Mount Princeton

June 19, 2022

Back to the Collegiates

Mount Princeton rises dramatically above Buena Vista, Colorado. While the Sawatch Range includes perhaps a half dozen taller summits, Princeton likely ranks among the most commanding and charismatic.

Mount Princeton, seen from Buena Vista, CO.
Mount Princeton, seen from Buena Vista, CO.

2022 marked my second year bagging Colorado 14ers in earnest. In year one, I had chewed through the bulk of the front range and the whole roster of Mosquito peaks. But I at least had the foresight to ration out the Sawatch. My goal was to avoid being left with a dozen San Juan road trips and nothing left closer to Denver. And so I told myself: one collegiate hike per year.

Last year I hiked Yale, a gorgeous trek through wildflowers with a light class 2 scramble to finish. Yale, Princeton, and other nearby peaks are blessed with ample great camping options. In fact, this hike came about when a friend from college informed me he had secured a choice camping spot nearby.

A harrowing drive

As you move deeper down the list of Colorado 14ers, you come upon a whole class of ascents where the road approach can form the “crux” of the trip. And Princeton might qualify for this category. The four-wheel drive road proves relatively smooth, and never terrible steep. But it’s narrow and exposed. I kept imagining how the car could just tumble down unimpeded by the sparse pine trees dotting the ultra-steep hillside.

Plenty of folks walk from the lowest trailhead instead. This turns a 3200′ hike into a 5400′ ascent—more than a vertical mile! And so we braved the switchbacks by car.

The comms towers around day break on Mount Princeton.
The comms towers around day break on Mount Princeton.

Eventually, we reached the comms towers. Most reasonable (Jeep-less) people park here. We took the directive rather literally and found a spot directly adjacent to a tower. But most of the parking exists on a small col just uphill of the facility.

Onward to the summit

We left the car shortly after daybreak. The road continued higher along some switchbacks, rising 1000 vertical feet to 11,800′. We saw a jeep perched precariously near here. Then we pulled off onto a proper, single-track trail onward above treeline.

A grassy ridgeline below 'Tigger Peak' (left) en route to Mount Princeton (right).
A grassy ridgeline below ‘Tigger Peak’ (left) en route to Mount Princeton (right).

Mount Princeton forms one of five “collegiate” fourteener summits. Just to the north sits Mount Yale. Beyond that are Harvard, Columbia, and Oxford peaks. The entire group sits within the center of the broader Sawatch range, home to the highest peaks of the Rockies, including Mt Elbert.

Harvard and Yale appear to have been named first. Josiah Whitney, of Mt Whitney fame, led ascents in 1869. Harvard sponsored his expedition, and Yale was his alma mater. From there the collegiate momentum seemed to keep going. A Princetonian indeed made the first “official” ascent of this mountain. But the peak was likely climbed informally before that (even by white folks). And locals began to refer to the peak as Mount Princeton before that ascent.

Approaching the high ridgeline.
Approaching the high ridgeline.

Mount Princeton

We climbed steadily onto the high ridgeline in the shallow col between Princeton and Tigger. The trail sits solidly with the “class 2” grade level. More often than not you need to amble about on boulders and small ledges and steep slopes. But you can make the ascent entirely hands-free and exposure remains minimal.

Mount Antero rises just south of Mount Princeton.
Mount Antero rises just south of Mount Princeton.

Before long we reached the summit. Here we found commanding views not only of the nearby Sawatch summits, but also the Elks to the West and minor ranges to the East. The sun rose higher as mid-morning approached, and we found several other groups on the summit.

Then began the descent back from whence we came. We opted for a detour onto a somewhat older route below ridgeline. This quickly turned into a tallus-hopping endurance exercise. Definitely not the most fun way to go!

But before long we were down off the ridge and back on the roadway.

Descending off the summit.
Descending off the summit.

The drive out proved even more nerve wracking than the drive in. A truck needed to pass us halfway down. I’m not entirely sure how we managed to cross, but somehow we made it work. The drive in (and out) truly forms the crux of this ascent.

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