Monica Strawbridge had always dreamed of thru-hiking with her husband, Vince, after their kids—13-year-old Georgie, 15-year-old Henry, 16-year-old June, and 18-year-old Aiden—left home. But following a 67-mile family backpacking trip near the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee and North Carolina in 2017, the possibility of thru-hiking with the kids took shape.
The children didn’t quite know what they were getting into when their parents first suggested the Pacific Crest Trail. “You can’t comprehend something as long as the PCT,” June says. “We just agreed to do it.”
They thru-hiked its 2,650 miles in 2018, and the seed was sown for attempting what’s known as the triple crown of hiking: the PCT, the Appalachian Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail.
In the thru-hiking world, the triple-crown trails each have distinct personalities: The AT is known for a crowded start, frequent town access, and a social atmosphere. The PCT is a bit longer, but the scenery is more majestic. The CDT is the most intimidating, and rumors of its difficulty abound. The CDT is also the remotest of the three and with some of the harshest conditions, ranging from snowy 13,000-foot peaks to extended sections of desert.
When traveling southbound, as the Strawbridges did, thru-hikers need to start late enough for the passes in Montana to clear, yet move fast enough to get through the south San Juan Mountains before winter weather returns. This means covering over 2,000 miles between late June and early September. CDT hikers wake up, hike, eat, sleep, and repeat. Most hikers attempting the triple crown save the CDT for last. The Strawbridges teed it up for hike number two.
Aiden condensed her senior year into four months to accommodate the CDT. The younger three children are homeschooled and designed projects they could do on trail: Henry would collect data for Trout Unlimited, June would work on a weather-tracking project, and Georgie, who studied photography, planned to snap thousands of shots along the way. The family set off on June 24, 2020.
At 6 A.M. each day, Vince made the rounds, waking up the kids, paying special attention to the tent that housed June and Georgie—the hardest pair to rouse. They’d break camp quickly, eating an energy bar or stashing one in their pocket for later. The first hour of their morning was spent together. They would play a history lesson on a portable speaker, discuss a Bible verse, or talk about the kids’ projects as they began walking.
Then the family would string out along the trail, hiking at their own paces. They’d regroup for lunch around noon and chat about their mornings. From there, they’d walk until dark.
When talking about their family, Monica and Vince are quick to laugh and quicker still to eliminate romanticized notions of a picture-perfect group of hikers. On the trail, there were frequent tears and arguments, but there was also a tight bond.
“We have no choice, we have to reconcile,” says Aiden. “It’s just us out there. You can’t go to your friends and complain about your siblings when your siblings are all you have.”
Each of the childrens’ trail personalities developed over the course of nearly a collective year of hiking. Aiden is rock-solid, cranking out miles and consistently having a good time. Henry’s natural athletic abilities developed on the CDT, along with his appreciation for thru-hiking and positive attitude about the rigors of the route. As the strongest hiker in the family, his love for thru-hiking grew immensely on the CDT. Georgie is sensitive and artistic, a natural peacemaker who can be upset by unresolved tension. She works to alleviate disagreements among everyone. June is the most hesitant. Sometimes she loves the trail, sometimes she doesn’t want to be there. She struggles on long climbs, something Vince grapples with as he calculates their mileage.
Though the family stayed within a safe weather window, the mountains don’t follow rules. In early September, a storm system rolled through the Colorado Rockies. The Strawbridges stayed an extra day in Denver to wait it out, then returned to the trail at Lake Granby, near Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. As they started ascending 11,906-foot Arapaho Pass, the weather began to turn. The storm they thought was over had a second wave.
They tried to stay together as the squall worsened, but the slow pace was hard for Henry and Aiden, who needed to keep moving to stay warm. They went ahead into whiteout conditions.
Vince was in the back with June, who was struggling immensely. Suddenly, she sank into the snow and lay down. Vince panicked, trying to get her to move.
Georgie crouched down near the top of the pass, the wind so fierce it prevented her from standing upright. The visibility was so poor that they didn’t know if they were heading in the right direction.
“It was a breaking point,” says Aiden. She didn’t know how far the climb continued, and she saw Henry getting cold. “Our family couldn’t see us, but we were too cold to stop.”
Vince stayed low with June as the storm continued unabated. Finally, with continued pleading and cajoling, he got her to move, one step at a time, to the top of the pass, where they found the rest of the family and descended safely to the other side.
Arapaho Pass was a pivotal moment in their hike, the only time they questioned the wisdom of the endeavor. When the Strawbridges returned home to Lakeland, Florida, after completing the trail several months later, they took June to the doctor and discovered she was suffering from anemia—a major factor in her reduced endurance.
On November 2, 2020, the family arrived at New Mexico’s Crazy Cook Monument, steps from the Mexican border in the remote Chihuahuan Desert—the southern terminus of the 3,100-mile CDT. When they touched the obelisk, they became the largest family to have ever hiked the trail.
In early March of this year, the Strawbridges began the AT, and they plan to finish their triple crown this summer. Coming off a CDT thru-hike makes the family outliers in the northbound AT crowd, many of whom are attempting their first thru-hike on what most consider to be the easiest of the triple-crown routes.
But after a cumulative 5,000 miles, the family now has thru-hiking down to a science: they are fluidly efficient at camp, put in big miles almost every day, and are accustomed to the trials of trail life. In short, they are ready for their final triple-crown segment.
“So much of our experience in the world is comfort driven,” says Monica. “There is some dullness that comes from that. Our family has a desire to be sharp, not quite so comfortable.”