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Unexpected Gifts in the Collegiate Peaks

“Do you want a ride?”

My attention is pulled away from the ProBar gummies I’ve been transfixed by, and I look up to remember that we’re sitting on the edge of a large parking lot. About an hour earlier, Sarah and I saw the woman behind the wheel trail running on the unimproved road winding down to the Mount Princeton trailhead. She turns off her Toyota RAV4, and Sarah and I look at each other – the surprise and confusion is mutual.

“No – that’s okay,” I say. “We’re just going down to the resort. Thank you though!”

“But you’ll have to walk two miles down the side of the highway,” she says. “I’d consider you ladies real thru-hikers even if you got in my car.”

We were two and a half days into our Collegiate Peaks Loop, a 164-mile route along the Colorado Trail. In that moment, we thought we were only a short stroll from taking a break before continuing on toward Monarch Pass and the higher, more difficult half of the loop.

“That’s okay! We’re good with the road walking,” Sarah says, somehow making “road walking” sound novel. “Have an awesome Labor Day weekend!”

“Good luck with your hike,” the woman starts her car and pulls away. It rapidly shrinks and disappears, and I feel a little jarred by the speed of civilization.

We stand up, heave our packs off the ground, and begin walking down the road. As we descend and round a bend, alternating back and forth across Highway 321 to avoid oncoming traffic, Mt. Princeton Hot Springs looms like a quintessential Coloradoan mirage. Aquamarine pools are speckled with holiday weekend visitors, the hues of their brightly colored bathing suits popping into focus as we slowly make our way down the road.

Highway miles are always the longest hiking miles, and after 45 minutes that felt like three hours, we finally reach the resort. We wolf down burgers, fries, and IPAs while we look at our maps.

“I think we should keep going. It’s early, and the weather is good. We’re not really in hot springs resort mode right now. Yeah?” I say.

“Yeah,” says Sarah. “It’ll put us in a better position for tomorrow.”

We pay our check, grab our packs, and make our way across the lawn to find a shaded area where we can unpack all of our belongings. Laying them out like a museum exhibit for the diners on the terrace, we gleefully begin the purging of trash (a joy that is distinctly understood by thru-hikers, bike-packers, and other self-contained, long-distance adventurers).

We finish organizing our packs and head out. After two and a half more road miles, we reach the trailhead and begin to climb. We continue hiking into the late afternoon and discover that the creek at Raspberry Gulch, our intended campsite, has run dry. We push on until we reach a stream, making it a 17-plus-mile day.

We don’t voice what we’re both thinking about: the hot springs, fresh food, and the running water we sacrificed by leaving the resort. As we slog along in silence, I look out across the wide Arkansas River valley. The towns along Highway 285 twinkle back at me, teasing of houses, restaurants, and plenty of water sources.

The previous year, Sarah and I had hiked the John Muir Trail (JMT) in twelve days. On the JMT, encounters with civilization are few, and any notion of bailing comes up against a brutal reality check. Getting off the trail means a long, hard trek over and out of the mountains to a trailhead in the Eastern Sierra where cell service and people are scarce. In other words, bailing can be more difficult than sucking it up and pushing to the Mt. Whitney summit.

In contrast, the Collegiate Peaks East section of the Colorado Trail is a continuous test of dedication. Road miles seem to go forever, and there are innumerable gatherings of non-camping vacationers, each with icy coolers of beverages that look better than the last. On this length of trail, “bailing” means putting your pack down at one of the many highway crossings and waiting for a car to stop.

The Collegiate Peaks East section demands that you push through discomfort, dreams of breakfast tacos, and thirst for readily available water while encountering people who are enjoying those very things, sometimes even while you’re chatting with them.

The payoff, however, is indisputable: the second half of the loop, the Collegiate Peaks West section, from Monarch to Hope Pass, humbled me with its color, ruggedness, and beauty. I came to love the rhythm of climbing up out of forested valleys, into aspen groves turning a bit more golden with each passing September day, and reaching the talus-laden high points amidst these broad, seemingly boundless mountains. The high-elevation push between Tin Cup and Cottonwood Pass served up pure Rocky Mountain wildness, water rationing and all.

There’s more of a trail community on the western half of the loop, too: Continental Divide thru-hikers who’ve passed their halfway mark between Canada and Mexico, and Colorado Trail devotees who have intentionally chosen the more challenging option on their journey south to Durango. These people provide an inspirational recharge, and even brief encounters can imprint themselves on you. I’d find myself thinking about these southbound hikers hours or days afterward, wondering how windy the top of Calf Creek Pass would be for them, or if they’d see mountain goats near Alpine Tunnel, like we did. With the common grounding of the trail, you feel a sense of belonging with perfect strangers.

Over and over, the Collegiate Peaks Loop gave me the chance to discover and affirm to myself that I crave every part of it: the quietness and beauty, the long days and the tiredness.

The discomfort of these trips is a place of deep fulfillment for me, and I finished the Collegiate Peaks Loop with a new reverence for the challenge of this sometimes “Type 2” version of backpacking. As Sarah and I cruised over the last seven miles of the route, along the shore of Twin Lakes Reservoir, I meditated on the gift this trail had offered me. Every highway crossing we encountered during the nine days we spent on the trail made us choose: do we keep going, or bail?

Over and over, the Collegiate Peaks Loop gave me the chance to discover and affirm to myself that I crave every part of it: the quietness and beauty, the long days and the tiredness. The silver lining of all of those road miles is that I finished them even more connected to what I love: the trail, the mountains, and the streamlined focus of backpacking.

Aw Cf Sup
Alison Wright
Founder - The Cairn Project

A San Francisco native, Alison grew up in a family that enjoyed the privilege of outdoor access – many memories were made in California’s iconic mountain and coastal landscapes. Alison has spent her career in the philanthropic sector, advancing initiatives for justice and empowerment internationally and closer to home. In addition to her leadership at The Cairn Project, she directs the Environmental Defenders Collaborative at Global Greengrants Fund, channeling support to frontline environmental activists around the world.