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On Walkabout On: Mt. Princeton via the Radio Towers Trailhead

Basic Information

  • Name: Mt. Princeton
  • Where: Buena Vista, Colorado
  • Max Elevation: 14,197 feet
  • Distance:  7.2 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 3,318 feet
  • Time: 4-6 hours round-trip
  • Difficulty: EasyModerateHardDifficult
  • More Information: 14ers.com

Route Up Mt. Princeton

Mt. Princeton Route

Topographic Map of the Route

Mt. Princeton Topo Map

Elevation Map of Mt. Princeton

Mt. Princeton Elevation Map

Narrative

This summer one of my goals was to climb all the 14ers in the Collegiate Peaks within Colorado’s Sawatch Range.  The last peak I had to climb was the 14,197 foot Mt. Princeton.  According to the book “A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners: Twentieth Anniversary Edition“, it is believed that the name of the peak, Mt. Princeton was given by Henry Gannett of the Hayden Survey back in 1873 which kept with the Collegiate Peaks naming tradition.  It is unknown if anyone from the expedition climbed the peak, but the first recorded ascent was in 1877 by William Libbey Jr. of Princeton University.  He was part of a group from the university conducting a surveying and scientific review of Colorado and Utah.  It was probably too irresistible for Libbey to not try and climb up the peak that bared the name of his alma mater.  He completed the ascent by himself and with it the bragging rights of being the first person from Princeton University to climb Mt. Princeton.

Access to Mt. Princeton is much easier now than it was when Mr. Libbey climbed it.  The trailhead is just a short drive outside of Buena Vista, Colorado:


View 14er Trailheads in a larger map

How long this hike is depends on which trailhead you start from.  The two-wheel drive trailhead is accessed via a paved road and has a large parking lot.  The round-trip distance for a hike beginning here is 13 miles.  Passed the two-wheel drive trailhead those with high clearance vehicles can drive up the Mt. Princeton Road to the upper trailhead located at the radio towers.  I have a Ford Escape Hybrid and was able to easily reach the radio towers though it was quite bumpy and very narrow in spots.  If there is a vehicle coming from the opposite direction in many sections someone would have to back up and find a place to let the other vehicle pass.  Fortunately I did not have to worry about this problem driving up the road so early in the morning.  Here is a picture from later in the day that shows what much of the Mt. Princeton Road looks like:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

When I reached the radio towers it was difficult to find a parking spot due to all the campers there.  I arrived at the radio towers at 5:30 AM and there were a few parking spots left.  From the radio towers the round-trip distance for the hike ended up being 7.2 miles nearly half as long as hiking up the Mt. Princeton Road from the two-wheel drive trailhead.  From the radio towers there is about two miles of hiking further up the Mt. Princeton Road.  Though it was dark out I did enjoy seeing the sun slowly rise to the East where out in the distance I could see the 14,110 foot Pikes Peak:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

You can read about my previous hikes up Pikes Peak at the below links:

As the sun continued to rise I could also see the 13er, Buffalo Peaks across the Arkansas River Valley from Mt. Princeton:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Here is another view of the sun breaking over the mountains and shining on the Arkansas River Valley:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

This next picture shows the turn off to the trail that leads to the summit of Mt. Princeton:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

There is no sign here so this turn off is infamous for being missed by hikers not paying attention.  The easiest way to find this turn off is that once the road breaks through the treeline begin to immediately look towards the right for the rock staircase.  On top of the staircase this trail can be seen leading to Mt. Princeton:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Failure to make this turn and continuing up the Mt. Princeton Road will lead hikers to a mine thus forcing a backtrack down the road back to the rock staircase.  The trail above the rock staircase starts off pretty easy to follow as its crosses some alpine tundra with great views of Mt. Princeton on the right and the 13,280 foot Tigger Peak on the left:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Eventually though it enters into a world of talus rock which the last two miles of the trail to the summit is composed of:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

For the most part the talus rock is solid and not unstable like what I experienced on Mt. Columbia earlier in the summer.  However, due to steep drop off to the right I walked slowly in order to make sure I did not slip on any rocks:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Eventually the trail reaches a small rock wall that has been put in place to designate to hikers to take the trail that leads up to the saddle between Mt. Princeton and Tigger Peak:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Failure to follow the trail up to the saddle and instead continuing towards Mt. Princeton leads to an area with dangerously loose rock.  The trail that leads up to the saddle felt like I was going in the wrong direction since Mt. Princeton was getting further away, but it is in fact the correct and safest route to take:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

From the top of the saddle here is the view I had showing the rest of the route to the summit of Mt. Princeton:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

As I walked across the saddle I also had a great view of the 14,269 foot Mt. Antero rising to the South:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

My prior hike up Mt. Antero can be read at the below link:

The last 800 feet of the hike up Mt. Princeton was quite steep with some loose sections.  Compared to other mountains I have been on it wasn’t that bad, but for people who do not have experience dealing with steep and loose rock, I recommend to take it slow and easy on this section:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Just before the summit I saw this plaque installed on a rock in memory of Catherine Martha Pugin who was killed by lightning on Mt. Princeton back in 1995:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

She must have had some great friends to haul this marker all the way up near the summit of a 14er.  Anyway the marker was a good reminder of the dangers of afternoon lightning storms that roll in during the summer.  Shortly passed the marker I reached the summit of Mt. Princeton:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

I had left the radio tower trailhead at 5:45 AM and found myself on the summit by 8:30 AM which meant the hike to the summit took 2 hours and 45 minutes.  The summit was actually much larger than I was expecting with many small rock walls set up to protect hikers from the wind.  The summit register was easily spotted inside this rock wall:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Mt. Princeton is known for being a popular 14er to hike, but I found myself having the entire summit to myself and in fact I had only seen four other people who were heading down the mountain that entire morning.  Here is the view looking towards the north where I could see the 14,196 foot Mt. Yale and the 14,420 foot Mt. Harvard:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

You can read about my prior hikes up these two great peaks at the below links:

Here is the view looking across the Arkansas River Valley to the east of Mt. Princeton:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

To the southeast the Sangre de Cristo Range could be seen rising over the San Luis Valley:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Here is a wide angle look from the summit of the view to the south with Mt. Antero visible on the left:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Here is a closer look at the impressive Mt. Antero:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Here is the view to the southwest of various lower peaks of the Sawatch Range stretching out into the distance:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Out in the distance to the southwest I could even see the 14,309 foot Uncompahgre Peak:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

You can read about my prior hike up Uncompahgre Peak at the below link:

Here is the view to the West where the Elk Mountains could be seen in the distance:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Here is a closer look at the Elk Mountains:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

To the northwest I was able to easily spot the highly noticeable 13,500 foot Red Mountain B:

IMG_5766

Here is a wide angle shot of the view looking west towards the north with Mt. Yale and Mt. Harvard visible on the far right:

IMG_5762

I spent 30 minutes on the summit before heading down at exactly 9:00 AM.  The initial descent was quite steep and the trail became composed of scree in some sections:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

 

While going down I passed a lot of people going up.  I was glad I decided to hike up the mountain early in the morning to avoid the crowds I now saw heading up it.  The descent down was pretty fast though and in about an hour and a half I was approaching the section where the trail exits the rocks and returns to the tundra:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Here is the view from the tundra looking back at the summit of Mt. Princeton in the distance:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Here is one final look at Mt. Princeton from the trail with Tigger Peak on the left:

IMG_5767

As I descended down the slopes of the tundra section of the trail I eventually spotted the Mt. Princeton Road:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Once I reached the road I began to jog most of the two miles back to the radio towers:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

I did stop to take a few pictures such as this one of the Mt. Princeton Hot Spring Resort down below the mountain as well as the top of the famed Chalk Cliffs visible on the right:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Here is the view looking across the Arkansas River Valley towards the Buffalo Peaks with Buena Vista down below:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Here is a wider angle view of the Arkansas River Valley below Mt. Princeton:

IMG_5769

As I continued down the road I eventually spotted the radio towers just below me which meant my hike would soon be coming to an end:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

I had left the summit at 9:00 AM and reached the radio towers at 11:15 AM which meant it took me 2 hours and 15 minutes to descend to the radio towers:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Back at the radio towers I found an absolute parking mess.  Vehicle were parked haphazardly every where.  I even had a vehicle parked right behind me that was nearly touching my bumper:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

At least the person who parked in front of me left me about a foot of room.  It took me a long time to work my way out since I only had a foot of room to work with.  I had to keep getting out and checking how close I was from each vehicle as I slowly worked my way out.  I was pretty pissed off at the time by the poor manners of the people that parked up there that day.  Anyway I did eventually get out and made my way back down the bumpy Mt. Princeton Road.  Fortunately by driving down around lunch time I ran into no one heading up the road.  This is a good thing because of how narrow the road is it is very difficult to find areas to allows other vehicles to pass.  Here is the view from the road leading back to Buena Vista of the very scenic Mt. Princeton:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

From the road I also spotted the neighboring 14,196 foot Mt. Yale which I hiked up earlier in the summer:

Picture from Mt. Princeton, Colorado

Conclusion

Overall it took me 2 hours and 45 minutes to reach the summit, 30 minutes on the summit, and 2 hours and 15 minutes to descend for total round-trip time of 5 hours and 30 minutes.  The total distance I hiked was 7.2 miles with 3,318 feet of elevation gain.  So statistically Mt. Princeton is not that hard of a peak to summit though I recommend anyone hiking up it to be careful on the long section of talus rock that has to be hiked up.  With proper care hiking up the talus rock this really is a great peak that I recommend to anyone new to 14er hiking try out.

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