My 16-year-old son Samuel and I completed this loop over 11 nights/12 days in the summer of 2021. The daily adventures are captured in other blog posts on this site. This post aims to provide background in the hope that it might guide or even inspire others. It is a fantastic hike but is best enjoyed when ready both physically and mentally. My purpose is not to tell anyone how to do it. I firmly believe in “hike your own hike.” While I did plenty of research and read other accounts of the trail, nobody was like us. In that spirit, I share our story, which you might use however you wish. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions or comments.
I was 53 years old, 5’11”, and was 195 lbs. when I did this hike. I had just lost 25-odd pounds that I had put on with COVID and would like to lose another 20. I am originally from England, where I camped and hiked growing up but did not make extended backpacking trips. I had done some very long single-day walks and some overnight wild (aka backcountry) camping. I started getting back into backpacking about six years ago with our son Samuel who loves it, and he became my excuse to get out more! We live in Houston, Texas, which is not the best training ground for hiking mountains. Samuel and I made various trips with increasing distance and challenges as follows:
- 2015 – One night on Guadalupe Peak, the highest mountain in Texas. Samuel was 10.
- 2016 – Big Bend National Park (3 nights in the Chisos mountains). Samuel was 11.
- 2017 – Big Bend National Park – Outer Mountain Loop. A 50-mile loop over 5 days/4 nights, filtering desert springs for water. Samuel was 13.
- 2018 – Capitol/Snowmass loop. 50 miles over 5 days / 4 nights with over 12,000 ft elevation change and hiking above 12,000 ft. Followed by a 3 day / 2 night trip up Fool’s Peak.
- 2019 – attempted the Lone Star Hiking Trail (north of Houston) in May. It was too hot for Samuel, whom I pushed too hard, and he had to stop after 2 days / 35 miles. I completed 87 miles, skipping some road walking in the middle.
- 2019 – a tour of the peaks of the Lake District in England. 87 miles over 6 days with about 23,000 ft. elevation change. Samuel was 14 and was carrying as much as I.
- 2019 – ended the year repeating the Outer Mountain Loop in Big Bend, and brought in 2020 at the top of Texas on Guadalupe Peak.
- 2021 – I hiked the whole of the 96-mile Lone Star Hiking Trail in May for my own conditioning to help me keep up with Samuel!
We learned many things about equipment, water, food, fitness, our own bodies, and spending time with each other on each trip.
I had been thinking about what comes next after our Lake District adventure. That trip had been an appropriate “step up” from the Capitol/Snowmass loop in Colorado. Having an increased level of challenge was critical, but also to avoid setting ourselves up to fail. So it was in April 2021, I started looking at the Collegiate Loop and decided it was a good choice. I found the following resources particularly useful:
- The Colorado Trail Foundation’s website (especially Collegiate East/West – Colorado Trail Foundation) and Guidebook.
- Colorado Trail Thru-Hike 2021, Colorado Trail Section Hikers, and Collegiate Loop Facebook Groups. I followed the discussions in all three groups, all of which were useful and of interest. In addition, I could search previous posts for answers, very rarely needing to post a question.
- The following blogs all gave interesting, different perspectives:
- For more detailed planning, I used the Colorado Trail Databook and the NatGeo Collegiate Loop Map booklet. The latter has a realistic 15-day itinerary.
- 14ers.com is invaluable for planning any 14er.
- CT guides can also be helpful, and I read the following:
The critical decision for this loop is where to start. We were flying into Denver and renting a car. There was a strong consensus from sources to do the East first to acclimate at the lower altitude. The majority of guides/blogs started in Twin Lakes, with pmags starting at Monarch. I decided to start at Monarch for the following reasons:
- Some people had indicated parking issues at Twin Lakes, whereas no problems were reported at Monarch Crest. On reflection, probably not a big issue.
- The reason often cited for starting at Twin Lakes was to finish with Hope Pass. I don’t like to end with either a highlight or the biggest challenge.
- I was worried about altitude sickness. While I had had no issues on the Capitol/Snowmass loop, I had recently suffered while skiing at Winter Park. So I liked the idea of starting the hike high at Monarch Crest (11,312 ft.) and sleeping lower than that.
- The next critical decision after the starting point is the resupply strategy. I did not want to send packages ahead, and I wanted to resupply on-trail as much as possible. Hitching into towns seemed like an additional uncertainty (probably exaggerated). The Twin Lakes General Store seemed like a viable full resupply store, whereas Monarch Crest store was not. This also influenced the start point decision.
So the plan evolved to start at Monarch Crest, full resupply at the Twin Lakes General Store, and a partial resupply at Mt Princeton Hot Springs resort (snacks, etc.). The full resupply ended up changing with Paul’s logistical support to an overnight stay and resupply in Salida. The partial resupply at the resort was thankfully supplemented by a significant donation from some other hikers.
The final part of the plan was the number of days. With very many options for camping and water, there are few constraints. The only things one needs to plan around are the parts of the Collegiate West above treeline to avoid them in the afternoon because of storms (if hiking during that season). These are Hope Pass, Lake Ann pass, and CW03 (15 miles above tree line). This is when the planning gets detailed. I made the first pass at likely campsites and daily mileages, trying to factor in acclimatization and possible side trips. The Guthook guide came in very useful for this. I bought their CT guide rather than just the loop, so I was ready to change to a plan B, always wise with the wildfires. This level of detail is how I like to plan, knowing others do perfectly well “winging it” more, though I also appreciate a level of uncertainty. However, I am also ready to accept plan changes; planning is just another learning journey, as is equipment and food.
Our timing was constrained by other plans in the summer. We were starting a bit early on June 21st, and we had 3 weeks. I monitored reports which indicated the deep snow cleared a week or two before we got there.
Something we did not initially plan for was another hiking buddy. Through the Collegiate Loop Facebook group, I read how Paul was looking for someone to hike the Collegiate West at about the same time we were doing it. He also needed a ride back to his truck from Monarch. It seemed a good fit, so I suggested we hike together, and it worked better than we could have hoped.
Other than executing the plan above, preparation was needed in two areas – fitness and altitude.
Fitness is an individual challenge for everyone. I was successful in losing weight (but could lose more). As well as working on essential walking fitness, I have learned I need to work on strength and flexibility too. In my younger years, this was not essential. I increased my flexibility the most I ever have before this hike, which probably saved me from injury. I feel inadequate to offer any advice here other than to take it seriously!
I can share what I did for altitude sickness, which was primarily to wean myself off my morning coffee before starting the trip. I was also hydrating hard with electrolytes and avoiding alcohol. I also took the prescription Diamox, though only one or two pills a day. I planned the route to start high and sleep low at the beginning. We had hardly any other acclimatization time, arriving at Denver from sea level and having one night there before hitting the trail. I read much advice online suggesting flatlanders should spend “several days” at 5000+ ft before heading higher. My experience is that “it depends,” and you need to listen to your body. After the trip, I discovered that coffee is an altitude sickness trigger for me when I struggled to drive through Leadville (10kft.), having had coffee that morning.
This topic cannot be covered adequately in the context of a single trip. One’s backpacking equipment is itself a journey, and it will continue to evolve from every trip and lessons learned, one’s budget, and the ever-improving market. Details are below. We had a dry weight of 17 lbs each, though my son carried more than me. We can reduce that by a pound or two with new equipment (Samuel’s backpack, the tent). To significantly reduce after that, we need to change the sleep system to a tarp or leave the cooking system behind. We took some “risks” on this trip by leaving things behind, which I won’t do next time (take a 2nd spoon, so we don’t have to share; take a bit more first aid equipment). The tarp sleeping or no-cooker would need to be a choice based on comfort. We were pleased with the equipment we took, making good use of everything (except the microspikes).
One of the topics most discussed in the online groups is clothes. We hiked in trainers/trail runners (Asics and Ultras), and they were great. We brought waterproofs and needed them on the West. We need better gloves for the cold/wet conditions on the West, and we needed all the clothes we brought.
Navigation is another much-discussed topic. I had a gallon ziplock bag in my trouser front pocket with the NatGeo map booklet and copies of the relevant pages of the Databook. On my iPhone, I had Guthook and Alltrails and had previously downloaded the offline maps. Samuel had also downloaded these onto his iPhone, and he became the primary navigator using Guthook. The iPhones were also our cameras. I brought my compass and used it once to check the forecasted wind direction to set up our tent. Finally, I tracked our hikes using my Garmin Instinct watch (the gpx files from which are used in the maps in the blogs). We each had an Anker 10k mAh battery pack and watched battery usage closely. Many areas on the trail have a signal, but many don’t!
This is another area that is a journey of its own, and we are ready for the next leg! For a trip this length, one can be calorie-deficient for a few days. The most significant risk is over-packing. We had the perfect amount of food for the first half of the trip, though that was by chance from the large donation we received at the Princeton resort. We had too much food for the second half because (a) we spend one day less on trail and (b) no one felt like eating one night. I read someone who, having planned all their meals, intentionally leaves one behind. I like that idea. The other pearl of wisdom is that the worst food weight is the calorie that is not eaten. We love Cadburys chocolate, sharp cheddar, and saltines, raisins, cashews, dried mango, chocolate-mint protein bars, and we are SO over prepackaged dehydrated foods. Having food donated is insightful as you discover great tastes you would not have chosen yourself (like the dried mango). The priority for the next trip will be to find an alternative to Mountain House (or similar). There are plenty of options out there.
How it Went.
One thing I love about backpacking is the sense of freedom once you have left that first trailhead. You have whatever you have on your back and in your head, and you make the most of it. The value of the plan is the planning, and it is created so that it can be changed. Below is a summary of the trip.
The main changes from the original plan were:
- On Collegiate East, we covered more miles on days 2 and 3 than planned, especially with the hitch into and out of the Princeton resort. This enabled us to add the Yale side trip and still reach Interlaken trailhead the morning of the 7th day.
- We finished Collegiate West in one day less than planned, as we chose not to do Huron.
- Our plan had been to resupply at Twin Lakes General Store and then hike some of the distance up Hope Pass that afternoon. While this would likely have worked, Paul suggested a night in a hotel instead. This had not occurred to me, but Paul had his truck, and we went to Salida where we could feed up, dry out, and get clean. The psychological boost was immense. We had had some wet days, and more were to come. Several of the CDT hikers we met complained how Colorado did not know it was summer with all of its rain. Of the Collegiate Loop hikers we met on the East, we did not see any of them on the West.
We were pleased with the changes in plans. Adventures like this have a fine line between succeeding with fun and “hitting the wall” with misery and/or quitting. Part of the challenge when taking on increasingly complex challenges is to understand your wall and how to manage it. It is equally important to understand a hiking partner’s wall too. A compatible hiking partner is rare and valuable. I am very thankful that Paul was so compatible and even more grateful that my own son is! I hope he continues to find me compatible, especially as I get grumpier in my old age. Our goal is to thrive rather than just survive.
The only issue we had on the hike was severe sunburn of the back of Samuel’s hands. At the beginning of CW, blisters started forming, and we were convinced they were related to the cold. No other part of his body was burned, and he was protecting himself similar to how Paul and I were (i.e., just clothes, no suncream). Unfortunately, the altitude on the West side triggered this, and we will need to be more careful in the future.
We had a list of 14ers we planned to climb after the loop. We had a true zero-day immediately after the hike and then a slow day. We then headed back into the hills for our first day-hiked 14er, but both felt lousy and gave up after an hour or two. We both felt exhausted physically and mentally. Much of our drive to complete the loop came from adrenaline. Once concluded, we could not drive ourselves. We’d had an enjoyable game of putt-putt but realized we just needed to go home a week early!
As a family, we plan to hike Wainwright’s Coast to Coast across England next summer. It is 190 miles but can be done without camping, staying at B&Bs or guesthouses along the route. If you’ve enjoyed reading any of my musings about the Colorado Trail, please subscribe and I will try my hardest to bring you enjoyment from the Coast to Coast! In the meantime, don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions. I am especially keen to help anyone hiking with their children as it can be such a tremendous experience for all involved.