by Heather Mundt – For Coloradans, it’s not enough to brag about getting outside with our families and enjoying the beloved Rocky Mountains. It’s that those mountains mean we can take “getting outside” to extreme heights. Extreme ColoRADo 14ers.
It’s not just any old Sunday drive, for instance. We can drive the highest continuous paved road in the United States, Trail Ridge Road (more than 12,000 feet). We don’t have to visit just any National Park; we get to visit the country’s highest, Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park, Colorado. And we don’t just hike with our kids in the mountains; we can hike with our kids on something called “fourteeners.”
Referring to peaks meeting or exceeding 14,000 feet in height, there are about 90 fourteeners or “14ers” in the United States. And while Alaska boasts the highest of them, Mount McKinley (Denali) at 20,320 feet, Colorado claims the greatest number at 54. In other words, hiking a 14er becomes a quintessential Coloradan rite of passage for many Centennial State families.
“It’s the uniqueness of hiking a 14er,” says Shantel Wheaton, a personal trainer and mom of three in Longmont, Colorado, who hikes at least one per summer with her kids and husband, Joe. “(Hiking 14ers) is something we liked to do before we had children, and it was something we also wanted to get back into.”
But it’s not just about getting the kids outside to hike toward a lofty goal, she says. It’s also about building self-esteem. “Our motivation is to make them feel proud that they have done it,” Wheaton says, a strategy that seems to be working. “They’ve already been talking about which one they want to do this summer.”
“What makes Colorado’s 14ers especially appealing for families is their accessibility for non-technical hikers,” says Lloyd F. Athearn, Executive Director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a non-profit organization in Golden, Colorado, that focuses on protecting and preserving these prime peaks. “Colorado’s 14ers are one of the few places in the country where people can ascend to high alpine areas without possessing mountaineering equipment or advanced climbing skills,” he says. “Most of the peaks can be climbed in a day by fit hikers on maintained trails. This makes them approachable Everests, for average people.”
Not only does that mean hikers can experience the physical challenge of climbing a big mountain, he says. It’s also a chance to view unique species of flora and fauna like marmots, pikas, mountain goats, and fragile alpine flowers, not found elsewhere in the country. “The 14ers are really inspiring and stunningly beautiful places to visit,” Athearn says. “The fact that they take several hours of physical exertion to climb means that reaching a summit is something to be proud of and an accomplishment to cherish. For many people, the days spent climbing these peaks with family and friends are among the most memorable they experience in a lifetime.”
If I’m being honest, my boys were less than thrilled last June to conquer their first 14er, Mount Evans (14,265 feet), near Idaho Springs, Colorado. The closest of all 14ers to Denver, it’s a moderate-to-strenuous hike, approximately 2.9 miles from Summit Lake to the top, where a parking lot awaits. Translation? We thought it was a perfect choice for our kids, ages 6 and 8, because we only had to hike one way (we caught a ride down to our car). The summit took about three hours to reach, climbing through stunning open tundra that included glimpses of mountain goats.
We were slow not only because trail markers were a bit unclear but, also, due to a fair amount of resistance (read: ‘whining’) from our kids. I can neither confirm nor deny we used Legos to bribe our way to the top. So let’s just say we made it, greeted by snow, no less, and the kids were happy to smile for photo ops. I know they were relieved to have finished (hopefully a bit proud too), and we plan to tackle another one this summer.
Hiking 14ers is a great lesson for kids, Athearn says, both to appreciate their natural surroundings and as a metaphor for life. It takes several hours to accomplish the goal, he says, teaching them perseverance in reaching the summit. “There will be times when they are hungry or tired, times they think they can’t possibly go any farther, and times when they encounter the inevitable ‘false summits,'” Athearn says. “In an age where attention spans are diminishing, teaching kids about patience and persistence in pursuit of accomplishing long-term goals is a valuable lesson to succeeding in life.”
10 Tips for 14er Summit Success
1. Take time to acclimate
Many people from low altitudes fly into Denver and think nothing of immediately heading out for the 14ers, says Athearn. “This is risky and is definitely not recommended. Most people coming from lower altitudes will need a few days of exposure to progressively higher altitudes to get their body acclimatized.”
2. Start early
Summers in Colorado often mean thunderstorms, which are especially dangerous above treeline. So depending on the length of the hike, it’s critical to get an early start. For example, last year when the Wheatons hiked Mt. Bierstadt (14,065 feet) near Georgetown, Colorado, they camped nearby the previous night. “Our goal is to start no later than 8 a.m.,” Wheaton says.
3. Start easy
“Every child will be different in terms of interest and ability, so parents will need to start with short, less demanding hikes and build up over time,” says Athearn. “Choose one of the shorter hikes in terms of distance and vertical gain. That will make it a more manageable, and hopefully a more positive, experience. Also look for destinations that have scenic distractions so that their mind is not solely on doing the climb.” In addition to Mt. Evans and Mt. Bierstadt, he says, “Quandary Peak (14,265 feet) near Breckenridge, Colorado, has a good trail to the summit and is populated with mountain goats. Grays (14,270 feet) and Torreys (14, 267 feet) Peaks are located just south of I-70, and offer the potential of climbing two peaks in one day if your child is feeling up to it.”
4. Check weather reports
You can’t control Mother Nature but you can give yourself the best chance of success by hiking on predicted sunny days. “You’re so exposed,” says Shantel Wheaton. “Give yourself the best chance to avoid the elements.”
5. Determine kids’ motivation
It’s not so much your child needs to be a certain age as he or should be physically capable, and self-motivated. Wheaton waited until her kids actually wanted to hike 14ers, for instance, but still struggled with youngest child, Hannah, then 6. To keep her moving, she says, she’d suggest 30-second breaks, either at a landmark or every five minutes. “We’d break it up, and it worked.”
6. Wear the right clothing
For outdoor enthusiasts, this is a no-brainer. But with elevation gain, it’s especially important to wear a wicking base layer to keep moisture away from your skin, as well as at least one fleece layer. For our own hikes, we even throw in snow hats and gloves, just in case, and have often needed to wear them at the summit.
7. Focus on fuel
With kids you don’t have the luxury of poor planning by skimping on snacks or water. My personal favorites are trail mix, Honey Stinger waffles or chews, and Cliff Bar Shot Blox, in addition to lunch items.
8. Make a Plan B
“If one child wants to continue hiking even if another one doesn’t,” says Wheaton, “decide ahead of time how to handle it. Perhaps that means one parent continues with the willing child while the other turns around with the unwilling one, heading back to the car that’s stocked with books and games. Anything to pass the time while you wait for the rest of your hiking crew to summit.”
9. Start with the right mentality
You’re better off accepting ahead of time that you might have to turn around before the summit, Wheaton says. Despite her best planning, it snowed mid-way through their hike the year they tried to summit Mt. Evans. “We had to make a smart choice because we had kids and turned around,” she said. Athearn agrees. “Better to turn around if things aren’t going well or to scale back expectations until they seem physically and mentally capable of doing a summit hike.”
10. Notice signs of altitude sickness
“Parents considering taking their children up a 14er should especially read up about altitude-related conditions and should watch out for any signs of trouble,” said Athearn, including headache, nausea and vomiting. “Descent to lower altitudes as quickly as possible is always the safest course of action if any altitude illnesses are being experienced.”
For more good tips on Colorado 14ers and tips to avoid altitude sickness, visit Colorado has a great article on the subject.
Heather Mundt is a contributing editor to Outdoor Families Magazine, and publisher of the family travel and lifestyle blog, Momfari. She lives in Colorado with her husband and two sons.