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Our family's fall trip to Colorado has become an annual pilgrimage. Each year, we map a new route to explore the best trails and mountain towns. Despite unusual circumstances and restrictions, 2020 was no different. We planned our road trip to explore the quaking aspens, breathtaking passes and stunning alpine lakes of Southwest Colorado. Yet, one adventure made 2020 stand apart from previous years. With our daughters the perfect ages (8 & 11) for longer, more difficult hikes - and Mother Nature providing gorgeous autumn weather - we summited our first, then second, fourteneer.
With more than 50 peaks soaring above 14,000 feet, Colorado has a 14er for every ability. With the right preparation, summiting your first fourteener can be an exhilarating experience. Follow these helpful tips, and like us, you'll start planning your next fourteener on the descent from your first.
Not all 14ers are created equal. Routes are assigned a difficulty rating using the Yosemite Decimal System. This numeric system rates hikes and climbs on a scale of 1 (easiest) to 5 (most difficult) based on exposure and technical difficulty. Start with a class 1 or 2 for your first 14er. Class 1 routes are considered easy hiking and follow established trails, while class 2 hikes are more difficult and may require some scrambling.
Helpful Hint: 14ers.com is the comprehensive resource for Colorado's fourteeners and includes route descriptions, pictures, peak conditions, and weather reports. It also provides skiing information for slopes that are ski-friendly in winter.
We spent hours poring over trail descriptions and reports to select our first 14er. In addition to difficulty, we considered:
At four miles round-trip, with 2,150 feet of elevation gain, Mt. Democrat (14,148 ft) was the perfect choice for us. Rated Class 2, the short, steep trail crosses scree fields and climbs sharp switchbacks over loose rock to the summit.
Many hikers continue from Mt. Democrat on the DeCaLiBron loop to bag four 14ers in a single day. While 7.5 miles is not an unreasonable distance for us, we decided not to push our luck. Four miles, all above 12,000 feet, is no walk in the park. Plus, we had plenty left in the tank to bag our second 14er the next day.
The best way to avoid altitude sickness is to allow your body time to adjust to increasing elevation. When possible, avoid flying or driving directly to high altitudes. Instead, pick a lower altitude to stay at for 24 hours, and then go higher each day of your trip. On longer trips, plan rest days between high altitude hikes.
We had several days to acclimate and were able to complete two longer hikes above 10,000 feet before attempting Mt. Democrat. We took a rest day between hikes and stayed at lower elevations. After hiking 8 miles round trip to Ice Lake (12,270 ft) and Island Lake (12,392 ft) and then another 8 miles to Blue Lakes (highest elevation, 11,720 ft), our legs and lungs were prepared for Mt. Democrat.
Colorado's 14ers are no secret, and each year, more hikers attempt the summits. To avoid crowds, especially on the more popular and accessible trails, hike on a weekday. If you go on a Saturday or Sunday, consider a less accessible trailhead, or be prepared for crowds.
The six-mile dirt road to the Kite Lake campground and Mt. Democrat trailhead is passable in a high clearance 2WD vehicle but enough of a deterrent to keep massive crowds away, especially on a weekday. We arrived at the trailhead early Friday morning and only passed a handful of hikers on our ascent.
Our experience the next day was not so serene. Having caught 14er fever, we decided to bag Mt. Bierstadt on our way back to Denver. One of the easiest and most accessible 14ers, Mt. Bierstadt attracts hordes of weekend warriors, and the parking lot fills well before dawn. Be prepared to share the trail - and the summit - with hundreds of other hikers.
In summertime, afternoon thunderstorms roll in fast. At 14,000 feet and well above treeline, hikers are the tallest thing around. To avoid becoming a human lightning rod, plan to be off the summit by noon. For longer hikes, this means starting in the dark. Many hikers camp at the trailhead to get a predawn start. Even in fall, it's best to start hiking early so you have plenty of daylight for your descent and drive back to town. Check the forecast and remember that rain and snowstorms arrive quickly in the mountains.
Temperatures on any given route swing wildly throughout the day. Starting early means chilly mornings, even in summer. Exposed trails and tough climbing heat up the ascent, while peaks are cool and windy. Be sure to wear layers you can peel off - or pile on - throughout your hike. Don't forget gloves and a beanie (trucker hat in summer).
In early October, I was comfortable in KÜHL W's Travrse Leggings, a short sleeve Merino wool base layer and my AIRKÜHL Hoody. My husband and I both wore our softshell Protektr Jackets to block the wind at the summit. Our girls wore the KÜHL Girl's Avalon Snap Fleece and Aprés Hoody for easy layering and warmth.
Hydration is important for any hike, but at altitude, it's critical. At higher elevations, your body works harder and you breathe faster than at sea level. Additionally, high altitude areas tend to have very low humidity and more exposure to wind and sun so your body loses water faster. Increase your water intake before, during and after any high altitude activity. Make sure you pack enough water for the hike. Gatorade, lemonade or fruit juice provide some extra energy (and flavor) at the summit.
Hiking above 10,000 feet means your body will burn through its fuel reserves more rapidly. Increase your carbohydrate intake prior to your hike, and pack nutrient-dense snacks to keep you moving all day long. Trail mix, beef jerky, fruit leathers, gummy bears and PB&J are good options to provide both quick and sustained energy. Snack breaks are a great way to pace your climb and take in the stunning scenery.
Despite acclimatizing, we could still feel the effects of altitude above 10,000 feet. Be prepared to hike much slower than at sea level, and take frequent breaks as you gain elevation. Take an ibuprofen before hiking to help prevent altitude sickness. Most importantly, listen to your body. If you start to feel sick, descend to a lower elevation.
It took 39 years for my husband and me to bag our first 14er, but it was worth the wait to summit with our daughters. Hiking should be fun, so throw out any expectations and enjoy the journey. Follow no trace principles and pack out all trash to preserve the fragile alpine environment.
Nicole's idea of a perfect vacation involves hiking, trail running, SUP and exploring secluded beaches with her husband and two daughters. She writes about travel, raising KÜHL kids and her obsession with outdoor apparel for KÜHL.