With 58 mountain peaks* that exceed 14,000 feet, Coloradans love to tackle “14ers,” and this summer, I joined the fray. Initially, I resisted the idea of climbing a 14er because I’m more of a “stop and smell the flowers” hiker than a “conquering the summit” hiker, but after hiking regularly for the first six months of 2022, I was ready for a challenge.
Conquering My 1st Colorado 14er + Tips For The Big Hiking Trip
Together, my husband and I picked out Handies Peak as our first 14er to hike together. It’s considered one of the most accessible 14ers (in terms of the challenge level) and in an absolutely gorgeous part of the San Juan mountain range.
*There is some debate about the number of fourteeners in Colorado, but we’re sticking with the definition for the 58.
We decided to turn the trek into a week-long camping and hiking trip so that we could spend a handful of days acclimating to the altitude before we began the big hike. After exploring the gorgeous wildflowers of the Elk Range outside of Crested Butte, we drove down to the San Juans, where we braved the Alpine Loop so we could set up camp at Grizzly Gulch.
After spending a night listening to curious deer check out our campsite, we set off for the Handies Peak trailhead, which is at an elevation starting at just over 11,000 feet and has a summit of 14,058. The trail for Handies Peak is only 5.3 miles with an elevation gain of 2,440 feet, but the altitude certainly made this hike more challenging for me than similar hikes I’ve done at lower elevations.
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After The Trip: Hiking Tips & Outdoor Gear I Recommend
The full hike took about 4.5 hours, with some extra time appreciating and photographing the incredibly cute local marmot population. This really was a step up in terms of challenge level for me, but I’m proud I completed the hike, and I’m excited to share some helpful tips and a few excellent items of outdoor gear with you.
1. Hydrate Early + Often
Carry extra water on a high-altitude hike because you’ll get dehydrated more quickly than you would typically at lower elevations. I carried two water bottles instead of my normal single water bottle, which was just about right. I also needed a slightly larger pack to carry than my usual 16-liter Cotopaxi Batac del Dia backpack. The 25-liter REI Co-op Trail 25 Pack is perfect for a long day hike, and it’s what I carried when I summited Mount Handies. I have an entire post dedicated to my favorite gear for day hikes, right here.
2. Find The Right Hiking Footwear (Waterproof Boots + Sweat-Wicking Socks)
It might be obvious to say don’t wear new boots on the big day of your hike. You want your comfiest and most broken-in boots rather than new ones, which for me are these Merrell hiking boots (the boots below are the same waterproof style as mine, just a different color). The mid-ankle height of the boot helps keep rocks and other debris out of your shoe, and the waterproof upper is helpful for stream crossing. These boots are budget-friendly and have served me well for several years.
You’re also going to want really high-quality socks. I used to feel a bit silly paying for hiking socks, which are more expensive per pair than I would normally spend on socks, but trust me, it’s worth it to splurge on socks if you’re going to be doing longer and more challenging hikes. I love these Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew Cushion Socks, which wick sweat away from my tender feet and prevent blisters.
3. Try Out Trekking Poles (aka Hiking Poles)
I don’t normally carry trekking poles on my hikes, but I decided to try carrying them for this hike, and I was not sorry. Trekking poles can help you navigate uneven terrain like loose rock (common closer to the summit) and ease your way down a steeply graded slope. Trekking poles can also help distribute the load you’re carrying and reduce stress on your joints. The exact trekking poles I’m carrying below aren’t available, but these Backcountry Carbon Trekking poles are priced right and have very similar features.
4. For Your Hiking Outfit, Think Layers
At high altitudes, the weather can change drastically quickly. You’ll want to be prepared for both rain and also colder temperatures than you might expect at lower elevations. In spite of how tough the hike was, I was still chilly enough to throw on my Synthetic Insulated Hooded Jacket by Backcountry when I stopped for a snack on the way back down. This jacket is awesome because you can roll the whole jacket up into the hood, and it’s super light. I also threw my trusty Carhartt beanie and gloves into my pack for good measure. It turned out to be a very pleasant temperature, but no regrets about being prepared.
You’ll also want to start your hike as early in the morning as possible and be off the mountain by early afternoon at the latest to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. I set up by 7:00 am, and it started to rain the last 0.5 miles of the hike. I was happy I’d packed my fully waterproof Arc’teryx rain shell to throw on so I could still enjoy watching marmots play and photograph the stunning wildflowers.
5. Boost Your Sun Protection
Again, the altitude makes all the difference. You need sunscreen at any elevation, but at 14,000 feet, you really need sun protection. Besides applying my Dr. Dennis Gross sunscreen and re-applying it two hours into the hike, I also tried out the Backcountry Tahoe Sun Crew, which is a long sleeve, lightweight performance shirt that offers SPF 50. This shirt is a winner. I’m pleased to say that I made it off the mountain with only one little patch of my forehead sunburned where I had missed reapplying my sunscreen. For reference, the shirt runs large, so if you prefer a more fitted style (which is better for layering, in my opinion), I would size down one size. I’m wearing a medium.
If you’ve been considering a challenging hike, backpacking trip, or other adventure, do it. Put it on your calendar. Even if you’re nervous (I was) and you’re not sure you can finish (you can), tie up your boots and throw on your pack. You’ll get to see beautiful views that few people have the privilege to see, and along the way, you’re likely to discover your own strength.
See you at the top.