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′