With 53 peaks over 14,000 feet Colorado makes the best place in the US to train for high altitude treks. With that in mind we spent 3 weeks training around Breckenridge (9600ft) before dashing home, packing and jumping on a plane for Nepal to start the 20 day 3 Passes Trek at the beginning of October.
Overall the plan worked well. We were well acclimated for the lower part of the trek, i.e., sleeping below 15,000 feet, and although we completed the trek crossing passes over 18,000 with only moderate difficulty, sleep apnea was a big issue for us in the later stages of the hike. For more on this see the previous post, Everest Region Trekking Tips.
This post focuses on high altitude trails around Breckenridge.
Getting Your Feet Wet
Starting in Breckenridge this out-and-back steady climb through the forest makes a good first day option. Go as far and you feel like, uphill on the way out, and come back when you have had enough. If you are feeling really strong you can hike out the 3 miles to Crystal Creek road and continue on up to the lakes. See the Crystal Lake Trail below.
This is a relatively easy first hike. At just under 3 miles it climbs 688 feet starting at 11,542. While this is a popular day hike and the trail is well worn it is not well blazed and the route is not marked on the map at the trailhead, so be sure you have an idea of where the trail goes before you head out.
The trail is advertised as having great alpine views without having to actually climb a mountain. While this is true in a sense, it largely depends on what your definition of great alpine views is. For me it was only mildly pretty and a pleasant way to start altitude training, but I wouldn’t do this hike just for its scenery. I have to admit though, that looking back at the photos months later it looked far prettier than I remembered.
As a first training hike it gets good marks. The first part of the trail follows a dirt road up the side of the valley with views of Mt Bross, see below for the hike to this peak. The climb is well graded, although if you’ve just arrived from the lowlands it’s harder than it looks.
At the crossroads the trail doubles back over a hill with less impressive views to the north. The trail here is steeper, but it’s a short climb. The way back to the starting point follows a dirt track first along a ridge and then a short steep descent that looks more like a shortcut than an actual trail. Some folks on AllTrails recommend heading up this way to save on the knees. If you’re still altitude challenged I’d recommend taking the gentle ascent out and the quick descent back. It’s not so long that it’s too bad on the knees. You could also use trekking poles.
I chose this 8.4 mile out-and-back hike to 13,060 feet for our first real training hike because one reviewer on AllTrails that said this was the easiest trail he could find to over 13,000ft. Although it is rated at hard it’s really only the length of the trail and the altitude that makes it more than moderate. The first 2 and half miles to the lower lake (12,00ft), the prettier of the two, is along a 4×4 road. From the first lake to the second lake it’s another 1000 feet in just under 2 miles. Again, the track is well graded and a steady climb to the upper lake.
You could greatly shorten the hike by driving up to the first lake and then hiking to the second lake. There are also spots along the road where you could leave your car and hike the rest. However, to drive on this road you do need a 4X4 vehicle with good clearance.
As far as being scenic, the road through the forest is just that, a pretty forest. Once at the clearing the open meadow is a welcome change, especially in the fall when shrubs glow golden in the sunlight.
The first lake is by far the more attractive with golden shrubs encircling the water.
Continuing up the trail to the upper lake offers views of the mountains to the east. Clouds, however, started to roll in unexpectedly which diminished the views.
The upper lake is a small body of water in rocks.
Rain was not forecasted for today but by the time we got back to the lower lake serious dark clouds developed to the west and it started to hail 10 minutes later. They say be prepared for anything!
I chose Mt Bierstadt for our first 14er as I thought it might be a gentler climb than some with a 2,729 gain in elevation over roughly 3.5 miles. This turned out not to be really the case at the first mile is level to a mild decline, just over 100 feet from the parking lot to the low point at the creek crossing.
When the trail finally does start the ascent the climb becomes steeper as you near the top. From the creek low point to the top of the ridge the trail climbs about 750 feet in a mile. The next mile climbs about 1,000 feet and the final half mile climbs 1000 feet. Thus most of the 2700 foot climb is in 2.5 miles rather than 3.5.
We started the hike at 7:30 with the mountain face and the open valley around the lake still cloaked in shadow. We did catch the first rays of light on the hillside on the other side of the lake. Otherwise it was cold in the dim light until we reach the ridge.
This was the prettiest part of the hike on the way back.
From the top of the ridge to the base of the rock out cropping, i.e., the top part of the mountain, is a long slog of not much interest.
We did see the some ptarmigan on the way down.
I had read that the top of Bierstadt is a pile of rocks. This is true for the most part. A number of well-worn paths crisscross the boulders but some rock scrambling is inevitable.
The best views from the top are the golden mountain sides to the west. The same views we had on the way up.
The trail is well marked and well-worn with a good many people climbing on a Thursday morning. The parking lot was full with many cars parked along the road.
It took us 6.5 hours at a snail’s pace and a short lunch break at the top.
Starting near 11,958ft and spending much of the hike along a ridge between peaks at near 14,000ft, I thought that this would be a good training hike. It’s also an opportunity to bag 3 fourteeners in one hike. This loop hike can be started at either end with the first peak being either Mt Democrat or Mt Bross on the other side.
While most people start on the Mt Democrat side because of the gentler ascent we decided to start on Bross. This is a steeper ascent but avoids having to descend on the steeper slippery slope. That said, descending on Mt Democrat side turned out to have its steep slippery sections as well.
Now on day 8 of our acclimatization process, climbing up to Mt Bross (14,172ft) was easier than 2 days before up Mt Bierstadt.
Once you reach this summit the trail rolls up and down a ridge.
The low point before reaching Mt Lincoln is 13,891ft with the peak at 14,286ft.
Next the track crosses the rolling summit of Mt Cameron 14,238ft. The trail then becomes much steeper between Cameron and Democrat dropping about 800 ft. to 13,350. Despite the beautiful day we decided not to tackle Mt Diplomat 14,154 to save on wear and tear on the knees. It looks like a very steep climb up and then back down again.
The scenery was the least interesting of the trails we have done so. Distant views from the mountain tops but mostly barren mountain tops at this time of year.
On a Saturday morning the trail was busy. We arrived at 6:45 and parked a short ways down the road from the already full parking lot. When we got back to the car vehicles were parked way down the road. Come early or late. There were plenty of open spots when we were leaving at 1:00. Overall it was a perfect day with very little wind and not a cloud in sight.
Our third 14er hike, it’s difficult to say whether it is more or less difficult than the Mt Bierstadt or the Mt Bross hikes and even more difficult to determine which hike would be best for the first 14er. On the Quandary Peak hike you do have a greater total ascent, 3300 feet compared to 2700 for Mt Bierstadt and 2200 for Mt Bross. This is over 3.3 miles with a pretty steady climb the whole way. There are sections that are definitely steeper than others, but no where do you lose the elevation gained.
What I like about this hike is this the descent. Although very rocky and requiring good hiking shoes or boots, the rocks are more stable. On the other two trails there were many more slippery spots with loose gravel or dirt on the trail. On the Quandary trail I hardly slid at all. I would still advise trekking poles and watching your footing as it is rocky and you could twist an ankle.
As far as scenery, the first part of the hike is through the forest. The rest of the hike is a long slog up the mountain. Some views, but mostly to the east where you are looking into the sun in the morning. If you have a good weather day this may be a better hike in the afternoon.
The 3 times I did this hike it was windy at the top making it quite chilly in September, especially for an AZ gal.
We did see goats both trips. A mama and her kid were posing nicely for the passing trekkers.
For links to all the posts in this series see the 3 Passes Trek page.