Mount Princeton (14,197 ft)
14er Peak Rank #20/53
Mount Princeton – featured on Colorado 14ers Map 8 of 16 – is often ranked as #20 of 53 ranked 14ers in Colorado, but it’s technically tied for #18 as its summit is the same elevation as two other 14ers: fellow Sawatch Range peak Mount Belford and Crestone Needle in the Sangre de Cristo Range further south. So convention has it often listed as #20 becuase it’s third in alphabetical order of the three tied peaks. Mount Princeton is the southernmost Collegiate Peak 14er, though it is not actually in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness area – so no permits or fees are required.
William Libbey is credited as the first (recorded) person to have summited Princeton in July of 1877 shortly after his graduation from, naturally, Princeton University. Libbey later received the first doctorate in geology from Princeton and became a professor at the university teaching physical geography and even medaled in the 1912 Summer Olympics on the US Olympic Rifle Team. However, despite a Princeton man summiting the peak first, it was likely named four years before the ascent by surveyor Henry Gannett (to whom the first ascent of Mount Massive is attributed).
Hiking to the top of Mount Princeton is primarily via its east slopes. For low clearance vehicles, the parking lot is lower down just off County Road 322 at 8,950 feet elevation. Following 322 to the west and then north for 1.1 miles, the road abruptly switches back south (at this point the Colorado Trail, which follows this road for a while, continues north), climbing along the Merriam Creek drainage. 2.1 miles further along the road from the Colorado Trail Junction, there is parking for higher clearance vehicles at some radio towers at 10,880′ elevation.
4WD vehicles can continue past the radio towers, but parking options become increasingly limited from this point forward. At 1.55 miles further along from the radio towers turn-off is the junction where the trail finally leaves the road right at treeline. This junction can be easily overlooked, so pay attention (located at latitude-longitude: 38.7745N, -106.2145W) or you will continue down Road 322 to eventually dead-end. After 1.2 miles of following the trail, you gain the ridge line and continue for another 3/4 mile to the summit of Mount Princeton.
In the case of Mount Princeton, this standard route is really the only trail that will get you to the summit without significant off-trail route finding. From the lower 2WD Trailhead, the route is 6.6 miles with a net elevation gain of about 5,250′ (one way). From the radio towers, this is shortened to a 3.5 mile hike with 3,320′ net elevation gain (one way).
When visiting the spectacular ultra-prominent Mount Princeton, remember all of the usual safety precautions of visiting the Colorado high country: respect your limitations, be wary of inclement weather, stay hydrated, and don’t forget your 14ers maps. Mount Princeton is one of two fourteeners featured on Outdoor Trail Maps Colorado 14ers Series Map 8 of 16.
Directions to Trailhead:
From Buena Vista, drive about 7.5 miles south of US Hwy 24 to the small town of Nathrop and turn right/west on Chaffee County Road 162 (Chalk Creek Drive). After 4.5 miles, turn right/north onto County Road 321 and keep right, staying on this road 0.15 miles after the 321 turn-off. After veering right, continue 1 mile further along 321 and then turn hard left back towards the south onto County Road 322 (Mount Princeton Rd). Just under a mile from the turn-off onto 322 is the 2WD parking on the left. The hike begins here unless you have a 4WD that can make it up to the radio towers.