Colorado: Climbing Mt. Princeton

Airy views of the Arkansas River Valley from this Collegiate Range peak

Mount Antero viewed from the ridge of Mount Princeton.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

Mount Princeton, 14,197 feet, is one of my favorite mountains to climb.  Perhaps, the symmetry of the peak appeals to me as the sun sets and casts the shadow of a magnificent pyramid across the Arkansas River Valley below.

The length of the hike from the ranch at the lower trailhead is an ideal fourteen miles. The start of the hike is a high-clearance road with a climb of 3.4 miles to 11,000 feet, where a few pads exist for dispersed camping.

Buena Vista in the Arkansas River Valley northeast of Mount Princeton.

At the first appearance of tundra, the trail goes up over the the northeast ridge of Mount Princeton. On the final few miles, the line of trail constructed through the boulder field on the northern slope is obvious enough that I have descended from the summit after dark.

Mount Princeton is among the Fourteeners in the Collegiate Range west of Buena Vista.  Approaching from the north, turn right at the main traffic light in Buena Vista, then turn south on Rodeo Drive a block or two west of the intersection. Rodeo Drive heads southwest for eight miles to a junction for Frontier Ranch, where parking is available beside the stable.

Alpine phlox on the slopes of Mt. Princeton.

The trailhead is seven miles west of Nathrop.  Turn west toward Mount Princeton and proceed to the Mount Princeton Hot Springs, then turn north and wind around the base of the mountain to the road heading west that leads to Frontier Ranch.

The lower trailhead begins at a high-clearance road to the summit from 8,800 feet. Although many hikers drive three more miles, I parked at the lower trailhead and hiked up the road to establish a base camp at 11,000 feet.  Before sunrise, I awoke to a loud commotion of spinning tires, slamming doors, a barking dog, and shuffling feet.  To my dismay, a group of day hikers had driven into my camp and parked next to my tent.

I do not consider myself very territorial. However, I was a bit surprised that anyone would enter an occupied campsite for a more convenient parking space than those available along four to five miles of forest road. Then, while I was cooking my breakfast, another hiker drove up to me and asked whether he could park in my campsite.

After finishing my meal, I headed up the road with my daypack, including a couple of water bottles and filter. I know of a stream that flowed out of the tundra at 12,000 feet, where the Mount Princeton trail leaves the road. An hour into my ascent from camp, I found the watercourse. The slope was dry. I carefully considered whether I should continue my ascent with one remaining quart of water and ten miles ahead.  Since I was ascending in the cold of early morning with only two miles to the summit, I decided to continue.

Rising steeply away from the road, the trail slices across the tundra on the ridge.  Along the north side of Mount Princeton, the trail is a narrow path of neatly-stacked blocks of rock. A few large boulders create bulges obscuring the trail, while vague switchbacks and multiple pathways cause some confusion on the climb to the central ridge.

After two hours, I reached the rib of rock at 13,000 feet and absorbed a broad view of the valley splitting Mount Princeton from Mount Antero to the south. Holding to the rib, I continued climbing within an increasingly steep rock field. A scattered line of a dozen hikers who had driven past my base camp at sunrise picked various paths across the disorderly boulder field to the top of the mountain.

Hikers scattered across the boulder field on the final assault of Mount Princeton.
Kim Fenske on the summit of Princeton.

As I approached the summit, I held my stance against a strong and frigid wind. I was glad that I had worn two base layers, a fleece, and windbreaker for the ascent from my base camp.  I enjoyed a clear day at the summit, with great views of Mount Harvard, Mount Columbia, Mount Yale, Mount Antero, and the Arkansas River Valley lying east of the grand peaks.  Then, I began my descent before noon, denying myself any trail snacks due to the shortage of water.

An hour later, I met a family entering the boulder field on the north face of the mountain. I noticed that all of them were dressed in T-shirts, shorts, and tennis shoes. None of them carried extra clothes, a day pack, or water bottles. I addressed the youngest of the group and mentioned that I was glad that I had been prepared with four layers of clothes before I began climbing to the summit.

The path leading east from the summit of Mount Princeton.

The mother agreed that everyone should be prepared before climbing a mountain.  When I met the father, he explained that he was lagging behind the group because he had been searching for a parking spot near the end of the road. I told him that I was glad that I had carried an extra bottle of water on my hike because the streams were dry on the mountain due to the drought. He simply presented me with a blank stare, since he apparently had not contemplated the need for water on a hike.

My water bottle was empty when I began packing my base camp and began my descent along the dusty road to the stable. Eight hours after beginning the hike from base camp, I reached the trailhead.  I was quite dry. During the trip home, I downed several quarts of fluids.

Alpine forget-me-not.
Golden-mantled ground squirrel.

Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.

Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”

Kim’s winter 14er series:

Autumn hikes:



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