The Collegiate Loop was everything I expected from this ~165-loop that is quickly becoming a vacation length thru-hike favorite.
Rather than give a day-by-day description of my walk, I’ll just go over the highlights and the particular way I traveled on this loop.
Monarch Crest: Where I started
Monarch Crest has ample trailhead parking, is an easy place to drive from my current home and ended up making for a scenic last day. I parked well off the main area and not near the business. The parking area is a USFS trailhead.
I started later than customary for me at 2:30 PM. But I enjoyed my morning campsite, some coffee, and danish earlier in the day and was in no rush to leave I must admit. A fair trade-off.
Being a loop, a person can theoretically park anywhere along the loop of course. But parking at Monarch Crest splits the loop nearly in half between the Collegiate East and Collegiate West sections. The other logical place to park for similar reasons is near Twin Lakes.
However, well, I’ll let a photo from my last day speak for itself…
Collegiate East vs. Collegiate West
The Collegiate East is lower in elevation, less remote, more sheltered, and is more attractive to day use. The tread tends to be older trail that often pre-dates the CT, and connects many popular 14er trailheads and other higher day use areas.
Having said all of the above, there are many enjoyable stretches in this section.
Sometimes the views are pleasant wooded walks:
Or skirting just below treeline to see the mountains above.
I decided to do the Collegiate East portion first as I could start with only two days of food, resupply with two more days worth of supplies, and then head to the start of the Collegiate West portion with a larger food carry. Coming straight from a desk job only two days earlier, I thought this would be a wise strategy.
The Collegiate West is concurrent with the Continental Divide Trail, is higher in elevation overall, is more remote and feels like a backpacker trail more so than a popular day hiker set of trails. Overall, The Collegiate West portion of the loop has more eye candy and grandeur. In some ways, the hiking is easier as you are not going from one low trailhead at a road, climbing up to where a 14er trail splits from the CT, then going back down to repeat the process. The Collegiate West portion tends to have long sustained climbs to a pass and then cruising along at or near a ridge for a bit. Again, classic backpackers terrain. Much, not all, of the tread is new, too.
Oh, did I mention the alpine eye candy?
But it is not all about the grand scenery
I enjoy the crisp and cool nights, the changing colors of aspens and the russet ground cover, and that delicious musky smell that happens in the Fall esp after a fresh rainfall.
And Autumn also brings out the beauty of the trail that is often overlooked when powering up to a mountain pass.
I heard elks bugling (see above about my love of Autumn), saw said elks, deer roaming, many birds, chipmunks, picas, and large, curious, mountain rodents…
And on my last day, I saw this animal ambling in front of me at a distance.
I perhaps should have moved closer to get into an ideal position to get a better shot. But there’s a word for that action when dealing with an animal that is bigger, stronger, and faster than me that I would rather not startle: STUPID.
Some favorite moments
Any backpacking trip has highlights that seem to stick out.
One moment was seeing the crystal clear water of a small tarn below the Continental Divide.
Another moment was the setting sun at my campsite just off the trail one fine Fall evening.
And twilight at Hancock Lake at the cusp of treeline.
And the many moments of enjoying the alpine terrain that most people associate with Colorado backpacking.
A twist for my hike
Bill Manning, the Executive Director of The Colorado Trail Foundation, recruited me to replace older markers of The Colorado Trail.
Mainly sun bleached, weathered ones.
And to get the CT/CDT markers to the same standard.
A hammer, nails, screwdriver, nail claw, and many metal markers is not a regular part of my kit. 🙂 I started off with CT markers and picked up another batch of CT and CDT markers at Twin Lakes.
The weight was equivalent to three or four days extra of food. The trail work and extra weight did slow me down somewhat. Rather than finish mid to late morning Thursday as I would expect with my usual pace, I finished mid-afternoon. Not that much of an inconvenience. And I was happy to do volunteer work while backpacking.
As I mentioned previously, all I took was the databook and the NatGeo Collegiate Loop map booklet. The databook was extremely handy to gauge what was up ahead regarding water resources or other trail datapoints. And the map booklet packs a lot in a small package. At the 75,000 scale, the details were enough for the on trail navigation but also have enough of the wider view. Apps are great. But for a well-marked trail such as the CT, far quicker to look at a map to see what is ahead or plan out the day. Both resources were in my pocket, easy to reach, and faster to look at then turning on my phone. I do not enjoy hiking a narrow corridor without knowing what is ahead or around me. And with my map, I was able to find campsites that aren’t listed in the databook (dry campsites mainly). YMMV.
- I saw about two dozen thru-hikers. Quite a bit more than when I thru-hiked int the dark ages of 2004. The trail is more popular of course. People assumed I was out thru-hiking. My gear is used enough even as a weekend warrior that I guess I can still fake the thru-hiker look. 🙂
- My resupply spots were Twin Lakes and Princeton Hot Springs. Both places were very hiker friendly. My pace and what I can comfortably carry in terms of weight made this resupply strategy work for me. With the closure of Cottonwood Pass road in 2017, 2018, and possibly 2019, some creative resupply options may need to be done by most, however. See my guide for more information.
- Want more photos? See all seventy-five photos on my Flickr site.
- Overall impressions: The Collegiate Loop is a suitable vacation hike for those who want a bit of a long trail hiking experience without a lot of logistic hoops. Though I generally shy from well-marked and popular longer routes at this point, The Collegiate Loop was perfect for my needs. A way to simply walk without having to put a lot of thought into navigation, procuring maps, and only having limited time to prepare. The hike was a good way to transition from the beige box world to the life I plan to set up for myself in the coming months.