Collegiate Peaks Loop Guide

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Collegiate Peaks Loop Guide

Searching for an epic two-week Colorado backpacking adventure? Here's what you're looking for: The Collegiate Peaks Loop.

This stunning 160-mile loop in central Colorado provides a perfectly balanced two-week backpacking adventure.  Follow along the pristine Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail as they wind through lush forests, meadows, and  valleys. Trek through vast fields of wildflowers that drape the rugged mountainsides. Scan the hills for a glimpse of an elk, mountain goat, or bighorn sheep. With huge sections of trail above tree line, you'll get a healthy dose of craggy peaks and epic views.

This guide has been written to share information about the Collegiate Peaks Loop trail. When I started preparing to hike this loop a few months ago, I struggled to find many online resources with the detailed information that I was looking for. So, after my girlfriend Annie and I completed the loop, I though I'd put together this guide to help others gather information. I hope you find it helpful! If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them at the bottom and I'll be more than happy to answer them.

About Us:

Annie and I are seasoned backpackers who pack light. We’re relatively athletic, but we’re not superhuman hikers. We didn’t train much for this trip, but I wouldn’t recommend attempting this loop straight off the couch. We generally hit the trail early in the morning, take lots of breaks, and make sure to enjoy our time on the trail. We took 11 days to complete this loop and we covered around 15 miles per day at a fairly relaxed pace.

Packing light will help you to enjoy this trip more and cover the miles a lot easier. I carried a base weight of about 12 pounds for this loop and Annie carried a base weight of about 8 pounds. If you want to learn how to backpack light, check out our lightweight backpacking videos and our lightweight gear guide.

Trip Overview:

In 2012 the Colorado Trail added an 80 mile stretch of trail that serves as an alternate route around the Collegiate Peaks. The new route, called the Collegiate West, follows the continental divide at much higher elevations. The Collegiate West is above tree line much of the time, which makes for rugged hiking and incredible views. It is also part of the 3,100 mile long Continental Divide Trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada. The Collegiate East is part of the traditional Colorado Trail that stretches 500 miles from Denver to Durango. The 160-mile Collegiate Peaks backpacking loop is formed by hiking both the Eastern and Western routes of this section.  

Both sides of this loop are frequented by thru-hikers of the CT and the CDT, which makes logistical planning fairly easy. The Colorado Trail Foundation puts out a data book (more info below) that lists the mileage and details of every important landmark along the trail. With that resource, you'll know exactly where the next water source, trail junction, or established campsite lies along the trail. There are also many easy access points that will allow you to resupply food and fuel. 

East vs. West:

The most common starting point for this loop is the Twin Lakes Trailhead, which is about a 2.5 hour drive from Denver. That being said, you can start this loop hike from any trailhead along the way.

From the Twin Lakes Trailhead, you'll hike 1.5 flat miles to the junction of the Colorado Trail East and the Colorado Trail West. At this point you’ll choose which direction around the loop you’re going to hike. Starting out along the CT East is a good choice. The eastern route is lower in elevation and is slightly less rugged, which will help ease you into the hike. The second half of your trip, the CT West, will be higher and slightly more difficult, but should not be missed. Many of the best views of this trip can be found along the CT West. 

The East side of the CT is the traditional route for thru-hikers of the Colorado Trail. It’s a wonderful mix of pine and birch forests, rolling hills, valleys, meadows, and high saddle ridges. Elevation on the East side is generally in the 8,000-10,000 foot range with a high point of 11,889ft. There are plenty of good climbs on the Eastern CT and a few great viewpoints, but not quite as many as on the West side. The Eastern CT route is well maintained, well traveled, and very well marked. It's an extremely well built trail (thank you Colorado Trail Foundation!) that is easy to follow. Even on big uphill sections, the grade of the trail is generally mild with a lot of switchbacks to help ease your climb.

The Western side of this loop is a slightly harder route, but the views are well worth the effort. The Collegiate West is above tree line for a large portion of the trail, which provides unobstructed views of craggy peaks for miles in every direction. Lake Ann Pass and Hope Pass (both around 12,550 feet) on the Collegiate West are not to be missed. While the views are better on the West side, the trail is sometimes shared with motorbikes and ATVs. The area around Tincup pass and Mirror Lake has the most motor vehicle traffic and can be a drag, especially on weekends. That being said, motor traffic on the trail is really not that bad and there are several Colorado Trail Foundation projects focused on the Collegiate West right now. Volunteers are working to build new trails for hikers that are off of jeep roads and won't be shared with any motorized vehicles. The Colorado Trail Foundation can always use volunteers, so click here to help.

Getting there:

From Denver, the Twin Lakes trailhead is about a 2.5 hour drive. It can be hard to find Twin Lakes Village on Google Maps, so put in the zip code (81251) to make searching easier. From Leadville, take 24 South until you get to the turnoff for Twin Lakes Village, road 82. Turn right (West) on 82 and drive about a quarter of a mile until you see road 25, a dirt road on your right. This is where the Twin Lakes Trailhead is located but there isn’t any sign. Turn left on 25 and follow it for a short distance until you hit the trailhead. 

twin lakes trailhead turnoff
twin lakes trailhead turnoff

Resources:

The Colorado Trail Foundation has some helpful information on their Collegiate West Page.

The Colorado Trail Foundation Facebook Page is also a very helpful resource. They provide detailed descriptions of current trail conditions with updates on fire closures and snow levels.

PMags has an excellent Colorado Trail thru-hiking guide on his blog. There’s a ton of great information on there about the Colorado Trail. 

The 6th Edition Colorado Trail Data Book should be considered an essential resource for this hike. If you could only choose one guide for this loop, this would be it. It lists detailed mileage of water sources, trail junctions, key landmarks, resupply access points, campsites, and much more. I wouldn’t recommend hiking this loop without it.  

The Collegiate Loop Map Book is another great resource put out by the Colorado Trail Foundation. It provides detailed topographical maps of the entire loop. It shouldn’t be considered essential, but it’s well worth the investment. The trail is well marked in most places (especially on the East side), but detailed maps are informative and helpful. We used the map book to help us though a few confusing trail junctions, which made it immediately worth the investment. We also used it to visualize our route and plan camping spots along the way. 

Resupply access:

Resupply points along the Collegiate Peaks Loop are very convenient. There are a couple of resupply spots that are right on the trail - Mt. Princeton Hot Springs & Monarch Pass. There are also several towns along the trail that are only a short hitchhike away. Most stores are welcoming to hikers and many places will allow you to ship resupply packages to them for holding. The Colorado Trail Data Book lists all the common resupply access points, distances from the trail, and the amenities that each location has.

We stopped at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs on day four for a full resupply. We stopped at Monarch Pass on day six to grab some snacks. And we hitchhiked into Buena Vista on day nine for our final resupply. Our resupply plan worked out great, but there are many other ways to split up the trip. 

Mt Princeton Hot Springs has a small country store and is located right on the trail. For a small price they will let you shower, and for a bit more they will let you soak in their hot springs - please contact Mt. Princeton for exact prices. We hit the tubs and were very happy we did. Their store has a good assortment of snacks and they do carry Heet for alcohol stove users. The only downside was that they didn’t have any good trail dinner options for backpackers.

Monarch Pass has a small assortment of snacks, a hot food bar, and homemade ice cream. It’s a great spot to grab some grub right on the trail. It shouldn’t be considered a place where you can fully resupply for food.

Buena Vista is a town with everything that you would need to resupply. They have a grocery store, laundry, restaurants, motels, and much more. It’s not too big to be unmanageable for hikers and getting back to the trail by hitchhiking is easy.

Timing:

As far as the duration of the trip is concerned, I think the average hiker would take 12-18 days to complete this loop. Annie and I did it in 11 days, but we tend to hike lighter and faster than many hikers we meet along the trail. Also, we would have taken a couple days longer if we had the time. If you’re experienced, light, and looking for a good challenge, I’m sure you could do it in 10 days or so, but I'd recommend taking at least two weeks.

The best time of year for this hike is mid-June to early-October, but trail conditions vary from year to year depending on snow levels. If there’s heavy snowpack, sections of the trail might be covered early in the season. Later in the season, snowstorms can cover the trail making it difficult to follow. We hiked the loop from July 13 - 24th and the timing was excellent.

For current trail conditions check the Colorado Trail Foundation Facebook page. I sent them a FB message before our trip and they were very helpful in answering my questions.

Difficulty:

Hiking difficulty is obviously a relative measurement. Annie and I are both about 30 years old and we’re in good physical condition. We backpack light, which we find to be enjoyable and much easier. Considering the fact that this is a 160-mile loop, at high elevation, with a good amount of climbing, and the daily possibility of thunderstorms, I would say that this hike should be considered difficult, but still very doable.

Water:

We found water sources along this route to be plentiful. There are a few dry stretches where you’ll have to carry extra water, but for the most part, getting water is quite convenient. The data book is a very good resource for planning water sources throughout your hike. The book will tell you if a given water source is reliable, seasonal, or unreliable.

Climate:

Yeah, we’re in the Rockies. Other than the possibility of afternoon thunderstorms, we found the climate to be very pleasant. It was warm during days (around 70 degrees F) and cooled off at night (around 40 degrees F), but not too cold. Check weather forecasts before you head out and be prepared for high-elevation climate changes, precipitation, and colder nighttime temperatures.

Thunderstorms:

Thunderstorms are part of high-elevation hiking in Colorado and should definitely be planned for. The nice thing is, the timing of storms is generally consistent. Cloud systems start to develop in the early afternoon and thunderstorms generally start around 1-3pm. For that reason, it’s best to get up early in the morning and get on the trail. Even a bluebird day can lead to afternoon thunderstorms, so don’t get caught unprepared.

We were on the trail for eleven days and almost every day had a 30-60% chance of thunderstorms. That’s just the norm. We only  had precipitation on three days of our trip, but there were often looming clouds and distant thunder. We did experience one intense thunderstorm with hail, rain, and booming thunder directly overhead. We were fully prepared for the storm, so it was actually quite exciting.

Brush up on your lightning safety. This blog page has some good info.

Altitude:

You will be hiking at high altitude (8,000-13,000 feet) for the entirety of this loop, so be prepared for high elevation backpacking.

Air pressure is lower at high elevations, which means that you’ll be getting less oxygen with every breath. Your body will have to work harder and you will likely notice the effects of altitude, especially on big climbs. Make sure your body is ready for this trip. Being in good shape and training before your trip will help a lot. You can definitely complete this loop, but don’t expect to come off the couch and hike at high elevation without being prepared. Here are some helpful tips:

Slowing your pace can help your body to use energy more efficiently at high elevations.

Sun exposure is more intense at high elevation. Make sure to use sunscreen generously, bring a hat for sun protection, bring a pair of UV sunglasses, and bring lip balm with UV sun protection.

Stay well hydrated. Increased sun exposure will drain your body of fluids quicker.

You might experience slight headaches or trouble sleeping due to the altitude. This is rare, but possible. 

This website is a good resource for high altitude backpacking information. Be prepared and stay safe. 

Annie and I live in Portland Oregon, elevation 50 feet. We spent one day in Colorado before heading out to the trail and we hardly even noticed the elevation change. Some people experience stronger effects than others, but elevation wasn’t really an issue for us. That being said, we did notice heavier breathing, lower energy, and slower pace on big climbs throughout the trip, so make sure to plan your days accordingly.

Bears:

Bears are present along the trail, but they are generally afraid of humans. They are not accustomed to associating humans with possible food sources, so they are not considered as aggressive as bears in other areas. That being said, please be careful to take proper precautions of your food at night. We want to keep human food away from bears and to keep their natural foraging instincts in tact. Bear canisters are not required in this area, but you should properly store your food at night.

Bugs:

There were a few swampy spots with annoying mosquitoes, but for the most part, we went unbothered by bugs for our entire trip. I’m generally pretty zen about mosquitoes, but if the bugs get bad, I won’t hesitate to use spray. We brought bug spray with us, but we hardly used it at all.

Backpacking Gear: 

We prefer lightweight backpacking because it’s more comfortable and it allows us to cover more ground with less effort. For recommendations on our favorite lightweight backpacking equipment, check out the CleverHiker Gear Guide and Top Picks page.

WHAT TO PACK

TENT: We used the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 tent on this trip. We love its combination of low weight and livability and that's why it's one of our top picks on our best lightweight backpacking tents list. 

BACKPACK: We used the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest and the ZPacks Arc Blast backpacks on this trek. They are both lightweight, convenient, comfortable, and make our list of the best lightweight backpacking packs

SLEEPING BAG: We used the Feathered Friends Swallow Nano 20 and the Kelty Cosmic Down 20 on this backpacking trip. They're both lightweight, warm, and make our list of the best backpacking sleeping bags.

SLEEPING PAD: We both used the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite sleeping pad on this trip. It's light, comfortable, warm, and make our list of the best backpacking sleeping pads.

COOKING SYSTEM: We used the Jetboil MiniMo cooking system and Snow Peak Folding Spoon on this trek, all of which make our top picks gear list and best lightweight stove list

WATER PURIFIER: We used the SteriPEN Ultra as our main purification method on this trip. It's lightweight, works fast, and doesn't require any pumping/squeezing or chemicals. Check out our best water purifiers list for our other top recommendations.

SHOES OR BOOTS: We wore Saucony Peregrine 7 trail runners (men's and women's) on this trail and they were excellent. If you prefer boots, make sure they’re lightweight and break them in really well before your trip. Here’s why we prefer hiking in trail running shoes: 5 Reasons to Ditch Your Hiking Boots.

HEADLAMP: A small headlamp like the Petzl Actik is an affordable, bright, and lightweight option.

FOOD: When backpacking the Collegiate Peaks Loop you'll have to carry all your food while on the trail. For some suggestions on common backpacking food options, check out our backpacking food video.

FOOD STORAGE: For this trip, we brought an Ursack to keep the critters out of our food. There are no food storage requirements for this area, but you should always store your food properly in the backcountry. Bear canisters and Ursacks are the most effective storage methods and the easiest to use.

CLOTHING:

Here are some of our favorite hiking/backpacking clothing items from our Top Gear list

MAP &  COMPASS:  We hiked with the 6th Edition Colorado Trail Data Book and it was pure gold. It's a comprehensive guide with everything you'll need to know about the trail. 

FIRST AID KIT: Always bring a small personalized first aid kit. We used the .5 Ultralight Kit and added extras, like painkillers and personal medications.

SUN PROTECTION: Sunglasses (polarized recommended), sunscreen, and spf lip balm are an absolute must.

POCKET KNIFE: We brought along a small Swiss Army Knife, which came in handy here and there.

OTHER ITEMS:

  • SMALL TOWEL: the Nano pack towel is great.
  • CASH and ID
  • PERMITS
  • PERSONAL TOILETRIES
  • HAND SANITIZER: Always apply after using a bathroom and before eating.
  • WET WIPES: These can be useful for cleaning up after hiking.
  • INSECT REPELLANT: At higher elevations insects weren't a problem for us at all. For lower elevations, a 1oz bottle of DEET will do the trick.
  • CAMERA: The Sony RX100 is our go-to camera for lightweight backpacking.

That about wraps it up. We had an absolutely incredible time on the Collegiate Peaks Loop and I feel confident in highly recommending the trip. I hope you found this guide helpful and I hope you have a great time on your next backpacking adventure!  If you have any questions or comments, please fill out the comment form below and I'll be happy to answer them. Have a great day and happy trails!