Soloed Segments 11-13 on the Colorado Trail

Day 1 – Segment 11 (Miles 0-2.1)

Tonight I started my first solo backpacking trip. I did a practice run with some of my new stuff and the help of David the prior weekend at Conundrum Hot Springs. I felt good about everything except for the possibility of getting lost and hanging my food bag in a tree and away from bears. The trail is well marked in these sections, and it is also well traveled, so getting lost likely wouldn’t have been an issue, but it always feels better to know there are backups in place. David gave me a short lesson on his GPS, and I had the Colorado Trail app on my phone with a battery that required regular charging. I decided to purchase an Ursack to protect my food, so I was good to go, as I had already arranged a shuttle to the trailhead.

The Colorado Trail Foundation provides a list of trail angels that will help shuttle people to certain areas of the trail. I parked my car at the Chalk Creek Trailhead and Investigator Ed and his wife Trudy came from Buena Vista to pick me up. They shuttled me to the Mt. Massive parking lot a little over an hour away. They said they were shuttling someone every day this week! They also let trail users stay at their house if needed. I think it is so cool that people volunteer to do this!

I got started around 6:30pm in light sprinkle. I crossed the road and gradually ascended the dusty path peppered with pine needles. Donned in rain gear, I promptly built up a sweat as I passed through the pine forest and crossed a creek before joining the Mt. Elbert Trail. I climbed a series of switchbacks to the remains of an old cabin before the Colorado Trail and Elbert Trail split. Here I veered left and descended across several small streams, though Box Creek was larger with a few campsites nearby. I probably would have enjoyed those campsites better than the one I chose a quarter mile further by Mill Creek, but I wanted to get a few miles in to make tomorrow a shorter day.

It probably took me a half hour to decide on the best placement for my tent and to get it set up with my Therm A Rest pad and sleeping bag. I was disappointed to find my LuminAID didn’t work! I guess I didn’t get it charged properly. Fortunately, it is solar, so I should have a nice, light weight lantern for my tent tomorrow night, should I be able to stay awake until dark! At 10,300 feet under pitch dark skies, I turned in by 10pm and anxiously awaited morning.

Day 2 – Segment 11 (Miles 2.1 – 15.2)

Leaving camp took longer than I expected..almost 1.5 hours. I’ll have to improve on that! It takes a while to disassemble everything, cook, get snacks and lunch out, and arrange my pack for anything that I might need easily accessible on the trail, like the water filter.

The next four miles took me by countless water sources and through lovely aspen groves. I’m surprised the Colorado Trail Guidebook doesn’t suggest to hike this segment in the fall for those who have the luxury to segment hike versus through hike. The aspen leaves would be spectacular during the change of season.

At mile 5.9, hikers have the choice to take a mile detour to Twin Lakes Village or to stay straight on the trail. Investigator Ed suggested that I hike into Twin Lakes Village and ask how to hike around the lakes on the west side so I didn’t have to take the long, hot route around the dam. I didn’t really feel like finding someone who could tell me how, so I stuck with the trail. I filled up with water at mile 6, as the databook suggested this was the last place to get water until I reached the intersection at mile 15, despite the fact I was walking around a reservoir.

From about mile 7.7 to 12.2 I mostly walked along open hills blanketed in sage brush. Fortunately, the sun was out for only about half this time. The rest of the time, I watched black clouds roll through the sky and wondered when I would be breaking out my rain jacket. After passing over the dam, I ended up on some roads and walking through parking lots. This area was slightly confusing. I just had to look around for the confidence markers.

Soon I ended up on the south side of the reservoir on the single track trail headed through the woods. Several vacationers stopped to chat along the way. One man asked, “Are you Reese Witherspoon? You know what I’m talking about don’t you?”

“Yes, I know what you are talking about. No, I’m not on a journey. I’m just knocking out a few segments.”

I do find hiking to be therapeutic. On the flip side, however, I’m not sure backpacking falls into the same category, as I feel like I end up needing a physical therapist when I’m finished!

Anyway, at mile 13.7, I came to the junction where hikers either take the Collegiate East Route or the Collegiate West Route Alternative. I hear the west is supposed to be prettier, but I am taking the East Route while simply following the guidebook. I did, however, ditch my pack by the junction and take the side hike, about two miles round-trip to Interlaken, a popular tourist destination in the late 1800’s. The complex was started in 1879 and expanded when James V Dexter purchased the property and surrounding land. The Interlaken Hotel boasted fancy amenities with comfortable rooms in beautiful surroundings. Guests came to fish, hunt, ride horses and relax. The resort only operated for 25 years until Twin Lakes was enlarged for irrigation purposes and the lakes became less attractive to nature lovers.

It was nice to be able to walk into the historic building and simply wander around. No docent guarded the door. No graffiti littered the walls. It was simply a historic building on the lake that visitors respected and enjoyed. I would have liked to dawdle a bit longer, but I knew it was only a matter of time before the skies unleashed. I reached my pack just in time for the drizzle. At least it cooled the temperature for the next uphill mile!

I planned on camping at mile 15 where, according to the guidebook I was to turn left at the intersection and “cross a seasonal stream with potential campsites, then a small stream where there is good camping.” The data book included a picture of a glass half-full of water which meant the stream wasn’t always reliable, but it was more reliable than the picture with a glass with a red exclamation mark in it. Last year, we learned the hard way…and I no longer trusted the red exclamation mark pictures!

Well, much to my dismay, I reached the intersection now having trekked almost 15 miles (including the side hike), and I came up to a dry ditch. I climbed the hill. I found a wonderful campsite next to the trail and no water. I dumped my pack to save my spot and continued on to look for the second stream which was basically a mosquito puddle. I continued walking another five minutes or so as thunder clapped overhead. I believe I was at least a half-mile from the intersection with no luck and only pictures of red exclamation marks further along, so I turned around and settled on eating sunflower butter for dinner as opposed to cooking dried camp food as to conserve my water.

Out of irritation, I decided I would snap a picture of the mosquito puddle and upon close inspection, I spotted a small, trickle of clear water pouring over a rock. I decided I would filter a liter of water (as that was as much as I could retrieve at one time), so that I could have some water at camp for the evening. I returned to my campsite just as it began to rain again. For the next two hours, I sat in my tent as lightning lit up the sky and thunder echoed through the mountain valleys. I thought, well, I may as well make the most of this storm, and I tossed a cup outside to collect some water…maybe I’d get a few gulps! Finally around 8 pm, the storms relented. This was welcomed because despite being below tree line, it still felt scary.

I didn’t get to relax long. The next storm arrived at 9pm. This one, which was 11 miles away, when counting the seconds between the thunder and lightning, felt like it was right on top of me. My eyes were closed as I hovered in the tent, and the lightening blinded me. This happened to David and me almost a year ago above treeline, and I was terrified, so when I got home I read about what to do. The information I found suggested to squat on the balls of your feet on top of the air mattress sleeping pad. Well, first of all, I couldn’t squat on the balls of my feet for more than a few minutes after backpacking 15 miles. Second, my weight went right through the air mattress to the ground!

wondering if I would survive the storm
wondering if I would survive the storm

Exhausted, I just decided to believe in the saying, “lightning never strikes in the same place twice.” I don’t think that is true, but when looking at the pine tree next to my campsite that looked half charred from being hit by lightning, it was the best thought that came to mind. The storm approached within three miles and to my relief suddenly disappeared. That was it. From 9:30 on, I slept in a calm, dark night.

Day 3 – Segment 11 (miles 15.2-21.5) and Segment 12 (miles 0-6.4)

I filtered another liter of water out of the “mosquito pond” before continuing on my trek the next morning as the next reliable water source according to the data book was six miles away at the end of the segment. I have to admit I got a little more annoyed with each half mile I hiked to find another seasonal stream marked with a red exclamation point at full flow! What happened to the stream with the half glass of water icon? I guess it was just farther down the path than I thought when I read the description.

Well, this year Colorado had an average year of snow, though a lot of it came late. The state had a dry June and early July, so much so that campfires weren’t allowed. So I don’t know if this week of thunderstorms helped out all those seasonal streams or if they are just more reliable than the one from last year as last year was extremely wet. Anyway, there was more water on the last six miles of segment 11 than I expected, and I didn’t need to fill up out of a “mosquito pond”. There were also several more stands of aspen. There must have been ten miles of aspen on this segment of the trail. It is definitely worth risking a little snow in September to admire the yellow and orange colors these trees turn in the fall. And this is coming from someone who lives in Colorado for the summer sun, not winter snow!

So, the first three miles of the day took me through intermittent lodge pole pine forest and aspen groves. Then the trail descended through a field of sage brush before it reached another aspen stand and eventually a road. This is where I met Richard, a 75 year old from Denver who was through hiking the whole trail over five weeks. My hat goes off to him! I thought backpacking 15 miles a day was hard (and it kind of is if you aren’t packing ultra light), and he was hiking 20 miles a day. He likened himself to the flying dutchman. He said back in the 1920’s there was a 75 year old man that always wanted to ride the Tour de France, but wasn’t fast enough, so he’d go to the starting line at 2am so he could ride and finish with the pack. The newspapers started covering him. I found a lot of stories on the internet for several flying dutchmen and flying scotsmen, but I couldn’t find that one.

Regardless, the point was he woke up every morning at 4am and walked very slowly as he ticked off 20 miles a day. He really was a hoot. He told me his trail name was “Puffer Belly”. He said, while he was making an ascent, he was huffing and puffing and talking to himself, repeating, “I think I can.” A fellow zipped up beside him who had hiked the PCT, CDT, and Appalachian Trail and said, I have a name for you. It has to do with trains. Puffer Belly. You are chanting “I think I can” aloud and you have a belly!

Then he started telling me about how he had lost 30 pounds over his year of training, but that he did have a hospital stay last week because he wasn’t drinking enough water. Somehow we got to talking about the storms, and he said that the one at 9pm was a doozy and it was far away. Anyway, he stopped to message his wife as we were approaching the next trailhead, and he was meeting her for an hour before he continued. He was an inspiration!

Upon reaching segment 12 and the campground nearby, I sat down for lunch and filtered some more water as I prepared to gain 2,500 feet over the next four miles. I walked to the middle of the campground, crossed the bridge over Clear Creek and headed up the switch backs. Once again, the black clouds rolled in as the skies rumbled, only this time I seemed to watch rain all around as I climbed through the forest without an ounce of shade. How was that possible, I thought. Trees and clouds were all around me, and somehow I was melting in the sun as I lumbered my way up to the ridge at 11,650 feet. To top it off, for Colorado, it was humid!

While I’m counting steps to myself, one-two, one-two, to keep my rhythm up the trail, I thought I heard a noise behind me, but for all I knew I was hearing myself gasping. Then suddenly right behind me, this guy announces, “Coming up behind you.” I sort of jumped to the side. He was coming so fast compared to my pace, I thought he was on a mountain bike. As he zipped by, he said, “Oh, I hope I didn’t startle you.” All I could do was look at him. I was too tired and out of breath to say anything. I just wished I was going as fast as he was!

Of course, what goes up, must come down, after gaining the ridge in the cooling (and at this point welcome) rain, I spent the next 1.5 miles descending to Pine Creek. I thought to myself, how do they plan these trails anyway. How do they decide to go up and down over a ridge as opposed to around the side. Then I counted up all the things in my pack that I wouldn’t be hiking with on my next journey. I’m aiming to get it five pounds lighter! I also realized with the cold rain, now the water in my camelback hose was much cooler than the water in my camelback bladder. This was just the opposite during the sunny afternoon. The temperature really dropped.

I was gleeful to emerge from the evergreen forest to the green meadow where Pine Creek flowed, as this was my planned stopping point for the day…12.5 miles in the sun and rain. I was ready for dinner at 4 in the afternoon! I set up camp, laid out some things to dry when the sun poked through the clouds again, and headed down to the creek to get some water. Of course, the easiest access to the creek was below a beaver dam. Don’t say giardia to me! I filtered the water and then used my Steripen. I did the same thing with the mosquito pond water just to be safe too. I enjoyed my dried Thai Chicken camp dinner before I settled in for an early night.

Day 4 – Segment 12 (miles 6.4 – 18.5)

I was slow to get going this morning, though I still left camp by 7:30am. I’m not sure why I wasn’t in a rush to get the day started. I prefer to beat the heat and the thunderstorms when possible though the storms have been coming in early (well before the token 4pm rain). Perhaps I just wanted the sun to hit my camp and dry off my tent. Maybe I just wanted to listen to the birds chirp while I watched the colors on the mountainside change with the rising sun. Or perhaps I just didn’t want to start my day by climbing up 1,100 feet in a 1.5 miles.

Off I went. At around mile 8.1 when I reached an open area on the mountain top, I stopped to check cell service as I promised to check in periodically to let people know I was still alive. From off to the right, this girl shouts, “Hey there! Do you need help finding something?”

“No, I was just trying to see if I could get cell service.”

She promptly switched on her phone and had enough service to call her mom! In the meantime, I had 2 bars and 1x. My texts would only go through to David (no iphone users). I asked, “Who is your carrier, AT&T?” It was. Funny because a few years ago, I couldn’t even get cell service in my house with AT&T much less the mountains. Now all of the sudden, I’m a Verizon user…can you hear me now? NO!

Anyway, she was from Seattle and on her third day of the Collegiate Loop. She said the altitude was tough. I guess so! Sea level to 12,000 feet. I continued on while she kept talking to her mom. I stopped a handful of times for lunch, to filter water, to try to communicate back home, and to talk to a guy who was part of another hiking group that I know of going Northbound on the trail. The young lady and I seemed to leap frog as we plodded along enjoying the tundra with beautiful wildflowers and views, descending through forests and an occasional aspen stand, and crossing several creeks, until finally I asked her, “Where do you plan to camp tonight.”

She thought she would continue into the beginning part of Segment 13 to camp by Silver Creek as that was the only place where the data book showed water and camping. I thought I would do the same, however, this required another 1,600 feet of elevation gain in a few miles at the end of what would be a 14 mile day. In addition, there were not many campsites in this area, so I said, “Ok, maybe I’ll see you there, and we can share a camp.”

She replied, “Oh, that would be nice. I don’t know if you overheard my conversation with my mom, but I had a rough night last night. This is my first solo backpacking experience, and last night I was all alone at Rainbow Lake and animals kept bumping into my tent!”

“Like chipmunks,” I questioned.

“Yes. They woke me up at 2:30 in the morning.”

Ten miles later, walking down the road to the beginning of Segment 13, I stopped a hiker headed in the opposite direction. I asked him if he came from Segment 13 and if he knew the camping situation. He said, a group has the big campsite about a mile up, but no one has the sight at the top 2.5 miles up. I really did not want to have to trek 2.5 miles up hill. I had hoped to find one of the limited sites on the way up, even if it was a dry site, as I could fill up with water at the end of Segment 12.

Eventually I reached the bottom of what I climbed up in two miles! I was now resting at 9,400 feet at North Cottonwood Creek at the beginning of Segment 13. The data book didn’t mention campsites along the creek, though usually there are some, and this was no exception. I had my choice as only one was taken. I plopped down at the first one I saw because it was flat.

The young lady showed up, who I now learned her name was Maddie. She didn’t have the energy to keep going either, so we camped by each other. She went to a small school in Oregon. Last semester she went on an exchange program to Chili. She said her first ever backpacking experience was in Patagonia. What a nice place to start!

This was her second experience, and her first solo. She applied for a grant. In her application, she said she would be hiking and writing about how therapeutic hiking can be. She got enough money to buy all her camping gear! I wish I knew about all these things when I was in college 25 years ago! I think it is so cool she got such an early start. After dinner together, it began to sprinkle, so we retired to our tents. It was nice to enjoy some company. Also, fortunately the rain was short-lived so most of my stuff got to dry out before nightfall.

Day 5 – Segment 13 (miles 0-9)

Only hiking 12 instead of 14.5 miles yesterday, set me up for a long day today…14 miles if I wanted to camp near a partly reliable water source (marked with a glass half full) and one campsite or 16 miles for a reliable creek. As such, I wanted to get an early start to the day. Somehow, I still only got out of camp by 7:20. Maddie left shortly after me.

I followed the switchbacks up to the ridge. For some reason, this climb was far easier than the last few days despite it being just as steep, if not steeper. Perhaps my body had finally adjusted to the altitude. And of course, it was much cooler in the day to set out on a big climb. Much to my dismay, there were several campsites 1.2-1.7 miles up the mountain which I could have reached yesterday to make today shorter. While the earlier campsites were dry, at the latter ones water was attainable with a little effort to climb down to the creek. I do wish the Colorado Trail book was more specific at times, though at least there is something available to those who are making the trek. Maddie felt the same way.

Upon reaching the saddle of Mt. Yale just under 12,000 feet, I was disappointed to just see a bunch of trees. Since I was out of the valley, I thought I’d see if I had any cell service…extended 1x. I don’t even know why it bothers to show this on the phone because it doesn’t work and only frustrates cell phone users! So I wandered off the trail to left to find a more open space, when I saw a path that led up to a knoll a few hundred feet above. I dropped my pack and followed it up to the summit to be rewarded with a panoramic view of 14,000 foot mountains surrounding the area. It was spectacular! I was also rewarded with three bars, but only 1x, so I called David from the mountain top. He said, I sounded like I only had one bar. Well, after four days I was still safe and I updated him on my possible change in camping locations. Now I was thinking I would be stopping at mile 9 or 14 depending on my comfort level, water sources, and weather conditions.

So I basically gained and lost 2,500 feet in 6.7 miles. There was a lot of up and down on these segments. I followed the switchbacks and crossed a creek before I came to an open view of the valley and lake below. The breezy point seemed like a perfect place for lunch…pretty scenery and no mosquitoes which were relentless yesterday! Maddie joined me about 20 minutes later as we sat for a long lunch. Different day hikers climbed up the trail without a plan. We both thought this was a little surprising given they were going to end up at 12,000 feet in the afternoon with a likely thunderstorm. The clouds didn’t appear to promise a dry day.

I told Maddie if I got to mile 9 before 2pm, that I would probably keep going because I wanted a short final day, but if not I’d camp at mile 9 because I didn’t want to risk searching for a sight and water around 5 pm in the storms. It seemed like after lunch, I just lost my momentum. Perhaps I sat too long, but the afternoon was warm. Just about every day hiker wanted to know where something was or what I was doing so I was constantly stopping. I think it took me two hours to go three miles?!? That was slow! I tend to average 25-30 minutes miles unless I’m climbing steep terrain like the last few days where it takes me about 50 minutes.

Maybe I just felt like a short day. I found a GREAT campsite at mile 9 about 10 minutes before 2pm. I stopped. The campsite was big and flat. It was a short distance away from the creek and had a log bench on which to sit. It was just too nice a spot to pass up. And surprisingly, I had LTE in the valley. Maddie joined me and was dismayed when she didn’t have any service. She was walking around holding her phone up just like the Verizon commercial. NO, they cannot hear you now on AT&T! She was trying to coordinate a stay at the Princeton Hot Springs as this was her resupply station. After dinner, we said our good-byes as I had a long day ahead of me while she had a short day ahead with an afternoon to soak in the hot springs.

Day 6 – (Segment 13 – miles 9 – 22.8)

I got out of camp just before 7am. This was my earliest start. I guess I was ready to get home. More power to all those who through hike. Personally, I think three days of backpacking at a time is ideal. But with almost 500 miles of trail to cover and a good distance to drive in the car, sometimes it is more efficient to just buck up. And to think I felt like I was bucking up when those through hikers go 20 miles a day. Of course, they go ultra light on their pack as well.

Anyway, I had a spring in my step, despite the four blisters on my feet as I started up the mountain again. I only had to climb a thousand feet over a few miles through the forest before the rest of the way was mostly downhill. Once again I trekked through a variety of evergreen forests, past some aspens, along a ridge providing a lovely view of the valley below. There were some nice wildflowers too. I think this may be the other reason I enjoyed backpacking only a few days at a time…I enjoy the scenery more. I don’t feel like I’m seeing the same thing over and over.

Of course, I would have welcomed this scenery back after I spent the last five miles of the journey walking on roads. At first I followed a dirt road. Then it turned into a paved one. Then it turned into a paved one that was being resurfaced. This was a lot of fun…walking down the road as pilot cars directed one way traffic and giant trucks barreled along.

At this point, I think I lost my spring in my step. I just kept checking the time on my phone to see how long I had left to walk…1.5 hours, 1 hour, 30 minutes. At the last junction, about a mile away from my car, a man in a diesel truck stopped and asked if I wanted a ride. A part of me wanted to say no because I was so close, and I have a thing about completing things in their entirety. On the other hand, I have found it very interesting to meet the people who are willing to help out backpackers.

I heaved my pack in the bed of the truck and hopped in. His name was Phred, or at least that’s how the trail folks know him. He and his wife have adopted the road section of the trail. He also makes the plastic signs that point hikers in the proper direction. We drove right by his house, which he pointed out. It has a Colorado Trail sign in front of it so backpackers know they can stop for the bathroom or Gatorade or any other help they might need. It was so great! My last 30 minutes turned into five minutes when he dropped me off at my car.

I wasn’t too far from St. Elmo, a historic ghost town. I thought I would drive up the dirt road to take a look. It was Monday so I expected it would be quiet. Nope, it was dirt bike and dune buggy capital of the world. There were people everywhere! I treated myself to a burger as I took a short stroll around town before I headed home. David treated me to a second meal at the Chop House. I guess I was hungrier than I thought! It was great trip…a good experience. There are pros and cons to both soloing and backpacking with friends. I like them both for different reasons. I think as a woman, however, people are more inquisitive about why I might be hiking alone. I don’t know…just because I can! ETB




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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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