Craggy summit in sight, my exhausted seven-year-old son collapsed on a gray rock and rested his head in his hands. After waking up before dawn, and driving an hour and a half to the Mount Bierstadt trailhead, then hiking three grueling, high-altitude miles, Jon, who’s never too tired for anything, was too tired to climb to 14,065 feet.
An outdoor enthusiast with a zeal for hiking, I’d been itching to bag a 14er since I’d learned Colorado was flush with them. But every summer, during the brief season when it’s safest for amateurs to hike 14ers, I’d backed out, worried about altitude sickness. It was my oldest son, Jon, who’d encouraged me to, “Just go for it, Mom,” as the hot summer days waned into August.
Now here we were, moments from the summit of our first 14er. I felt energized and strong, while my son looked defeated. Jon had been complaining of a stomach ache since we’d inched above tree line. Recognizing nausea as a sign of altitude sickness—but knowing Jon’s spirit would be crushed if he failed—I was at a loss.
After a few minutes of debate, my husband, Ben, and I reached a consensus, we’d take turns summiting while the other parent waited with Jon. That’s when a thin man with an altimeter walked by and joyfully announced, “800 meters to go!” Unaware 800 meters was almost half a mile, Jon perked up. “I can do it,” he decided. And with that, we were headed to the top.
Colorado’s Towering Peaks
“A 14er is a peak that’s 14,000 feet or taller, generally more than a quarter mile from the next nearest peak, and at least 300 feet above the low point between the nearest, taller peak,” explains Denver-based writer Chris Meehan, author of Climbing Colorado’s Fourteeners: From the Easiest Hikes to the Most Challenging Climbs.
Meehan, who hiked his first 14er (Longs Peak) when he was 19, has summited all of Colorado’s 14ers. His passion for mountaineering stretches back to the 1970s. “My folks tell a tale of when I was about four years old, and I wandered off on vacation in Maine and hiked around Cadillac Mountain for an hour while they were looking for me,” Meehan says. “It’s been like that since.”
Growing up near the Appalachian Mountains, Meehan had plenty of opportunities to hike during childhood, and he’s a big advocate for connecting kids with trails. In fact, Climbing Colorado’s Fourteeners is ideal for families, as it ranks Colorado’s 14ers from easiest to hardest.
In the United States, there are roughly 90 peaks higher than 14,000 feet. Alaska clutches the highest (Denali), but Colorado has the most. Depending on how you count, the Centennial State claims 53 to 58 14ers, Meehan explains.
Colorado’s 14ers are special because many are extremely accessible, with well-marked and maintained trails leading to summits that can be tackled in a single day. On a beginner-friendly 14er, you won’t need advanced climbing skills or mountaineering equipment—just performance clothing, good shoes, and the “10 essentials” (see page 34).
For families with children in elementary through middle school, Meehan suggests starting with a 14er that’s less than 10 miles out and back. At 4 miles round-trip, Mount Democrat near Alma is one of Colorado’s shortest 14ers, assuming you don’t combine it with Mounts Cameron (a pseudo-14er) and Lincoln, forming the Democrat Group. Meehan also recommends Mount Sherman near Fairplay. Other beginner-friendly 14ers include Grays, Torreys, and Bierstadt near Georgetown, Quandary peak near Breckenridge, and Mount Elbert near Leadville—all have trailheads within 1.5 to 2.5 hours from Denver.
But be warned, “beginner-friendly” doesn’t mean “easy.” It takes physical and mental stamina to summit any peak higher than 14,000 feet, where the thin air will test your limits. But with enough water and plenty of breaks, Meehan says, “Most people can get up a 14er.”
Hiking with Kids
My son bagged Mount Bierstadt with Ben and me on August 2, 2018. Seven miles round-trip—with a well marked, moderately trafficked trail extending from the Mount Bierstadt trailhead south of Georgetown, the peak was a perfect induction into 14ers.
Still, 7 miles takes several hours, and when you’re trekking with kids, entertainment is key. For the first couple of miles, Bierstadt’s trail weaves through green tundra, offering ample wildlife viewing opportunities. Listen for piercing chirps coming from marmots and pika, the latter of which can be seen scurrying across trails, the former visible on trailside rocks. “Toward the scrub oak on Bierstadt, you might see some elk,” Meehan adds.
As the trail steepens above tree line, be prepared to pass the time with stories and make-believe games. Jon loves when I recount memories from my childhood, and when he was winded and tired, personal narratives were a welcome distraction.
Jon, Ben, and I hike frequently with our younger son, Brian, and one of our favorite hiking games involves pretending we’re explorers discovering a mountain taller than Everest. We use invisible walkie-talkies to communicate with base camp while attempting to “rescue” lost members from our team. We might sound silly to passersby, but our kids don’t whine when they’re engrossed in games.
No matter how much fun you bring, your child probably won’t love high-altitude hiking unless he or she is a willing participant. Before you attempt a 14er, ask yourself if your child is ready for an intense adventure. If you haven’t mastered low-altitude hikes along the Front Range, start there, making a 14er an end-of-summer goal. Always be prepared to turn around if you or your child truly need to descend. “There’s no shame in coming back another time,” Meehan says.
With any epic adventure, you’re instilling in your child more than a love for the great outdoors. Climbing a 14er requires hours of physical exertion, and reaching a summit is a huge accomplishment for children of all ages.
There’s no shortage of lessons to be gleaned while hiking. There will be moments when your child feels tired and hungry, and you might encounter a false summit that tests your mental stamina and self-esteem. Bagging a 14er is a lesson in perseverance—one demanding patience, grit, and resilience. As a metaphor for succeeding in life, the experience offers up some great on-trail talking points.
And then there’s the massive amount of family bonding that occurs. In the moment it takes to sigh, I’ve watched my son progress from binkies to spelling tests, from toddler yoga to competitive soccer. A few more beats, and he’ll be too old to play Legos with Mom, or cuddle on the couch. Catching a day of uninterrupted family time—making a memory that’ll last long after Jon’s left for college—that’s the payoff for us.
The 10 Essentials
According to the U.S. National Park Service, the following are non-negotiable items to pack for the trip up a 14er.
- Navigation: map, compass, and a GPS system
- Sun protection: sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat
- Insulation: jacket, hat, gloves, rain shell, and a base layer (*Be prepared for cold, windy weather at the summit!)
- Illumination: flashlight and/or headlamp
- A first aid kit
- Fire: matches, lighter, and fire starter
- Repair tools: duct tape, knife, screwdriver, and scissors
- Nutrition: no-cook food items
- Hydration: water and water treatment supplies
- Emergency shelter: tent, tarp, bivy sack, and/or emergency space blanket
When it comes to clothing, synthetic materials are best, offering durability, water resistance, and breathability. You can purchase inexpensive items at Target or Walmart, but you’ll find a better selection at outdoor specialty shops like REI. For footwear, Meehan recommends light hikers or trail runners over thick and heavy boots, which can be uncomfortable and aren’t necessary on beginner-friendly routes.
Leave No Trace
Colorado’s mountains are beautiful. Remember to “leave no trace” when you hike them; packing out trash and excrement ensures 14ers retain their natural luster.
Each year, hikers are seriously injured or die attempting Colorado 14ers, which is why it’s important to follow these safety guidelines.
- Start early, and check the weather report before heading out. Summer is prime season for climbing 14ers—and for afternoon thunderstorms. You must—we repeat: must—summit before noon, when mountaintop conditions can change swiftly. Most hikers move at a pace of 2.5 miles per hour, “But with kids, the pace could be slower,” Meehan notes. “And for every 500 feet you ascend, you slow down.” Start your journey by 7 a.m.—ideally closer to 6 a.m.—and set an ironclad turnaround time in advance. If storm clouds roll in, be ready to call it a day.
- Stay on the main trail. On Capitol Peak, a roughly cut offshoot known as “Death Gully” looks like a shortcut from the summit, but is actually a dead end that claims lives annually.
- Hydrate to dominate. Carry up to 3 liters, or 100 ounces, of water for each hiker in your group, and drink every time you take a break. In addition to energy bars and chews, you might also consider packing drink tablets such as Nuun, which enhance water with electrolytes.
- Watch for signs of altitude sickness. Altitude can adversely impact anyone, regardless of age or physical fitness. Staying hydrated might help ward off altitude sickness, but if you fall victim the only real cure is to descend.