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.
EXPEDITION PLANNER: Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, Colorado
DRIVE TIME: Buena Vista is 120 miles (3 hours) southwest of Denver and 95 miles (21/2 hours) west of Colorado Springs.
THE WAY: From Denver, take US 285 southwest for 115 miles to US 24 and head north (turn right). Drive 10.5 miles and take County Road 386 west for 1.5 miles to the Frenchman Creek trailhead. Hikers with four-wheel-drive vehicles can continue another 3.5 miles to the wilderness boundary.
TRAILS: The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness has 105 miles of trail. The Frenchman Creek-Pine Creek-Colorado Trail loop described at left is 22 miles. If the snowpack is lingering, stay on the Colorado Trail. Have more than a weekend to spare? Take the Colorado Trail (469 miles) south or north.
ELEVATION: The loop ranges from 8,400 to 13,000 feet. The high point in the wilderness is Mt. Harvard, at 14,420 feet.
CAN'T MISS: Views of Missouri Basin and Bedrock Falls along the Pine Creek Trail.
CROWD CONTROL: The Pine Creek Trail is popular, so go in June or after Labor Day. You'll also avoid crowds by staying clear of the 14er summit trails. Fall is hunting season; check with rangers for specific dates.
SEASON: Late May through late September is best for snow-free walking.
GUIDES: The Complete Guide to Colorado's Wilderness Areas, by John Fielder and Mark Pearson (Westcliffe Publishers, 800-523-3692; www.backpacker.com/bookstore; $24.95). Trails Illustrated's Buena Vista-Collegiate Peaks #129 map (800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com; $9.95).
WALK SOFTLY: Above treeline, stay on the trail in the fragile alpine environment to avoid trampling plants. Camping above timberline is allowed, but not recommended.
CONTACT: Leadville Ranger District, San Isabel National Forest, (719) 486-0749; www.fs.fed.us/r2/psicc/leadvile/collwild.html.