Unless global warming turns up the heat considerably, snow in Colorado’s high country will linger long after my feet itch for the mountains in early summer. But I’m not wishing for a bigger hole in the ozone layer—not since I discovered the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, in the heart of Colorado’s sunbelt.
Okay, it’s not exactly tropical, but the trails on the east side of this 168,000-acre wilderness enjoy sunny and dry weather much sooner than other Rocky Mountain routes that push the 13,000-foot mark. A wall of Sawatch Range 14ers, including eight within the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness itself, shields the area from snow and clouds. I’ve hiked the lower-elevation wilderness trails in shorts and a T-shirt when other high-country paths are mired in snow and mud.
I especially love how the snowcapped mountains of Collegiate Peaks leap from the pool-table flat fields around arid Buena Vista, with scarcely foothills in between, reminiscent of Wyoming’s Tetons. With a 6,000-foot elevation gain from plains to pinnacle,
even a short hike can transport you from southwestern piqons up to alpine tundra. Along the way, you’ll pass numerous glacier-scoured alpine valleys, silvery lakes, and sparkling creeks.
A good starter route in the wilderness is a 22-mile circuit linking the Frenchman Creek, Pine Creek, and Colorado Trails. The loop combines secluded forest hiking, jaw-dropping views above treeline, and scenic detours to Bedrock Falls, Missouri Basin, and Rainbow Lake. You’ll also have a chance to bag a couple of magestic 14ers. Most well-known are Mt. Harvard and Mt. Columbia, named by graduates of the eastern
universities who were members of a 19th-century surveying party.
I’ve summited peaks in Collegiate at the beginning of June. Still, you should call ahead to check on the snowpack before heading out this is Colorado, after all — not Hawaii.