JB and I wanted to hike the first segment of the Colorado Trail (“CT”) which begins in Waterton Canyon and ends 16.8 miles later at the South Platte River Trailhead located near the ghost town South Platte. As such, we took a road trip, each driving 130+ miles!
Our morning began at 6:30am, where we met at the Woolly Mammoth parking lot. From there we caravanned to the end of Segment 1 to drop off a car so that we’d have transportation upon completing our 17 mile adventure. Then we backtracked to Waterton Canyon to begin our hike at 8:45am.
The first parking area, just across the road from the trailhead was virtually empty, probably quite a different sight from a weekend morning as Waterton Canyon is a popular place for Denverites to exercise given its close proximity to the city. After almost three hours of placing cars this morning, “close” is a relative term. JB summed it up best with his question, “I’m confused. The hike is only 17 miles? It seems like we’ve driven much farther than that.”
After lacing up our shoes, visiting the pit toilets, and strapping on our packs, we began our walk up the wide gravel road that followed the Platte River through the canyon. The road was once part of the Denver, South Park, & Pacific Railway and is now only open to Denver Water Service Vehicles, bicyclists, and hikers without dogs.
While we enjoyed the views of the river and spotting the herd of bighorn sheep, Colorado’s state mammal, after more than 6.5 miles on the essentially flat road, we were pleased to pass Strontia Spring Dam and reach the turn off to the CT. Finally, we entered the shade of the evergreen forest beneath currently clear skies, though the forecast called for afternoon storms. I just hoped the forecasted storms would roll in a few hours later than anticipated, and that they would not resemble the storm that woke us at 3am – a discotec of thunder and lightning.
We kept a quick pace until we took a short break for a snack and for JB to readjust his socks. We thought we plopped down on a bench called Lenny’s Rest, built in honor of Eagle Scout Leonard Southwell, though we found that bench after a series of switchbacks approximately a mile later. Lenny’s Rest was situated in the trees near the intersection with Indian Creek Trail #800 which was nice, but the bench we used next to the sign claiming we had 10 miles to go offered a more open view.
From Lenny’s Rest, we enjoyed our first descent, only for about a mile where we crossed Bear Creek, the one reliable water source on this segment according to the guidebook. We passed by a variety of nice campsites in close proximity to the creek on our way to tackle four miles of ascent. For the most part, the climb was gradual as we gained approximately 1,400 feet and topped out at 7,500 feet at mile 13.
I found this section of the trail to be the most delightful and certainly the most eventful. The trail turned from dirt and crushed granite to dark grey rock that probably serves as the backdrop of a waterfall during spring snowmelt. The area was simply lovely though a bone and cross ten yards to the right of the path made us wonder what unfortunate accident could have occurred.
We continued along the lush trail overgrown with berries and wildflowers. It seemed to criss-cross a small creek, though I suspect the trickle of water flowed temporarily with the extremely wet summer. It felt like we were in the tropics or rainforest, especially with the increased humidity. As we gained elevation, we left the damp, leafy bushes and once again entered the pine forest where we crossed a former motorcycle trail. I couldn’t decipher the trail. I only knew we were at the described intersection by all the signs warning “No Motor Vehicles.”
The trail felt as if it were leveling out near mile eleven, thus I thought we were near the end of our ascent. Accordingly, JB pulled from his pack a half gallon Coleman water jug filled with ice to complete his ALS ice bucket challenge. Much to his dismay, over seven hours after filling up the jug with ice, none of it had melted. We surmised that this would normally be a good dilemma to have and it would be a good commercial for Coleman, but it didn’t lend itself to the task at hand. So for the next half hour, JB carried his cooler with the lid off like Little Red Riding Hood and her basket to attempt to melt the ice. The mountain biker we crossed paths with probably wondered what in the world we were doing.
JB didn’t get to carry the cooler like a basket for long. The forecasted storm was right on schedule. The breeze kicked up, the black clouds rolled in, and the sprinkle turned into a heavy rain immediately. Our debate about pulling on our rain jackets lasted about a minute as the skies unleashed. Soon cracks of thunder boomed and lightning flashed around us. The trail turned into a small river. Though still beneath the treeline, we occasionally crossed exposed ridges where we were still gaining slight elevation as we splashed through muddy water to reach the descent.
Luckily the storm moved through quickly and after charging into for a few miles, we found ourselves stripping off our rain jackets that failed at being waterproof. Unfortunately, we dashed by what looked like one of the prettiest views on the trail from a massive rock outcropping, though we were pleasantly surprised with several more lovely views along the ridge as we began our descent. It looked like others enjoyed camping with the views in sight. I only wished I hadn’t put up my good camera up already. I suppose I could have pulled it out again, but as many times as we had stopped in the last two miles for the ice bucket challenge, adding on layers, strapping on our pack covers, and changing out of wet jackets to dry long sleeves, we were finished with resting!
We were ready to spot the river below. After nearly 4 miles of switchbacks through the forest and even past a few prickly pear, in basically dry clothes we finally reached the car, a welcome sight! We actually had a fun time and enjoyed the variety of the trail, though we could have skipped the first 6.5 miles on the road.
Of course, our mission wasn’t accomplished yet. JB added his leftover water (that he wasn’t ready to give up on the trail) to his ice bucket. Next, he blew up Harold the flamingo. We changed our shoes and waited for some of the ice to melt before he and Harold completed his ALS challenge on the Gudy Gaskill Bridge over the Platte River. More power to him for carrying that jug of ice from 8:45 to 3:30 up and down the trail when he could have simply left it in my car that was waiting for us at the end. Perhaps that’s the difference between a 29 year old and 43 year old…I wasn’t adding any extra weight to my pack for 17 miles, and I certainly didn’t have a skip in my step after seven hours of hiking like JB did, who kicked his heels together at the end! Regardless, though not in order, I’ve now completed the first three segments of the CT, and I’m feeling pretty excited about! Thanks JB, for getting me another 40,000 steps closer to the end. I hope to get a few more day hikes in this season and then look into a few back packing trips over the next few summers. Come join me! Until the next segment…ETB