Hiking in the Collegiate Peaks – Sawatch Range, Buena Vista
Updated: Mar 28
Hiking in the Collegiate Peaks might be a bit confusing to some, that is, if you are conscious about whether you are hiking in the wilderness area. Wilderness is an area that doesn’t have any road access. It encompass a big part of the Collegiate Peaks - but not all the Collegiate Peaks are in the designated wilderness.
Collegiate Peaks is part of the Sawatch Range, one of the largest mountain ranges in central Colorado. This mountain range contains eight of the twenty highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains, as well as several wilderness areas including the Collegiate Peaks, Holy Cross, and Mount Massive Wilderness. The name Sawatch is derived from the Ute language “sa-qua-qua-chi-pa” meaning, “blue earth spring”. Nicknamed the “backbone of the continent”, the Sawatch range is about 80 miles long.
Buena Vista (“Good View” in Spanish), is a town well known for its proximity to many “fourteeners” (mountains that exceeded 14,000 feet in elevation), some named after prestigious universities in the United States - Mt. Harvard, Mt. Yale, Mt. Columbia. This town is a popular “playground” for all kinds of outdoor activities all year-round such as white water rafting, fishing, but most especially for climbers wanting to bag “fourteeners”. My husband, Hermann, has climbed several of them.
I have climbed a fourteener, but hiking is much more up my alley. Here in Collegiate Peaks, there are many hiking trails. Some of the most popular trails in the area that we hike are: Ptarmigan Lake, Hartenstein Lake, Browns Pass, Kroenke Lake and Lake Ann. Except for Ptarmigan Lake, all these trails are within the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area.
- COLLEGIATE PEAKS WILDERNESS AREA -
The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area hugs the northern side of the Cottonwood Pass Road (Chaffee County Road 306). On this same road is the Denny Creek Trailhead (also referred to as Mount Yale trailhead), a major access to the wilderness.
All connecting trails are signposted, but bring along a map or a GPS, if you have it. Parking here is adequate, but it gets full quickly, so it's best to come early. You will be hiking in the shade of the lush forest for the first few miles but it thins out as you go higher.
Some of the most popular hiking trails (Hartenstein Lake and Browns Pass), including the trail to Mount Yale (one of the fourteeners in the area), start here. All the trails we hiked in the wilderness are located within the Atlantic watershed side of the Continental Divide.
HARTENSTEIN LAKE (6.7 Miles roundtrip to the lake)
Hartenstein Lake is a short hike, but a little strenuous due to elevation gain. As you emerge from the shade of the trees, the trail opens up into meadows full of colorful wildflowers. This is a good time to stop and make use of that camera you brought along. It gets better the higher you go.
As you reach Hartenstein Lake, you are at about 11,465 feet in elevation. In front of you is Turner Peak (13,232 feet in elevation), a beautiful backdrop to the lake. If you are up to it, you can climb the peak from the lake though there is no designated route, you just have to find your way.
Look back across the lake toward the east and you will see Mount Yale. It was first climbed by a research team from Harvard University led by Josiah Whitney, an American Geologist and geology professor at Harvard University, but who graduated from Yale University.
BROWNS PASS (8 miles round trip to the saddle on Continental Divide)
Hiking to Browns Pass, we also start at Denny Creek Trailhead. The same trail as to Hartenstein Lake, but at the turnoff, the sign will point you straight ahead to the pass. It's a moderate uphill hike all the way to the pass, which is actually good, at least for me, since it's also all downhill on the way back.
This hike is moderate, depending on your conditioning. Just eat a substantial breakfast and stop for some snacks on the way to recharge you. And drink plenty of water.
Although there are meadows of wildflowers along the trail, this is one hike where there is no lake at the end of the trail. But this is a beautiful trail and landscape all the same. Our destination was the saddle on Continental Divide, Browns Pass, at about 12,013 in elevation, but the trail continues to other destinations as well. It is above tree line and the mountain landscape is exceptional.
Up at the pass you will see several fourteneers. Looking at our photos taken at this hike, you can understand why climbers want to bag a few of these mountain peaks, if not all. The challenge to conquer the mountain is irresistible to climbers when they look at this beautiful landscape. Wouldn't it be cool to have the PeakVisor app with you here. This app can easily tag and identify all the mountains you can see. Hermann knows most of those mountains, but he gets a thrill to tag them all the same.
KROENKE LAKE (8.6 MILES round trip to the lake)
Longer than the hike to Browns Pass, this is a moderate hike and well worth the effort once you reach the lake. This hike starts at the North Cottonwood Trailhead, on County Road 365, about nine miles from Buena Vista.
We hiked here in Autumn and the golden colors of the landscape were gorgeous, especially by the lake. It's about 8.6 miles to the lake round trip, but with Hermann, just stopping at the lake is not good enough when you can hike all the way around it. We ended up hiking ten miles but with plenty of photos to take home. How can you resist? The Autumn golden colors in Colorado are so bright.
The lake sits below the Continental Divide, at about 11,534 feet in elevation. You will see the slopes of Mt. Yale, but not the summit, from this lake. Hermann has climbed it on a backpacking trip to the lake.
LAKE ANN (6.6 miles roundtrip to the lake)
We camped at the Twin Lakes campground when we hiked to Lake Ann. That was back in 2009 and we haven't been back since then - too many other hiking trails to explore. The road to Lake Ann is located between Buena Vista and Leadville - Chaffee County Road 390. The trailhead, Huron Peak Trailhead (Clear Creek/South Winfield), is at the edge of the wilderness boundary. You will need a high clearance vehicle (4WD) to drive on this road, or walk from the ghost town of Winfield to the trailhead.
The Lake Ann Trail (also known as the Loop Trail), which passes Lake Ann and continues on to the other side of Continental Divide, follows the South Fork of Clear Creek. Lake Ann is one of the lakes that feeds this creek and the trail crosses this same creek part-way up to the lake.
The final ascent to the lake is steep, but you are almost there and the fascinating landscape waiting above is worth the sweat and energy you consumed on the way up. As you reach the lake, you will have hiked to 11,823 feet in elevation. Your hike is only half over, but going back down is easier.
This lake sits below the Continental Divide with the rugged backdrop of the Three Apostles (North Apostle, Ice Mountain, West Apostle) and Huron Peak, one of the fourteeners in the area. But of course, with my husband, we didn't just stop at the lake; we hiked up a little higher, just enough to see the lake from above.
Lake Ann is known for its turquoise water. Looking down from above, the lake is shaped like a heart - even more so than Heart Lake in the James Peak Wilderness, I think. Above, you will appreciate more of the lake's beauty and its turquoise water. With the extra miles added, we hiked eight miles on this trail, but it was worth it.
PTARMIGAN LAKE (6.8 Miles roundtrip to the lake)
Although Ptarmigan Lake is in the Collegiate Peaks, it sits outside the wilderness boundary. The area where it's located does not satisfy the criteria of a wilderness, due to the mining activities in the area during the Colorado Gold Rush in the mid-1800's.
This trail starts at the Chaffee County Road 306 (Cottonwood Pass Road), about 14 miles from the town of Buena Vista. If you have a high clearance vehicle (preferably 4WD) and want to make the hike really short, then drive up Chaffee County Road 344, which provides vehicular access almost up to the lake.
Ptarmigan Lake is named due to flocks of ptarmigan usually seen in this area. This hike is one of the more enjoyable hikes in the Arkansas Valley near Buena Vista so it is a popular trail. It might not be for someone who seeks solitude, unless you hike on weekdays like we do. The parking is small, so come early, otherwise you will be parking by the road.
This trail is considered a moderate hike, but also consider the elevation gain if you are a "flatlander". But, it’s a gradual ascent with many photo ops along the way so take your time. There are meadows of wildflowers which are usually at their peak in July. You will pass small ponds as well.
Ptarmigan Lake itself is located at the base of Jones Mountain; it’s an alpine lake, meaning it is above tree line, so watch out for afternoon thunderstorms. Once at the lake, you will be surrounded by an incredible mountain landscape. If you have time, you can even do some fishing here.
To the lake itself is almost seven miles (round trip), but we hiked around the lake and up to the pass. My husband, Hermann, went up even higher such that the hike ended up being eight miles round trip.