This post first appeared on The Trek on August 22, 2022.
If you’re hiking southbound on the Colorado Trail, as most people do, just past Twin Lakes Village, you reach the revered Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. Here, you have two choices. March on into the wilderness via the official CT route – the Collegiate East – or take the higher elevation, slightly longer, infamously difficult, but allegedly more beautiful Collegiate West route. The Collegiate West is the official Continental Divide Route, but is considered an acceptable CT alternate. The Collegiate East is known for its forests and solitude, whereas the Collegiate West is known for its high peaks and epic views. Decisions, decisions….
Having hiked the Collegiate East last summer with a group mostly made up of former Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, the decision was easy. Time for something new: tackle the west!
I’m writing this as I lay nestled in my sleeping bag, a few days in to the Collegiate West, listening to the rain pitter patter on the ceiling of my tent. Truthfully, this is a sound that has become all too common these past few days. But I’ll get to that. I have only about 15 miles left to go of this brutal 82-mile section, and I’m reflecting on my experience here. Has it lived up to its bad boy reputation? You betcha.
As you leave Twin Lakes behind, your first task in the Collegiate West is to climb up almost 3,500 feet of elevation in under five miles to reach Hope Pass. Then, it’s Lake Ann Pass just a few miles later, both over 12,000 feet above sea level. This is your ruthless, but incredibly beautiful, introduction to your life and hiking decisions. And the route continues this way. Climb up past tree line over a steep mountain pass, climb down, maybe get a nice break in a valley, repeat. Your muscles will scream for mercy before you’re finished (though hailing originally from the East Coast, I’m incredibly grateful that these amazing Coloradan trail builders believe in switchbacks). And the weather in this section, at least while I’ve been here, is for the birds. We’ve had cold rain, usually for hours at a time, every single day but one. (And that one without it was simply glorious). Twice, we’ve taken midday breaks to hunker down in our tents, afraid to climb above tree line when the world around us was socked in and gray. Was it just rain and fog or something more sinister, like thunderstorms or snow, coming to the high country? And the nights, many spent above 11,000 feet, have been frigid.
I’d be remiss not to mention though, how freaking sexy the Collegiate West is. Tough climbs and horrible weather aside, the landscapes here are nothing short of heavenly. In any direction, looming 13- and 14,000-foot peaks stand at attention, encircling this vast wilderness. You hike for miles and miles above tree line without ever descending into the forest below, watching the trail snake out in front of you as you perch at what feels like the top of the world. You hike past countless crystal clear alpine lakes, peep up over numerous passes to find the most beautiful view of the valley below that you’ve ever seen (each time you think, “THIS ONE must be the most beautiful”), test yourself in ways you thought impossible, and count your blessings multiple times a day, for the luck it took to bring you to this very spot at this very moment. I’ve taken about a million photos and videos here, so awed each day by what I’ve seen and experienced that I couldn’t seem to stop, regardless of how many I’d already snapped and how low on storage my phone must be getting.
The Collegiate West route is a rollercoaster, physically and emotionally. It zaps your energy with its brutal climbs then lights your soul on fire with its beauty. Mandatory after this route? A hot tub to soak those weary bones, and a few hours to sort through your photo library.