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.

 

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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′