This starter 14er makes for a fun hike in the heart of Colorado
The first recorded climb of Mt. Princeton by a non-native was on July 17th, 1877. William Libbey III, just graduated from Princeton University, reached the top around 12:30pm and named the mountain for his alma mater. He went on to receive the first doctorate in geology awarded by Princeton and became a geology professor at the University.
Mt. Princeton was the first of the “collegiate peaks,” which is not a mountain range but five mostly disconnected mountains within the Sawatch Range. The other collegiates are Harvard, Oxford, Yale, and Columbia. Collectively, the collegiates are among the most rewarding, scenic, and easily accessible of Colorado’s fifty-eight 14ers.
Mt. Princeton towers over the town of Buena Vista, and its massif draws awe from drivers traveling westbound on US Highway 285 coming into town. In this climber’s opinion, Mt. Princeton’s stature is a pretense for the ease of its standard route (relative to other 14ers, of course).
The standard route as I describe it begins at a parking area near a set of radio towers, about 12 miles from downtown Buena Vista (Directions here). There is ample parking as long as you arrive early in the day. Most passenger cars with capable drivers can make the radio tower parking, but if you’re uneasy on narrow mountain dirt roads or have a low-clearance sports car, for example, you might prefer a large parking area further down the mountain. This lower parking area is at 8,900 feet and adds about six miles to the round trip distance. From the radio towers, which are at 10,800 feet, the total round trip distance is about 6.5 miles with 3,200 feet of elevation gain. If you have a high clearance vehicle, with or without 4wd, and are comfortable on rocky narrow mountain roads with switchbacks, you can drive beyond the radio towers for a couple of miles and find some parking spots on several switchbacks and in some wide (ish) areas. When I climbed Princeton in early July, my Jeep Wrangler was one of only two vehicles parked on the switchbacks and I could have driven even further up the road and found some parking. I would not recommend a full size SUV or pickup larger than a half-ton—such as a Suburban or a one-ton pickup—continue beyond the radio towers.
About a mile or so after the radio towers, at 11,800 feet, the trail up Mt. Princeton forks from the road in a well-marked series of rock steps. You’ll quickly gain the ridge and continue west along a north-facing slope, where alpine tundra transitions abruptly to talus. While the trail through the talus is sometimes not very obvious, it is well-marked with cairns and you shouldn’t have any issues following the route. In the spring and early summer, this part of the route is especially interesting and eerie, as you can hear streams of water running underneath the rock below you, like subterranean creeks.
After a mile or so of relatively gentle climbing, the trail ascends steeply up the saddle between Princeton and its easterly companion, a 13er affectionately but unofficially called “Tigger.” Once you gain the ridge, follow it west on an obvious, straightforward, and relatively easy trail. It will get steeper closer to the summit and will require some scrambling, but it never exceeds easy class two.
A little off trail near the top is a plaque memorializing a climber killed by lightning a few years ago. It’s a sad reminder to know the weather forecast and to read the skies for unfavorable conditions throughout your hiking day. If storms are approaching, get below tree line as quickly as possible.
The view from Princeton’s summit is typical of most Sawatch peaks—awe inspiring. To the west, the Elks and the San Juans scrape the sky. Immediately to the east, Buena Vista and the wide Arkansas River Valley six thousand feet below seem like a kid’s tiny model diorama. And due to the Sawatch’s central location in the state, on a clear day you can spot dozens of other 14ers in all directions.
Mt. Princeton is often overlooked when folks consider mountains for their first 14er ascent. The clogged and overrated slopes of Bierstadt or Grays are often chosen instead. A saavy new climber will consider Mt. Princeton, and a seasoned climber will appreciate the mountain’s views and fun final scramble near the summit. I really enjoyed my hike up Princeton, and I found its standard route much tamer than the imposing mountain suggests. Parking can be an issue for those not getting an early start, or for those drivers who aren’t comfortable on narrow mountain dirt roads. So if I had only one piece of advice to give for climbers attempting Princeton for the first time, it would be “get there early.” Have fun, be safe, and adventure on.
See the YouTube video of my climb here: