| Weird clouds and many many rocks
We camped out Sunday night in one of the forest service campgrounds just past the hot springs resort. Got a fairly relaxed start the next morning, arriving at paved trailhead next to the dude ranch around 7.
I had already decided to cut the hike in half by driving up to the radio towers in our Subaru Forester. I was hoping that since it was a Monday, it wouldn't be too crowded for the limited number or parking spots up there. Hate to drive all the way up only to have to turn around and drive back down. The bouncy, fun ride to the radio towers ended up being the best part of this hike, for me.
A few words on the road - I had checked the trailhead status postings and saw a variety of different takes on the road. Some people warned it was for 4x4 with high clearance only, hinting that smaller SUVs wouldn't make it. Others said a stock little SUV would be fine. I decided to risk it to avoid hiking for miles up a dirt road.
Anyway, the road was totally fine for a Forester like vehicle (AWD, manual, totally stock with 8.7" ground clearance). I was never close to bottoming out, and the smaller size was probably a bonus because there were one or two tight turns that would have been a little tricky in a large SUV or big pickup. The road is NOT very rocky, mostly dirt and dust. You will be driving over some roots, some rocky bits, but the parts that a little clearance and AWD come in handy are the big sharp bumps and dips. A lot of these are in the bends of turns in the road.
Let me say I am NOT an off road enthusiast and have absolutely NO skills or training as such. I only know to take it slow and plan your tires route through the next little bit you can see in front of you. That being said, I had a blast! The Forester did great and has a thing where it will transfer power to certain tires as needed, and sort of "scoot" you ahead if you need a little extra push to get through something. Awesome fun!!
Beware - the road is VERY narrow in most places and I am very grateful we did not happen to come upon someone coming from the other direction. Would have been interesting I am sure.
Drove the 3.1 miles to the radio towers and found only 1 of about 4 spots taken. Parked there and started hiking. The next bit is just walking further on the road. Easy walking but not too exciting. Some good views of the valley below.
We saw a few campsites and a handful of parking spots a little ways up the road from the radio towers. I would say there are about 6-8 real parking spots from the radio towers up, depending of course on how everyone there parks.
We shortly came to the spot where the hiking trail leaves the road, with a series of stone steps leading up the hill to the right.
This was the prettiest part of the hike, the classic little meandering footpath above the trees, through the alpine tundra with lots of green and little flowers and plants.
At this point we noticed a dark ominous cloud hovering over the summit. Looked more like noon than 8:30 am!
We didn't see any lightning or hear any thunder, so we decided to keep going for a bit and keep an eye on it. Soon we came to the least fun part of the hike - the rocky bits. Normally I really enjoy a nice class two mountain goat style hopping from rock to rock, and even scrambling with hands and feet in steeper parts. A lot of the 14ers I have done have that kind of thing the last push to the summit along a nice ridge. But on Mt Princeton, you are basically hiking up a pile of rocks for the last half of the hike. Many are loose and wobbly and they can make following the trail a little difficult.
Start of the rocky part -- pretty much sucks from here.
So the trail kind of stays well below a ridge to your left. At some point obviously you need to gain the ridge to your left to make your way up the summit ridge. Problem is, there seemed to be no good place to get from this trail up to the ridge. For me, it can be tough to see piles of rocks (cairns) amongst a pile of rocks (the whole ridge). Adding to the difficulty, it seems everyone has just picked their own rabbit trail and made a cairn there. Plus, there are frequent areas that look like the snow melt runoff spots, creating a natural sluice. These look a little like trails but are very loose dirt and rocks and I don't recommend following them.
So like everyone else, we just picked our way up to the ridge at a certain point, kicking loose many rocks and eventually getting to the summit ridge. I am sure there is a better way, please don't do what we did. It was the hiking equivalent of eating brussel sprouts.
From part way up the summit ridge, looking back down on the ridge we scrambled to below -
And closer to the summit itself -
Views were great! And the weather held, clouds all over but nothing bad. Kept the sun from beating down on us, so that was nice. I really do love many of the 14ers I have been on, but Mt Princeton is definitely not in my top 10, not even close. Views are good, drive up is a blast, but the actually hiking and lack of beauty on the trail were disappointing. It's not very physically demanding, but picking your way over the rocks takes some time.
Another cool thing - while on the summit, some low clouds rolled over, into the little valley on the east face, covering the trail we came up on. They blew away pretty quickly, but it was cool to see it from above.
Anyway, we had an uneventful hike down and a fun drive down. Took us about 4 hours (slow slow going on the rocks). Hope this trip report helps anyone who was hoping to climb Mt Princeton soon and is looking for recent info about conditions, drive in, etc.
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