Trailhead Elevation: 10,884 ft.
Summit Elevation: 14,197 ft.
Distance: 7.99 mi.
Elevation Gain: 3,295 ft.
Start Time: 6:10am
Summit Time: 10:52am (14 minutes on top)
End Time: 2:32pm
Trip Report:For my father and I, many fresh memories were existent of Princeton having been up there just 9 years ago. I usually describe it with one accurate phrase "a big pile of rocks". We were staying in the Buena Vista area and this appeared to be a good choice to take my young boys on while also taking advantage of my Dad's 4WD truck to cut the distance down. We know this isn't the easiest of the 14ers in the area, but with the 4WD we could make it close enough. My youngest son had a rough experience on Uncompahgre and we could see he wasn't ready for another hike so we left him at home. My older two accompanied us on this climb and did really well.
We wanted to get on the 4WD early so that we wouldn't have to worry about parking up by the radio towers. We targeted getting up there by 6am. The Mt. Princeton road was the typically narrow 4WD road. Unlike the Nellie Creek road which we had done 5 days ago, this road had very few rocks. Its main difficulties were just erosion ruts in the dirt. There was some exposure as the road moved up higher and higher. When we got to the radio towers we found a handful of vehicles there already and we were able to find a spot to park off the road. It was 5:51am when we got in and 6:10a when we hit the trail.
The first mile and a half is on the 4WD road. We found two more parking areas with a handful of vehicles and a number of peoples camping. As we got started there were more and more vehicles coming up to park and people passing us on the road. We had some fun when my father tried to move a large rock off the road. He picked it up and began to toss it onto the uphill side of the road. As he started to do so I was thinking "that's not going to work!". Sure enough the rock rolled down back onto the road. Then he took it and put it gently on the downhill side. My boys would have fun razzing him about this the rest of the hike as trying to throw rocks uphill.
At 1.5 miles in we found the very obvious junction for the Mt. Princeton trail. It begins with a well made rock staircase that heads up into a beautiful grassy trail that leaves the last of the small trees. We hiked up onto the low end of Princeton's east ridge and then took a quick break for food and sunscreen. Another 3/10 of a mile ahead the grass and dirt end and it became a rock haul the rest of the way. In here my boys began to impress. Where on the road we had been passed by nearly everyone, in the rocks the boys moved really well and we began to catch a few groups.
In the rocks it had a similar feel to what I remembered from 2008. The trail is relatively easy to follow and is mostly just hiking a clear path through countless numbers of rocks. In a few places rockslides had come down over the trail meaning there were a few larger rocks to climb over, but nothing of any technical challenge. As we made our way further along Princeton's east slopes we could see the outline of the trail heading deep into the mountain. We couldn't see, however, where it would ascend up to the ridge crest. We had pictured it would happen deep into the bowl, and thought this was what we had done in 2008 as well. We were surprised to see that the trail heads up a series of switchbacks on a steep grassy slope. We thought this was different from 2008 but I now know it wasn't. When we found the turn to head up this slope there were a series of rocks and a cairn piled into the trail to point hikers upwards. There was trail beyond this rock pile going straight ahead implying an older route. Some hikers had gone that way today and we presume into more difficult terrain to make the ridge.
The climb up the steep grassy slope wore the boys down and I had to give Jonah good encouragement to get him up it. I really could see on this hike that when the boys' minds were distracted and occupied, they hiked better. Today's game was to hum music tunes to each other to see if the other could figure it out. At the ridge crest we took a break and the boys found nice "seats" in the rocks.
The ridge crest involved following cairns in the slope just off the ridge crest. Nothing technical in here, just plenty of work to maneuver through all the rock and to find the easiest route. There was another saddle at about 13,500 where we took stock of things and could see the copious amounts of people working through the rocks on the summit slope. It was evident there was no single route in the rock. The weather was holding for us today so we pushed upwards as well. My father and Luke worked ahead of Jonah and I. They made pretty good time and summited at 10:41am. Jonah was getting worn out and I again had to really encourage him onwards. He was about ready to lay down and quit but I kept encouraging him forward. We were able to summit about 10 minutes after the others finding perhaps 25 people on top. We got talking to a number of nice other hikers, so much so that I really didn't get any summit photos and barely remembered to eat anything.
On the way down each boy began moving really well. They do handle the rocks and steep descents with good grace. We took varying routes down from the summit slopes to the higher saddle where things leveled out into the ridge. Here the boys really enjoyed finding cairns and route-finding back to the grassy slope descent. We took another nice break before the descent. As we worked our way through the rocks the boys enjoyed "contributing" to the mountain by adding small rocks to the many cairns that were present. It was a good way for them to pass the time on the way out. We also enjoyed more of our humming and light singing to see who could guess what the music was from. It was a delight to get back out to the grassy trail and off the rocks where a more reasonable pace could be had. We didn't run into many people on the descent. Everyone ahead seemed to stay ahead, and everyone behind seemed to stay behind. Thankfully the weather held up nicely and we had pockets of sun for much of the descent and the walk out.