This 58-mile loop I pieced together in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness is definitely a good one for those looking to challenge themselves. While I did the loop in 4 days, there's nothing to prevent you stretching it out more (or even compressing it... though, yikes). You could also add a resupply or visit to Cottonwood Hot Springs into the trip. The loop incorporates three high passes and you can visit several nearby 14ers as well. It can definitely be made longer with side trips. Can it be made shorter? Only if you're willing to hike off-trail.
The loop can be found in its entirety on the Trails Illustrated topo map #148. (Note that the edition of this map currently in stores is inaccurate as to the current route of the Colorado Trail/Continental Divide Trail around the beginning of the Texas Creek section. All the trails that you need to hike for this loop are present and in the same locations as on the map, but the trail junction signs won't reflect the map in terms of what route the CT/CDT takes, which caused me a moment of confusion when I was out there.)
I chose to go counter-clockwise, leaving the most difficult climb for when my pack would be the lightest. I started at the Missouri Gulch trailhead. Head south out of Leadville, CO on Rt. 24. After you pass Granite, look for Rt. 390 on your right. The Missouri Gulch trailhead is well-marked on the left.
Symmetry in mountain and beaver lodge as seen from 1st roadwalk
From the parking lot, walk west on Rt. 390 until you come to the Sheep Gulch trailhead, about 1.7 miles. (This is one of two short sections of road-walk in the loop.) It's a short but steep climb up Sheep Gulch to get to the Colorado Trail/Continental Divide Trail, where you will turn west again. Though the forest here is very dry, when I went in late July there were plenty of small streams for water.
The trail takes a left-hand turn and continues on a 4wd road, though I remember it being more trail-like than road-like... this becomes the Lake Ann Trail which, as it climbs, turns into one of the prettiest sections of the loop. Here you can make a side trip to climb 14er Huron Peak if desired. Lake Ann itself is one of the gems of the trip. Camping would be beautiful here in good weather; otherwise, there are spots lower on the trail. Lake Ann Pass is likewise one of the highlights of the trip.
Over the pass, the trail descends into the forest for a good long time. When it finally reaches Texas Creek, make a left. Campsites are easy to find in the lower part of this valley. You will leave the CT/CDT here and continue until you see the sign for Browns Pass. Cross the creek and begin climbing. The area below Browns Pass is especially lovely, with a perfect little campsite among meadows of wildflowers. Views are awesome too.
Looking down Texas Creek valley from above treeline
Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to finish the Browns Pass section before afternoon storms hit. The trail zigzags above treeline for a couple miles, crossing the Continental Divide three times and finally descending to Kroenke Lake. From the lake to the road, the trail is smooth and well-graded, pleasant walking. A side-trip to climb Mount Harvard could be made from here, though that would add another 11 miles.
Elephant heads from above
At the trailhead you'll need to just keep walking, down North Cottonwood Road, to pick up the Colorado Trail (Collegiate East). The road-walk turns beautiful quickly with towering aspen. Where the CT intersects the road, turn north. There won't be too much to break up the forest here, but occasional views out to Buena Vista and the pretty Harvard Lakes are nice. You'll cross the Frenchman Creek trail and eventually find yourself at the Pine Creek trail, where you'll be turning west into the last leg of the trip.
Old mining settlement along Pine Creek
The Pine Creek trail is largely exposed, with less shade than elsewhere on the loop. There are some interesting mining settlements here. You'll pass Bedrock Falls, which struck me as more of a rapids than a falls. Coming up into the Missouri Basin is awe-inspiring; the basin is massive and ringed by giant peaks. Here you could make side trips to climb 14ers Missouri, Belford or Oxford. Belford especially is appealing as it adds only half a mile and 1,000' of vertical gain to your trip.
I had planned to climb Belford originally but in the end chose not to, in order to finish my trip a day sooner. Either way, you'll be heading over killer 13,245' Elkhead Pass, one of the highest in the state. Take your time on the steep descent back to the car.
Trail conditions: A-
Certain sections were overgrown or oversteep and eroded, such as between the Continental Divide and Kroenke Lake, but most trails were well-groomed. There were no bridgeless river crossings.
Campsite & water availability: A-
There were many established sites with fire rings and logs to sit on, and outside of that the dryness of the forest and lack of undergrowth made it easy to find a place to lay down a tent. In late July at least, I rarely walked more than an hour without crossing a stream.
When there were views, they were stunners. High points include the Lake Ann Trail, Browns Pass area and Pine Creek/Missouri Basin. Outside of these, the forest was fairly enclosing and much of the loop is just a peaceful walk in the woods.
This area is very dry, and flowers are minimal. Exceptions included the Lake Ann trail, the section between the Texas Creek trail and Browns Pass, and around Kroenke Lake.
It's certainly quieter out here than around Denver and Boulder, but I never went more than a few hours without seeing another person. It is fairly easy to find a place to camp where you'll have solitude.
Now for the gear! There were several items that were getting their first extensive trial on this trip.
Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL1 tent: A-
I do like this tent. I'm not in love with it, but it is what I wanted: light (about 2 pounds), easy to set up, and looks good in photos. I'm serious. The HV model was just introduced this year, with a redesign to give slightly more head/shoulder room and a more vertical door to prevent rain entry. I've had 9 or 10 nights in the tent now and it's only a hair slower to set up than a traditional dome tent. I thought I wouldn't like the front entry door, but I do. I don't find it any more awkward than side-entry, and there are some advantages... I can reach for my gear in the vestibule without having to sit up, and the vestibule itself, while small, is more pack-shaped than the traditional triangular vestibule. I love the 3 mesh pockets on the inside for organizing my junk at night. The tent does have kind of a coffinlike feel to it, and my shoulders brush the sides when I sit up, but it turns out that doesn't bother me too much.
I had chosen this tent over a TarpTent Notch because I didn't think I'd want to fuss with getting the pitch right on a trekking pole tent when I was at my most tired every day. Oh, why am I not in love with it? I'm not sure it's possible to be in love with a tent that makes you feel like you're in a coffin. But the weight : ease-of-use : cost balance was right for me, considering there was a 20% discount and REI dividend in the mix. So far, I've been pleased with my decision.
I don't know if I'll use the tent forever. The problems that I had with my knees definitely made me renew my commitment to going light... and I enjoyed being outdoors for a week so much that I was finally thinking, maybe I'd actually enjoy just sleeping under a tarp. We'll see.
Homemade polycro tent footprint: A-
Since Big Agnes is staffed by crazy people who charge $60 for the footprint to my tent, I made one myself out of polycro, AKA window shrink-film, for about $1. This plastic is puncture-resistant. (It's not heat-resistant, obviously, so don't leave it in your car all day... like I did with the first one I made.) It works well and I'm definitely pleased with the cost and weight savings. It's just a little tricky sometimes to get it laid out because it wants to blow away even more than a traditional footprint. I did duct-tape some bungie to it so I could fasten it to the tent poles.
Darn Tough light hiker wool/poly blend crew socks: A+
Wow. I love these socks. Maybe I'm odd but I think they're my favorite piece of gear right now. So soft, not too hot during the day, warm at night, just cushiony enough so that I don't feel all the grit that gets in my shoes. They also don't stretch out of shape. Plus, Darn Tough has a warranty where if you manage to wear out their socks, they will send you another pair for free.
Pacerpoles trekking poles: A+
These poles definitely get the Gear MVP Award for the trip. Pacerpoles are a brand of trekking pole with an especially ergonomic grip, allowing you to get more thrust with less strain on your body. I relied heavily on these to get me and my aching knees down hills. I could put quite a bit of my weight on them and never experienced any hand or wrist strain. The company offers free shipping to the US and a free trial period; check 'em out.
Sawyer Mini filter: D
This thing crapped out on me on the trip. The flow rate slowed until it was almost impossible to get water through, and repeated backflushing didn't help. So, while I loved it up until now, I think I'm going to abandon it and try the higher-flow-rate Sawyer Squeeze.
Adidas Terrex Agravic trail runners: ???
I was kinda forced to hike in these when my boots started giving me trouble in the first 6 miles of the trip (I had to hitch back to my car and start over; see link to part one of the story at top). Despite my worries about the soles being too squishy and about twisting an ankle, they did awesome. Except that at the very end of the week, a couple of my toes went numb and my foot swelled up. The doctor said my toes are hypermobile and are going to want to bend up too much. Soooo... honestly, I loved the experience of backpacking in trail runners, but it's in question whether I can actually wear them without injury. I would like to try some of the things he mentioned (taping my toes, different insoles) before I go back to boots though.
I put some tape on problem spots on my feet the first day of the trip and it stayed on all four days. Great stuff. Hard to find in stores but you can order it online.
Wet Ones sensitive skin hand wipes: A
I'm used to washing with a bandana and some camp soap while on the trail, but for this trip I switched to twice-daily "wipe baths" on problem areas. It worked well. I tend to get breakouts on my hips and shoulders where the pack rests, and the problem was cut about 75% with the wipes.
And a bonus:
Oh, my God. Instant oatmeal becomes completely gross when you're forced to eat it every day on the trail. Never again.
I've discovered I get especially sick of sweet stuff after a few days, which is not only surprising as I have a huge sweet tooth in everyday life, but also kinda sucks because it's the sweet stuff -- Clif bars, candy bars, etc. -- that's the most cheap and convenient. Jerky, nuts, and the few kinds of savory bars that exist are a lot more expensive, and I can't digest cheese... I guess I'm thankful to like peanut butter as much as I do. But if anyone has suggestions for fairly healthy savory snacks that won't break the bank, let me know.
I tried to have more variety in my food this year than I did on last year's trip, but I still kinda failed. For anyone planning a long-distance trip, I don't think I can possibly overstate how much variety matters.
Finally, a bit of news: today I got word that my surgeon had spoken with the insurance company and I'm now approved for surgery on the pinched nerve in my shoulder. I don't know when it will be yet but I know they're trying to get me in as soon as possible. That, along with the fact that I'm waiting for my foot to heal, might mean no adventures for a while. But since there's apparently some interest in my continuing to blog, I'd like to see what else I can come up with to keep you entertained. See you soon!