CO – THE Colorado Trail, Segments 12-13, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness (06/22)

You can plan or you can take things as they come. After completing segments 1-5, I landed in Fairplay. When smoke rolled in from the fires in Arizona and New Mexico I moved on to Buena Vista and discovered proximity to segments through the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness.

The sign seems incomplete. What happened to PEAKS?

Collegiate Peaks Wilderness was designated by the United States Congress in 1980 and it now has a total of 167,584 acres. It’s a subset of the Sawatch Range. When the tradition of naming the nearby peaks after universities including Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton and Oxford.

I broke segments 12-13 into several section hikes. Like most long distance trails, the Colorado Trail has best seasons. I used this blog article published by the Colorado Trail Association to guide my planning (link). They also have active facebook groups sharing feet-on-the-ground conditions.

Silver Creek Trailhead

Segment 12 – Silver Creek Trailhead to Waverly Mountain Ridge

I initially hiked north from the trailhead, covering the southern 14 miles of this segment as an out and back for a total of 28 miles with 5,000′ elevation gain/loss. The high point was nearly 12,000′.

This section was all about Harvard; Harvard Lake and Mount Harvard. “Mount Harvard was named in 1869 when Harvard geology professor Josiah Whitney led a surveying expedition into Colorado to investigate rumors of soaring 17,000-foot peaks deep in the Rockies. After crossing Trout Creek Pass, they named the highest summit in sight for the expedition’s sponsor: Harvard University.” Source: Summit Post

You see the big peaks almost immediately. Peak Finder informed me none of these were Mount Harvard.

I found the trail grade and terrain to my liking and was soon at the first Harvard Lake.

The second lake was much nicer with lots of fish jumping and swimming. You can see Mount Harvard off to the right.

I felt like I was in the mountains when I found plentiful natural water, often with bridges for civilized crossings. I never carried more than a liter unless dry camping. What a relief after the first 5 segments.

The bridge was a much better option than the log, after losing confidence several years ago when I got vertigo and fell.

There were a few remaining snow patches, but none that impeded travel.

I was super excited to find these Jacob’s Ladder blooms.

And maybe more so to find one of my all time favorites, Western Pasqueflowers.

Heading toward Dr. Seuss mophead mode
Mopheads glowing in the early morning light

A few other blooms.

Blue eye grass ?

I love above treeline trail.

This was from near my campsite the first night. Little did I know the next day I’d be dropping way down into that canyon.

I was happy to find this campsite that offered both protection from the wind and nearby views.

Sunrise views.

I got an early start the next morning.

I considered a side trip to Rainbow Lake but once I realized it was too much ascending I decided against, but not before I was welcomed by my first Colorado bear.

A friend noticed this bear had been tagged. I was told in Colorado bears have a 3-strikes policy. This bear has one more chance. I’m really glad it was well mannered during my encounter.

I believe this is Mount Harvard at 14,421 feet, the highest summit of the Collegiate Peaks and the fourth highest summit in the contiguous United States.

The guidebook says the side trail to Elk Pass and Missouri Basin along the Pine Creek is a worthwhile detour. I’d hoped to have enough energy but these big passes were keeping my humble.

Tundra wildflower heaven!

The WOW factor was high. I believe this is Mount Oxford.

Much of Segment 12 parallels the Arkansas Valley with the Buffalo Peaks in the background.

I spent my second night at Harvard Lake and caught early morning light.

With a storm brewing the lighting at the smaller Harvard Lake was nice as well.

I met several CDT thru hikers taking the East Collegiate Peaks route, including the Netteburg family of 5 kids, with one being under the age of 1. WOW!

This section ended with me saying thank you to a trail crew headed out for the day, and them gifting me croissants.

Segment 13 – Silver Creek Trailhead to Mount Yale Pass

The next day I hiked south from the trailhead. It was an overcast day with occasional sprinkles and lots of fog. I knew my chance of seeing views was 50/50 but since I’d need to reach the pass from the other side eventually to complete the segment I was willing to take the chance. This was a 7-mile out and back hike gaining/losing 2,600 feet with the high point about 12,000 feet.

The trail crosses Silver Creek on this sturdy bridge before beginning the climb, up, up and more up. It was a mix of reasonable and unreasonable grade.

It had rained hard the previous night. Droplets on the columbine were a treat, so much better than dust.

No wishes to be made from this dandelion seed ball.

I felt like I was hiking in the Pacific Northwest.

This California gal was so confused.

I found an old cabin.

And some very wet Dr. Seuss flowers.

Oh look a sign that includes PEAKS.

My legs were fried by the time I got to the pass but the guidebook said I needed to hike up this hill for best views.

YES it was worth it! I stayed about an hour watching the fog swirl about.

Mount Yale

You can see a bit of a trail up Mount Yale. Much of the mountain is hidden in the fog.

Mount Princeton
Mount Columbia

The flowers tried to steal the show.

Wandering around the tundra I found this bloom. It looks a bit like Forget Me Nots.

Bino Bob for comparison. He’s 1.25″ tall.

On the way back I got a hint of what I missed.

Avalanche Trailhead

Segment 13 – Avalanche Trailhead to South Cottonwood Trailhead

I needed a day with less climbing. This small section was perfect although I could tell my muscles were tired as I struggled even with this minimal elevation gain.

It was a lovely walk along Cottonwood Creek.

The trail was lined with red columbine but I found one pink columbine, although it photographed more purple.

Another special find was coralroot orchids.

This view shows Mount Yale in the background to the right, and a visualization of the climb to the pass.

Segment 13 – Avalanche Trailhead to Mount Yale Pass

I wasn’t looking forward to the climb and would have liked one more rest day, but the weather forecast indicated this was to be the last bluebird day for a while. It was 7 miles round trip with 2,700 feet elevation gain/loss. There were many areas with grade beyond my comfort zone, but if I wanted to complete this segment I needed to buck up and get it done.

You are almost immediately welcomed to the wilderness and provided a view of the pass.

Soon enough I was back up the pass and up the hill to the viewpoint. What a difference from the day I hiked up from the other side and found the mountain surrounded by fog.

Mount Yale

I saw one person headed up this path on Mount Yale.

I couldn’t help exploring all the alpine tundra plants. I read it can take a century for these matted plants to spread a foot in diameter.

South Cottonwood Trailhead

Segment 13 – South Cottonwood Trailhead to Mount Princeton Pass

I hiked south before reversing course on this 9.4 mile 1,200 foot elevation gain/loss round trip jaunt.

I said goodbye to Mount Yale and kept it in my rearview mirror as I made my way south toward 14,197′ Mount Princeton.

I was ecstatic to find several blue columbine blooms, the Colorado State flower, along the early part of the trail where it paralleled the river before climbing up to the pass though a nice forest with occasional views.

A few other blooms caught my eye as well.

And then it was finally time to say hello to Mount Princeton.

Mount Princeton Trailhead

Segment 13 – Mount Princeton Trailhead to Mount Princeton Pass

This 8.25 mile 1,300 feet elevation gain/loss round trip hike was in general a kind and gentle forest walk.

This section began with a one-mile road walk.

Since I wasn’t planning on hiking road sections I considered driving up the road to where the trail connects. In hindsight I was glad I chose to walk as it’s steeper than my car likes and there’s no parking. I didn’t hike the southern 5.5 mile road walk section of this segment.

There wasn’t much remarkable about this hike. You glimpsed views of Mount Princeton.

These lovely pink roses were the most prevalent bloom in Segment 13 so since I hadn’t previously shared, they’ll be showcased on this day.

Tent caterpillars had hatched and were dropping from the trees quickly becoming unwanted hitchhikers. I was glad to be wearing my hat. I don’t know if this is the same type of caterpillar but he wanted a free ride also.

This outhouse might be a cuteness award winner.

Clear Creek Trailhead

Segment 12 – Clear Creek Trailhead to Waverly Mountain Ridge

Was I saving the best for last? I wasn’t looking forward to this climb. I knew it would test my fitness so I first took a day off after 9 straight days of hiking these segments. This was a 10-mile, 2,800 foot round trip. I hiked south before reversing direction after reaching the ridge.

There wasn’t any exciting trailhead signage to mark Segment 12 or 11. It’s also a little odd as you first head for the creek and then veer left through a campground where there’s a bridge to cross the creek.

I really like this penstemon.

Soon it will be berry season.

It would be easy to be fooled about the upcoming climb.

But the views make the climb worth it! It was great to see Mount Harvard again.

Mount Oxford (14,157) is the pointy peak to the right and Emerald Peak is in the middle (13,885′)

Emerald Peak
Mount Harvard 14,420′


  • This was a fuel efficient way to section hike these segments as I took advantage of nearby dispersed camping.
  • Buena Vista was a great place to hang out between hikes. I often spent the afternoon using free WiFi available in the park to upload my photos and work on my blog. The markets were sufficient and I found a couple great restaurants. There are showers and laundry available also.
  • These are considered hard segments due to the ascending and descending. Segment 12 is 18.5 miles and going south has 4,866′ of ascending and 4,364 of descending. Segment 13 is 22.8 miles with 4,296′ ascending and 5,343′ descending. That’s 223 feet per mile.
  • Would I recommend as an out and back? Probably not unless (1) you are a glutton for punishment, (2) you want a quick weight loss fitness program, (3) you don’t have access to a two vehicle shuttle, or (4) you don’t want to pay for a shuttle or hitch between trailheads.
  • The Guthook/Far Out App and Colorado Trail Association Guidebook and Databook are helpful. I also used Gaia with the Colorado Trail Nat Geo layer.


4 thoughts on “CO – THE Colorado Trail, Segments 12-13, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness (06/22)

    • It’s been an amazing summer. My knee is great, the rest of my body is catching up. My asthma continues to be my limiting factor but I’m dealing with that. GJ would be an interesting place to live. Definitely lots of nearby hiking and places to go for each season.

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