The Monarch of the Sawatch. At least that’s what they call it in fancy mountaineering terms. Most simply describe it as “wow.” As in the only way you can describe the view when you turn the corner on 285 heading into Buena Vista.
Princeton dominates the view from all around. There are few peaks, if any in Colorado with such prominence. I can remember the first time I saw Princeton going to Buena Vista for a rafting trip on my 24th birthday and how it took my breath away. I wasn’t quite as dedicated to attaining Colorado’s 54 14,000 foot summits then, but I still felt a calling to reach her peak.
One of the benefits of being a teacher is getting summers off. A side benefit of this is climbing 14ers/enjoying Colorado’s high country on “quiet days” when the rest of the Front Range isn’t there. This finally gave me an excuse to brave Mt. Princeton single lane three mile 4WD journey.
Before I got there, I had to brave 285 from Denver to Buena Vista which meant several otherworldly thunderstorms and one driver who lacked knowledge of double yellow lines (Sir, when you flip a “u-ee” to help the stranded driver on the other side…look behind you first”)
I had stopped at Safeway in Conifer for some munchies and gas but realized somewhere around Fairplay that I had forgotten to grab new batteries for my headlamp and backup batteries for the SPOT. Upon arriving in Buena Vista, I made a quick dash to City Market to grab them…however they wouldn’t be necessary in the long run.
Turns out my car can handle Mt. Princeton Road all the way to the radio towers. Probably could have gone higher but it was getting dark quickly. The road itself is not terrible but it is extremely narrow. Be prepared to drive it in reverse on a busy weekend!
I pulled into a parking spot by the towers around 9:30 and made quick work of setting up my sleeping arrangements for the evening. Lights out around 10:15 as I had a 4 am wake-up call. Side note here: Super Moon led to a 11:45 pm, 1 am, and 3 am wake up call. It was daylight in my car all night.
The alarm startled me awake at 4 and I set to work getting dressed and ready to go as quickly and quietly (I had neighbors) as possibly. Casey spent much of this time disoriented and wondering what I was doing. After coffee and a very disorganized yet successful packing session, I was on the trail at 4:55 am.
The initial part of the hike follows the Mt. Princeton Road for a little bit over a mile. The hike here is easy and I was able to make quick time of it. To top it off, there was no need to turn on my headlamp (or for those extra batteries) as the moon was so bright. However, there were several stops to enjoy the sunrise. The fires throughout Colorado are devastating but in nature there is always beauty and today’s sunrise did not disappoint.
The turnoff for the Princeton trail is a fairly obvious set of rock stairs to the hiker’s right. Excitedly, I turned onto their trail and crossed a stunningly beautiful alpine meadow.
I was greeted to my first views of Princeton since leaving my car as she was just peeking into alpenglow. She was beautiful and frankly didn’t look all that far away. I would later realize how much I underestimated the amount rocks between where I was standing and her 14,197 foot summit. Significantly.
The alpine flowers were in full bloom. It’s been a while since I hiked with such green beauty above treeline. I had a hard time grasping the beauty of it. Casey couldn’t stop exploring it as well. One flower in particular caught my eye.
After a quick photo session and snack we arrived at the rocks. Once again I found myself saying “Damn. They got the name of these mountains right.” The trail wasn’t particularly steep but it required my constant attention as I hopped from rock to rock.
After our 132,231st or was it 132,232nd rock? We finally reached the ridge below the summit. The trail along the way to there was loose and frankly miserable. Somehow I had ended up on the old trail for Princeton that appeared to be very prone to erosion. I had missed the switchbacks that allow the hiker to gain the ridge much quicker and therefore find much more consolidated ground much quicker. Either way, I stood just below the summit approach looking up at…you guess it….more rocks.
I was also greeted by the sudden arrival of dark clouds. The bluebird day had rapidly turned dark. They seemed more of the cool morning type as opposed the spitting lightning and hail type so we pushed towards the summit. The rock her was much more consolidated and we were able to make quick work to the summit, arriving at 7:25, 2.5 hours after we started. As always, the views abounded.
We spent 15 minutes on the summit as the weather was quite pleasant…until we got a quick burst of snow for about 30 seconds. It is June…and snow in June is a good reason not to be above treeline. We packed up and followed the trail off the summit, making quick time back to the ridge. It seems to always be the case, but we turned around and were greeted by nothing by blue skies.
The hike down was less questionable than the hike up, but we still dropped below the ridge to early and were forced to traverse across our own trail of rocks. We had several brief conversations with other hikers heading up but for the most part high tailed our way back to the car.
Conditions through the trail were great. No need for microspikes or anything more than trailrunners/hiking boots. This is a great 14er that produce some of my more beautiful climbing memories and views.
Mt. Princeton Stats (Approx.)
Distance: 7 miles.
Car-Summit – 2:30 (4:55 – 7:25)
Summit-Car – 1:45 (7:40 – 9:25)