Accessible via a 7.5 mile trail with over 3300 feet of elevation gain, the Quandary Peak hike is a relatively “easy” Colorado 14er near Denver and a great option for first-timers. A literally breathtaking endeavor, hiking one of Colorado’s 58 famous 14ers (a summit higher than 14,000 feet) should be high on any adventure-seeker’s bucket list. While the high altitude makes reaching Quandary Peak significantly more challenging than your average 7 mile hike, the panoramic views from the summit make the trek well worth the effort. In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know to prepare for hiking Quandary Peak, from where to stay to safety tips.
Hiking Quandary Peak
Quandary Peak is one of Colorado’s 58 14ers, rising to an altitude of 14,265 feet. It is considered one of the “easier” 14ers (but really, no 14er is easy!). Quandary Peak is located in the White River National Forest, easily accessible from Breckenridge or Vail and about 2 hours from Denver.
The hike to Quandary Peak covers over 3000 feet in just 7 miles roundtrip, making for a strenuous climb as your lungs struggle to absorb enough oxygen from the thinning air. But those willing to put in the effort to hike Quandary Peak are rewarded with sweeping views high above the clouds.
Reaching the peak of a 14er is an epic challenge due to the extreme elevation change, which can be especially detrimental for hikers more acclimated to lower altitudes. It is not recommended to attempt a fourteener before spending at least one week in Colorado to allow your body to acclimate to the thinner air.
But, like any major endeavor, the challenge of the hike is part of the appeal. That feeling of pure adrenaline and accomplishment as you stand atop the mountain, looking down at what you’ve accomplished, simply cannot be beat.
Traveling from Virginia, which sits at a measly 100 feet above sea level, I climbed Quandary Peak after only a few days in Colorado, but I will not pretend that it was by any means easy (or entirely safe).
Details | Hiking Quandary Peak
- Hiking distance | 7.5 miles
- Elevation gain | 3339 feet
- Total time | 4 – 6 hours (could vary depending on your acclimatization)
- Epic-ness rating | 9
- Difficulty | strenuous
Find this hike on AllTrails: Quandary Peak Trail
The hike is only about 7.5 miles roundtrip, but don’t let the seemingly short distance fool you. It covers a significant amount of elevation over short period, averaging 900 feet of elevation gain per mile.
Getting to the Quandary Peak Trailhead
Parking at the Quandary Peak trailhead is extremely limited. From June 1 to September 30, an online reservation is required to park at the trailhead. Parking costs $20 for a 3.5-hour time slot from a 4:00 am to 11:30 a.m or noon to 7:30 p.m. Full day parking costs $50.
If you aren’t able to secure a parking space, there is another option. You can take a shuttle that departs from Breckenridge every 30 minutes from 5:00am to 7:00pm. The shuttle costs $5 for locals and $15 for non-locals.
You can find more information and book reservations for the parking lot or shuttle from Breckenridge at Park Quandary.
The first mile and a half or so of the Quandary Peak hike is a moderate trek through the forest. Eventually, the trees start to get more sparse as you approach the tree line.
Above the Tree Line
Once you are above the tree line, the elevation starts to pick up. The trail is almost entirely large rocks, making it tough on your feet and difficult to navigate at times.
As you start switch-backing up the rocky mountainside, you will start to feel the elevation weigh on you. This is about where I started insisting to my friend “I’m not gonna make it!” and resting every couple of steps, while desperately trying to catch my breathe. I should note that my hiking partner, a Denver native, was hardly struggling at this point.
If you are used to the altitude, you should have a much easier time.
The False Summit
Around 2.3 miles into the hike, the trail starts to level out. But don’t be fooled – this is a false summit! It can be disheartening to think you’ve made it, only to see Quandary Peak still looming in the distance.
Take a moment to appreciate the impressive view from this point. We watched the sunrise from here, and its was truly spectacular.
Final Ascent to Quandary Peak
Now is the time to harness your anxious energy as you stare up at the seemingly endless mountain before you. After a brief reprieve of flat ground, you’ll face the most challenging leg of the hike.
The last mile is brutal, heaving yourself up from rock to rock as cover nearly 1000 feet in elevation. At this point, the trail is so steep you can’t really see the top, and it feels like you will never make it.
Quandary Peak Summit
The indescribable high as you finally reach the peak makes you realize why you put yourself through the laborious effort needed to reach the summit.
Your thighs will burn, your lungs will ache, and your body will be pleading for rest. But you’re on top of the world with a 360 degree view of the most beautiful place (at least on a clear day).
Unfortunately, by the time we reached the peak the clouds had rolled in and completely obstructed the view.
We were lucky enough to get a great view at the lower, false summit as the sun was rising which made the lack of view on the summit bearable.
Although the clouds were disappointing, the hike itself was still incredible and poor weather can’t take away the feeling of accomplishment that you’ve tackled a fourteener!
Oh, and its just a little cold up here… we couldn’t stay still for long, had a quick snack, and started our descent.
On the way back down, we ran into a herd of mountain goats with two babies. My day (and probably entire weekend) was made! These furry, white creatures scale the rocky mountainside with ease, looking like fictional creatures from the Ice Age.
If you are lucky enough to encounter mountain goats on the Quandary Peak hike, please remember to keep your distance. They may look fluffy and cute, but mountain goats can be dangerous, particularly when babies are around.
Quandary Peak hike logistics
The hike to Quandary Peak is no joke, so it’s best to be fully prepared before hitting the trail.
My experience | what not to do
I flew into Denver on a Thursday night and hiked Quandary Peak early Sunday morning, so all in all I spent about 3.5 days acclimating.
I stayed Thursday night in Denver, but then spent the rest of weekend in the mountains, and camped at the base of Quandary peak to get my body used to the highest altitude possible.
Now, I made it to the peak, but I can’t say that I recommend doing what I did. I have run marathons (I was actually training for one at the time), but this hike ranks as one the hardest things I have ever done. I was out of breath in a way that I have never felt before.
My hiking partner, who lives in Denver and is thus more well-adjusted to the altitude, had no problem.
How long should you spend acclimating
Learning from my experience, I would recommend staying in Colorado for at least a week before tackling Quandary, or any other fourteener.
There is so much to do in the surrounding area that it is easy to spend a week exploring and doing more moderate hikes in the Rocky Mountain National Park, Breckenridge and Vail areas.
Once you’ve spent a week in the mountains, you should be better prepared to take on the fourteener.
Be prepared for strong winds and temperatures as much as 20 degrees lower at the top than at the base. I hiked in September, and the mid-day temperatures at lower altitudes were reaching the upper 60’s. Do not let this fool you. It will be very cold at the peak.
The winds become extremely strong with no trees providing cover. When we started our hike early in the morning, it was 30 degrees at the base, and probably close to 15 at the top.
Storms on Quandary Peak
This is important. Thunderstorms typically roll in at the peak in the afternoon. Given that the peak is a wide open mound of rocks, essentially acting as a lightning rod, this can be very dangerous!
It is recommended that all hikers are off the mountain by noon to avoid getting caught in a storm. Since the hike is strenuous and will take several hours to complete, you have to get an early start to make sure you finish by a safe time.
When to hike Quandary Peak
The best time to hike Quandary peak is in the summer from June to August. We hiked in September, and it is certainly doable but it was already too cold to be enjoyable at the peak (take this with a grain of salt, I am a warm bodied Virginian who hates the cold).
I wouldn’t recommend attempting this hike in the winter, as the peak is likely to be covered in snow through May which could be dangerous given how steep and rocky the trail gets towards the top.
Best time of day to hike Quandary Peak
If you are feeling ambitious, you can’t beat watching the sunrise from Quandary. We originally planned to hike up in time to watch the sunrise from the top.
However, the winds overnight were frighteningly strong, and we were worried about being alone on the mountainside in such sketchy weather.
We opted to sleep an additional hour, started hiking around 3:30am and were still the second group to reach the top. While hiking through the forest in the dark was spooky, the tranquility of the hike was amazing.
By the time were started our descent, the trail was packed with people coming up, but we had been lucky enough to enjoy a few moments of solitude at the summit.
Getting an Early Start
Even if you aren’t looking to catch the sunrise, its still best to get an early start in order to beat the crowds and make sure you have time to summit and return to the base of the mountain before noon.
Camping near the trailhead makes it much easier to start your hike at the crack of dawn.
Camping near Quandary Peak trailhead
I highly recommend camping near the trailhead before hiking Quandary Peak to help your body to acclimate to the altitude while you sleep.
Even if altitude isn’t a concern, camping is a great option to make it easier to get an early start if you are trying to catch the sunset or complete the hike by a safe time.
Dispersed camping is permitted in certain areas of the White River National Forest near the Quandary trailhead. Dispersed camping means you can pull your car off anywhere you wish along the side of the road and pitch your tent. T
here are no defined campsites, no fees, and no campground utilities. You can find more information about dispersed camping on the Forest Service website.
Other Places to Stay
If you choose not to camp, Breckenridge, which is only about 20 minutes away, is the best place to stay. Vail is another option, but is located just over an hour from the trailhead.
You may also drive from Denver, which is about 2 hours on a good day, but keep in mind that the traffic can be terrible. If you plan to stay in Denver, make sure you build in at least 30 minutes to an hour for traffic if you are hiking on a weekend.
What to Pack for Hiking Quandary Peak
GPS | Garmin InReach Mini
The one piece of gear you hope you never need to use, but is worth its weight in peace of mind. We always carry our Garmin In-reach Mini in case of emergency in areas without cell service and it gives us (and our parents) peace of mind. It can also be used to simply let a loved one know you’ve arrived at your destination.
Bear Spray | Counter Assault
Since there are bears in the area, carrying bear spray while hiking Quandary Peak is a good idea.
Headlamp | Black Diamond Storm 400
If you plan to hike Quandary Peak at sunrise, you’ll need a headlamp. We both use Black Diamond Storm 400’s, and we’ve found them to be reliable and long-lasting despite the compact size.
HIS | Cotopaxi Fuego Men’s Down Jacket
While not as technical as some other down jackets, you can’t beat the combination of price, style, and function. This jacket is very similar to the super popular Patagonia Down sweater, but comes in at a cheaper price point and is about one ounce lighter.
HERS | Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody Women’s Down Hoodie
Lightweight and incredibly warm with 850 fill down, if you hate being cold (like me) this is the jacket for you! The quality is top notch and totally worth the extra warmth. It’s my all-time favorite women’s hiking jacket.
HERS | Danner Women’s Mountain 600 Waterproof Hiking Boot
A pair of durable and comfortable hiking boots with good traction is essential or hiking Quandary Peak! From long-distance backpacking trips to quick day hikes, my Danner boots have never let me down.
HIS | Salomon Ultra 4 Mid GTX
These are more like trail running shoes with additional ankle support, than the clunky, heavy hiking boots of days past. These are super light, uber functional, water resistant, and breathable.
HERS: Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking Poles
I had always thought trekking poles were silly until one very steep, exposed, slippery hike in Death Valley left me feeling quite insecure even with solid tread on my boots. Immediately after I bought my Black diamonds and haven’t hiked without them since.
HIS: Black Diamond Distance FLZ Trekking Poles
I was a late convert to the trekking-pole life, but have not regretted my decision after taking the plunge with these Black Diamond’s. I bought the adjustable poles because I was between sizes, but I almost always have them set to 120 cm.
HERS | CamelBak Women’s Helena 20 with Hydration Pack
Comfortable, lightweight and just big enough to hold the essentials without weighing you down. I used to wear a universal backpack and always had bad back pain while hiking – having a women’s pack that actually fits is a serious gamechanger!
HIS | CamelBak Rim Runner 22 with Hydration Pack
Simple, straight forward design without the bells and whistles to weigh you down. With a dedicated water reservoir pocket, there is plenty of room for your hiking essentials and no risk of leaking water damage.
Other useful resources
Planning a trip to Colorado? If you are in the area, we also love this challenging hike covering 13 miles located near Vail, about an hour from the Quandary Peak trailhead:
If you are interested in hiking Quandary Peak and have any questions about the hike, please feel free to reach out. I loved this hike so much and would be happy to help!