Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Mount Princeton

In some respects Mount Princeton has been my least favorite fourteener. The reason relates to the horrible dirt road you must drive to get to the four-wheel drive trailhead.
Mount Princeton from a road outside Buena Vista. The summit, on the right, is just a bit in the clouds.
The main trailhead is at 8,900 feet. The hike from that point has 5,400 feet of elevation gain and is a 13.25 mile round trip. If you drive the four-wheel drive road for an additional three (plus) miles, you reduce the elevation gain to 3,200 feet or less and the round-trip hiking mileage to 6.5 miles or less. For that reason, I really wanted to take the four-wheel drive road. Last year I went up with Andrew and Judy to climb Mount Princeton and we found the four-wheel drive road terrifying. The road is very narrow, not wide enough for two vehicles, and there are only two or three pull-out spots along the entire length of it in order to allow a vehicle to pass coming in the opposite direction. So to allow a vehicle to pass in that situation, you are looking at some serious backing up by one of the vehicles. What makes it worse is that many portions of the road have significant drop-offs, so an error would be horrific. In addition there are some pretty significant dips and washouts that make it a roller coaster affair. 
This picture from 2013 is the only picture I have of the four-wheel drive road (a mellow section of it). I actually parked just off to the right outside the picture this year.
Last year, with Judy and Andrew, we encountered potential thunder showers and had to turn back before getting anywhere near the peak. I was very disappointed:  not so much because I would have to come back and try it again, but because it meant I needed to drive that horrible road again. The entire time I was driving I was praying that no one was coming in the opposite direction and that our vehicle was equal to the road. 

This year I did it early on a Monday morning. Monday because I wanted to avoid busy weekend hiking traffic and early to reduce the risk anyone would be coming down the opposite direction. I did see an elk in the early light about a quarter mile from the lower trailhead which was fun. The four-wheel drive road was almost as nerve-wracking this year as last year, but at least I knew the vehicle was capable of doing the road, so long as road conditions hadn't changed. I ended up parking a little higher this year, a couple of pull-outs above the radio towers which are at 10,800 feet. I started hiking along the road and kicked myself when I found a couple of more pullouts further along that I could have used and shaved off some additional hiking distance. Unfortunately, there are more pullouts near the top of the road than during the bulk of the length of it. 

The hike is pretty unremarkable. Once you hit the trail off the road and hike over a small ridge, the remainder of the route is right before you. The initial dirt trail turns into a mostly boulder hopping affair, or finding routes in and around boulders. There is nothing particularly interesting about the rock formations or the natural setting. Like I said, this has been one of my least favorite fourteeners. Once the next ridge is reached, it is pretty much a hike following the ridge-line up to the summit. 
Early morning light. Mt. Princeton straight ahead as I near the first ridge.
Having crossed the ridge, the rest of the way is all ahead of you.
A picture of Judy in this section from 2013.
Another picture from 2013, further along the trail. Mt. Princeton summit is the left end of the ridge straight ahead.
Three marmots along the trail. 
Nearing the top of the next ridge.
At the top of the ridge. The rest of the hike follows the ridge to the top. The summit is right of center.
Looking back down the ridge and into the valley below. The trail can be faintly seen about halfway up the side of the mountain.
One more bump and then the summit just beyond it. 
About 30 yards short of the summit I found an interesting and somewhat chilling brass memorial. It was for Catherine Martha Pugin who was "Killed on this spot by lightning" on September 9, 1995. Standing on that "spot" was a reminder of how fragile life can be. 
The memorial embedded in a rock with Mt. Antero looming in the background.
The brass memorial.
The 14,197 foot summit has beautiful views. Mount Antero, a fourteener to the south (one I still need to do), and Mount Yale, a fourteener I did last year, to the north. 
A couple of rock shelters on the summit.
The summit register. 
A selfie on top.
Mount Antero to the south.
Mount Yale, just right of center, to the north.
Unlike last year, when I got a late start, I was the first one up the mountain. As I was coming down, I met a man who had hiked up all the way from the main trailhead and he was tired. He had a PhD in chemistry from Harvard and teaches in a private high school in Rhode Island - grew up in Salida. Further down the mountain I ran into other groups on their way up. 
A golden-mantled ground squirrel near where the trail intersects the road.
On my way, just starting down the four-wheel drive road, I did encounter a Jeep coming in the opposite direction. Fortunately, I had just started and I only needed to back up about 50 yards to the pullout I'd parked at to let the Jeep pass. That did heighten my concern the rest of the way down. 

After my difficult day of hiking up Culebra Peak on Saturday, I took an easy day on Sunday. I slept in, trying to regain lost sleep, and then drove to Big Sand Dunes National Park and Alamosa and spent some time. I had a sore throat and was concerned I was getting sick. I was also quite stiff and sore.

It was gratifying to get up and down this peak in good shape. It took me three hours and 15 minutes to hike to the summit (starting at 6:05 a.m. and summiting at 9:20) and two hours to come down (9:30 to 11:30). Not very good times, but I was happy for them after my difficult day on Saturday and it helped to restore some of my confidence. It was doubly nice because I had failed on my first attempt.  


  1. Crazy that the road is so awful. That would definitely be a damper on my enthusiasm to make the hike.

  2. Very touching memorial. You would have had to put one up for me if I'd continued on this climb last year.

  3. You should not be using pullouts on a 4WD trail for parking. They are to be used for passing safely. The lack of courtesy by you and others I have seen on this trail is going to lead to a dangerous situation where someone has to reverse much further than the should. Please do not use the pullouts for parking and respect the trail.

    1. That's all good and fine, but where else do you park? I did not find a parking log on the way up.