Collegiate Peaks Wilderness (Twin Lakes, CO to Monarch Pass, CO)

Collegiate Peaks Wilderness impresses. Rugged mountains, high passes, alpine lakes, vibrant wildflowers… and NO thunderstorms! Definitely one of the most scenic stretches of trail I’ve hiked.

Day 1

Twin Lakes to below Lake Ann Pass

15.5 miles

It was so nice to wake up in a bed with my pack ready-to-go. Atlas and I said goodbye to our cute cabin and walked out of the little village of Twin Lakes. The CDT from here is supposed to go all the way around the east-side of the two lakes but no-one actually goes that route. If you cut across the west-side of the lakes it shaves off a whopping 9 miles, and so that’s what we did.

We were making good time on the climb up to Hope Pass until an ultra-race of some-sort came flying down the trail at us. We stood off to the side for a good 40 minutes letting the competitors pass. It wasn’t the Leadville 100, that was coming up the following weekend, but the front of the pack all looked pretty serious about the run.

The Leadville 100 is an annual ultramarathon that has been held in these parts since 1983. It’s pretty crazy how elite its runners are, the current record holder ran the course’s 100 mile, 15,600ft ascent and descent, in just 15hrs and 42 minutes. The competitors need to finish within 30 hours, and in most years about half don’t. To put that in perspective, in mountainous terrain I tend to average 2 miles-per-hour including breaks, so 100 miles would take me about 50 hours to complete. My longest day on the trail has been 33 miles and I can tell you, that’s a lot of mountain miles; I can’t imagine doing 100, even without the backpack.

When the competitors seemed a little less intense we got back on the trail and continued on our way. A quarter mile from the pass there was an aid-station, a nice lady there that let me fill up with water despite not being a competitor in the race. A nice luxury, although since getting on trail at Tennessee Pass I’ve had no trouble finding lots of water along the way.

The view from Hope Pass was great but the highlight was that there were two guys dressed up in Fireball Whiskey outfits, a very odd thing to see high up on a mountain pass! They were a sponsor of the event and i guess earlier in the morning had some free shots to offer. I would have preferred the water station be out and the whiskey station be stocked, but whatever…

The trail dropped down the other-side then made its way up canyon into the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. We found a nice place to camp at about 11,000ft and got a good night’s sleep.

Day 2

Below Lake Ann Pass to a few miles north of Cottonwood Pass

17 miles

The trail wasted no time in getting scenic today as it climbed past the stunning Lake Ann and up to the pass of the same name. What a stunning drainage! The view on the south-side of the pass was much less dramatic, with pine forests stretching out to a large reservoir a handful of miles away.

Some backpackers were making their way up from the south-side of the pass and arrived shortly after Atlas and I. They were a couple from Portland and out here for a couple of weeks hiking the Collegiate Peaks loop. There were pretty excited to see a trail-dog and Atlas scored lots of free pats.

The Collegiate Peaks loop would be a great trail to come hike if you’ve only got a couple of weeks or if you’re looking for your first longer-distance backpacking adventure. It starts and finishes in Twin Lakes and takes the Collegiate East route one way and the Collegiate West route the other. From what I gathered in talking to hikers, the East route is pretty mellow hiking and not super scenic, but a nice way to get your hiking legs going. The West route is what i’m hiking through this stretch and I can attest is about as scenic a hike as you’ll find anywhere.

The rest of the day the trail was pretty mellow as it traversed rolling hills of pine and eventually climbed up towards Cottonwood Pass. We camped right at tree-line so we’d be ready to start tomorrow’s long above tree-line section of trail.

Camped at 11,700ft the air was pretty chilly. Luckily we found a patch of dirt under a pine tree to setup camp and so we slept pretty warm given the altitude.

Day 3

North of Cottonwood Pass to near Tin Cup Pass Road

17.5 miles

Wow, what a day! We woke at 4 and were hiking by 4:45 a.m. With 16 miles above tree-line and 5 mountain passes to cross I wanted to get through it as early as possible before the afternoon thunderstorms had a chance to move in.

It was still dark when we set-out. The moon was pretty close to full though and illuminated the valley around us. While i could make out the peaks surrounding me, it did me no favors illuminating the nuances of the trail and so I used my headlamp. The darkness made way to a deep indigo as light slowly made its way into the day.

We crossed over Colorado State Highway 306 at Cottonwood Pass. If you happen to be sightseeing in Colorado by car, driving this route would be super scenic and gets you right up into the heart of the Collegiate Peaks. It’s a real wow.

The sun finally made its appearance a little before 6 a.m. and made for some stunning views. Big dramatic peaks were all around and the contrast between light and shade on either side of the ridgeline was magical. Definitely one of the prettiest mornings on trail I’ve ever had.

The day just got better from there.  We spent the whole day hiking up or down from ridgelines through fields of wildflowers with blue sky and rugged peaks all around. Check out the pics because words can’t do justice to today’s scenery.

We didn’t take many breaks throughout the day because I was intent on getting off the last pass as early as possible. We really rallied, I was proud of Atlas and myself, especially given my knee was still giving me significant issues. By about 10 a.m. there were some light clouds in the sky and by noon they were starting to billow into cumulonimbus  clouds and some of them were headed our way with very dark bottoms. Then by 1:30 I was really excited to be sitting on top of the final pass.

Relieved at having made it through such a long stretch above tree-line without getting stuck in a thunderstorm, we took a nice long relaxing break on top of the last pass. I sat there looking at the clouds and the peaks and the pine valleys far below. There were some thunder grumbles and storms going on to my north and south, but not above me. Lucky us!

The final couple of miles down to the valley floor went by quickly and I got my tent set up right as some rain drops fell from the sky for a quick afternoon rain shower.

Day 4

Near Tin Cup Road to Monarch Mountain Lodge

17 miles

Having looked at the maps last night i realized we were within a day’s walk of the car, and therefore could be having beers and a burger with my friend Lisa in Gunnison by late afternoon.

I looked at a tired Atlas and told him he’d be in his car by the end of the day. I think he knows when we’re on our final day. It’s like a shared relief sets in and a ‘let’s just get this done’ attitude takes over; we pause to take in the view instead of stopping and we bypass snacks all-together with the allure of ‘real food’ occupying our thoughts. I don’t know for sure that’s what Atlas is thinking about, but most of his world revolves around either food or tennis balls, so I’m going to go with food today.

Despite being on a mission to get to the car, it was still easy to appreciate the beauty all around. As had been the case the prior few days, wildflowers, alpine lakes, rugged peaks and blue skies framed our journey. This stretch of trail has been breathtaking.

For a couple of miles the trial dropped down onto an old railroad grade and all of a sudden there were families with small children and elderly folks out for a Saturday afternoon stroll. Interpretive signs were scattered along the path between there and the trailhead. It’s always funny when you think you’re super remote and then all of a sudden you become aware that you’re not.

The funniest of those situations I think I’ve had was in Colorado on the trail north of I-70 where you cross it near Gray’s Peak. I’d come across from Berthoud Pass near Winter Park and traversed some really spectacular ridgelines before dropping down into a valley. I thought i was really remote and set up my tent right next to the trail. The next morning I knew that I only needed to get to the base of Gray’s peak and so decided to sleep in a bit. Not long after the sun rose i heard a group of hikers go by, then another, and another.  I could hear each of them commenting that it was an odd place to setup a tent. I climbed out of my tent and packed up my stuff with a steady stream of people walking by and saying their “good mornings”. Turns out i’d camped just a mile or so up from a really popular trailhead. Haha.

Anyway, so I figured that the old railroad grade must come with an interesting history, which it did. Constructed in 1882 it formed part of the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad line between Denver and Gunnison. This was in the days before the automobile, and railroads were being laid all over the west.  The 1800’s with the industrial revolution and advent of the steam engine saw the horse drawn wagon routes of the west replaced with rail lines. Colorado was in a mineral boom and competition was fierce between the rail companies to lay the first tracks to new areas.

The Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad built this stretch of trail to link the line at Buena Vista to Gunnison, but traversing the Collegiate Peaks required them to construct the Alpine Tunnel. The tunnel passed 500 ft under Alpine Pass and was 1800 ft long. At 11,512ft and the first of its kind through the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado, the route wasn’t without its issues: the line was plagued by avalanche and rock slides; and the climb through the mountains involved some tight curves. By 1910 the tunnel was permanently closed and its entrances filled in. The rail industry had suffered numerous bankruptcies and with the advent of the motor vehicle, roads were starting to be built through Colorado. While it’s no longer in use, it still boasts two titles: highest railroad tunnel and the longest narrow-gauge railroad tunnel in North America.

One of the interpretive panels at Sawmill Curve described the challenge this terrain posed to the railway operators. The curve was one of the most dangerous sections on the track owing to the steep grade below the Alpine Tunnel. One particularly bad wreck in 1905 resulting in fourteen cars loaded with coal overturning.

After enjoying this history lesson I left the railroad grade and headed up towards Chalk Creek Pass. My mind wandered to the book Atlas Shrugged. That story always seems to find its way into my mind when I’m wandering along trails in the Colorado high country. Maybe in my own small way my breaks from the ‘real world’ to hike the CDT is my own strike against the modern grind, my own awareness that there’s a beautiful and simple reality that exists and can be reached by simply strapping on a backpack and wandering the spine of the continent instead of spending my days sitting in meetings or analyzing sales numbers. Although as far as ‘real world’ goes, I’ve got it pretty good working in the mountains in the ski industry!

I paused an extra moment on Chalk Creek Pass, taking in the freedom and the beauty, knowing it was my last pass before heading back to the ‘real world’. I felt sentimental for all of a minute before remembering there was a burger and fries waiting for me in Gunnison, and that was enough to propel me down the hill and off the trail.

Instead of continuing along to Monarch Pass, i left the trail at Boss Lake Trailhead and walked a dirt road a couple miles down to the highway. The road dumped me out just uphill of where my car was parked, perfect! The alternative was hiking out to Monarch Pass and hitching down to where my car was. This seemed like the better option. I bade farewell to the CDT, unsure of exactly when I’d be spending time on her beautiful trails again. With 140 miles left to go to finish, yes FINISH, this trail, I’m tempted to knock it out this fall. We’ll see….

Atlas was very happy to be back in his car! He wasted no time getting settled and falling asleep.

I think my favorite thing about finishing a section of trail is shedding my shoes and socks and sliding on my flip flops. It just feels so great!

With Atlas fast asleep, I drove us west from Monarch Pass and down into the town of Gunnison. I stopped by my friend Lisa’s place; we drank a beer and hung at her house for a while then went to a nearby bar and downed an order of poutine and a big burger and fries. Have you ever had poutine? It’s so weird: hot gravy, cheese curds and french fries all mixed into a big pile of deliciousness. I don’t think i could stomach it ordinarily, but after a stretch out on the trail it REALLY hit the spot! Thanks Lisa for hanging out, it was great to see you!

Originally i’d planned to stay with Lisa the night, but I decided to just rally and get all the way back to Salt Lake. We drove straight through for 8 hours with just two brief stops and were home by 1 a.m. It’s always so nice to get home. I sense that Atlas really likes it too. He sure does love these adventures but he’s really happy to get home and go ‘off-duty’ for a few days afterwards. We both are.

Thanks for reading.

-Elevated.

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