Stunning vistas from 14er Mount Yale in the heart of the Collegiate Peaks
August 14, 2016
The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness is comprised of 168,000 acres in the Sawatch Range west of Buena Vista. With the highest average elevation of any wilderness in the United States, the Collegiate Peaks and surrounding mountains in the range include 15 of Colorado's 14,000-foot summits.
Mount Yale (14,196 feet) is one of my favorites. It's accessible in any season due to a paved access road to the trailhead and parking area below Cottonwood Pass. Furthermore, the peak is surrounded by magnificent Mount Harvard (14,420 feet) and Mount Columbia (14,073 feet) to the north, and Mount Princeton (14,197 feet) to the south. The 10-mile hike is one of the easiest to gain the summit of a 14er, except when busting through three or more feet of powder in a steep fir forest from about 11,300 to 12,000 feet. High winds over the tundra often blow most of the snow off the mountain and into the forest below.
From the Denny Creek trailhead at about 10,000 feet in elevation, I hiked north on an early summer day up a steep, old mining road. The temperature was in the mid-50s and I wore a thin fleece, but was hot and sweating within a half-hour. At one mile, I passed a flat area near Denny Creek that is used by dispersed campers who want an early-morning start for their ascent. I was starting in mid-afternoon, aware with almost complete certainty that no possibility of rain was forecast.
The trail narrowed and split at the junction with the Hartenstein Lake and Browns Pass Trail, found 1.5 miles from the trailhead at 10,700 feet. I turned east onto switchbacks through pine and aspen stands before emerging into a meadow with dense willow brush bordering the creek through Delaney Gulch — an ideal snowshoe hare habitat. Globeflower and marsh marigold were blooming on the soggy wetland, surrounding streams formed by the melting snow. After passing through a thicket of willows, I turned sharply east at 11,280 feet and 2.5 miles to begin ascending the steeper slope of Yale through dense fir forest.
After two hours of hiking at an average speed of 2 miles an hour with a gain of 2,000 feet in elevation, I broke out of the forest at the south end of the mountain. With a stiff breeze hitting me on the exposed tundra, I pulled my down jacket out of my pack. I took a break to eat trail bars, finish my first liter of water and watch marmots roaming among the boulder fields and patches of blooming blue alpine Forget-Me-Not.
An hour later, I crossed the tundra over a few patches of boot-deep, slushy snow and reached the chute below the saddle north of the summit at 13,000 feet. With slow, deliberate steps I reached the saddle, four hours from the start and 5 miles from the trailhead at 250 vertical feet from the summit. The final 0.3 miles took an hour as I picked my way across the tumble of rock spires on the west face of the ridge, hands in play to steady my balance while I stepped across the edges of massive boulders.
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I paused for a moment to enjoy a view that spanned for at least a dozen miles: Mount Harvard and Mount Columbia directly to the north, Gladstone Ridge (12,651 feet) and Sheep Mountain (11,933 feet) to the south. With the sun sinking low over the Continental Divide I headed down the mountain, soon emptying my second liter-bottle of ice water. I met my goal of reaching tree line before darkness enveloped the forest and arrived at the trailhead three hours after leaving the summit. My overall pace of only 1.2 miles an hour was a bit slow, but I could excuse myself for the presence of a few snow patches, a cautious pace on the dark forest trail and the satisfaction of conquering my first 14er of the summer.
How to get there
The Denny Creek trailhead is 70 miles from Copper Mountain. Take Highway 91 south to Leadville over Freemont Pass. At Leadville, continue south on U.S. Highway 24 to Buena Vista. Turn right, heading west, onto West Main Street (Chaffee County Road 306) and follow Middle Cottonwood Creek for 10 miles to Denny Creek trailhead, a mile past Collegiate Peaks National Forest Campground. Mount Yale is northeast of the trailhead parking area.
Author Kim Fenske has written extensively on hiking trails throughout Colorado. His writing includes: "Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado: Summit and Eagle Counties," and "Hiking Colorado: Holy Cross Wilderness," available from Amazon Kindle Books.
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