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Adventure Dispatch

Collegiate Peaks Loop Part 1 (East)

By The Cairn Project

Day 1: Interlaken TH to Pine Creek – Mileage: 17.5 MI

Start day! After a quick breakfast and pack up at the Twin Lakes Lodge, we drive to the Interlaken trail, heave on our packs, and set out. After about a mile and a half around the shore of Twin Lake Reservoir, we reach the junction with the Colorado Trail and the official starting point of the Collegiate Peaks Loop.

The adjustment to the packs is somewhat traumatic; we begin with our loads the heaviest they’d be the entire trip. The weight, combined with the starting elevation of about 9500’ feet  – and our mutual lack of acclimatization – make the first big climb to a high point of 11,640’ fairly grueling. We’re treated to a lovely aspen grove at the top, though – leaves beginning to turn gold. As we begin to descend, it starts to drizzle. We stop to put on jackets and pack covers, and that proves to be a good instinct. We make it to a campsite above Pine Creek before the deluge really hits, but just barely. We’re pounded by driving rain for the rest of the afternoon and evening! This makes for some excitement: relocating a poorly sited tent that pooled water, rotating packs and gear between trees that seem to be sheltering from the wind and rain, etc. A new crack in a tent pole adds further to the fun.

We go to bed in lots of layers and with a little more doubt about whether the Rockies weather will permit our aggressive itinerary over the next 9 days.

Day 2: Pine Creek to S. Cottonwood Creek – Mileage: 21 MI

Awakening to continued drizzle, we consider waiting out the rain and letting the tent and gear dry out more, but finally suck it up, pack up, and head out. This is a “push” day of 21 miles and some decent high points – we start out hoping that acclimatization has begun and that 11,500+ won’t feel quite as brutal as yesterday. Plus, we’ve eaten a couple of pounds of that heavy pack load, right?

We conquer the climbs with maybe a bit less pain than the day before. Nearing where we expected our campsite to be, we divert from the trail down toward a creek. Wandering along, with the sound of road traffic audible in our ears, we finally determine that we’re off route – and on private property. An attempt to shortcut up to the trail is unsuccessful; we can’t find it. We break proper hiking protocol and cross a large field in plain sight of its owner’s house, eventually finding a road. Following this uphill finally brings us a trail junction, and we pick the first thing that looks like a campsite after crossing a footbridge – in retrospect, probably the least idyllic site of the 9 days.

But the sense of accomplishment for hitting our aggressive mileage and elevation goal is big – we tell ourselves we’ve just finished the hardest day of the trip (Ha! We had no idea!). We make dinner, hang bear bags and lock our canister, and head to bed.

Day 3: S. Cottonwood Creek to Brown’s Creek TH – Mileage: 19.4 MI

Energy is high this morning and as we begin a long, switch-backed climb, we joke about the benefits of cold, numb feet in the morning. We push hard uphill, knowing we have only 10 miles or so to Mt. Princeton Hot Springs resort and cold beverages, food, and running water. We cruise through the morning, Mt. Princeton and other big peaks looming to our side, and take in the classic aspen grove landscape of the Collegiate Peaks East. Eventually, we join the fire road that winds its way down to the Mt. Princeton trailhead. We continue downward on Highway 321, with not a small amount of frustration at how brutal the road descent is.

Mt. Princeton is an oasis of luxury, and after food, drinks, and “spa” time (read: washing our hands and faces with warm running water and soap), we continue – two and a half more miles on a road before we meet a trailhead and begin ascending. After climbing about 1000 feet to a plateau, we continue along an open contour; the sounds of families camping fills the air, and we encounter a few more trail runners. We reach our anticipated campsite at Raspberry Gulch and discover that the creek has run dry. Since we’re low on water, we continue to Brown’s Creek. (Admission: the National Geographic maps we used did note this as an unreliable water zone; we had somehow missed that note.) We camp by Brown’s Creek Trailhead, among a herd of cows. The clang of cowbells through the night reassures us that bear are unlikely to bother us.

Day 4: Brown’s Creek TH to 3rd Footbridge of South Foose’s Trail – Mileage: 18.9 mi

We start today with a lot of motivation: any push we can do will pay off in a big way the next day, when we resupply at Monarch Crest – and that payoff will trickle down over the rest of the trip. With this driving our pace, we push southward, Mt. Shavano west of us. The day delivers classic alpine forests, and as we near Labor Day, plenty of golden aspens. This day involves a lot of time in earshot of highways and with power lines in sight. We cross Highway 50 southbound; a few highway miles to our right is Monarch and our resupply, but we have mileage to cover southbound before we reach the Continental Divide junction and “turn” north.