Walking to Durango, the Trek Comes to a Close

Scanning my campsite in the dark, my headlight shines in the area where I am packing my gear up for the last time this trip. I walk down the trail, having rested for longer than any time of the last ten days, with exception of my zero day in Lake City. I make my way to Indian Trail Ridge proper just as the sky brightens through the trees.

I am rewarded with serenely beautiful, warmly lit skies to the east. My decision to wait a day is confirmed as a good one. It is calm, it is peaceful, it is perfect. The undulating trail is stout enough to cause me to breathe more deeply at times. I stop frequently to capture the light on the ridge, at times jogging back and forth on the trail to get the best images that my phone will allow. It is at times breathtaking and heart rending. The day dawns on me figuratively and literally. This is my last day on trail and like so many before me have said, it is bittersweet. I am more than ready to be with my family and comforts of home, but will miss the time alone on trail and waking up to such beauty outside my tent door.

I make much better time than anticipated and descend down to Taylor Lake. There is nobody camped there, to my surprise, and I stop to filter some water, have breakfast and my morning coffee. Within 20 minutes I am off again finishing segment 27 proper and embarking on the final 21.5 mile segment. I climb through Kennebec Pass and again am moving downhill toward Durango. I’ll descend 6,557 feet by the time I reach the end of the trail in Durango.

Having cell service, I take the opportunity to call Pam and Jamie to let them know my ETA. I cross Junction Creek numerous times and am in shade for the whole morning. It was cool at the start of my day and I haven’t needed much water. After twelve or so miles I stop to take another break, eat something and reflect.

I cross a nice bridge over Junction Creek and then begin what will be the last climb of the Colorado Trail. I’m

fifteen miles into my day and have a four mile climb before the downhill to the end. All of the descending has caused the tib anterior muscle in my left leg to get a little angry; what some might call shin splints but it actuality is just an overused muscle issue from the long downhill stretch. It’s annoying and affects my gait a little bit; one last surprise that the Colorado Trail has for me before I finish.

13.3 miles from the end and about 16 miles into my day I stop to filter water for the last time. I fill both 23 ounce bottles that I have and deem it enough to carry me through roughly a half marathon. I make a note on the Guthooks app about the water source. “Good flow if you have a scoop. Maybe enough to carry you home! Almost there!”

I continue the short climb but am acutely aware that it is much warmer now. I’m now at an elevation of 9016′ and as I continue to descend the landscape changes around me. Junipers begin to dominate the scene, along with a pebbly trail and more arid climes. I spy a horned lizard, the first that I have ever seen. He obliges for a photo or two.

Horned lizard

Before I top out on the uphill section I meet a woman having a snack. She is finishing the trail today as well, having section hiked it over a few years much as I have. She is only the second hiker I have seen today and we congratulate each other on our endeavors. She is yet one more interesting person that I have had the privilege to meet on the trail. I bid her goodbye and am grateful for the encounter, buoying my spirits.

I top the climb and begin the last ten miles home! I snap a photo of my watch and figure with a good pace I can knock this out in three miles. It is 1:05 pm.

A much smaller horned lizard

But now it feels really warm, much warmer than anything I have experienced in the last week. I had not counted on the effect of the lower elevation and the increasing heat, while certainly not hot, it is much warmer than I have been used to. I decide to stop, take a break and air my feet out. I relax, with my socks and shoes off and even attempt to catch a little nap. Pam, Jamie and his son will be walking in to meet me but I don’t expect to see them before the last four miles.

Further down the trail I’m now consuming copious amounts of water, far more than I have at any other time. It feels really hot now and with about six or seven miles to go I have consumed the last of my liquids. I intentionally slow down because I don’t want tot have a bad experience here at the very end. There is one more water source, but I think I will see Pam and Jamie before that.

But now I am beginning to sidle along. My speed has dropped considerably and I just don’t feel very good. I think to myself that I have come 225 miles in the last ten days, I am merely five miles from the end and I am beginning to flounder. My pride takes a hit and I worry about the woman behind coming up on me as I walk around in a stupor. I keep checking my watch to determine where I am at on the trail. I hope to see Pam and Jamie at Gudy’s Rest, a bench at an overlook that commemorates the “mother of the Colorado Trail”, Gudy Gaskill.

I get to Gudy’s Rest and have a seat. It is am impressive bench, big enough to lie down on, it begs me to take a nap and I toss off my back and decide to just sleep for a little bit. As I drift off, I begin to hear voices below me, a woman’s voice. Pam! I hop off the bench and strain to see down onto the trail below me. I can see the trail on the other side of Junction Creek but it is too steep directly below me to see the switchbacked trail where the voices are coming from. I hesitate to yell down below and instead quickly don my pack and grab my trekking poles.

I have been instantly rejuvenated and think to myself, “I only have four miles to go! Get off your ass and get moving!” It is the motivation I need to finish this thing out. Moving quickly down the trail I hit one switchback and then another. I can hear Pam’s voice and then Jamie’s, I think I even hear the higher pitch of Jamie’s son as well. Tears begin to well behind my glasses and I get a little emotional at the thought of seeing the three of them.

Finally, I see them as they being to come up the trail and we are all moving toward a switchback where we will be reunited. Except it is not them. It is a man and woman hiking up the trail on a day hike. Ugh. My spirits are deflated. I immediately put on a fake smile, “Why hello! It’s a beautiful day isn’t it? Enjoy your hike!” And as I pass them, my emotions change from one of elation to feigning agitation. “Where in the hell are they? I need some water and food!”

But, alas, another half mile and I now see them in the flesh, sitting on the trail. And I am so glad to see them. Jamie has really cold water in his backpack. As I sip out of his Camelbak tube I don’t think I have tasted such good, clean, fresh, cold water before. Pam has snacks for me, I hug her and I plop down on the trail next to Jamie’s son. It feels so good to eat, drink and see my friends and wife.

From here on out it is a day hike with friends. The last three miles take longer than I would like. I don’t yearn for more miles, to have it last forever, today, I just want to be done. As we finally come to the end of the trail I have been thinking about how I will have my photo taken at the trail head for the traditional photo commemorating finishing the Colorado Trail. I decide to do handstand.

Note: It is now weeks after I have finished the trail as I write this. I began this trail with a group of people and finished a large portion of it by myself. Over the past few years I have done more and more solo backpacking. Going solo is such a different experience than hiking with others. This past Labor Day weekend Pam and I backpacked segments 9, 10 and part of 11 going from Tennessee Pass to Twin Lakes Village. I hope to accompany both Pam and Jamie as they too, complete the Colorado Trail.

Recounting my trip via this blog has also been an enjoyable experience for me. I think now about this trail and I don’t think I am done with it. I often think about “my legacy” and what I will leave behind once my days trekking this earth are done. Unfortunately our relationships that we build over our lifetimes diminish once we are gone. We have memories and oral history but they disappear over time. For me, I feel my writing is a way to preserve my history and experiences. So with that, I would love to write a few books before I am gone. I think one may be about a northbound thru hike of the Colorado Trail, taken more slowly, more intentionally. Another would be about trekking in Romania, another place I love and would like to explore more, visiting villages and getting to know people in different parts of a country that I love.

All of this presents some serious challenges, risk of perceived failure if nobody gives a damn about a book that I might write and changes in my life in the near future. But it is fun to think about. Happy trails to all of you and thanks for reading along about my adventures.

Professor Nature

Autumn officially arrives in eight days. I took the photo above pausing to rest and reflect, in the mountains of Colorado, while pursuing elk during archery season. The three weeks of the season thus far has proved incredible. I’ve seen or heard game every day except one, afield this season.

I’ve had to relearn to slow down, to be still, to listen, to observe, to be intentional but not predictable. I’ve bugled back and forth to bull elk and been in a staring contest. Each day the elk outsmarts me means an additional day observing an amazing world.

Sure, I could observe nature without hunting, but I would not stay afield until dark. It would mean missing out on the beauty of a bull elk’s white ivory tipped tine as I catch his face in my binoculars.

I arise at 4:00 am to walk back into the Aspen forest in the pre dawn light. I wait and listen for a bull to bugle first and give away his location. He remains silent, forcing me to walk noisily in the forest. So the game goes, me learning new lessons by living in his world for a short time.

So too, have I learned new lessons from bears, deer, turkeys, pine squirrels, grouse, bees, ants, crickets and grasshoppers. I’ve witnessed the Aspens morph from chartreuse green to brilliant orange to golden yellow.

In my 53rd year I am grateful for a worn but healthy body to continue to be taught by mother nature. Spending much time outdoors in different recreational activities every year offers a multitude of perspectives. In this I pray I function better in comunity with my own species, the human race. My wish is to learn and never know it all, for how mundane and boring would that be?

Summer Clings Like Raindrops

Raindrops settle on Aspen leaves,

A breeze may send them to earth,

The leaf soon becoming bronze,

It’s job as a shelf finite.

While high up on mountain peak,

Snow already forms,

Relentless in its pursuit,

To hasten autumn days.

While summer clings,

Like drops on an Aspen leaf.

Day 8 – A Ridgeline Walk and Orphan Butts!

I have slept well because I don’t remember much about it. This drainage is supposed to be loaded with elk according to things I’ve read, but I have not seen nor heard wapiti since I arrived here last night. Just like elk…they are hard to pattern.

I get an early start, but I don’t really know why. After speaking with Jerry Brown last evening I change my plans for my last two days. I am just 47 miles from Durango. Originally, I planned to go 23 miles a day plus some change. It would be a great relaxing way to finish the Colorado Trail. But, the trail changes you and you learn to adapt. One does not act overconfidently on this trail. I heed the advice of Jerry meaning I’ll go just 17 today. Which also means I’ll want to cover 30 the final day; it will be a challenge right up to the end.

Up I go for just a 6/10 of a mile in the dark, ascending Blackhawk Pass. I’m rewarded with another pretty sunrise to begin my day. I only go another two miles and I have to stop to get more water. This water stop presents my biggest decision of the day. I potentially will not be able to get water for 22 more miles; meaning I may need to make my water last all through today and tomorrow morning until I get to Taylor Lake. There are potentially one or two sources. My two resources refer to them as “seasonal spring source”, “sometimes find water trickle on trail” and “a small seep”. This did not inspire enough confidence for me to risk only traveling with 46 ounces of water, so I “camel up” and fill my Platypus container with two and a half additional liters of water.

 

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Sunrise from Blackhawk Pass

 

This puts a challenge into my “short” day and I move on. The good news is I only have to go 15 more miles and my day is done. I’m looking forward to the short day and not thinking about the long day that will come tomorrow. I have plans to get to a nice camp, read, nap and eat. I am excited!

 

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The photo belies the vertical nature of the trail

 

It’s an uphill trek for the first part of the morning, then most of the way is a really cool ridge walk. I had looked over this particular section of trail on topographic maps because of the reputation of Indian Trail Ridge. I have had the words of David Fanning from his book, Voices of the Colorado Trail, (I highly recommend this book) running through my head for the last day and a half. In David’s words, speaking about lightning on the exposed ridge, he says, “I once spent a terrifying 45 minutes in a lightning posture, preparing to meet my maker on this ridge!”

But I’m miles from that area and for now I have tremendous views to my left which is looking east into large green drainages and then heavy timber of the San Juan National Forest. Directly to my right and the west all I can see is heavy timber, and I walk the ridge line between the two.

 

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Miles of views like this looking east off the ridge walk

 

I have posted a topo map of the ridge below, if you find interest in such maps it is interesting to look at. Looking at the map later I see that I was literally walking the county line between La Plata County and Montezuma County. Who knew?

 

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I’m struggling a bit as I reach the ten mile mark. As per usual, after a solid but strenuous effort the previous day, I’m feeling less than stellar. The additional five and a half pounds of water handicaps me a bit. I toss off my pack at one of the beautiful overlooks and make myself some mashed potatoes and a cup of coffee. I enjoy sitting on my little seat pad and leaning up against a log, relaxing during my mid morning break.

The calories and break do the job and I’m feeling better as I move on. I keep my eyes on

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Grizzled

the skies, knowing that their is a forecast for heavy rain right in the area where I plan to camp. I’ll be low enough that I may get wet, but I’ll be safe. I keep scanning the terrain in front of me trying to get an idea of what Indian Trail Ridge will look like. What I have pictured in my mind will likely be different from what it is really like. All morning I wrestle with the name Indian Trail Ridge, often thinking of it as Indian Ridge Trail. It’s embarrassing how many times I pull my databook out to re-check the name.

Another name that I have had a lot of fun with since last evening was Orphan Butte. Connie, the woman that was with Jerry last evening, told me that they were planning on camping there tonight. All morning long I shout out loud “Orphan Butt” and then I laugh at my own juvenile joke. I find it even funnier because I worked with orphans for two and a half years in Romania and saw my share of orphan butts! “Orphan Butt, Orphan Butt” I yell, which at any other time would be ridiculous but since I’m here all alone I can act in a childish fashion when I want to. I guess I’ll never grow up!

Sure enough, I come along the trail just east of Orphan Butte and while I do not see any orphans or butts, I see a ton of coyote shit. It’s so thick that the Colorado Trail must be their personal highway. It’s frequent enough that it smells like dog doo along this part of the trail in particular stretches. And as I look at Orphan Butte, I’m a little disappointed. The name is better than the landmark in my opinion.

The clouds begin building overhead now as it gets close to 1:00. I come to the “seasonal spring source” and wander around in the swampy area. There is definitely water here but most of it is in the form of a spongy mess. I go back and forth and then find a little pool where I can dip my scoop so that I can put it into my Sawyer bag to filter. My scoop is actually a tennis ball container that has had the top cut off. I love this little piece of equipment because it came from my wife, Pam, an avid tennis player. I have had it for years now. Every time I use it I think of her and it always brings a smile to my face. Once done, it works as a great container for both the rolled up bag and my filter, fitting right into the side pocket of my pack, next to my water bottle.

 

 

I fill the bottles in a hurry and realize that I probably did not drink enough water up to this point of the day. But it was a quandary because if I had drank copious amounts of water it would have left me short for dinner tonight and my first eight miles tomorrow. The skies continue to darken, preparing for the beatdown that will occur shortly. I’m pleasantly surprised because this whole area is still heavily timbered, not exposed. If I can get to the campsite and set my shelter, I’ll be in good shape. It’s 4/10 of a mile and 210 feet uphill on the switchback trail. I’m hauling ass now, really wanting to have camp set before a big old storm lets loose. It feels really good to huff and puff up the switchbacks and I’m shortly at a nice campsite, higher up from the dampness of the water below. A nice fir tree provides good shelter in addition to my tent and I’m safely in camp before the storm.

 

camp

After a rough start, the shelter performs admirably for the trip

 

I read, I nap, I giggle at the fact that I am done for the day and lounging in camp. There is a bright flash, then there is a violent crack of thunder; ear splitting loud. I contemplate putting in my ear plugs, but it’s sort of cool. I feel safe here, so I’m not concerned about that. The rain sprinkles but never pours. After some time it stops and I make myself dinner.

I walk out to the overlook which is a 270 degree view of the area that I came through earlier in the day. I see two other tents and talk at length with a couple who has been section hiking the trail for a few years and will be finishing in a few days.

 

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Panorama from the Overlook

 

 

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Sun battles clouds

 

After sitting out at the overlook for a time, I walk back to the CT proper and go a tenth of a mile to another “seep”. This water source is not as good as the one further back the trail, but I play around and form a pour off using a small triangle shaped rock which acts as a tiny spout. It would require patience, but one could fill a bottle here in an emergency. I make a note in the Guthooks app regarding what I’ve done. Who knows, perhaps it will aid another traveler in a few days or a week if it continues to rain.

Once back at my tent I count the remaining calories that I have for tomorrow’s 30 mile finale. I have 2200 calories if I eat everything I have with me. I really need to finish tomorrow or I’ll be foraging for food! I shoot a note off to Pam to please bring along some snacks. She and Jamie will be hiking in to meet me tomorrow.

Meddling about camp I don’t see a woman twenty yards away. “Are you Matt?”

I reply that I am and I realize it is Connie from last evening. She looks different not being crouched down inside a tent. “Jerry and I were wondering all day if you made it across Indian Trail Ridge. He thought that you might because you’re pretty fast.”

I laugh out loud, “No, I listened to Jerry’s sage advice and decided to camp here for tonight. I’m wise enough to listen to experience!”

“Oh, I’m not telling Jerry that, it will go to his head! Were you up here for that storm? It was intense.”

I tell Connie that I was and that it was not too bad. She makes her way back down the trail the half mile to where she and Jerry decided to camp for the night, below the Cape of Good Hope. They want to be able to get up and off Indian Trail Ridge first thing in the morning, as is the case with all of us camped here.

The interactions with the other people on the trail adds to the whole experience of being here. Moving solo brings about a completely different experience than partnering with another person hiking the trail. But not having much interaction would make it a much lonelier experience. When I run into people on trail or retell stories at home and relay to them I have not seen anybody for nearly a day, they think it to be a wonderful thing. And while it sounds nice, most have not spent days primarily alone in the wilderness. I crave the solitude at times, but also am a person of community as are most people at heart. There are very few people that do well without any social interaction. We truly do need each other and being alone for long stretches reminds me of that fact. While I may be able to exist with an independent approach on trail, I appreciate the differences and diversity in people, and each of them have something to teach me, if I am wise enough to listen to their story.

Day 7 – Soaring Spirits

I’m a morning person. My best energy and attitude generally is as I wake and then it drifts as the day goes on. With backpacking by the time I crawl in my tent I’m spent. It is then that I think about the days remaining on the trip, how residual fatigue begins to build, and my motivation can then wane. A message from my wife, Pam, will do wonders to help me re-focus. “You are doing an amazing thing” she writes. Am I?

When I awake each morning on the trail I observe in wonder how the body can recover from day to day. This morning I am grateful for the pit toilet at the campground. Not so

frost

Frost frequents Colorado’s high country

much that I can sit on a toilet, because I don’t mind squatting, but I tire of digging cat holes and bagging used toilet paper to haul back out of the mountains. (Yes, I believe in doing this now. I didn’t always do it, but it has become a big enough problem, that I firmly believe in the Leave No Trace principles.)

I sleep in until 5:00 and take my time getting moving at 5:55. Before it is barely light I can make out a mule deer buck bedded 50 yards off the trail. I’m surprised he just stares at me and doesn’t stand up. I barely move further down the trail when I see a small group of elk off in the distance. They are much more wary, and even at 500 yards or more I stand out to them and they move away. I count eighteen, making it a great morning and I have not walked more than a mile thus far. Before I get to where the elk were at I see another mule deer.

I cross Highway 550, which seems like playing Frogger after so many miles on a dirt trail. I’m now on segment 25 proper and it’s a continued wildlife bonanza this morning. I see a pair of bucks, then four does a few minutes after them. I have a very light spirit this morning as I make my way toward Durango, still 72 miles away. I only have three days left and now I am beginning to grieve the end of this time on trail. I intend to move more slowly in my head today; observing, taking photos and seeing the smaller things.

 

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Deer strike the perfect pose and spacing for me!

 

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Throughout the San Juans the geological layering is impressive

 

The landscape becomes more open, with vast, expansive views of amazing striated mountains. Photos do not do them justice so I try to commit them to memory. There is a feeling as I walk in the early morning that is palpable. It’s a committed memory, something that I know I can always reflect upon with a sense of awe and wonder; a memory that will always take my breath away, cause my heart to skip a beat or bring immediate lacrimation. A week afoot on trail has shed the “toughness” that needed to be tenderized. I have realized that I am fairly insignificant in the scope of this amazing world, that I am vulnerable, reminded that all that separates me from this world, I carry on my back. My resume, my accomplishments, my bank account and my worldly possessions mean nothing to the deer, elk, mountains, sky, clouds and grandeur that surrounds me.

 

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Yellowing Corn Husk Lily hints at autumn approaching

The trail is “all day trail” and even though I am at 11,500′, it feels like I am at sea level. The steps are effortless, the body feels grand and the grades are manageable. After days in the tundra, I am happy and “at home” back in sub alpine forest. The trail flirts with tree line only rising above it a few times during my day as I cross a “low” pass of 12,500′.

Different spots of the mountains appear jade like green in nature. I ask a mountain biker if he knows anything about the local geology, hoping to find out why the sides of the mountain are green. I find out he is not from the area, but from Utah and is riding to Durango on a supported bike trip along with two friends. I see quite a few cyclists today along with a few trail runners, but not many backpackers.

I continue to see single and pairs of deer throughout the day. I pass my now third herd of sheep for the trip and even though I could see the sheepherders tent from a distance, once I arrive at the actual flock, there is little order to the group. They are wandering everywhere doing their own thing, very different from yesterday’s herd. I wonder if the sheepherders of Colorado are anything like the ones I had met when I lived in Romania, for those fellows also made friends with the local brandy while out tending sheep; which could account for a missing sheepherder if he is sleeping one off in his tent.

 

moresheep

 

A new plant begins to emerge in this part of the state. Corn Husk Lily nearly creates the feeling of walking through a tunnel on certain parts of the trail. It seems to proliferate at the elevation where the landscape changes from sub-alpine to alpine, right at tree line. Perhaps due to the severe drought that western Colorado is experiencing it is drying out and yellow in nature; but it makes for a striking contrast and also a reminder that the short Colorado summers are coming to an end and autumn is approaching. Many wildflowers past their peak confirm the pending change of season.

 

 

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I move out of segment 25 at Bolam Pass Road and move on to the short segment 26 without missing a beat. The skies turn a little darker and it begins raining hard enough to warrant my rain jacket, of which I have not used in a few days. Now with just a few hours of light remaining, and having not seen anybody for a some time, the feeling of loneliness creeps in. It’s amazing how the mood can change throughout the day; not as in a bad mood, but merely experiencing and acknowledging the change in mood.

I filter water to get me through the night and to begin tomorrow morning. I have already eaten my dinner so I can walk until close to dark. I’m with my thoughts and maybe even chatting out loud to myself as I often do, when I see two tents off to the right of the trail.

 

cascade creek fall

Falls at Cascade Creek. Initially, I was not thrilled with this photo, but when editing, I was drawn in by the brown and bronze coloring in the rock.

 

I crane my neck forward looking right and see two figures in one of the tents, what appears to be a floorless tarp tent. I shout hello and get a response in return. I take a few steps off trail engaging in typical conversation. A man and woman are relaxing together, having settled in at their camp for the night.

After some conversation, the gentleman advises me not to be on a certain part of the trail in the late afternoon tomorrow. This goes contrary to my plan, which would put me on Indian Trail Ridge late the next day. There is something about the way he says it which implies I should listen to him. I think I know who he is and ask him his name.

“I’m Jerry Brown”, and this tells me enough. Jerry Brown is a surveyor and has marked every data point on this trail which makes up the Databook for the Colorado Trail. The Databook might as well be the Bible. In fact, for CT users it gets read more than the Bible, as it contains information regarding every trail intersection, water source, camping spot and scenic sight to see, all in a handy little pocket edition. I thank Jerry for his sound advice and tell him that I’ll make changes in my itinerary. (Jerry went on to finish his seventh through hike of the Colorado Trail three days later. Amazing!)

I leave the pair and venture on, wanting to get to a spot below Blackhawk Pass before dark. A mile or so before my stop I’m passed my one more bikepacker, farther along I almost keep pace with him as he has to walk his bike up the steeper, rockier trail approaching Blackhawk Pass. I wonder whether he will be camping at the same spot, but then see that he is already higher than where I will be stopping. I sigh inwardly, thinking it would have been nice to have company tonight.

 

blackhawk pass

I made my camp below the low saddle, Blackhawk Pass.

 

I make my camp with enough time to go sit on a log and gaze into the valley below me, making notes about my day. This was my best day on the trail. I saw an abundance of wildlife today, 19 deer, 18 elk and 6 grouse. Toward the end of the day, as I tired of just being by myself I became a play by play announcer for the elk vs. deer daily count. And in the end, just toward evening, I rounded a bend in the trail to see a doe and two fawns. It put the deer over the top 19-18 and I made wild crowd noises announcing to the forest around me how amazing it was the two “rookies” brought home the tying and winning runs for the deer, overcoming an 18-1 deficit that the elk held early in the day. My imagination, along with the raw edge of reality in this wilderness creates the perfect narrative to my day.

Day 6 – More High Ground, a Sheep Herd and a Race for more Food!

I set the alarm for 4:30 am. I wanted to be out and down trail early and quickly today. My routine was getting better, even working in the dark and taking care of morning bathroom duties I was on my way by 5:10. It felt a little strange leaving camp without saying goodbye to my campmates, but everybody hikes their own hike and it is the accepted way. They all knew I was knocking out big days and I had told Ron that my hope was to get to Lake Molas Campground before the country store closed at seven o’clock in the evening. I had 25 solid miles to cover, but I knew that I’d be climbing 1,400′ in roughly 2 1/2 miles right at the end. I didn’t want to flame out for some odd reason and I really didn’t want to have to rush to get to the store.

Getting to that store was going to be pivotal. I had enough food to get through today and for dinner tonight, but nothing really after that. If I can’t get the food I need at the store I’ll have to go into Silverton, which will require hitch-hiking and losing valuable time. It will probably mean I’ll finish Sunday instead of Saturday. That means driving directly back to Denver the same day; something I really don’t want to do after being on trail for nine out of ten days. I knew I am rolling the dice hoping to re-supply at the store. Everybody is telling me that they only have snacks there, but I had seen photos somebody had posted of the shelves of the store that had Knorr rice packets and instant mashed potatoes. That is all I need to get through to Durango.

As I start in the dark I immediately notice flecks of debris in my headlamp. Weird. But then I smell smoke and I know that the southerly winds are blowing smoke up from forest fires down in the Durango area. It smells like a campfire and at this altitude it doesn’t make it any easier to breathe. I pass three tents in the first 30 minutes and am surprised by how close I was to three more groups of hikers. All are quiet, zipped up and still asleep. The sun begins to brighten the sky and the smoke does make for a beautiful sunrise. I attempt to catpture the scene in the slideshow below.

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Per my normal morning routine, I hike five miles, stop, make coffee and breakfast, chow down, move on. Even pulling my stove out and heating water it is only a 20 minute process. It’s good to have some initial miles under the belt when I do this.

Moving from my breakfast spot down the valley I look for wildlife but only see some ravens or crows feeding on some kind of carcass below me. A few minutes later I hear the bleating of sheep and then realize what has perished. This is the second herd of sheep I have come upon in the last two days. This one has five dogs and a sheepherder. As I move above the flock on the trail, the Peruvian sheepherder begins whistling and working the dogs. Two of the dogs are herding dogs, border collies from what I can determine. The other three are Akbash, turkish dogs bred specifically for protecting herds of sheep. Akbash, translates literally as “white head”. I took some video and even though it is from a distance you can see the dogs doing their job along with their sheepherder. I find it amazing. (You can read a very recent article on the sheep operation here) It reminds me of days when I lived in Romania and seeing very similar operations. I mention the paint pony in the video, which you actually can see on the upper, right side.

 

 

I finish out segment 23 and unceremoniously begin segment 24 crossing Stony Point Pass. I gaze up at Canby Mountain – 13,478′ – which is in direct vicinity of the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, where I had breakfast just an hour or so before. The view to Canby Mountain contains a field of fireweed. The fireweed has been a show stopper this whole trip and this morning it is in its full glory as the early morning light shines upon Canby in the background.

 

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A field of fireweed lies in the shadows as Canby Mountain is lit in the morning sun.

 

I quickly change into lighter clothing and plan to begin to make better time on trail.  I be-bop down the trail. It’s undulates and not long after I look behind me and see another hiker. I think to myself, “Where did he come from?” I’m shocked somebody is right behind me. I’m used to having the entire landscape to myself, occasionally catching or passing people, but nobody has caught me in a week, so this seems strange. I sense I must be lollygagging and I have a lot of ground to cover, so I set a quicker rhythm. As I crest and descend the next few rises I look back not seeing the person. I come to a big view looking down into a valley and can see a pair of hikers preparing to leave  their camp. They are far off but I can see what they are doing. I move down the switchbacks, at times, even jogging a bit. Once I arrive in the bottom, I look behind me and see no sign of what I am now wondering was perhaps a ghost. Weird.

Throughout the morning I pass many more people, some filtering water, others still at campsites. I cross paths with a gentleman coming northbound and we meet on the high tundra. He is a veteran backpacker. I can tell by his demeanor, knowledge of the trail as he tells me about the reroute that occurred here many years ago, and the weathered nature of his backpack. I like him a lot and we discuss the fickle nature of the high San Juans, that even on a “perfect” day with no threat of bad weather, one still feels very vulnerable and always on the lookout for clouds that may seem amiss. He is another that I rather enjoy my five minute chat with, and we go our separate ways.

For the whole of my trip up until now I have been concurrently on the Continental Divide Trail as well as the Colorado Trail. The CDT runs from Mexico to Canada, the longest of the “long trails” in the lower 48. But I come to the spot where it heads south toward Wolf Creek Pass as the Colorado Trail heads west toward Silverton.

 

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By all means, take the arrow that is the CT!

 

I soon come to where I am looking down into the Elk Creek drainage. And when I say look down, I mean look down! I can see some hikers below me and I am so glad that I am not hiking up out of that drainage. The number of switchbacks is amazing and the side of the mountain is steep. In the photo below I have attempted to edit it so that you can see not only the trail switchbacking down the mountain but also how the trail feeds into the drainage below.

 

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Foreground switchbacks and trail wayyyyyy down below. Don’t fall!

 

As I drop into Elk Creek the highlight of my time along this trail is watching the water flow over this patch of moss that is in the creek. It rolls along in rivulets over the moss like water running off of suede. It is mesmerizing and if I wasn’t on a schedule today I’d love to sit and watch it for a long time. I’m grateful for seeing it now.

 

 

After lunch as I get going again it is 1:30 in the afternoon. I have about ten miles to get to the campground. I should make it in time, but my left shoulder is bothering me. Specifically, it is my Levator Scapulae muscle and it is not happy. I feel as though the often narrow trail that is lower than the surrounding tundra has at times caused me to overuse my left trekking pole and compromise this muscle. It is uncomfortable enough that it is making me slightly cranky. I stash my poles and focus on covering ground.

I eventually come to a significant point in the trail, the Durango to Silverton narrow gauge rail line and the Animas River. I walk the rail line for a very short stretch, then cross the river on a nice bridge. Immediately I begin the crazy switchback climb. It is steep and it goes up in a hurry. I decide that I won’t take a break for 30 minutes, forcing myself to find a pace I can manage and grind through this thing.

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The view from the switchbacks. Mount Garfield is the high peak, 13,074′. Look into the valley and you can see the Animas River and just to the left the narrow gauge railroad that goes from Durango to Silverton. Yes, I came from down there!

 

I finish the grind up the mountain and shortly take the trail that goes to the campground. I arrive with two hours to spare! I can get a shower here for $5.00 which will get me a five minute shower! I am so excited! I enter the Country Store, a very small store and expectantly look at the shelves of items that they carry. There…is…only…snacks. My heart absolutely sinks. I have covered 52 miles in two days with the purpose of finding a re-supply here. I look to the young lady behind the counter. “Don’t you have any instant mashed potatoes or rice packets.” I admit that I’m a little overwhelmed and having a hard time taking in all of the food that is here, sort of like re-entry after being in a foreign country.

She nods her head over to the side of store and toward the floor. “There is a free hiker box under that bench, look in there.” I pull the cardboard box out from under the bench and begin to rummage through the items. I find two dehydrated Mountain House meals; Chicken Teriyaki and a Breakfast Skillet, 600 and 750 calories respectively. I find four packets of instant mashed potatoes, 400 calories each. I’ll only need two of these. I grab Honey Buns, Grandma’s cookies, Slim Jims, candy bars, orange cheese and peanut butter crackers, Pringles and other items. I want to patronize the joint so I inquire about a tent space for the night. I have no interest to head back to the trail tonight after I grab my shower. Before I call it an evening I make an additional trip back to the store for a microwave burrito and more snacks, to be sure I’ll have enough calories to make it three more days. I have dodged a major bullet, but I’m reminded of what so many before me have always said about thru hiking long trails. “The trail always provides.” And for me, I am very grateful that is has. In more ways than I can count.

Day 6 mileage – 25.4

Day 6 elevation gained – 4,635′

Total trip mileage – 160.1

Total elevation gained – 27,219′

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Lake Molas and the oasis, Lake Molas Campground beyond the lake

 

Day 5 – The Literal High Point of the Colorado Trail

On my zero day in Lake City, CO (population of year round residents 350), I ate well, reorganized my gear and looked around their local museum. Lake City’s claim to fame is Alferd Packer and his cannabilistic exploits of 1874.

Tuesday morning my pack was loaded with only two days worth of food and I had intentions of resupplying with more food at Lake Molas Campground. I wanted to get there in two days and the store at the campground closed at 7:00pm. I need to cover 52 miles before then to remain on schedule to finish by Saturday, when Pam will pick me up in Durango. My hope today is to cover close to 30, so I wouldn’t be racing the clock into LM Camground.

The first few miles of trail flirts with a walk in trees but opening up to expansive parks (meadows). I walk up on a cow elk in one of the parks. We eye each other and I reach for an elk call that I purchased in Lake City. I slip the diaphragm call into my mouth and give her a little chirp. It calms her down but she moves across from left to right in front of me. She chirps back and then barks once, then twice, exactly like a dog barks. This indicates that she knows something is awry and she trots off into the edge of timber. I give her a few barks back and then a longer squeal, bordering on a bull bugle.

About 500 yards away I see two more elk that I had not noticed before and they are running toward me on a string. They veer off a bit to the cover of an island of trees and I wait for a few minutes as they emerge from there, now settled down and feeding in the park. Some mountain bikers come along and stop to view them as well. Eventually I grow bored and need to move on, the elk grow weary of my movements and trot back in the direction they came from.

I move on and come to Jarosa Mesa, a transition area from a subalpine ecosystem to alpine tundra. After the mesa I now move above 12,000′ elevation and it is here and higher that I will remain for the next 36 miles. The CT creates a ribbon of trail through the tundra and even at this altitude there are wildflowers. The dominant one that I see is Fringed Gentian, and it causes me to drop to the ground and take some time to get more interesting photos of this late season star in the world of mountain wildflowers.

 

Fringed Gentian

 

The expanse is great in my view ahead as I walk on the high tundra. Because I got back on the trail early this morning, I expect to see other hikers, having been told before my zero day that there were a number of them just ahead of me. For now, I follow the trail, being able to see ahead for over a mile, sometimes more.

 

A single ribbon of trail beckons in the high tundra.

At times, the weather is serene and calm and it’s hard to imagine just how high I am. As I crest yet another high point, I begin to dip down and can see dots in the distance on the trail. There are at least two people. After a bit, I realize there are three, one heading in my direction northbound and two others heading southbound. I wind down in elevation, north a bit and then back south, now catching a lot of wind because of the contour of the mountains. I chat with a really nice guy who was the one I saw coming northbound. We speak for only a few minutes, exchange information and as I leave he strikes me as the kind of person I would have liked to talk to longer,

Finally, I reach the high point of The Colorado Trail. Everybody takes their photo with this sign. I do a few silly shots of myself to document that I was here. Except for the sign itself, there is nothing extraordinary about this spot. It isn’t even really on top of a mountain or even a hill; just on the contour and 63 feet below Coney Peak.

As I descend into Carson Saddle I catch up to a father and his two college aged children who are hiking the trail. They are from Spokane. After we exchange pleasantries I meet another duo hiking together.

A few miles later I stop to filter water, heat up water for lunch and am resting up after a solid day so far. I had seen two bright orange backpacks quite a distance ahead as I was approaching the creek. The Spokane trio stops at the creek as well and then we are joined by a man that comes along in the opposite direction asking if anybody has a dog. We all shake our heads no, look at each other and then the gentleman is followed by his wife, who has two llamas in tow. “$55 dollars a day! They carry the heavy load and we just have small daypacks. We leased them out of Silverton and we are camping in style” he exclaims. The couple are from Lawrence, KS and ask one of us to take their photo because the outfitter would like some shots of his llamas. The pair of animals are as gentle as can be and I’m glad I’ve seen them because I see their tracks for the next day and I would have wondered what made that kind of track.

I love her smile!

 

The Spokane trio leave before me, but after I get on the move I pass them up the long pass toward Cataract Ridge. The climb below Carson Peak is a grinder in the afternoon sun, and I, who typically abhors sunscreen is lathered up today because there is no respite from the high sun here in the alpine tundra.

 

I find myself often looking back into valleys as I climb the mountains

I hit the top of the saddle in pretty good time and realize that my body is adjusting well now to both the high altitude and the constant elevation gain that I face every day. What was once a mental hurdle is no longer so. I am cruising along, enjoying the bluebird day and fact that there is no threat of bad weather in these high mountains. That is a welcome relief.

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Hoodoos are more common in Utah, so they seem a little out of place this high in the San Juans

I quickly come up on Cataract Lake, one of the most photographed areas of the Colorado Trail. I have a big view of the lake and can just make out a large bull moose in the water. It’s amazing how he sticks out to the naked eye. He is large, jet black and I can see his large paddles even from such a great distance away. He must be massive looking up close. I snap a few photos of the lake. Can you see him there?

 

Where is the moose in Cataract Lake?

 

Cataract Lake is a popular place to camp and it is tempting for me to stop here and do so as well. But it is too early in the day, so I decide to make dinner and filter water instead. There is a family of three here and I have heard about them in previous days. I understand that they are from China and I say hello. I converse with the father and he tells me he his son, who is playing at the water’s edge is seven years old. They have come from Denver and took the more difficult Collegiate West route. I am impressed by their effort and the little boy is doing well carrying his weight.

They move on and I finish my dinner while relaxing at the small lake which lies just west of the larger lake where I saw the moose. The Spokane trio comes along just as I finish up and I wait to leave until they arrive.

They strategize about water, how much to carry and their plan for the rest of the day. I like watching them work together. They are now a well oiled machine having come so far together, 380 miles in about a month. The father and son always discuss their decisions and I love how the father, Ron, interacts with Travis, his son. There is an easygoing nature about all three of them. They are challenged by their journey, but they move as a team, a family unit, on the trail.

We talk about campsites for the night and I realize that because I have seen so many people today and visited quite a bit that I am not going to hit 30 miles today, nor do I see it necessary to do so. I decide to go about two more hours and they tell me that a young couple will be camped at the area; that they have been camping with them and they decided earlier to camp there together. I ask if it is okay if I join them for the night. Ron says sure. I am happy to camp with others tonight especially since we’ll all be in the open tundra.

I’m off before they leave and I tell them I may very well be asleep by the time they roll in to camp. I sense I will sleep well tonight.

My favorite scene of the trail thus far. I love the benched layers of green leading up to the high bowl left of Half Peak.

Of course there is more climbing to tackle and it is now taking a toll on me. The high energy I had earlier in the day begins to wane. After 22 miles, it is about persevering. As I come through another rise and round the trail I am treated to a marvelous site. I check the map and see that I am looking at Half Peak, 13,841′ high and the 86th highest peak in Colorado. It is the 8th highest in this range, hence its prominence when I first see it. Yet, I am more taken aback by the greenscape that is on its western edge. I’m reminded of mountains I’ve seen in Austria and Switzerland. If I had more time, I’d love to climb the green plateaus on its western edge and camp there. It looks fascinating and the layers of the mountain mesmerize me, especially in the evening light. It stands out as the most amazing mountain I’ve seen yet on my trek. I immediately fall in love with it, and it makes my heart skip a beat, its massiveness causing me to feel  insignificant in the scope of this big, bright, beautiful world.

I traverse around the mountain and keep looking back at the mountain to gain different perspectives as I distance myself from it. A couple of marmots sit upon a rock and seem to enjoy the evening view as well.

 

Not a bad view to look back upon as I reflect on my day

 

I keep looking for a tent, ready to finish my day. Finally I see one and arrive at about 7:00. I’m ready to stop and I’ll need an early start tomorrow to make it to my destination campground in order to resupply for the rest of the trip. I introduce myself to Andre and Brooke and joke about having a reservation for one. It’s old man humor and I catch them off guard. I put my tent up in an area with surprising deep, lush grass at 12,500′. I have never slept this high before and just before dusk Ron and his son and daughter roll into camp. I welcome them and sure enough I am not great company at this point, having worn myself out for the day. The group of five catch up and discuss details for their next day. I quickly drift off to sleep and am surprised as I wake in the middle of the night how calm it is up at this altitude. It’s amazingly serene and I sleep fairly well. It had been a great day in Colorado’s high country meeting new friends on the trail.

 

Day 5 mileage – 28.7

Day 5 elevation gained – 5,725′

Total trip mileage – 134.7

Total elevation gained – 22,584′

Day 4 – Enter the San Juans…Enter Big Mountains and Big Views!

Sleep did not come well. While dry, the dampness of the Cochetopa Creek was severely affecting my ability to remain warm. Most of my gear was working well, but this whole year I have had a challenging time staying warm outside on cold days. I would be grabbing a silk liner I had placed in my resupply box to help on colder nights.

I relented against trying to sleep and began to pack up in the dark. Getting out of an even somewhat warm sleeping bag is akin to jumping into cold water. The first thing I always do is roll up my sleeping pad. “If you want to get warm, start working” was my daily morning mantra. Because I was up early, I went ahead and made a cup of coffee while I gathered everything together. I was out of camp at 5:00 and walking through wet willows in my rain jacket and pants to avoid getting wet first thing in the morning.

Undersides of wet willow leaves reflect upon the light from my headlamp

Walking before first light on a trail that I have never traversed leads to anticipation of what the dawning of the day will bring. I am like a child at Christmas as the sky slowly brightens revealing what is hidden behind nature’s veil.

As the day brightens I’m surprised to not see any wildlife with exception of a single doe a few hundred yards off feeding in willows. I crest the saddle and 14,014′ high San Luis Peak rises above me, an easily attainable 14er if one is inclined to scale it. Indeed I can see a figure on its peak, arms spread wide and a shrill cry lets loose from the silhouetted body.

 

San Luis Peak looks more like a gentle rise, but is another 1,400′ higher at 14,014′

 

 

I am amazed by the huge bowl that is now in front of me and I begin to descend into an amazing area. Again, I scan for wildlife but do not see any until I round further across toward the next saddle and then spot what at first, I think are elk, but as I take the time to sneak over an edge to get a better look I realize they are mule deer, with some beautiful large bucks in the group.

Each time I cross over a pass or a saddle and get new views I try to determine what route I will be taking. Often, there are numerous trails, not just the Colorado Trail, so it can be a game, guessing how I might traverse the landscape in front of me. At times, I am disappointed that, yes, the trail is going to go straight up that steep mountain, and at others, I am relieved that it bends around a contour shoulder.

 

 

The Colorado Trail angles up from the left toward the saddle, you can barely make it out.

 

The sun plays back and forth on the mountains, lighting up an eastern facing side but then as I cross over the saddle and descend down the west side I get to see the sun crest another hillside and a brand new light display play out in front of me.

 

I cross over into another area that dips down into more willows; shrubs that flirt with treeline. As I come around a bend in the trail I meet a woman standing and brushing out her hair. She is the first person I’ve come across that I can talk to today. We stand and chat; she is hiking the full length of the trail. “I’m not a hiker, I’m not a backpacker, but I’m out here doing my best.” I inform her that since she has now traveled over 300+ plus miles she qualifies as both of those things and she is doing a phenomenal job. She tells me she is enjoying meeting friends along the trail and seeing all that it has to offer. She hails from Albuquerque.

I cross San Luis Pass, the official end of segment 20 and immediately begin segment 21 without much fanfare. I find a nice new sign that is posted paying tribute to a group of volunteers that have helped to maintain this section of trail. I shall like to note here that the Colorado Trail is a non-profit foundation that is maintained by and large by volunteers and teams of volunteers that raise money, maintain trails, survey needs and generally make it a wonderful place to trek. Many individuals “adopt” sections of trail that are maintained with a group of others to keep it passable and in good shape. It is an amazing movement to support the nearly 500 mile trail.

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The day is filled with ups and downs, literally, ups and downs. I climb a side of a mountain to see another huge mountain in front of me. It is now quite exposed a lot of the time but I dip down into timber, walking through dark forest, seeing more deer and crossing creeks before climbing sharply, sometimes on switchbacks to gain more ground. In the back of my mind I am aware of the passing time and do not want to arrive at Snow Mesa, a long relatively, open, exposed mesa, too late in the afternoon. It will take a few hours to cross and I do not wish to dance with thunderstorms today.

I dip into the forest once more from the tundra. I see a tent that is set up in a really nice spot. I stop and gaze over by the campsite. The tent is zipped up and I don’t see any movement. At 9:30 in the morning it seems late for a backpacker to still be in camp. However, the archery hunting season will begin in the last week of August, so I think that it could also be someone camping up here and scouting for the upcoming hunting season. I refrain from shouting hello and continue westward.

I go down to a creek and immediately uphill again. This is one segment of the trail that I am seeing more downed trees and I have to navigate walking around them as many hikers have done before or crawling over top of them. The trail turns up again and I ready myself for yet another hill climb. Behind me, where I just came from, howls begin to emit from coyotes. It’s hard to tell how many, but it is enough that it sends a chill up my spine. When you don’t see anybody for a long time, then a seemingly vacant tent, followed by eerie coyote howls, the mind begins to play interesting games. The sounds of the mountains fascinate me.

 

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Looking south climbing up out of San Luis Pass

 

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Peak 13,111 – With 637 peaks above 13,000′ in Colorado they don’t all get names!

 

Shortly thereafter I meet some northbound hikers, a pair of young women who just got on the trail where I will be getting off today. I give them some insight into water, trail conditions, etc and then make my way up to the saddle.

 

 

 

It continues on this way and I am entertained throughout my journey today by repeated sightings of deer. Some of the ascents are steep enough that they require switchbacks and the degree of incline and higher altitude requires me to knock it out in “chunks”, stopping to catch my breath and recover before laboring on. The “saddles” that I am crossing are at elevations such as 11,857′, climb to “saddle” 12,247′, climb to “top of climb” 12,772′ and “begin descent”. After this last high point I begin the long crossing toward Snow Mesa and then across it, now 7.2 miles from the road and where I will get picked up for my zero day.

 

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The last seven miles of the day becomes a grind,plain and simple. I have pushed hard the last three days with the objective of getting off the trail to enjoy a nice rest day. In my excitement I realize that I did not drink quite enough water and should have stopped to eate something hot. But I also did not want to get caught up in a storm; and that sums up life on the trail. Many think it is just a walk in the park, with all day to look at puffy, white clouds, reflect on life and solve the world’s problems. But, in reality, at least for me and also others I have met over the years there is indeed stress. The biggest one, for most, is the threat of storms and avoiding them. The other is water and gauging water stops and needs accordingly.

Today, I lost some focus on that need and nutrition. Now, I labor a bit to get to the end of the segment.  I come to one last place on Snow Mesa where I can filter water and I do so for the remaining hike out.

 

snowmesa

 

As I get to the edge of Snow Mesa it is now a two mile drop losing elevation in order to get to Highway 149. I drop about 1200 feet in the last two miles and notice immediately that it is much warmer below 12,000 feet. After sitting at the pass for a bit, my wife, Pam and her sister and our great niece and her friend pick me up to head in to Lake City.

I am beat, tired, hungry and thirsty. I’m not great company, but enjoy my first shower in four days and eating at an outdoor restaurant. Back in the little cottage we have rented, I watch Law and Order SUV and pass out after an episode. It is a good sleep.

Day 4 mileage – 21.1

Day 4 elevation gained – 5,068′

Total trip mileage – 106

Total elevation gained – 16,859′

Day 3 – Today is About Miles

I realized that doing roughly 25 miles for the first four days was not going to work in order to get to Spring Creek Pass by Sunday. That plan meant I would need to climb 6,000’ in elevation on the last day. This left too much to chance in case I had a bad day or encountered a bad storm that I had to wait on since there would be exposed areas above tree line in the last half of that distance. I really wanted to spend two nights and one full zero day in Lake City with family. So I switched up the plan.

I’d go 30 on Saturday and then 21 on Sunday. It still meant that I’d be climbing 5,000’ Sunday, but five miles less equated to roughly two hours on flat or slightly uphill ground, definitely more if I had significant climbing.

I was feet on the ground at 5:55 and past the hiker’s tent that I had talked to the previous evening at the 1.7 mile mark. The trail was wide and easy to walk; more like a forest service road. It was downhill and it was quick. I used my trekking poles like a metronome to establish a pace that would propel me along quickly.

Within no time I came to a bonafide dirt road and would walk that for half an hour then turn onto a numbered forest service trail. In this stretch I encountered my first cattle and began mooing at them like I am prone to do. A few had calves and I was enamored with how cute they were. When I had turned on to the road I could see a trail to the northeast so kept moving toward it. But it seemed like I had gone pretty long and still was not to that trail. I came to a cattle guard. I then pulled up the CT app on my phone to verify where I was. In my playing with the cattle I had walked right past the turn off and was one half mile off course! Shoot! So much for making such great time.

I found my way back to the right road and was off and not quite running but making good time. Starting early would get me through this dry, exposed segment before it got too hot. This was classic Colorado cattle country, stuff that doesn’t make many postcards but holds its own unique beauty. I had read some less than glamorous reports about this dry, dusty section but I liked it.

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The typical view of segment 18

The day was about accruing miles, but I was still taken aback by the wide open spaces in this area south of Gunnison and north of Saguache and Creede, Colorado. I passed a big ranch that stood out in the valley and then saw a couple horseman ride up toward the aspens. This would be a wonderful place to view the aspens in autumn and made a mental note to come back here another time.

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Moving into segment 19 we move from lower sagebrush country to higher aspens

The small lake doesn’t seem to be holding any water, just cattle!

At 20 miles I was crossing the Cochetopa Creek, the only creek that requires true fording on the Colorado Trail from what I had read over previous years. This year, however, in a low snow year, and now in August it was anticlimactic and I was able to rock hop across it with barely getting my trail runners wet.

The above scene was almost apopolyptic. Old forest fire burn and crazy grasshoppers buzzing about! Sound up!

I was cruising into the Eddiesville trailhead marking the end of segment 19. I began to think about my neighbor, a 20-year-old young lady currently attending CSU who had completed the trail earlier in the summer. She told me about how she had run to this very trailhead and sought shelter in a toilet there to avoid a storm. It was looking like I might be repeating that performance with clouds building overhead. I arrived there at 3:30 and found a few cars and people milling about. Beside a couple of cyclists I had yelled hello to earlier in the morning, they were the first people I had seen all day.

I settled down by a rock in the parking area and proceeded to make myself dinner. The clouds continued to build and eventually rain fell. I fell back on an old adage from my days as a cyclist. “I’ll get caught in the rain enough times, I don’t need to head out in the rain.” I propped open the door to the toilet with a rock, threw my pack inside, sat on my seat pad and began reading while it rained gently outside. It didn’t last long and I was off on the trail for the evening part of my hike.

There was a small ranch in the valley and I thought back to a friend of mine who had photographed a cowboy who was an artist that lived in a valley somewhere in the last half of the CT. I wondered if this was the valley. It sure lined up with the story I had read, at the time. I made a mental note to inquire about this with my friend, Dave. I could see why the man would not sell his land to the USFS; it was a beautiful valley, completely surrounded by the La Garita Wilderness.

I forged ahead up the long valley, the miles now beyond 20+ and what I considered bonus miles. Everything I could log today would be less I would have to log tomorrow.

7:00 was my target time to stop for the day. I met up with a fisherman who was fly fishing the Cochetopa for the day and then a father/son duo from Golden who were backpacking and fishing. The clouds began to build and less than a mile from where I wanted to stop the rain and hail began. I reluctantly threw on a rain jacket and covered my pack, continuing on up the trail.

This presented a dilemma. Nobody likes pitching their tent in the rain. And really it is quite pointless at the end of the day. I have changed my thought process on quickly throwing up my tent, crawling inside and attempting to beat a storm. If I get the tent up before the storm and weather it while inside, I now have a wet tent to deal with in the morning. Especially if I have to camp in a valley next to a creek, one of my least favorite places to camp. Most campsites are set up next to water for the obvious reason of having water conveniently close by for cooking, etc. But I was not cooking in my camp on this trip, so dry camps were much more appealing. However, there was no avoiding a camp in the creek bottom on this stretch.

I decided to roll the dice and keep walking, knowing that most storms will pass quickly and while I’ll still be camped in a wet valley, at least my tent will be dry come morning and thus, be lighter to carry. Sure enough, the rain stopped, the sky brightened somewhat and a nice spot appeared to my left. I set my camp, having covered a lot of ground for the day. Tomorrow I would be seeing Pam and family by day’s end. I was ready for them and was excited to get some sleep before tomorrow’s shorter leg.

Day 3 mileage – 31.75

Day 3 elevation gained – 4,132′

Total trip mileage – 84.75

Total elevation gained – 11,791′

Day 2 – Rain, elk, Soldierstone, 🌺, and rattling chains

The rain falls gently throughout the night. The bull elk has moved to the north side of the huge meadow that I am camped in. The change in barometric pressure has caused him to become unusually vocal for this time of year; he lets out a weak squeal from time to time.

I’m concerned that my tent is sagging and damp with condensation on the inside. I like this tent because it is light and easy to erect with my trekking poles, however it does not like low, wet areas. The walls are damp enough on the inside that I’m alarmed that it may have lost its ability to shed water, being a few years old now.

Over the past four years I have spent up to 25 nights a year in the backcountry and it always amazes me, heading back out for a trip, it’s almost like I forgot how to do things. Not having the tent taut was a mistake and I mentally kick myself for the error. The alarm goes off at 5:00 and I contemplate my day. I linger a bit, but decide that it has stopped raining at least for now and I need to get moving. By the time I pack everything up, leaving the tent accessible to dry out later, it is 6:18, later than I would like.

I had not realized that I was so close to Sargent’s Mesa, a vast open area marking the end of the segment. Less than five minutes on trail, I see a cow elk grazing. I stealthily walk along and then see deer. Wait. I thought I saw an elk. The rain from the night silences my footsteps as I walk up the trail. Sure enough, three or four much smaller deer feed right along with the elk. This is interesting because while I have seen them in the same area, it is not often I see them literally feeding side by side. There are quite a few elk and I take photos and shoot some video trying to capture the vocalizations of the elk, who are communicative animals.

Two cow elk look behind for a second pair

Eventually, I need to get moving and the elk see me and eight of them move away from me. However, to the left of the trail are four more elk and they run off as well. In the distance I can see even more slipping in and out of the edges of the timber that abuts Sargent’s Mesa.

There is another diversion, one that I have planned on visiting. Soldierstone is an amazing memorial and tribute to those who served and served soldiers of the Vietnam war. It is a mere two tenths of a mile southeast of the trail. If you didn’t know to look for it, you would miss it. I walk through the shin deep, wet grasses to pay my respects to this monument. I recommend reading more about this memorial and the vision behind it. It’s a fascinating read.

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After an hour of watching elk and visiting Soldierstone I make my way down the trail. I am met by a younger woman walking out of her camp and then a couple who are packing up their tent getting ready for the day. I amble down the trail on this cloudy morning working my way through segment 17. It is largely an up and down amble for most of the day, and while it is a forest walk, wet in nature and rather verdant, there is not a lot in the way of water access. I forego walking off trail to a lake, doing well enough with my water supply. I don’t make great time, though, because I have to stop twice trying to take advantage of a soft breeze to dry out my tent. I “leapfrog” with the woman I met earlier in the morning who has been trekking from Denver for a few weeks now.

Passing Razor Creek I encounter numerous motorcyclists that are touring the area on the trails. This section of the CT is open to motorized travel and while some parts are a bit chewed up due to the machines, the people riding them are courteous and I have some brief conversations with a few of them. They are all nice enough and enjoying the backcountry; they just enjoy it in a way that is different than mine.

The area is rich with wildflowers and one mountainside is full of raspberries, thicket after thicket of beautiful raspberries. I know that the bears will need this for winter fattening, especially after such a dry season, but I help myself to one, maybe two handfuls to verify that this food will be safe for the ursus. 😉

It’s been a day of off/on with the rain jacket and it is beginning to wear on me. My right knee is also still annoyingly uncomfortable and it affects my mood. On my way down the mountain toward where I will stop for dinner I run into a mountain biker. He has a son who is bikepacking with a friend and is on his way up to meet them. We chat for a few minutes, laugh and talk bikes. As I make my way further on, my spirits are lifted by the encounter.

At Lujan Creek I stop at 4:00 after 21 miles to have dinner, filter water and check my feet. I brew a cup of coffee as well, and drink a bottle mixed with a Nuun tablet for electrolyte replacement. I spend an hour here. It’s 2.2 miles out to Highway 114 and then I will begin segment 18. It’s amazing what an hour does as I have a lift in my gait moving down the road.

I run into the father of the bikepacker again and he asks if I’d like a Pepsi or anything. I feel so good that I decline because my body feels wonderful. He takes out some of my trash for which I am grateful and as I cross the creek into the next segment I “camel up” with extra water because tomorrow will have even less access. I fill my Platypus bladder that I have brought along with an extra 2.5 liters of water. It will be added weight but lessen my anxiety about water availability. It is an acceptable trade off.

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Clouds settle between ridges

The evening walk is blissful even though it is primarily an ascent. I finish at a saddle, my idea of a perfect campsite. I have to unlatch the chain to a cattle gate and immediately set my tent in a great spot at 7:00 in the evening. I’ve already eaten and there is no threat of bad weather. I love dry camping. It offers solitude, a dry tent in the morning and is generally warmer for sleeping.

I’m reading in my tent when I am surprised by a backpacker. I didn’t think anybody was close behind me as I’d only seen three other hikers all day. We exchange hellos, chat about wet tents and he tells me he is going another few miles. He will be setting up close to dark.

Darkness sets in and I fall asleep while reading. I hear the chain rattle a little after 9:00 and I’m awakened from my initial slumber. I look out the tent to see only a flashlight and someone walking, looking at a map. I can’t even really see a backpack. Somebody is making a long day of it. I drift back off to sleep.

Again, I’m awakened by a noise. Out in the dark on the other side of the fence I hear the crinkling of a foil wrapper. I can’t make out a person but somebody is trying to eat something. Other hikers have been talking about the Colorado Trail Mountain Bike Race that started the previous Saturday. Roughly 100 riders have begun an informal, “unofficial” race that goes the length of the CT. They ride all day and sleep little. Some even ride through the night. Apparently the winner had already finished but many remain on their way to Durango. It seems that perhaps one of them is eating not far from my tent. It reminds me of my father elbowing me in the ribs when I was a child opening a hard candy wrapper in church, making a racket as Pastor Stoner was coming to the main point of his sermon. I want to reach out and elbow this cyclist as well.

But there is an additional racket. Clank, clankety, clank as now another cyclist is messing about with the gate. He mutters something unintelligible to Candy Wrapper. The Gate Keeper is perhaps 25 yards from my tent and now I’m awake enough to be curious about the whole scene. I wonder whether they even know that I am here lurking in the darkness.

As I take in the evolving scene, I am aware that I am a little gassy, not unusual for the first days of eating trail food. Immediately, however, my own little green cloud is overcome by a powerful, powerful stench. The air must be moving from Gate Keeper to my tent and I’m overpowered by stink so foul that I begin to gag. I have been around dead carcasses that I would have rather rolled in than be exposed to this pungent, foul smell. How could a human emit such an odor? Not quickly enough Gate Keeper finally passes through the gate and his headlight shines upon the mountain as he begins his descent down the trail.

I cough silently in my tent while Candy Wrapper continues to be about as popular with me as a fart in church, which I would have preferred to stinky Gate Keeper. I want to yell, “For God’s sake, man, open that damn thing and be on your way! The bears and I need our sleep!” Finally, finally, he, too, fumbles with the gate and in a less speedier fashion rides down the trail. Gratefully, I follow this scene with a fantastic night’s sleep, left to dream about bicycles, hikers and stink bombs.

Day 2 mileage – 27

Day 2 elevation gained – 3,921′

Total trip mileage – 53

Total elevation gained – 7,659′