By Ashley Peterson
The Collegiates are an incredible group of peaks in the Sawatch range found between Gunnison and just north of Buena Vista by crossing Monarch Pass and then heading north on Highway 285 and 24. In 1869, a Harvard professor with a degree from Yale starting naming peaks after his affiliated schools and sparked a trend. By 1925, this section of the Sawatch had become known as the Collegiates. More than fifty years later, the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness was designated in 1980 and covers roughly 165,000 acres today.
The northernmost peaks in this subrange are Missouri (14,067’), Oxford (14,153’) and Belford (14,197’), then moving south you have Huron (14,003’), Harvard (14,420’) and Columbia (14,073’) somewhere in the middle, followed by Yale (14,196’), and ending the row with the southernmost Mt. Princeton (14,197’). I can happily say I have completed all the Collegiate 14ers!
There isn’t anything official about which peaks are exactly considered the Collegiates, and there are notably a few other 14er peaks mixed in without scholarly names, such as Antero (14,269’) to the south and La Plata (14,336’) to the north.
There are some wonderful peaks in this subrange of the Sawatch which have cool combo routes to link several 14ers in a single trip. In that vein, Oxford and Belford can be done together in a day, and if you’re feeling wild, Missouri, Oxford and Belford (or MOB as we call it) can be done in one looong day. Which of course, always looking for a challenge, is what I did. (Look on AllTrails for the route description). MOBing in a day entails more than 7,000 ft. of elevation gain over 16 miles of hiking.
I recommend doing the loop counterclockwise and starting with Missouri Mountain. Either way, this is a long day with a lot of miles and a lot of gain. These peaks can be hiked separately and unless you are in exceptionally good shape for climbing, they should be done that way. The best way to know if you are ready for this is to think about what the day will hold: 16 miles and over 7,000 ft of gain, does that sound fun to you? Does it sound achievable based on your pace and stamina from previous hikes at similar elevation? If it does, I am sure you have got this in the bag; you know what you are capable of better than any measurement or test can.
Doing this loop counterclockwise means you hike to Missouri first where you get in a lot of miles quickly before heading to the other two. If you do this clockwise, you start with Oxford and Belford and gain a lot of elevation quickly. Then you have got a long hike ahead of you to get over to Missouri. From the top of Belford, Missouri looks so far away, which could be defeating if you had not already submitted.
One weekend this summer my friends wanted to go rafting in Salida, so I took the drive over Cottonwood Pass a day early so I could get in a couple of collegiate summits before hitting the Arkansas River. I opted for a combo route with a bad reputation: the Harvard and Columbia traverse was my goal.
Everything you read about this traverse will tell you that it royally SUCKS. I personally did not think it was as bad as the comments made it out to be, but it was one of the longest traverses I had experienced up to that point. The boulder field took forever to cross, much longer than one might expect, and it gets tedious after a while but still never exceeds Class 2.
The total hike is over 16 miles and 6,000’ of elevation gain. It is not easy, but it’s not the absolute worst, like most of the reviews made it out to be. The hikes up Harvard and down Columbia are quite simple Class 1 hikes. The only part that took thought was the immense boulder field between the two peaks.
This was not technically challenging terrain, but I was thinking about foot placement quite a bit due to the imbalance of the rocks. I started early and made it to the Harvard summit for a brilliant orange, albeit smoky, sunrise. The traverse itself required at least two hours but the act of clambering along on boulders is fun for me (at least it was for the first hour or so).
I recommend saving the AllTrails route that includes the traverse to follow along with this one. In the boulder fields, you do not have a clear path to follow and it’s a bit of a “choose your own adventure,” but having some guidance and knowing where to start ascending again is immensely helpful. Then it’s up to the Columbia summit, where I was cheered for by the hikers at the top because of the traverse’s bad reputation. I typically recommend having trekking poles, but I especially recommend them for balance on this route.
Yale and Princeton are both great hikes that cannot be combined with any other 14er and are therefore each done separately. Great peaks though! They are both beautiful and closer to Gunnison than the other Collegiates. Yale was the first Collegiate I hiked and one of my first 14ers; I love the dense, lively (teeming with little critters) forested area below treeline, it was a big reason I got hooked on hiking in this range.
Yale and Princeton are both rated as Class 2, and roundtrip Yale is 9.5 miles while Princeton is only 6.5. Both are decently mellow and enjoyable hikes. Nearly everyone drives up the 4WD road to Princeton’s upper trailhead. Be warned: that road is long and if you do not drive it, it doubles the length of the hike, but it is a rough drive. On 14ers website, they rate the difficulty of trailhead access on a 0-6 scale, 0 is paved and 6 is nearly impossible, Mt. Princeton Road is rated a 3.
Although a shorter hike, Princeton has a longer, slippery boulder field that must be maneuvered on your way to the summit. For this reason, I liked Yale better, but both made for an excellent day in the mountains.
The Collegiates are a wonderful place to hike that are easy to access from Gunnison. The peaks can all be done individually, or some combinations exist for those of us who have yet to master the art of sitting still. And, since you have chosen Western, here is your chance to make your parents proud and join the Ivy League!
Stay tuned for more recreation articles!