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The Collegiate Peaks
Miles: 78.8 (Collegiate East) | 84.8 (Collegiate West)
Segments: Part of 11 to Part of 15 (official route) or Collegiate West 1 to 5
Come mile 183, thru-hikers have a decision to make: east or west? The Colorado Trail’s original path skirts the Collegiate Peaks’ eastern flanks, but in 2012, the Colorado Trail Foundation officially added an alternate route along the range’s western side. Fans of the OG path tout its easier resupply logistics, reduced thunderstorm exposure, and access to hot springs; westward walkers love that route’s higher elevations, more remote feel, and peerless views. Indecisive? Hardy folks can choose to hike the whole damn thing, a 160-mile life-lister called the Collegiate Loop.
This 14,196-foot giant of the Sawatch Range lies within easy (relatively speaking) reach of the Collegiate East route via its lesser-traveled east ridge, a 10.5-miler, round trip. Take off from the Silver Creek trailhead well before the sun rises to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. Climb southwest on the Colorado Trail (CT), and you’ll reach a saddle on the east ridge at mile 3.4. The next 2.1 miles hold narrow, steep, rocky Class II terrain before things open up to a summit that rewards you with sweeping views north and south to Yale’s fellow Collegiates.
Glittering waters, meadows thick with columbine, and views of peaks on all sides: This azure jewel embraced by a cirque of thirteeners is Colorado high country at its best. The 5.6-mile route (one way) from the South Winfield trailhead (high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles can park two miles farther up the track at the Clear Creek trailhead) follows Clear Creek into the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. From there, you’ll hop onto the CT’s Collegiate West route and hike south between Granite Mountain and 14,012-foot Huron Peak before ascending to the Lake Ann basin, where there are campsites aplenty.
Best Weeklong Trek
The Entire Collegiate West
The whole 84.8-mile path from the Interlaken trailhead in Twin Lakes south to the Monarch Crest junction south of Monarch Pass tops many long-distance hikers’ all-star lists. “It’s just amazing country,” says hiker Kai Malloy. “It feels really remote and uniquely Colorado.” The trip, which takes roughly six to eight days, kicks off with a quads-on-fire push up 12,548-foot Hope Pass, then tracks among the alpine tarns and dizzying summits of the Sawatch Range and Collegiate Peaks. The route traces the Continental Divide, traipsing up and down high passes and hanging out above 12,000 feet for miles at a time. With Collegiate West’s towering elevations and long hauls between resupply points, it offers bragging rights for those who tackle it.
Points of Interest
The Collegiate East route boasts not one but two opportunities for soaking those aching feet. Hiking south, you’ll hit Cottonwood Hot Springs first (a four-mile walk or hitch east of the Avalanche trailhead on CO 306), a low-key, sustainability-minded resort with mineral pools and a dry sauna. The CT then tracks right past Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, just west of Nathrop, where the dipping options range from a warm water slide to stony natural hot tubs on Chalk Creek.
Fat-tire aficionados revere the 34 miles of track that descend from Monarch Pass to Poncha Springs, rolling a little up and a lot down (a 4,000-foot descent over 30 miles) through the tundra with nonstop Collegiate Peaks views. The route syncs with the CT’s Collegiate West option until just south of Marshall Pass, where it then cruises down the Silver Creek and Rainbow trails into town. (Bike shuttles are available out of Poncha Springs.)
Trail Town Spotlight
Travelers have been kicking back in this tiny lakeside berg since at least the 1870s, and today it serves as a thru-hiker hub for both the CT and Continental Divide Trail. Must-do’s: Stop at Twin Lakes General Store, where you can pick up a resupply box, charge your phone, and score necessities like camp stove fuel and ice cream. Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard from Twin Lakes Canoe & Kayak Adventures for a mellow paddle on the lakes before rejoining the trail.
Like all long trails, the CT has its ranks of so-called trail angels: good Samaritans who supply hikers with rides, kettle chips, and ice-cold La Croix. Some trail magic, like a friendly soul leaving snacks for hikers along the path, you just have to luck into. But some can be prearranged—like a free ride from Monarch Pass to Salida from trail angel Tom Syzek. “People, my wife included, ask, ‘Why do you take smelly hikers to and from the trail in your car?’ ” he says. “I can’t explain it—it’s a passion for joining the hiker community.” Request the list of current trail angels at coloradotrail.org.