is to stop your hike and feel sick and have a headache all the way down. Altitude sickness is not something to be taken lightly!
When to Start
Get up and start your hike as early as you can. I can’t stress this enough; Summer is the monsoon season for these mountains – thunderstorms tend to form right around 1-2 pm. You do not want to be above the tree line and the tallest object standing on the mountain if storms approach. Knowing it can take a healthy person six hours to complete the full loop, leaving by 7 am or earlier is highly recommended. Lots of people start around 5 a.m. with headlamps to light the way on the lower section.
What to wear
Dress for the mountains!
Hiking a 14kr puts you and your gear through all sorts of experiences and weather conditions. In the middle of July, it can mean blazing sun early in the morning and rain/sleet in the afternoon, and everything can change in an instant. You may be hot and sweaty, and minutes later you may be cold and wet trying to shelter from a 40 mph wind. Be prepared and plan well!
Mountain Hiking Gear
Shirt: I wore an REI fast-dry SPF shirt. Kept me from getting sunburned, wicked away moisture quickly and was comfy. Sleeves would roll up if needed.
Pants: REI SPF pants with detachable legs. Great for keeping me warm/cool and dried fast when I got soaked in the rain.
Shoes: Keen hiking boots. They were comfy, had great grip & stability. I would recommend if you do get keens, to purchase their inserts. A lot of people are switching to trail running shoes for day hikes, they would work great on this mountain during late summer months otherwise you may be crossing ice and slush if you start early in the summer.
Socks: “wicking” hiking socks. Dry feet or quickly dry feet are a must when ascending/descending a mountain. Wet feet = misery (in many ways!).
Windbreaker/Rain Coat: Marmot rain jacket/windbreaker was a lifesaver! I experienced wind, rain, and sleet. The Marmot rain jacket with a second layer (a fleece over that gray shirt) kept me warm & dry, and it was easy to remove layers as weather quickly changed. I would have been miserable without the windbreaker and probably aborted my attempt had I not had it.
Hydration: I carried the Camel Bak, and it worked great. I do wish I had another bottle of water to go inside the bag as I did run out of water on my way back down.
Misc: Sunglasses, Sunscreen, first-aid kit, hand-held radio, snacks, headlamp/flashlight, hat, pocket knife and trekking poles (all of which fit easily into my Camel Bak or attached nicely to outside!)
The Trekking poles were one of my “maybe I don’t need these” purchases but in hindsight was the BEST purchase I made to make the trip possible. They just do wonders for balance, stability, and comfort going up and down the mountain. Check out our guide trekking poles for all the nitty gritty details of selecting & how to use your trekking poles.
Leave early, stay hydrated, bring plenty of food & water. If you go with a group, stay as a group – if you’re going up solo – take a handheld radio and keep in touch with friends/family on the ground. My cheap hand-held radio had no problem reaching cabins miles down the valley to stay in touch!
New to 14ers? Check out our 14ers for Beginners guide – We’ll help you plan, train and prepare for your first ascent!
I enjoyed the experience more than I thought I would – even though it was hard physically mentally. I’m already planning other 14ker climbs and look forward to writing about them soon! If you have plans or have already hiked a 14er, we would love to hear your store. Drop a comment below or post on our forums!
Have you ever hiked Quandary Peak or do you have this on your plans? Leave a comment below, we love reader feedback and input!