Since I haven't backpacked for so long I was really chomping at the bit to spend some continuous days traveling through the mountains. Now living in Colorado, the possibilities are nearly endless.
There are two major trail systems in Colorado that run less than an hour from my home. The Colorado Trail (CT) runs nearly 500 miles and no more than 40 minutes from my house. The Colorado portion of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) traverses the same general area just a few miles further away over Monarch Pass.
In the past few years, the Colorado Trail Foundation took over the maintenance of the CDT in the area. The CDT once incorporated several miles of walking over forest roads. The Colorado Trail Foundation built miles of new trail, relocating the CDT to this new trail and eliminating all but the smallest section of road walk on a quiet, high elevation forest road. They call this portion of the CDT the Collegiate West. The Collegiate West runs from Twin Lakes to 5 miles south of Monarch Pass, a distance of 83 miles. This route runs close to, and at times, along the Continental Divide, traversing many miles above treeline.
The portion of the Colorado Trail in this area, known as the Collegiate East in this section, runs 78 miles from Twin Lakes and travels south, meeting the Continental Divide 5 miles south of Monarch Pass. The Collegiate East and West meet each other at both ends forming a 161 mile loop. This loop has become known as the Collegiate Loop.
This portion of Colorado is in a subrange of the Rockies called the Sawatch Range. The Sawatch Range contains the highest peaks in the entire Rockies. This specific portion of the range is known as the Collegiate Peaks. Several of the peaks in the range are named after universities; including Mts. Princeton, Yale, Oxford, Columbia, and Harvard. Much of the surrounding area lies within the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, thus the name of the loop.
I first heard of the Collegiate Loop before I moved to Colorado. At the time the Colorado Trail (Collegiate East) was already long in place. The Collegiate West was still a concept and the new portions of trail were just being built to link together existing trails. Several years have passed and the project is basically complete. Once small portion of trail is under construction to eliminate less than 2 miles of road walking on a quite four wheel drive road.
Living so close to the loop, this seemed like the perfect trip for me. Although I hiked or mountain biked small portions of the loop, nearly all of the trip was new terrain for me. At 160 miles, the loop is long enough to get fully submerged in the wild without being away for too long. The loop eliminated any need for arranging pickup or drop off to a trail. The loop spends many miles in alpine terrain, so the trip was likely to have great scenery.
This trip was also somewhat of a gift from Puma. Earlier in the spring I built her "Zen House". Letting me run off in the mountains for a week or more was my payment for the time I spent on her building.
Because of the high elevations on the Collegiate Loop, some areas may not be snowfree until July. I originally looked at a July 17th start date. Unfortunately dry conditions and a lightning strike led to the Hayden Pass Fire burning wildly just a few miles from our house. Although we seemed relatively safe, I postponed my trip a two weeks, "just in case" something changed with the fire. A few rains and huge firefighting response contained the fire many miles away from our home. My new date for departure was July 31.
Because the trip is a loop, there are many places to start. For most people, this is Twin Lakes. I'm guessing this is because this allow hikers to start on the lower Collegiate East and build toward the more dramatic terrain of the Collegiate West. The lower terrain allows time for acclimatization. Twin Lakes is also more convenient to Denver than the southern side of the Collegiate East.
Since I live about 40 minutes to the southern end of the Collegiate East, I started there, where the trail crosses Highway 50. My friend Rick Adams lives just a few miles from here and allowed me to park at his house while I was away and also brought me to the start of the trail.
Since the loop is relatively new, I didn't come across many first hand accounts. My impression is that most people take around 2 weeks to complete this hike. There are several places, particularly on the east side to resupply. While not exactly an ultralight fastpacker, I tend to move fast and cover a lot of ground in a day. My goal was to finish in 8 days and be fully self supported, no resupply or town stops.
US Highway 50 at end of South Fooses Creek- Dry Creek
I began my trip at 822AM on July 31st at Highway 50, just west of Salida at the CT crossing near South Fooses Creek. I hiked north on the CT. I planned on hiking the Collegiate East first so I would have a build up of scenery, and the last half of my hike would traverse the higher and more alpine Collegiate West. I started out with a cool morning and a perfectly cloudless sky. The trail in this section is relatively easy with mostly rolling hills and little in the way of big elevation change. The elevation at my starting point was 8800' and my entire first day only reached 9800'.
|The first view of a higher mountain in the first few miles|
|View toward the North Fork Valley|
|Cow traffic jam|
|No shortage of views even at the lower elevations|
|One of several long stretches of meadow|
|Clouds moving in just before the rain|
|The Chalk Cliffs Alien|
|Mt Princeton in the distance|
|Looking up the Chalk Creek Valley|
I reached Dry Creek after 27.3 miles around 630PM. I didn't anticipate hiking so far, especially the first day, but the road walk made camping not an option. Despite the high mileage I didn't have any serious discomfort, I was just tired and discouraged by the extended rain. Dry Creek has a nice flat area for camping. Unfortunately it was still raining when I arrived with no sign of letting up. I quickly set up my tent when I arrived. A large tree gave me just enough cover to cook my dinner without getting too wet. After my dinner, I quickly retired to my tent for the night. I woke up to the sound of rain as late as 130AM. One other pair arrived shortly after I did but immediately retired to their tent, not to be seen again.
Dry Creek- Frenchman Creek
I woke up around 630AM and was surprised to see perfectly clear skies. The hiking was pretty easy going, even with substantial elevation gain. Much of the hiking remained on pleasant trail through the forest. The trail reached its highest point on the eastern portion of the loop. The trail topped out at 11,889' on the eastern ridge of 14er Mt Yale. The climb seemed to wear me down. I don't think it was the steepness that took its toll as much as I was hungry. I wanted to wait until I reached this high point to eat my lunch, so I was running on fumes by the time I got to this point.
|Hiking through aspens|
|Closer view of Mt Yale|
|The first of several entries into the|
Collegiate Peaks Wilderness
|Climbing toward Mt Yale|
|Area around Mt Columbia|
|Heading toward Columbia and Harvard|
|Area around Harvard and Columbia|
|Near Harvard and Columbia|
|Pleasant morning walk through the forest|
|The larger Harvard Lake|
|Smaller Harvard Lake|
|View toward Columbia/Harvard ridge|
Frenchman Creek- Avalanche Meadow
I woke up Tuesday morning to mostly cloudy skies. I didn't know it at the time but this would be the only morning I would have no rain overnight and wake up with a dry tent rainfly. My morning had me climbing back to over 11,800' on a ridge off 14er Mt Harvard. Unlike the climbing on Mt Yale's flank, the climb on Harvard was much more rewarding. The trail traversed on the edge of treeline with many good views across the high alpine area. When it dropped from the alpine area, the trail traveled through several high meadows with continuous lines of sight into the high country. As I progressed, the view extended across the Pine Creek Valley to 14er group of Oxford and Belford. This was by far the most scenic stretch on the Collegiate East.
|Reaching the edge of treeline|
|View toward the lower Mosquito Range|
|Crossing a meadow|
|A look back to a ridge off of Columbia|
|Traversing through sparse trees|
|Crossing a high meadow|
|View toward Belford/Oxford ridge|
|Looking toward Harvard|
|Large cluster of wildflowers|
|Long traverse through a subalpine meadow|
|Another look toward Oxford|
|Looking toward ridge off of Waverly Mountain|
|Leaving the Collegiate East for the West|
|Overlap of the CDT and Collegiate West|
|Mt Elbert and Massive over one|
of the Twin Lakes
|Views toward Independence Pass|
|Heading toward Hope Pass|
|Looking toward Twin Lakes|
|Heading away from Twin Lakes|
|Old cabin just south of my campsite|
Avalanche Meadow- Texas Creek
I had another long, tough day planned for my fourth day. I was soon getting into a long, exposed stretch above treeline that I wanted to hit early in the day. I had to set myself up in a campsite close to this exposed portion of trail, hoping to traverse most of it before the chance of thunder and lightning increased later in the day. On day 4, I planned a big 25 mile day that would involve two long climbs over 12,000 foot passes.
|Entering the alpine zone|
|The trail making its way to Hope Pass|
|Looking across the alpine terrain|
|Looking at Mt Hope|
|Looking back toward Twin Lakes|
|Trail through the tundra|
|Just below Hope Pass|
|View north from the pass toward Twin|
Lakes and Elbert Forebay
|Prayer flags at Hope Pass|
|Looking toward Mt Hope|
|South from the pass|
|South of Hope Pass|
|Morning sun on I believe Missouri Mountain|
|Looking up the Lake Fork Valley|
|Looking back toward Mt Hope|
|Another look toward Mt Hope|
|Descending below Hope Pass|
|Jagged ridge below Hope Pass|
|Crossing a talus field|
|Looking up Clear Creek Valley|
|Traversing an open slope|
|Looking up the South Fork Valley|
|I believe Winfield Peak|
|Hiking through a low meadow near Clear Creek|
|Heading toward the South Fork Valley|
|Peaks above Silver Creek|
|The Three Apostles starting to come into view|
|Lower peaks in the area|
|Getting closer to the Three Apostles|
|Pleasant walking through a meadow|
|Continuous views through the meadow|
|Small waterfall enroute to Lake Ann Pass|
|Part of the Three Apostles|
|Breaking out at treeline|
|Looking back toward Huron|
|Looking just below Lake Ann|
|I'm not sure but I think it may be Ice Mountain|
in the middle
|Climbing above the lake|
|Clouds moving in|
|Looking back down the trail|
|Climbing above the lake|
|Looking back at the lake|
|Looking toward Granite Mountain|
|A good look at the pass|
|Just above the lake|
|Another good look at Lake Ann Pass|
|Terrain gets rougher closer to the pass|
|Rain moving in|
|Another look toward Huron and Ice Mtn?|
|Just before I started getting sprinkles|
|Taylor Park Reservoir|
|Looking up the Continental Divide from the pass|
|Looking at the Divide|
|Descending from the pass|
|Looking back toward the pass|
|Getting closer to treeline|
|Elk Range in the distance|
|Taylor Park Reservoir|
|Hiking away from thunder|
|At least I still have some visibility|
I passed a couple junctions, but followed the signage for my route. I eventually looked at my map. I had some confusion at an intersection. Apparently I passed the Texas Ridge Trail, I thought it was the Texas Creek Trail. A long stretch passed since that junction and I wasn't seeing any other landmarks. Because of the poor visibility, I didn't have a good line of sight for my location either. For a time I thought I missed a turn. I doubted I was on the right path. Finally the steady rain let up and I popped out at another intersection and realized I was on the right track.
By now the rain nearly stopped except for a few light showers. I was happy to be out of the steady rain, but now I had a new problem. I was on the Texas Creek Trail. The trail traveled through a willow choked meadow along the creek. The willows were now drenched from the rain. As I passed through the willows along the trail, I became even wetter from the waist down than I did from the rain. This began to get into my shoes and socks.
Texas Creek- Tincup Pass Road
The entire purpose for my long day yesterday was to set myself up close to my next segment south of Cottonwood Pass. The trail runs at least 15 miles above treeline, and I wanted to get at it early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms.
|Views before the rain|
|Entering the meadows below Cottonwood Pass|
|Peaks along the Continental Divide|
|Mountains that I couldn't see yesterday|
|More wet willows|
|Cairns marking the trail|
|Fog above Texas Creek|
|Approaching Cottonwood Pass|
|Rain getting heavier|
|Just below the pass|
|Looking back at the trail below|
|Good mix of purple wildflowers|
|Looking down at increasingly bad weather|
from Cottonwood Pass
|It may not look bad but it was cold and raw here|
with steady rain and a brisk wind
|Fog below in the valley|
|Clouds rolling over the ridge|
|Continuing in the rain|
|More valley fog|
|Nice wildflower variety|
|Another wildflower closeup|
|Continuing along the Divide|
|Still raining and raw|
|The trail along a steep hillside|
|Rocky stretch of trail|
|This foggy view wasn't uncommon|
|Breaking out of a long stretch of fog|
|You can just barely tell there are mountains in the background|
with a marmot enjoying its clear spot on the rocks
|Hiking below the mountaintop fog|
|Nice look at socked in summits|
|Just before the skies opened up again|
Tincup Pass Road-Hunt Lake
My respite from the rain was short lived this morning. The rain stopped around 4AM. By 530AM it began again. Sometime after 6AM it slowed to a drizzle and I got up. The rain all but stopped and was mostly mist from the heavy fog that consumed the area. The fog seemed to be lifting slowly and a few of the surrounding peaks became visible. I packed up as quickly as I could before more rain fell, ate a few bars, and was hiking by 715AM.
|Another day of foggy summits|
|Clouds rolling in|
|A break from the fog|
|Clouds skimming the higher terrain|
|Starting to descend toward the valley|
|One of the few peaks not in the clouds|
|Looking down Tunnel Gulch|
|Along the old rail bed|
|Looking back up Tunnel Gulch|
|Wildflowers along the trail|
|Bring on the marmots|
|Marmot deciding if it should hide|
|HIde and seek|
|Making sure my Marmot brand rain jacket wasn't|
actually made of marmots
|Mother and baby|
|Mother and two babies|
|Marmots weren't the only rodent in the area|
Climbing the jeep road quickly took me back above treeline. This stretch of road seems lightly used and only runs a couple miles. Trail builders are actively working on a new segment of trail to eliminate this road walk. Even though I only encountered a few sprinkles, the higher terrain was obscured by clouds.
At the end of jeep road, above treeline, sit the two Hancock Lakes. At the lakes, just below Chalk Creek Pass, I stopped for lunch. Although the pass was visible, clouds shrouded either side of the trail at the pass. More wet willows helped further soak my shoes and socks. I crested the pass and was immediately engulfed in fog on the south side.
|Looking down at the Hancock Lakes|
|Ponds on the south side of Chalk Creek Pass|
|My tent along Hunt Lake|
|Short window of clear skies over Hunt Lake|
and my campsite for my last night
|Another look over Hunt Lake|
Hunt Lake- US Highway 50 near South Fooses Creek
Although the wind was still blowing when I woke up for the morning, the rain calmed to a mist. I packed up and was moving by 630AM. Within minutes I began climbing above treeline, gaining the Continental Divide. On the Divide, visibility was down to 100 feet if I was lucky. The wind was around a steady 25MPH and gusty with a temperature in mid 40s. Not long after gaining the Divide it started to rain once again. This time Mother Nature wasn't fooling around and the rain was quite heavy. Combined with the wind, the rain felt like I was getting blasted with a fire hose.
Since this was my last morning, I started hiking with my dry socks to finish my hike. Unfortunately, the driving rain quickly drenched my dry socks and flooded my shoes. I quickly felt my wet socks and shoes rubbing my feet uncomfortably. With how heavy the rain was falling, I didn't noticed my feet so much at the time however. I was more aware of how chilly I was becoming and the fact that rain wasn't letting up. I was wearing an extra fleece shirt and winter hat under my rain jacket and still was quite chilly. Under the circumstances of how ridiculously intense the weather was at the moment, I couldn't help but yell profanities at the sky. Why? I'm not sure, but it seemed to help me deal with the conditions at the moment.
The driving rain continued for nearly 5 miles. At times, I started to run to get to lower elevation more quickly. I only had a few more miles before I reached Monarch Pass. If the rain continued, I figured I'd cut my trip short 13 miles early at the pass. As I dropped toward Monarch Ski Area, the rain finally slowed down quite a bit and I dropped into the trees, softening the wind. This entire area stays above treeline to the top of the ski area with unobstructed views. I saw nothing but thick fog the entire time.
Although the visibility remained next to nothing, the rain slowed to a drizzle by the time I reached Monarch Pass. Monarch Pass has a gift shop and visitor center. I stopped in the building to get some feeling back in my fingers and warm up as well as eat a little. I skipped breakfast this morning, planning to eat on the fly. The unexpected deluge kept me from eating the first 9 miles of the morning, and I was quite hungry.
From the pass, I had 5 more miles on the CDT/Collegiate West before dropping back to US 50 at my starting point. Although the rain was basically reduced to a mist at this point, I remained in thick fog and had no views in the clouds. This portion of the route is known as the Monarch Crest and isn't new territory for me. This segment is a renowned mountain bike destination and I have ridden here before. Normally the views are quite impressive. This was a Saturday morning. Even with the horrible conditions, there was still a fair amount of mountain bike traffic on the trail. To see the views on a less miserable day, click on the link to my blog post from last summer mountain biking this section. Mountain Biking the Monarch Crest: Twice is Nice
|Not so great visibility on the Monarch Crest|
|The first window of visibility all morning|
|Starting to get views as I'm ready to leave the Monarch Crest|
|The southern junction of the Collegiate|
East and West
|Looking into the South Fooses Creek drainage|
|Good variety of wildflowers|
|Tunnel of wildflowers|
Knowing the trip was coming to an end, the last several miles seemed to last forever even though I was making good time. With 5 miles left, I took my last break for a bite to eat and take off my rain jacket and pack cover for the first time in days. When I started hiking again, I noticed the pain in my feet from the continuous rubbing in my wet socks and shoes. After hiking a few minutes my feet went numb and I didn't notice the rubbing. Although the sky was a mix of clouds and sun as I neared the finish, I managed to get caught in one last rain shower 15 minutes before I reached Highway 50.
At 206PM, I reached Highway 50 and finished my trip. From Highway 50 I needed to get back to Rick's house and get my car some 5-6 miles away. I put out my thumb, and within 5 minutes I got a ride that took me right to my car.
I hiked 161 miles over 7 days. I climbed more than 34,000 vertical feet. 5 of the 7 days had a substantial amount of rain. I had only full day of sun. When I made it home about an hour later, my heels were raw and the tops of toes were bloody and scuffed open.
|Feet after I showered and cleaned them|
|At least there not actively bleeding anymore|
|My heels a few hours after I finished|
|The Three Apostles|
|Lake Ann from above|
Chances are you will share the trail and won't be alone. This area has a short season and most users are concentrated in this short window. I encountered people daily. There was only one campsite I had to myself. I encountered quite a few long distance backpackers, including numerous CT thru hikers. Even though you can enjoy solitude while your hiking, even on the days with nasty weather I encountered people. Portions of the trail are open to mountain bikes and horses as well. A few brief sections allowed dirt bikes.
Since this route is part of the CT and CDT, it's possible to hike shorter segments of this loop. There are numerous access points along the route and shuttles are available in some of the local communities close to the trail. For the more ambitions, you can hike the entire Colorado Trail or CDT.
If you enjoy my blog, Like my Tomcat's Outdoor Adventures Facebook Page. I post photos more frequently that I blog.