A First-Timer's Experience Visiting the Colorado Rockies

What it's like to visit Colorado from the East Coast

A New and Beautiful Landscape

One of my favorite things about traveling is simply being able to experience new landscapes. Having always lived on the East Coast of the United States, it is true that the Rocky Mountains are on a completely different level than anything back home. We're just not used to seeing anything that high and the "above tree line" elevations of these mountains make them even more awe-inspiring and sometimes "otherworldly". 

I also love observing the different trees and unique weather patterns of a new place. The deciduous forests of the eastern region of the country are beautiful, but the evergreens, aspen groves, and tundra of Colorado are amazing sights. A note on the weather when climbing mountains, there is roughly 3 degrees of temperature drop for every 1000 feet higher you go, which is why spending time in the high mountains is a great way to beat the summer heat!

One of my favorite trees, the Aspen

High-elevation tundra

Altitude Is Serious Business

As much as you may try to prepare, it's likely that you'll experience the effects of altitude if you're visiting a place like the Colorado Rockies for the first time. It can be very difficult to deal with, especially if you get altitude sickness while hiking a higher mountain. However, it's not likely that it will ruin your trip or prevent you from doing any hiking at all (but it is interesting to feel out of breath while simply walking around camp). The only way to get ahead of it is to spend at least a few days and nights at altitude, slowly building up your exposure to higher and higher elevations. The old adage is "Climb high, sleep low." If you do start to feel light-headed, nauseous, or like you're having extreme difficulty breathing while climbing or hiking, descend to lower altitude as quickly as possible; those symptoms generally clear up quickly once you're significantly lower. Even though it can be tricky to get your body used to journeying up into the high mountains, it's almost always worth it and with a little forethought and time you will likely avoid any issues.

Sunrise on the Holy Cross trail

Alpenglow in the northern Sawatch range

14ers

There are 70 peaks in the lower 48 states that are considered 14ers (mountains that are at least 14,000 feet high with at least 300 feet of prominence). Fifty-three of those peaks lie inside of the state of Colorado and one of these peaks was our particular focus on this first trip to the Rockies. Mount of the Holy Cross is a non-technical climb, but it is one of the longer and harder mountain hikes at 12 miles of distance and almost 6,000 feet of elevation gain. 

Climbing 14ers in summer is the most typical thing to do, unless you're specifically aiming for a snow climb (snow is often in the mix from October through May/June). Because of this it's best to climb 14ers during the week to avoid crowded trails. Fortunately, we had both perfect weather and pretty light traffic on the Monday that we climbed. The hike was grueling and the altitude effects hit hard, but it was a great achievement to bag our first 14,000 foot peak.

Above photo by Logan Patton

Mount of the Holy Cross summit

Getting Good at Camping Makes Traveling Better

While this was my first trip to Colorado and to high elevations, it wasn't my first camping or backpacking trip. That previous experience I had with my gear and with various weather conditions really made the camping aspect of this trip easy and relaxing. It's a great feeling to know that your campsite and tent are all in order and will take care of you at the end of the day when you're exhausted and it's raining. If you're new to camping or backpacking, it can be really helpful to go on a few local trips where the purpose is just to get familiar with all of your gear. It may feel a little lame or like a waste of time, but if you make that effort then when you go on a more epic adventure, you can focus on the amazing place you're visiting, not on how to put your tent together or if your sleeping bag is going to be warm enough.

Breakfast time at camp

Know and trust your gear.

Adventure Isn't Always What You Planned

Sometimes embracing adventure means taking whatever opportunities come up, because weather, crowded trails, getting lost, or getting altitude sickness can always change things up. While we originally planned this trip to be about summiting 14ers, we ended up with a variety of activities after climbing Mt of the Holy Cross early in our week from taking the jeep up a rocky forest road on a rainy day to visiting the city of Boulder. The state of Colorado is a big and adventure-rich state with tons of variety in things to do, so with a little time to drive around, you should have no problem finding a great place to explore. Even if you have to change up your plans due to unforeseen circumstances, it will add to the story of your trip. Remember that adventure is about being flexible making the most of each day, regardless of what comes! 

Ready for anything 

In need of rest, we opted to drive up Mt Evans - & were rewarded!

Always find a good spot for sunset.

Published: August 31, 2018

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Andrew Todd

Atlanta

Web developer by weekday. Cyclist, hiker, and bookworm the rest of the time.