The 2018-2019 winter season was an especially long, snowy winter season for Colorado, with record snowfalls in most places and snowfall all the way into June. Even Coloradans who thrive on tons of snow were ready for some summer sunshine. With that being said, this pushed back summer hiking and forced a late start, especially at higher altitudes. Normally high mountain hikes would be clear and getting into wildflower season by July, but not this year. Despite the late hiking season start, we took the plunge and completed our first 14er, a mere 8 days after our wedding. It was our first summer living in Colorado so we were acclimated and ready to tackle the challenge.
As of 2021, Quandary Peak and McCullough Gulch require reservations for parking. If parking spots are not available, you can take a shuttle from town. Read here for more information.
Quandary Peak is the only 14er in Summit County and is one of the closest hikes to Breckenridge, making it a highly popular choice for 14er hikes. It is considered a Class 1, which is the easiest classification for a hike. This means there’s a well-marked and worn trail, with no route-finding needed. You will be able to stand upright with no rock scrambles difficult enough that you would need to use your hands for balance, although that doesn’t mean you won’t run into some more difficult portions where using your hands would be helpful. But don’t let this classification fool you. All Trails rates this hike as “hard” on a scale of easy-moderate-hard. While the classification simply considers the type of trail (e.g., walking, scrambles, or technical climbing), the difficulty rating is based on more qualities such as distance traveled and elevation gain/loss. While vastly different, both types of ratings are essential in determining the true difficulty level of a hike and should always be taken into consideration. Since Quandary is Class 1, but rated as difficult, that shows this hike is overall a hard hike, but can easily be accomplished by the average person if they are prepared appropriately.
Derek and Ashley at the peak of Quandary.
To get to the trail head, leave Breckenridge on Hwy 9 going south for about 8 miles then take a right onto Blue Lakes Road. Almost immediately to your right, you will see a parking lot- this is overflow parking for the Quandary trail head. To get to the main parking lot, continue up about 50 yards, turn right onto McCullough Gulch, and drive a short distance to the small parking lot. Because this trail is so popular, parking is usually full at the main trail head but it’s worth checking when you first arrive, as it does save you some energy. All Trails says this hike is 6.7 miles out-and-back, but we parked in the overflow parking lot and my GPS gave a final distance of exactly 8 miles round-trip.
Hiking Quandary Peak Trail
As with any 14er, or really any summer hike in Colorado, it’s important to start the hike early. Afternoon pop-up thunderstorms are frequent here in the mountains, meaning weather conditions can change quickly, especially when you’re at 14,000 feet. We began hiking around 6:30am, but would we would have started earlier if it weren’t for some car troubles first thing that morning. With just under 3,400 feet in elevation gain (6,800 feet in elevation change), this hike is a consistent uphill trek. In recent years, the forest service has added steps in an attempt to make the trail easier, but steps makes it more difficult on the knees in my opinion. The first half of the hike meanders through forest, with the trees gradually becoming less and less dense as you ascend. Eventually you’ll pass tree-line, at which point the hike becomes rockier and rockier, as well as steeper. The last mile was the most difficult for myself, as I was already pretty tired and a few miles in. It’s also the steepest and rockiest portion of the hike. But you’re so close to the summit!
There is a false summit as you follow the trail west towards the top. Once there, you just continue slightly to the left for a short distance and the true summit is marked with a gold-colored, circular plaque in the ground. Plus, that’s where you’ll most likely run into the most people, as this is the best place to take in the view and enjoy a lunch break. We didn’t sit for too long before we made our way back down. The way down is almost always quicker, but it’s much harder on the knees, especially with the newly installed steps. Trekking poles were helpful, but even with them my knees had a hard time the whole way down.
With the late season snow, we were able to sled down part of the hardest part of the hikes, which was a huge relief and tons of fun. Just tie your rain jacket around your waist, and hold the corners in your hands so it cups your butt. Sledding down was definitely one of the biggest highlights of this particular hike.
Overall, while difficult, this hike is extremely do-able and is an “easy” 14er. I would highly recommend training for a 14er before attempting, as well as acclimating to altitude for a couple days beforehand. The views from the top are beautiful, and there’s countless scenic vistas in every direction the whole way up. There’s no streams on the trail, but I would highly recommend stopping somewhere after and sticking your feet in an ice cold mountain stream (if possible). It feels soo good after all those miles!
Resources for More Information
If you are interested in learning how to hike your first 14er, read our post 14 Tips for Hiking a 14er. This also provides more information on the different classes of hikes (Class 1 through 5) and some suggestions for easier peaks for beginners.
Always check local weather and snow conditions before travelling to hike a 14er. Doing research on snow pack and local snow totals can help you prepare with the right gear. A great website to start off with is Open Snow.
One of the best ways to see trail conditions is by looking on All Trails. Sort reviews and/or photos by “most recent” to see if anyone has hiked recently and has any advice on the trail conditions. Less popular trails may not have as many reviews, but heavily trafficked trails like Quandary always have lots of recent reviews, no matter the time of year.
There are lots of 14er hikes in Colorado, 58 to be exact, and they all vary greatly in classification and difficulty level. Some are more popular, like Quandary, while others are less trafficked. With this variety available, do your research as to which hike is best for you.