General Mountain Information: Mt Princeton
Video Hike Review: Mt Princeton
Mt Princeton Rating: ★★ (⅖ Stars)
Distance: 7.8 miles RT (from radio towers), 14 miles from lower TH
Elevation Start: 10,800 (from radio towers), 8,900 from lower TH
Mt Princeton Elevation: 14,197 ft
Total Elevation Gain: 3,400 ft (from radio towers), 5,300 ft from lower TH
Estimated Time to Complete: 5-6 hours (from radio towers), 6-8 hours from lower TH
Difficulty: Moderate What does this mean?
Class: Class 2
Season: June – September (expect snow outside of this period)
Trailhead: Mt Princeton Road
Getting Here: If you are coming from the north, there are a few alterations from the instructions below, but this is the easiest way to get to Mt Princeton from both the north and the south. From US 285, take county road 162 (Chalk Creek Rd) for 4.1 miles until you reach county road 321. Take this for about 1.5 miles to take a sharp left onto county road 322. Continue on 322 for about .8 miles until you reach a fork, bear right to reach the lower parking area.
If you want to continue up to the radio towers, follow the signs for Mt Princeton (continue past the parking area and bear right to stay on CR 322). After about 3.2 miles, you will reach another fork in the road, stay right to go to the radio towers (dead end with spots to turn around) or stay left to continue up on CR 322 to the end of this road.
You can enter in “Mt Princeton Trailhead” into your favorite navigational device.
Parking: Mt Princeton offers a few different areas to park. The first spot will be at the lower trailhead, where there is a large dirt lot to park. If you are not comfortable driving on 4WD roads, have a low clearance car or (most importantly) are visiting on busy weekend (any weekend during the summer), park here. This will add an extra 6.4 miles to your hike, but in my opinion an extra 6 miles is much better than a stuck car on a high, narrow, mountain road. If you are visiting in off peak season (basically October – May) you could take your chances on the rough road. Keep in mind that this road is not maintained at all so any snow that is on the ground will also be on the road. If you continue on the road for 3.2 miles or so, you will reach your first major parking area at the radio towers. You could probably squeeze a total of 10 cars here (if everyone parks smart). Past the radio towers, the road does not get more technical (driving-wise), but will have the best chances of having any kind of lingering snow banks. If you continue past the radio towers, expect VERY limited parking areas (I am talking about maybe 1-2 spots for single cars) until you reach the end of the road which is past the Mt Princeton trail turnoff by about ¾ of a mile. None of the parking areas have a bathroom, but they all do not have any fees associated with them.
Dogs: Mt Princeton is a dog friendly hike, almost year round. Clearly, in the winter avalanche risks are always a factor, but in early spring or early fall when lingering snow remains, I would still give the green light to dogs on Mt Princeton. There are some rocky areas that may hinder smaller dogs or dogs with soft paws, but in general Mt Princeton is a very dog friendly hike.
Camping: Mt Princeton has rather limited camping options. Near the radio towers (around 11,000 feet – 3.4 miles into the 4WD road), there are a handful of camping options. If you continue past these, you will most likely be camping above treeline or on a sloped area. Unless weather was forcing you to hunker down, I would find camping options elsewhere.
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Make it a Loop: Mt Princeton is an out and back hike, but you could easily add neighboring Trigger Peak to your hike, which is a “13er”. To do this, you could continue on the 4WD road past the Mt Princeton turnoff and hike Trigger’s south ridge. The other option would be to hike up to Mt Princeton’s south ridge and take a left to ascend Trigger Peak.
Trail Summary: When you drive through Salida or Buena Vista Colorado, it’s almost impossible to miss Mt Princeton. This prominent 14er is a very popular hike and one that is recommended for intermediate hikers. The length and difficulty of this trail is entirely dependent on how high you are able to drive up this mountain. This is a class 2 hike with lots of exposure to weather, so plan your trip accordingly.
Trail Route: Starting from Radio Towers – around 11,000 ft
Trail X Factors: Mt Princeton Road
When you first start your hike to South Zapata Lake, you may see an old trailhead sign along the way. If you look closely, you can see someone has carved into the sign something like “Hike is longer than described and is straight up from here on out. Very difficult!” I read that and said “oh shit.” While it may have been a bit of an exaggeration, the hike up to South Zapata Lake was still very taxing on my legs. From the trailhead up to the lake, you are almost constantly gaining elevation.
- Mickey’s Mountain Kit
- Hiking Shoes or Boots – helpful on the ridge line towards the top
- Protection from the sun – lots of weather exposure on this hike
- Water / Snack
- Optional: Hiking Poles – great for the way down
- Optional: Microspikes – helpful on loose dirt and snow
- Optional: Camera
Mick’s Tip: If you want to save yourself a lot of stress, hike this mountain during the early fall or late spring. This is for a number of reasons: 1. Less people which makes the drive up to the radio towers a bit less stressful 2. Less thunderstorm risk – this mountain is very exposed to the elements almost the entire hike 3. The cooler weather will make this hike a lot more enjoyable 4. The views from the summit are much better with some snow capped mountains in the distance. If you are looking to gain some experience with snow hiking, Mt Princeton is a great way to try out. Keep in mind though, that hiking this Princeton in the winter is dangerous because of the steep, avalanche prone slopes.
Photography Tip: To be blunt, I think the best views of Mt Princeton are from highway 285 and not on the mountain itself. I found myself forcing pictures just for the sake of having some for this post but nothing that organically made me say “wow”. You could easily get away with just bringing a phone on this hike. I will say that the views east on a clear day are pretty cool because of the surrounding landscape around Mt Princeton.
Mick’s Trip: Mt Princeton
As 2017 was coming to a close, so was my list of “14ers” that I had left to hike. Mt Princeton had been in my hiking itinerary at least 3 times over the years but for various reasons, I had never attempted the hike. The weather forecast for my planned hiking day had been iffy, but when I woke up to leave home for the trailhead, it looked better than the night before. I knew that this was a class 2 hike and one that Juno could accompany me on, so I decided to let her make the trip.
Just like 2016, winter was off to a slow start in November of 2017, which meant the snow level was very low. I had planned to park at the lower trailhead of Mt Princeton and make the long hike up the 4WD road, but when I arrived to the trailhead, I decided to give the rough dirt road a shot. DO IT LIVE! It was slow going, but unlike many 4WD roads I had been on in Colorado, relatively rock free. There were deep ruts and some snow on the dirt road, but considering the time of year, it was in very good shape. I slowly navigated up the rough road and eventually reached the radio towers about 30 minutes into my drive. Knocking out these 3 miles in my car saved Juno and I 6 total miles, which I was thrilled with.
When I parked at the radio towers, there were two other hikers which surprised me considering it was a Friday morning in November. Juno and I hit the trail and quickly passed these two as we worked our way up the 4WD road to the start of Mt Princeton’s trail. Although there were some pockets of snow along the trail, for the most part the road was very dry. After some switchbacks, Juno and I reached the start of Mt Princeton’s trail about 30 minutes after we started our hike.
As Juno and I hiked closer to Mt Princeton, I realized that I was still just wearing my rain jacket and a t-shirt. The forecast had been calling for temperatures in the 30’s with winds in the 20’s – 30’s, so far it was a warm pleasant day. Things would change quickly. The trail worked its way north towards Mt Princeton and then back west as it skirted along the northern slopes of Trigger Peak. From here until the saddle of Mt Princeton, much of the trail was in the shade which also meant some snow to deal with. While it was not much, the 3-4 inches of snow was enough to make me tread carefully, especially with a pulling dog taking away one of my hands.
Even though Mt Princeton seemed so close, there was still a lot of trail to cover before stepping on the summit. The longer we hiked, the stronger the winds got and I was afraid to see what conditions would be like once we ascended the southern saddle of Mt Princeton. Near said ridge, there was a fork that separated the old trail from the new one which I struggled to find at first. However, the small rock wall in the middle of the trail was a pretty idiot proof way to say, “hey turn here morons”! The “new trail” made a few switchbacks and after 5 minutes, we were now on the southern ridge of Mt Princeton. As we turned to face the summit, the wind smacked us in the face. The gusts were so bad from here to the summit, that I lost my balance several times and Juno kept looking at me like, “what the hell are we doing here”?
To make things worse, it was very hard to follow the trail. I thought that it made a lot of sense to stay low on the east side of the ridge because it was notably less windy here. However, the problem was that the lack of wind, meant higher snow levels. Juno and I would take a few steps on the hard crusty snow only to sink knee (or belly) deep into the soft snow patches. It was very annoying, for both of us. I kept leading us back towards the ridge of Mt Princeton, only to go down low to avoid the strong gusts. It was really a pick your poison situation.
This awful cycle kept repeating until we were about 500 yards from the summit of Mt Princeton and I decided to just stick to a straight line up the mountain. I had no idea where the trail was, but knew we were close. Near the summit, I stopped to pay my respects for Catherine Pugin who died on the mountain nearly 25 years before. It was a somber reminder that Mt Princeton, just like any other mountain in Colorado, was to always be respected.
When Juno and I reached the summit of Mt Princeton, I was so mentally exhausted from the strong winds but also so proud of Juno. Over the year or so of us having her in our lives, she had grown into such a well behaved dog, especially when hiking. Her small legs were now standing on her 10th “14er,” which is more than some humans climb in their whole lives. I was very proud of her. We snacked on some beef jerky, re-hydrated and I snapped some pictures. Our summit time was short because even with the small wind break, the whipping gusts were unbearable to hang out in.
On the way down, I decided to stick to the ridge of Mt Princeton in hopes to have a more straightforward hike to the saddle of Princeton and Trigger Peak. We ran into the 2 hikers we had passed hours before and they both were pretty demoralized from the winds. I found out that this was one of the hiker’s first “14er” and I told her it’s perfect conditions! If she summited Mt Princeton with a bit of snow and terribly annoying winds, she would be sure to want to hike some more. I don’t think my words of encouragement helped much…
As we worked down the ridge of Mt Princeton, Juno started to drive me insane. She did not fathom the concept that I did not have small black claws to help dig into the snow and kept pulling me down the icy trail. We stopped so that I could pop on my microspikes for the first time that day to deal with the slick, crusty snow. The rest of the hike back to the car was surprisingly pleasant and we were back at the car before I knew it. The entire hike took us about 6 hours and I had now knocked down 42 of the 58 Colorado “14ers”. Beer me.
The hike up Mt Princeton was pretty boring, like most class 2 hikes I have been on. I had no desire to come back here in the future, but was happy to have tackled it. Overall, I thought Mt Princeton was a perfect late fall, early winter hike, especially if you can park near the radio towers to take out some of those long 4WD road miles.
Mt Princeton Video Hike Review