My last day and I wake early and waste no time in hitting the trail. I’m not exactly sure how many miles it will be until I am out to the car today. My recollection of the initial part of today’s trail is one of difficult downhill with a strong chance of blowdowns. I’ve only been on this trail once a few years ago, but I remember it being a bit of a grind.
Before long I pass the camp of the two gals I met late yesterday afternoon. There is an empty hammock but it seems too early for them to be up and about. There is also a tent and it makes me wonder if the tree sleeper got cold or timid during the night and elected to move into the tent with her friend.
The trail is indeed steep downhill for the first few miles but then levels out and I don’t remember this part from my previous journey here. I run into a gentleman that is hiking in to meet a friend. He tells me that he and his friend spend a lot of time every year doing trail maintenance around the state. Last year his friend cleared over 40 dead trees off the section that I just came through! I’m reminded of how much volunteers do for our trails and wilderness areas. I thank him for the work that he does and make a note that I need to get involved in such projects; either organized with a group of just with a friend on weekends throughout the year. It’s a great way to get outdoors, do some camping and take care of trails that need work.
I’m soon on very familiar terrain at the Colorado Trail again. This is the trailhead for the beginning of Segment 4 and I anticipate that I will begin running into some backpackers. This also begins an uphill stretch of just over 1,000’ over the next 4.5 miles. I’ve been on this stretch of trail more times than I can count in my head whether it was a day hike, multi-day backpack trip or trail run. I’m motivated as I move up the old wide road anticipating beautiful aspen forests.
I re-enter the Lost Creek Wilderness proper and bump into a group of three weekend backpackers. I plan to stop where the Payne Creek Trail heads north off the CT and have breakfast there. I arrive around 9:00 and partake of nutrients with two guys and dogs that are doing a two night loop. They have come off the Payne Creek trail and have not yet decided on a loop. I pull out my map and we take a look at it as I offer suggestions for potential loops. I make sure that they know about the tricky signage farther along the trail and in a bit I bid them adieu and make my way northwest.
I’m looking forward to this last stretch of trail. I have about nine more miles back to the car and I only know a small portion of this trail having hiked it with Pam a few years back. The tread is in great shape and I make good time. I’ve got some sore calves but I feel pretty good considering I’ve covered over 70 miles in the last three and a half days. Eventually I come to a low point in the valley and Craig Creek. It’s a pretty beautiful spot and the three backpackers I had seen earlier are looking for a camping spot. They’ll have a full day to relax and fish. Great for them!
Climbing out of Craig Creek, the breeze is strong but not so much that I would classify it as windy. The trail moves upward, the sky is bright blue with patchy white clouds. It is mid June and the world is alive here! Wildflowers are emerging in earnest, perhaps the greatest number I’ve seen in a concentrated area yet this year. Summer, officially a few days away on the calendar, is making its presence known in this part of the Platte River Mountains. I stop frequently to snap photos of this palette that broadens out in front of me. Butterflies flit about everywhere. Tiger Swallowtails dominate the scene, big, bold, yellow and airy as they ride the breezes landing upon flower after flower. I chase after them time and time again attempting to capture them on film.
Authors note: I must confess that this scene plays back in my mind as I write this in December. I have been obstreperous over the past six months, running wildly throughout Colorado, hiking, running, hunting, touring and having a wonderful time. Penning the last day of this trip had fallen off my radar, but now as Iook over my excursions of 2017 this few hour period finishing off this trip was one of the very best highlights of the year.
Backpacking in Colorado can be a fickle mistress. The season is relatively short, especially if you want to be in the high country. Much of that time can be spent dodging storms or drying out gear. One can get sucked into the trap that it’s all butterflies and meadows, stargazing while cowboy camping with no need for a tent. I’ve chatted with a friend about this and if you read the outdoors magazines you can be caught off guard once you arrive in the backcountry and experience it firsthand.
But on that day it was just like one envisions it to be. It is what calls to me now as I daydream looking out my window behind the keyboard of a laptop, thinking about trips for 2018 and nights spent afield. The few challenging days spent afield are wiped from my mental hard drive when I think back to finishing out this fourth day.
As I make my way up this trail I have now slowed down to the appropriate pace for observing nature. I am like a toddler, distracted by all that is amazing to me. A butterfly here, a flower growing out of a rock there, the colors are vibrant, more amazing than any colorwheel I have seen in art classes. I move into a magnificent aspen grove that moves from a draw, fed by a stream up and over the ridge of the mountain. I yearn to spend a night or two right here, to set camp, to wander aimlessly from ridge to ridge, aspen grove to deep timber, and back to another aspen grove. What treasures lie here? What is there to discover? How many come through this trail and how many venture off of it to find what lies in the deeper forest and timber? These questions are ones that force me to make mental notes, bookmarking this area in my mind as one that I need to come back to in the future. Much more exploration is necessary and I desire to learn the lay of this land, close enough from the trailhead that one can arrive here in a quick morning but far enough away that there won’t be much company.
I crest the top of the trail and enter the north side of the mountain, now moving into dark timber and making my way farther north. The trail becomes rockier, rather steep and trickier to navigate. I begin to run into people making their way south. They inquire about where I’ve come from and ask “how much farther to the aspen groves?” I try to give an accurate answer, but I’m never sure whether I’m much help with that or not. Groups travel much slower than individuals, much less gaining elevation on a rocky trail. I default to the “Romanian Answer”, trying to be as helpful as possible, offering hope, but knowing they are really on their own after I leave them.
I make my way easily back to the trailhead where I’ve left the car. Over four days I’ve not encountered a single drop of rain. This has been a great trip. I’m happy about the loop through this vast US Wilderness area, and excited that I have yet to visit every trail here, prompting reason to return and bring friends along.