Back on The Colorado Trail

This is the year that I am going to finish the Colorado Trail, the footpath/bicycle path that goes from south Denver in Waterton Canyon to Durango, spanning 475 miles through the Rocky Mountains. I began backpacking the CT in June, 2014. Since then I have completed 261 miles of the trail covering both the Collegiate West portion as well as the Collegiate East section. After knocking out a few segments each year and doing a ten day trek in 2015, I decided to finish out the remaining 230 miles from Monarch Pass to Durango. An earlier blog post this spring gives a little bit of the backstory as to why I decided to push through to finish this year.

The venture will be an aggressive one. I have ten days to cover 230 miles. It is not a given that I will complete the task. I have a specific start and finish date due to business and family situations. I plan on a rest or “zero” day in Lake City, meaning I have decided to take nine full days to complete the route. In short, I will need to walk the distance of a marathon each day to make it to Durango by Saturday, August 11th. Not just walk, but don a backpack averaging 25 pounds and climb an average of three to four thousand feet each day largely at an altitude of 10,000-13,000’. I have once again taken on a challenge of which will be outside the scope of anything I have done before. In 2015, I chose a fairly leisurely 10 day trip, stopping to fish with sidetrips, etc and averaging about 13 miles a day. This will be double that.

Starting off from Monarch Pass between Poncha Springs and Gunnison

I leave Broomfield with my good friend, Jamie, who has also completed half of the trail. We will walk the first five miles together, after which he will head north for a few days on trail he has not explored while I continue on toward my destination of Durango.

Our separation point is where the East and West portions of the Collegiate routes come together south of Highway 50 and Monarch Pass. I make myself a cup of coffee, we sit at 11,900’ on a calm day, devoid of any wind. Nearby are some other hikers chatting while we hang out. After ten minutes or so, Jamie and I do the fist bump thing and he descends down into Fooses Creek while I head south along the ridge of the Continental Divide. It is great beginning with him and hard to say goodbye. Going solo, well, is solo, and hence can get a bit lonely from time to time.

I am splitting the trip into two parts with the rest day in between. However, in order to afford this luxury I need to cover 104 miles in the first four days. Today, I only began at 8:30 so I am already giving away some good light. Yet, the trail is fast and smooth, allowing for pretty good time and miles covered. But I really need to ease into the trek and not go crazy on the first day.

Fleabane

I am on the trail well after the “bulk” of hikers that started the complete trail earlier in summer. Many are anxious to head out in June, and I, too, have done that in the past. But with an early start comes lingering snow fields. July is a great time to be on the trail as the wildflowers are peaking in the mountains, but with July, also comes monsoon rains and dangerous electrical storms. By leaving in August I am hoping to to avoid the heavy monsoons but still catch a good dose of wildflowers. I am not dissapointed early on, as I have good “eye candy” with wildflowers throughout the first day.

Come mid afternoon, I run into some motorcyclists traveling northbound. Parts of the trail are open to motorized travel and segment 16, which I am on now, is one of those segments. A group of four are riding some really nice BMW 1200 off-road touring bikes with panniers, much like Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman used in Long Way Round. Two riders pass by and then I come upon a third, walking the trail, one arm holding onto a nature made crutch of a stick. “How’s it going”, I ask.

“It’s been better”, he replies, “I think I broke my ankle.”

I carry an emergency transponder device with me so I can satellite text my wife, Pam, and it also doubles as a SOS device for emergency situations. “Do you need any help with anything?” thinking perhaps this guy needs emergency evacuation. He replies that he has all that he needs and seeing he has buddies with him, I move on down the trail. He is a pleasant enough chap considering he has a potentially serious injury and also that his other buddy is looking for their own lost GPS device that had bounced off another bike.

I continue to run into both day hikers and thru hikers. I keep a good pace, only stopping for a quick lunch and later to filter enough water for the rest of the day. I know that from many past treks I will average 2.2 mph overall for the day. I never want to fall below that number and know that on good sections of smooth trail I can move faster. The amount of uphill does not make as much difference to me as much as the condition of the trail. If it is smooth “all day” trail, I can motor along at a consistent pace. If it gets rocky, it will be my downfall. I don’t move quickly through rocky trail so I always try to make the best of the good trail when I have it. Below is a good example of “all day” trail.

All Day Trail, like I wish I had this all day to walk on!

I do encounter some tougher trail by late afternoon, but I trudge through it, my goal being a stream where I can filter more water, have dinner and then carry on for another hour or so. Sure enough, I arrive at Tank Seven creek with a good day in my legs. As I filter water above the creek, I can see other trekkers at a camp. There is a lot of laughing and talking going on; backcountry thru hikers enjoying a beautiful evening and nice camp. I yell hello to them and they let me know that they have space for another tent. I reply that I’ll be going further, but after I heat and pour boiling water into my food pouch, I cross back over the creek and join them while I eat.

We exchange names and hometowns and within five minutes we are all laughing and joking. “Walking Man” is probably about my age and I quickly find out that he has hiked the Appalachian Trail as well as the Arizona Trail. The other two are an older couple, very easy going and immediately likeable. All three started in Denver and are going through to Durango. It is what I like about this trail. We are all here for the same reasons, we love to hike, camp and experience trail life. I’d really like to stay and linger but want a few more miles today. I bid them goodbye and am on trail again by 7:00.

I walk another hour, moving into Cameron Park and just beyond. It is the “golden hour”, the time of day just before sunset when wildlife is beginning to move about. Sure enough I see four mule deer, two of them majestic bucks as I move into the open park. I’m forced to show my hand as I move through and they bound ahead of me. I see one of them later and she poses for a nice photo.

The whole day has been smoky, from the fires in Northern California. It has kept the sun off my body, but now night is quickly approaching. I come upon a huge open meadow and quickly make camp, pitching my little single wall, one man tent. I’m sleeping at 11,300’. As I settle into my bag, I acknowledge that while my body performed ably during the day, my legs are throbbing, especially my right knee. This is slightly disconcerting because I felt this same thing earlier in the spring after an aggressive run. It did not resolve quickly then; I hope this is not the case now in August. As dusk turns to dark, a bull elk lets out a squeal above me high in the meadow. I already miss Pam, as is always the case, the first night out on a solo venture. Sleep is fitful and it rains during the night off and on. I keep waking and remind myself that I am dry and somewhat warm. I’ll take care of wet gear once it is daylight, which will come after my alarm goes off in the morning.

Day 1 total miles traveled – 26

Total elevation gained – 3,738’

Comanche National Grasslands – Picket Wire Canyon

The choice was either Utah or Southeast Colorado. My wife, Pam, got to choose and she had been to Utah three years ago on spring break, so SE Colorado it was. Again, she was entrusting her trip to the husband; she is easy that way.

The Comanche National Grasslands encompass a huge area. To be exact the grasslands are 440,000 acres or 692 square miles. Much of that is high prairie grasslands where antelope play and tarantulas live and do their own special thing each fall. (I plan to make that trip one day as well!) There are, however, amazingly beautiful shallow canyons that contain petroglyphs, pictographs, Spanish ruins and the top allure to Picket Wire Canyon, dinosaur tracks.

Looking down into Picketwire Canyon.

Looking down into Picket Wire Canyon from the rim above

It is an easy four hourish drive to La Junta from Denver. Head east to Limon and then south to melon country. It’s worth stopping in La Junta at Lucy’s for either a late breakfast or early lunch before heading the remaining half hour to Picket Wire Canyon.

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A view of the canyon while camped on beach like sand

We arrived there early afternoon, set our tents, and each of us went about our business. It was Pam, J Rubble, his 11-year-old son, The Dude, and myself. I took a little nap and then did a cursory tour of the area refreshing my memory from two years ago when I was here with J Rubble. The landscape is marked by juniper trees, cholla cactus and plant life emerging from winter dormancy.

I did find this sign as I made my way to the trailhead.

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Be prepared, or prepare to die

Apparently there was a bit of a problem here last summer, which is another reason this is a good area for early spring or late fall. It’s an easy 800 foot descent into the canyon and then you follow the Purgatoire River for about as long as you want to. Two years ago we hiked to Rourke Ranch, just under 10 miles one way. Unfortunately you cannot camp in the canyon itself (likely due to the great chance of death) so it is day use only. After a great dinner of venison steaks and brussel sprouts we all got a good night’s sleep and chance to test out the waterproof capabilities of our tents as it rained heavily through the night.

The next morning we took our time having breakfast and headed down the trail mid morning. J Rubble and The Dude brought bikes for the nearly twelve mile round trip to the dinosaur track site. Pam and I headed along on foot. The trail is almost road like in nature, but the tread can be loose because of the sand. This morning, however, it was packed pretty firm due to the overnight rains and was even muddy in a few spots.

 

 

En route to the dinosaur tracks we stopped to check out the petroglyphs and Spanish mission and cemetery. There is amazing history in this canyon and I could easily spend many days doing a more thorough job exploring.

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The Purgatoire River in Picketwire Canyon.

The big draw is the dinosaur tracks, over 1200 of them to be exact. The area is home to the largest dinosaur track site in North America. The tracks are of Therapods (meat eaters) and Sauropods (plant eaters). They were from the Jurassic period 150 million years ago. Yes, that is not a typo. This was before the Rocky Mountains were formed. The area of Picket Wire Canyon used to be a huge, marshy lake bed. Apparently the dinosaurs had walked along the marshy, mucky edge of the lake leaving their deep footprints. The lake eventually dried out and the tracks literally turned to stone. There is an excellent article from the New York Times about the ongoing work being done in the area. (Hover over the images below for the captions and descriptions of tracks)

 

 

 

We relax by the river and I heat water for coffee and tea as we soak up the sun on this fine late March day. J Rubble and The Dude have crossed the river in sandals while Pam and I are content to watch them play about. There is one other couple here, from Montana, according to the signed trail register, and they, too, are relaxing in the sun on the other side of the river.

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Lunch spot on the Purgatoire River

Eventually, Pam and I begin to make our way back, now with the sun higher overhead and warming our backs. The boys play leap frog with us on the bikes and later on we find them bedded down underneath a cottonwood tree. It seems that The Dude decided to climb the tree and had a bit of a mishap, falling out of it and scraping himself up

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Oops!

pretty good on the belly. There doesn’t seem to be any internal damage and we make our way  back to camp.

After another good meal and windy night I awake the next morning to the sounds of turkeys gobbling and coyotes yipping in the Juniper filled canyon below. We’ll load up the cars this morning and make our way another couple hours south to the other part of Comanche Grasslands and Picture Canyon, our destination for the day and night.

Lost Creek Wilderness Loop – Day 4

Click here to see a map of my fourth day

Click here to see elevation profile, terrain, etc.

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.

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First columbines of the trip!

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.

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Passable appearance after three days afield

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.

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A little bit of my heaven on earth

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.

Reflecting on the Past Year

Sifting through images I came across this video I shot in mid June during a 4 day backpack trip. It was one of the best hours of the past year. A gentle uphill trail, butterflies afloat filling the air around me, wildflowers in abundance and aspens 🌳 hitting their early chartreuse green. It was a magical morning on trail.

Backcountry Archery Hunt – Day 1 Scout

 

I uncharacteristically took my time getting ready to head off to set up camp for a short archery deer hunt on Friday morning. Awakening at my usual time of 4:30, I did my journaling, walked the dogs with my wife, Pam, and then made myself breakfast. Just before 7:00 I was on the road to the Roosevelt National Forest.

As I pulled into the huge parking lot my Subaru Forester was the only vehicle. I took advantage of the toilet, strapped my Mathews Switchback bow to my backpack and hit the trail. I had supplies for three nights, but for some reason I wasn’t itching to hunt like I typically am. The season started tomorrow morning.

Walking the two and a half miles back to where I would set up camp I took in the scenery with two different views of the big mountain where the elk like to play. Perhaps that was why I wasn’t more excited for the hunt. I was unsuccessful in drawing an elk tag for the second year in a row for this area. Since I am running a 40 mile mountain trail race in one week I didn’t want to pack deep in to the area where I’ll hunt elk (9 miles one way) so I am hunting deer on this trip. There are far more elk high in this area ranging from 9500’ in elevation to 11,500’. The last two years I’ve hunted deer lower, but it is warm there and tends to have more people milling about in the areas. This would hopefully be quieter and a little more remote.

After an hour I arrived at the area I had surveyed on the map for decent camping. I didn’t have water at my site but a five minute walk farther down the trail gave me access to fresh water. I went about pitching my tent and found the spot ideal. I was far enough off the trail that no hikers would notice my camp, but if you knew where to look you could see it from the trail. While in timber, 99% of hikers never look more than a few feet in front of them, so I was confident my biggest concern would be errant bears in the area. Even though I was seven miles as the crow flies from where this incident happened earlier this year and the culprit had been dispatched of.

After filtering enough water for this day and the next morning I went back and took a few shots with my bow at a stump to make sure nothing got knocked out of whack on the hike in. I found a suitable dried out stump that would stop my designated practice broadhead but not damage it. I was walking about eating some Fritos Scoops when I set up the stump. Needing a small aiming point I wedged a Scoop into the stump and walked about 25 yards away. As I surveyed the target, a camp robber came flying onto the stump. The Clark’s Nutcracker proceeded to steal my Frito and fly away! I had to laugh out loud at how these birds will find a camp within minutes knowing that people mean easy food. They are noisy birds and make a regular racket in the forest. Fortunately, I brought along a two inch orange dot for this very purpose. After shooting a bit, my long shot at 35 yards landed just a few inches to the right.IMG_4504

By now it was mid morning and I gathered my pack, some food and other items to hike to where I’d be hunting for a little scouting. I was forced to make my camp outside of a specific perimeter which meant my area for the morning hunt would be a 2 1/2 to 3 mile hike from where I slept. I wanted to do a dry run and check the area again. After an hour’s walk I was at treeline and sitting in a spot where I had seen three mule deer bucks a week ago, one a very nice 4×4 and quite large. But it was now midday and nothing was about that I could see. Not a worry, because tomorrow was when I wanted to see game.  I headed back toward my camp but this time headed over the mountain and bushwhacked versus the road I had come up on.

That is what separates this kind of trip from a trail backpacking trip. While backpacking, the trail is not always easy but it is always a trail. Scouting to hunt and hunting involve miles across backcountry; off trail and in rough country. Areas can be steep, so steep you can reach out and touch the mountain in front of you. Deadfall typically is everywhere and makes it difficult to walk a straight line. On this trip, my clothes were constantly sticky with sap from limber pines and got on everything. Once above tree line, steps have to be chosen carefully so rocks don’t dislodge and trap a leg or worse. Backpacking is tiring, but predictable. Backcountry hunting is hard work and exhausting and mentally draining at times. But the physical nature is much more intense than trail backpacking; at least in my opinion.

I soon was in an area where I had written a post from a week ago. I sat for a while, now late afternoon, and after glassing an area that I knew contained elk, and hoping to also see deer, nothing seemed about. Hmmm…maybe everything moved to a different area. Large game animals move about in patterns and don’t always just stick to one area, hence the challenge of hunting them. It was approaching 5:30 and I decided to begin moving back to camp to make myself some dinner before dark.

I stood up, donned my pack and began to slowly walk. I hadn’t moved much when I heard animals. Only elk make so much noise. There was some gentle mewing which sounded like a calf or cow. I turned my attention down the mountain where it seemed like the elk were at. Then I heard what sounded like antlers banging into branches and clacking about. I was positioned in a very small opening with none of the Limber Pines or Englemann Spruce right by me. I caught movement to my right and saw antlers flash and elk moving toward me. I quickly crouched down to make myself invisible or at least as small as possible! Pulling my camera out I hoped to capture the unfolding scene. The elk were moving and feeding at the same time, heads down, intent on ingesting calories. One bull was on his way to where he would cross right in front of me. He finally cleared a tree where he saw me and stopped on a dime. Guess what? I was not invisible! Thus began the staredown as I pressed the shutter on my camera. I was operating on the fly, not being able to make adjustments, just trying to get as many shots of him as possible. He had five points on his right beam and four on his left, the top point on that side not splitting like the right did and he qualified as a “raghorn”.

As we had our little staredown another bull was on a path where he would walk right into me. But he, too, saw things were not as they should be on this stroll to their feeding

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Bull #2 – I’m not sure if the camera had trouble focusing or my hands were shaking too much!

ground. He now was directly off to my right and I gently turned the camera toward him to snap off some shots.

Meanwhile three more bulls were milling about behind bull #1, two were small raghorns and another was still in the velvet with small spikes that split up high and he was probably a one and a half year old, mabye two and a half.

After a few minutes they decided I was out of the ordinary enough to warrant heading back to where they came from. Bull #2 actually wheeled a bit and was more spooked than bull #1. Likely, he had caught my scent.

After they left I heard two barks and decided the exciting event of the last few minutes was now just a memory. I sort of sat there, gathered myself and allowed my adrenaline to settle back down. Again I heard some gentle mewing and knocking of antlers below me. I slowly proceeded ahead and was able to look down into a large park, about 400 yards long running up the mountain in an east/west fashion. Down below were the five elk, they had not fled the area but merely circled lower to get to their feeding ground. I now recognized the different racks and viewed them through the binoculars. As I checked them out, more bulls now came into view. One had an either broken or misformed right main branch, another seemed to be a nicer 5×5 and a two more small bulls. This group of four headed into a slightly different area. So near as I could tell I had nine bulls within a few hundred yards of me. I was literally surrounded by elk, which is an incredible experience in the wild. It is one thing to see the elk bugle at Rocky Mountain National Park but to have a 15-20 yard encounter with a bull elk is someting different altogether. It is a treat, an experience to treasure, and something that doesn’t happen when you walk on designated hiking trails. Below is a slideshow of Bull #1.

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With the wind blowing up the mountain I was happy the elk were not disturbed. I would not be hunting them tomorrow but somebody might be (however, I doubted this) and I felt it prudent to sneak out of there without them getting bumped out of the area.

While finishing up watching them (it is difficult to break away from such magnificence!) I heard a few snorts. My mind was so intent on the elk that I didn’t weigh its significance. While elk will bellow, bugle, mew, bark and are very vocal, they do not snort. Deer snort. As I looked up I saw a small mule deer buck bounding back across the large meadow toward the dark timber. I am sure he did not see or hear me, but he may have been bothered by all of the bulls. I watched as he bounded lightly across the grassy meadow in the evening light. So…this would be an okay area for deer as well. However, I was already set on spending the morning up higher.

I made my way straight down the mountain, mentally making a note how much easier it is to drop down in a line 856 vertical feet in the distance of six tenths of a mile. Hiking back up that way is much, much slower, especially off trail!

I arrived in camp at dusk, having just enough light to heat water for dinner. I donned my headlamp to go filter water. This is my least favorite part of the backcountry hunting solo experience; doing all the camp chores in the dark. The best hunting is at first and last light, often meaning 16 hours away from camp if one is covering ground looking for game. Naps help but I never am able to sleep for more than 20 minutes during the day. This is where having a buddy along would be a lot of fun. Instead, I crawled in my tent and never even opened my book on my phone. I shot a satellite text to Pam that I was safe for the night and made sure the alarm was set for 4:00am. It was before 9:00 as I fell asleep after an adventurous first day.

 

Day 3 – Lost Creek Wilderness Loop

Click here to see a map of my third day.

And click here for the profile, type of terrain and such.

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Looking southwest from my camp of the second night

I sleep in a little bit compared to yesterday. I leave myself enough time to have TWO cups of coffee before I pack up and hit the trail. By 6:10 I’m off and the sun is shining brightly. I have a finishing point in mind today and estimate it will take me 22-24 miles to get there. There is also the prospect of a short side trip to Refrigerator Gulch, one of the main attractions of Lost Creek Wilderness. However, I had a hard time incorporating it into my intended route, so I hope to skirt down to check it out.

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Chartreuse early season aspen contrast against the red granite and blue skies

The views early in the crisp morning air are fantastic. My body feels pretty good after the long day yesterday and in about a mile I am at a trail junction and heading south. Shortly thereafter I take a left and up on the Lark Park Trail, a route that I was on with my son Ben just over a year ago. I miss him immensely as he has just gone off to boot camp with the US Navy. He dominates many of my thoughts during this trip.

A few hours into my morning and I stop in Lake Park for some food and a chance to relax. I’m pretty tired after just five miles and as I sit upon a log I feel as though I could take a nice long nap. I snap some photos with my phone and keep moving along. Shortly thereafter I’m doing my deep breathing at nearly 11,000′ when I look to my right and see two young women having breakfast on a log. We chat for a bit and then I continue on.

I sense that with today being Friday I will see many people coming into the area for the weekend, especially since I will be heading to the extreme southeast trailhead, Goose Creek trailhead, which is one of the most popular entry points for the Wilderness area. I’m not sure why it is so popular because it is not particularly easy to get to and requires driving through almost 25 miles of burnt out forest from the Hayman Fire in 2002, which at the time was the largest fire in the history of the state, burning 138,000 acres.

Sure enough as I move from the Lake Park Trail to Hankins Pass Trail heading east and down, down, down I come across many people heading into the forest for the weekend. With 11 miles underfoot I find a wonderfully shady area by Goose Creek just before noon to have some lunch, filter water and wash up.

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One of the most prevalent wildflowers I saw on my trip, appropriately called Shooting Star.

As I gather my things to move on, the sun is now high and it is warm. I opt for a long sleeved button shirt which has UV protection to keep me cool. I have my goofy hat which covers my neck and I head up the trail, tick-tocking along as my trekking poles tap out a metronomic rhythm on the trail.

The trail is gloriously wide, with nary a rock and rises gently along Goose Creek. After just a mile or so it meanders away from the creek and I begin to get some views of the granite domes which are the signature landmarks of the southern part of Lost Creek Wilderness. The trail steepens at times and then falls away, only to rise again over the miles. The weekenders that were ahead of me begin to come back quickly and it motivates me as I motor along. Day hikers come the other way along with occasional backpackers. I have never been on this trail and while I have read so much about it I confess that I am underwhelmed. The views from within the steep canyon are not as spectacular as those I have seen from above on different trails overlooking the rock formations.

Farther along, the trail becomes narrower, steeper and rockier. I begin to pay the piper now for my ego fueling me along earlier. I’m beat and my left shoulder is taking a beating from my pack. I stop along the trail, check my GPS app to see where I am and find I’m not far from a trail junction. I re-don my pack and make it the short way to the next spot where there is another backpacker and two dogs.

He left the same day that I did and is doing a popular loop of Lake Park, McCurdy Park and back Goose Creek. We sit for a while and talk about our different treks and wait for his friend, who is climbing up to where we are from Refrigerator Gulch. His gentleman arrives and I know that he is 60 years old because the friend told me so. He comes over to sit down, big gray beard, cutoff Carhartt type pants, old cotton T-shirt and an aluminum external frame pack with his tent rolled up inside his foam sleeping pad strapped on the bottom and a sleeping bag strapped to the top. “That is a classic pack” I tell him.

“Yeah”, he replies, “I think I got this back in the mid 60’s”. We commence to talk about anything under the sun. The younger of the two pulls out a ceramic pipe and asks me if I smoke. I tell him no and he and the older guy pass the weed pipe back and forth. It’s life in the backcountry, there is no judgement. Everybody has walked a long way regardless of miles traveled and the atmosphere is one of relaxation and not caring about the little shit of the world. It is paradise.

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The view at Lake Park early in the day while ingesting some calories.

I fill them in on the trail where they are going and offer suggestions for camp and available water. They are appreciative of the information and we part ways. I head north and climb up for another mile before heading down the other side and out of the Tarryall Mountains toward Wigwam Creek. I had been in that area one other time about four years ago and knew of a nice camping area by the creek where I could take a nap, filter water and make my final one mile push up toward a saddle to camp for the night. I had decided against checking out Refrigerator Gulch, leaving that for another trip in the future.

Dragging myself along the trail I come to the campsite I had in mind and find two people sleeping on logs where I had envisioned myself resting! Goldilocks and Goldilocks Jr fill my space. I dejectedly walk past and see the trail heading up and north where I will need to go. However, I need to filter water so I turn around to head back to the creek, seeing that one of the two is now sitting up. It is a woman and she says hello and asks if I know where she is at.

I am grateful to walk over and sit down as I throw my pack to the ground. It seems that she and her now also awake friend headed on the wrong trail the previous evening and were not quite where they thought they were. I get them oriented and we laugh about heading down wrong paths for I have done the same with friends and family in the past.

Eventually they move on for a late day hike and I filter my water and hump it up one mile to my camp, giving me 22 for the day and stop at a splendid little spot I remember from years ago, albeit fairly busy with mosquitoes this evening. It is the end of what ended up being much more of a grind than I had anticipated; however, quite normal after the big day yesterday. Tomorrow will be my last day and should be pretty easy heading out.

As the mosquitoes attack the netting of my tent while I read after dinner, I am grateful for the bug net and not having opted for a tarp tent years ago. Again, my eyes are shut before natures lays the sun down to set for the day.

Lost Creek Wilderness Big Loop – Day 2

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Just after dawn my shadow casts long in a saddle at 11,600′ on the Ben Tyler Trail.

Click here to view a map of Day 2

Click here to see elevation profile, type of tree cover and land cover!

I sleep like I typically do in the backcountry. Waking up through the night as I turn from one side to the other. At one point the intensely bright moon wakes me as if someone is shining a flashlight in my face. Unless it is raining heavily I always sleep with the fly open so I can stargaze when I awake at night. Later, my phone begins its gentle crescendo at 4:00 waking me from my slumber in Craig Park.

Today is my birthday and I’ll celebrate 52 years hanging about in this world. I’ve backpacked and hiked many 20+ mile days but I have never done a 30 miler. Today will be the day I go for that goal; in fact I’ve decided to make it a 52 kilometer day which converts to 32.5 miles.

I heat water for one cup of coffee under my headlamp, tear down camp quickly and am on the trail at 4:50. I have to navigate some snow as I move through the dark timber and one puddle I come to has a skin of ice on it, verifying freezing temperatures I experienced during the night.

In the first hour I am treated to a beautiful expanse at 11,600′ of open terrain dotted by rocky hills. The sun shines so as to cast long shadows from my lanky frame. As I cross the park on a trail that is marked by posts dotting the way I begin to drop down in elevation. I look on the horizon and make out one, then two elk feeding in the early shadows. They are fairly distant and I can just make out six or eight as the impending sun makes it difficult to discern the shapes of the large grazers.

The day will consist of time on new trail and trail I have traversed times before. I keep dropping in elevation and see a camper parked in a small clearing by  Rock Creek. I’ve come six miles and dropped down to 9700′. A gentleman is outside and we stop and chat for awhile. He comments that his furnace in his camper was non-functional and asks if I felt that it was very cold last night. He inquires about the weight of my pack, my route, etc. I tell him of where I came from and he indicates that that is where he will go explore today. I’m only a few hours into my day but I haven’t had a human encounter since 1:30 the previous afternoon and as I make my way onward, with a marathon yet ahead of me, my spirits are lifted by the brief visit.

I hit the junction with the Colorado Trail heading east. Previously I have come the opposite way with my friend Jamie and a different time two years ago with Pam. I recognize the trail well and know landmarks which tell me where I am on the trail. In an area surrounded by Bristlecone Pines I see a group of four dainty orchids a step off the tread. I drop to the ground, pack still on my back and begin taking photos of the Calypso Bulbosa,

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Fairy Slipper (calypso bulbosa)

commonly called Calypso Orchid or Fairy Slipper. Two years prior when here with Pam I had stopped and photographed these same four flowers. Each year, they rise and flower after heavy winter snows. Lying just one literal step off the trail they are a prime example of what LNT or Leave No Trace is all about. And if I get a little preachy and political forgive me. As a visitor to this dedicated Wilderness area I agree to abide by the guidelines that have been established to protect this area. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law in 1964. You can read in the link above what those regulations are, but Wilderness in conjunction with Leave No Trace means you leave it as you found it or in even better shape, i.e. taking out trash you find. If I had picked these orchids two years prior, they would not have been here for me and hundreds of hikers on the Colorado Trail to enjoy this year. Theoretically I could bring a grandchild here 20 years from now to see these same flowers! Taking care of our environment is not a “today” table item. It’s not even a “lifetime” table item. It is a philosophy and responsibility that spans generations, centuries and millenia. I think there are certain high ranking politicians in our country that fail to understand the scope of this concept. I choose to leave the beautiful, delicate Fairy Slippers as they are. Not just for my fellow American visitors that may come across this spot but for my fellow man of all nations who visit this area and might enjoy it. We must come together as a world of people to preserve our planet as we enjoy it, during our miniscule period of time in the scope of personal history before our physical bodies become a part of it.

Before noon I come to the west end of Lost Park and the North Fork of Lost Creek. I lose my pack and sit up against a tree to have an extended break. I’ve covered half of my distance for the day. I’m on schedule to finish before sunset as long as my body does not rebel. I eat some cheese, pumpernickel bread, sausage and head down the trail.

Lost Park is another long narrow park, just like Craig Park of the previous day. I’m looking forward to losing 700′ of elevation over the next nearly six miles. I estimate I’ll get to the east end of Lost Park in the neighborhood of 3:00 and have roughly 22 miles under my belt for the day. But the trek through here is a disappointing drag. The sun is shining on my pack causing me to be hot and sweaty. I maintain my fluid intake so as to not become dehydrated beyond repair later in the day. I eventually pop out on the east side and filter some more water for the last 10 1/2 miles.

As I regain the tread, now heading south on the Brookside-McCurdy trail I am off the CT and back onto brand new trail, making things a little more interesting again. I stop to answer a question another backpacker has. He is an older gentleman with a yellow lab by his side. The dog is sleeping soundly. The man has his tent pitched and we trade information about routes, where we have camped, where we are going and stories about the wilderness and those who have perished here! As we chat, I envy him. He is done for the day and relaxing at a lovely little spot. I am having to move 2,000′ higher into the late evening and possible changes in weather. However, the potential regret of not finishing out this day as I have planned, outweighs the temptation of company for the remainder of the day.

Over the next miles I pass established campsite after established campsite. One group numbers over a dozen teenagers with adults mixed in. A bit later, there are the bearded 20-30 somethings with their tarp tents. In a bit, the trail pitches so sharply upward that after 28 miles in my legs I am forced to count 100 steps and then stop to regain my breath. I am approaching the area of Bison Peak and the trail tops out at 11,800′ and it is a steep pitch.

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The area of Bison Peak. Note the snow capped peaks to the back right of the photo. Elevation at this spot is 11,800′.

I have expansive views in all directions and the wind has nothing to stop it here above treeline. As I huff and puff to crest into the high meadow I am amazed by the sight. It is beautiful. An area big enough to host numerous soccer fields fills the scene marked by huge granite domes. I make a mental note that this will be an area to come back and bring others to enjoy this site.

It is now just a 5k until I am done for the day. My whole attitude begins to shift and I am elated that while my head is pounding a bit and my left shoulder is aggravated from my pack, my legs are relatively fantastic. The lower body has held up tremendously and I begin to try and estimate where I will finish for the day. I now begin to enter the Ghost Forest of the Wilderness. Over 100 years ago a forest fire burned through this high mountain area. The trees, while dead from the fire, remain as burned out sentries standing guard over this stark, exposed, eerily pleasant area in the waning daylight hours of my birthday. The trail ribbons its way ahead of me and I can see it peeking in and out of the landscape disappearing over the knolls.

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Appearing as totems, dead trees begin to mark the beginnings of a ghost forest.

I think about the significance of these dead trees. Over 100 years old, still standing, still evident of a century of history, having survived season after season, high winds and all that nature has to offer. How much longer will they be here? 100 years after I am gone will my life remain so tall and gracious for the world to see?

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Dead for over 100 years, yet standing as sentries for visitors to this ghost forest.

As I tick down the final steps of my day, my phone chirps indicating that I have cellular service. I have just a few tenths of a mile to walk until I cross my “finish line” and I can make camp for the day. I pull out my phone and call Pam and amazingly she answers! I am elated! We talk as I finish out my day and it is the perfect gift on my birthday. As I talk to her, after having walked for 14 hours and 32 1/2 miles I am physically and emotionally spent and I profess my love to her like we are childhood sweethearts. As I say goodbye and wend my way forth looking for a spot to camp, I am nearly in tears. Emotion of family and the relationship to my wife and my son overcomes me. I finish my day a little more complete than when I began it back in the darkness of Craig Park before dawn.

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Rock dome in Lost Creek Wilderness. 

Lost Creek Wilderness Backpacking Day 1 – Big Loop

 


Click here to view a map of the first day

Click here to see cool stuff like elevation profile, slope, tree cover and land cover!

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Four of the last six years I have gone backpacking during my birthday which is June 15th. It began in 2012 after one of my best friends passed away that spring. I missed the following year and I missed last year. If my birthday falls on any day except Wednesday I shut my business down for a long weekend and make anywhere between a three and five day trip of it.

This year, I had blocked out the time but didn’t have any big plans or a spot picked out to venture to. A lot has to do with how much snow remains in the high country and typically mid June still holds much snow above 11,000 feet in the mountains of Colorado. However, the Lost Creek Wilderness missed the big May storms of this year so it became an eligible area for a four day trip.

Because I was going solo it also allowed me to chase some backcountry goals that are better pursued alone, versus having another being succumb to my crazy ideas of fun. The Saturday before I did a 15 mile trail run up into the Platte River Mountains to see if the hills held much snow on the north facing slopes. As luck would have it, there were only a few patches of snow and as I dropped into the area of Craig Park between the Platte River and Kenosha Mountains it was blissful. I had decided on my loop.

I’ve always been an endurance athlete with some years-long breaks over the past nearly 40 years. Since I began backpacking I also began running and trail running to complement the off trail experience. Last October I picked up a dropped yoga practice from the past decade and have had a nice balance of yoga and trail running this spring. I had not donned a 20-30 pound pack yet this year but felt confident in my base fitness. The fact that I’ve spent over 50 nights sleeping in the wilderness over the previous two years, I felt that my body and muscle memory would serve me well. So, I decided to go big for my 52nd birthday trip.

I had one massage to give on Wednesday morning and had packed my bag the previous day. At 11:00am I headed south on highway 285 to Bailey, Colorado. I parked at the Payne Creek Trailhead and hit the trail shortly after noon. It was pleasantly warm as I headed south and up with my beginning elevation of just over 8,000’

It felt good to just walk and not be running. Albeit my long trail runs have been at three and a half hours and this would be a four day trip using most of the light each day. The north part of the wilderness goes from drier areas through mountain timber and after just a mile and a half I came to four younger people having lunch at a creek crossing. “Where you headed for the night?” I asked them.

They looked about at each other and one young lady replied “We’re not really sure”. With four of them, hopefully they had the resources to figure it out and not need help. Last year I invested in a DeLorme Inreach satellite device of which the big selling point for me is the the ability to satellite text to my wife or friends and also to throw up an SOS if an emergency should ever occur. In addition I leave a map with my wife of my intended route and also leave the same information with an experienced friend that knows how to come help if I don’t return on time. When I left the parking lot I sent out a text to both of them that said, “I’m parked here (with GPS coordinates) and off on my trip!”

LCW Permit sign

Lost Creek Wilderness requires you obtain a permit from a handly little box station. Fill out the card, where you’ll be spending your nights, leave part in the box and take a small section with you. It’s used primarily for research purposes.

I hiked steadily until reaching the saddle of the mountain 3,000’ higher from my departure point and then descended 500’ into Craig Park. Craig Park is a park or “meadow” that is roughly 1,000 feet wide that runs in a NW/SE direction for about six miles. Craig Creek runs right through it and it is surrounded by marshy areas with occasional beaver dams and potentillas on the upper edges. The Platte River mountains rise to the north of the park about 1,000’ up and the Kenosha Mountains are south and slightly higher at 1,500’ above the park. Small peaks of both ranges rise and fall on either side of the valley. It is a beautiful area that is not well traveled by evidence of the scant trail running through it. The trail was narrow enough as I hiked northwest that potentilla scraped my calves and after a bit I collapsed my trekking poles because they kept getting caught on the shrubs along the trail.

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Craig Park looking south with Platte River Mountains left, Kenosha Mountains to the right and lots of blue sky and “Toy Story” clouds!

I walked for a few more hours until I arrived at the upper reaches of the park. I still had daylight left but did not want to drop down into the dark timbered forest. Even though I would be sleeping at 11,500’ it would be warmer higher and drier. I was camped well away from the creek and I had filtered water a mile or so back, so I had plenty to cook with and begin my day the next morning.

I quickly pitched my tent even though there was no looming bad weather. It’s a habit that is hard to change. Nobody likes putting up a shelter in the rain and it is always the first priority once the decision to stop has been made. Rain and hail is not a horrible thing if you are warm and dry. But…once wet it can be uncomfortable and downright dangerous in the high country.

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Camp! Night #1!

I had climbed about 3,500’ for the day, trekked 12.6 miles and my pack would only get lighter now from my beginning weight of 32.5 pounds. I made myself dinner and as I brushed my teeth a short distance from the tent I saw some elk feeding on the opposite hillside. After sauntering a little closer for a better look I headed back to my campsite and was in my bag and looking at the stars with my fly drawn back on my little tent. I set the alarm for 4:00 in the morning. I wanted an early start to what would be the longest single day of backpacking in my life. Everything was in place, I just had to execute tomorrow.