We started our hike around 3pm today, a little later than normal, but most of the group had to drive from Denver to Durango and then up Bolam Pass Road to the start of Segment 26. Bolam Pass Road required a high clearance vehicle and those of us who sat on the right-hand side of the SUV “leaned left” as the drop off on the right was a little disconcerting those who fear ledges.
Segment 26 begins at just over 11,000 feet and climbs to just under 12,000 feet over the first seven miles. As such, aside from a few inclines, we followed a rolling terrain above treeline. With summer ending and fall beginning, we enjoyed both unseasonably nice wildflowers due to the monsoons over the last month as well as the patchy yellow foliage that peppered the mountainside.
The afternoon sunlight illuminated the red and gray banded cliffside and magnified the yellow wildflowers which provided magnificent views! After reaching Blackhawk Pass, we dropped down below treeline to the Straight Creek headwaters. This was the last reliable water source for 22 miles, so we filled our camelbacks and extra water bladders and carried at least an extra eight pounds of water to a dry campsite.
With dusk upon us, our group of seven with five tents, split up in order to find the first available campsites that would not have been large enough to accommodate all of us. Camie, Paul, Danelle, and I took the first site, while Jim, Nandi, and Diana hiked another quarter mile as darkness fell. We used our headlamps to set up camp, cook, and hang our bear bags before we turned in for some shut eye.
We made a plan to meet around 8am, thus those of us who took the first site were the early risers as we needed to hike a little (and we weren’t sure how far) to find the other half of our group. We began our morning descending through the conifer forest before we began our ascent up toward Corral Draw Trail about 2.9 miles into Segment 27. Here we admired the yellow grass and plants as we trekked through the lovely alpine meadow and soon settled for lunch in the shade of a patch of trees.
For the next several miles, we followed an undulating terrain in and out of the forest, until we finally found a reasonable campsite next to a mosquito infested, boggy area with a seep providing the only trickle of water we had seen in the last fourteen miles. Many hikers desparately seeked water over the evening here. We settled in as a light rain encouraged us to find the cover of our tents for about twenty minutes. I expected the mosquitoes to keep me hidden in my tent for most the evening, but Paul, despite suffering from altitude sickness and not keeping any food down, still managed to find energy to build a fire. The smoke from the wet wood kept the blood sucking insects away, so we could enjoy a few hours chilling out and eating a dried food dinner.
With the fire out, bedtime came early as we retreated to our tents. We planned another 8am start, and I believe we got on the trail a few minutes early. Today, our morning began with a steep climb up to an overlook. A sign pointed us to the right for a scenic view. Little did we know we’d be hiking a quarter mile to the view of the same mountain ranges we saw the entire previous day! Oh well, it gave Paul, who is generally a fast hiker a little more time to make it up the incline as he struggled with naseua and fever. I was getting somewhat concerned about him, but not knowing him well and having two nurses in the group, I deferred any health decisions to them.
Probably between mile 15 and 16 of the segment (about our third mile for the morning), we came across our Northbound hikers, Mike and Ross. They saw a bear cub! They said it came running out onto the trail, saw them, and then ran off. I’m glad they weren’t between the cub and the mama!! I wish I had those pictures though.
After a few more climbs and descents through fields of wildflowers we ran into a bow hunter who was scouting elk. He said he saw a big bear down in a bowl about a mile away. I held out hope I’d see it as I led the group through multiple talus fields until we reached the high point of Indian Trail Ridge around 12,300 feet. From here, we followed a steep descent on the side of the mountain to Taylor Lake.
From above, the view of the cerulean blue lake was splendid! Upon arrival, we filtered water from a small waterfall with red sediment before we sat lakeside to enjoy lunch. I was amazed by the change in water color of the lake through the light reflection. Close to the surface, the water color looked more like the sediment.
From the lake, we descended three more miles down the steep trail through slick scree. The towering rocks on our left with the red hue looked more like Arizona to me than Colorado. Eventually, we made it to Champion Venture Mine Road, a few miles into Segment 28, where we camped for the night. Again, the group split up. Camie, Paul, Nandi, Jim, and Diana all set up on the side of the road. Danelle and I walked just slightly down the trail where we squeezed two tents together beneath some spruce trees.
While the campsite wasn’t the greatest, we’d hoped that the elevation, 1,000 feet lower than where we had camped the last few nights, would help out Paul. Thankfully, it did. Dinner stayed in his stomach, and he was on the road to recovery as the next 1.5 days dropped significantly in altitude.
Once again, we set out on the trail around 8am. We descended through the forest, admired a waterfall, criss-crossed the creek, and enjoyed the aspen grove and wildflowers before we stopped for our next and final water fill up at mile 7.1 from Junction Creek. Discouragingly, we had to load another eight pounds on our back just before a four-mile climb. Encouragingly, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. We only had fourteen miles to go before finishing the trail!
I had a difficult time containing my excitement and ultimately my adrenaline as I “zoomed” up the hill. Zoom is relative, but I came to find out, Paul had nicknamed me “Speedy”. I’m far from speedy when hiking, but yesterday and today, I was cruising and leading the pack. I don’t know if I had just gotten used to chasing Margaret (who is the fastest hiker I’ve ever met) over the last month, or if I really just wanted to be finished. Regardless, I felt so good, that I may still consider short backpacking trips which were out of the question of few weeks ago!
I felt torn. A part of me just wanted to knock out the rest of the trail as nineteen miles in total for the day, mostly downhill was feasible, while the other part of me wanted to have a nice easy day in the morning, so I could enjoy our finish without being exhausted. Jim, helped make that decision easier. We had a plan on camping for the night, and he really wanted to stick with the plan. Given he had orchestrated this whole Northbound/Southbound hiking arrangement with car shuttling and car exchanges, I felt like we should honor his wishes. As such, we found one of the last available campsites before then end of the trail, about five miles from the end.
While the campsite offered a nice view, we shared it with lots of dried cow patties. None-the-less, we spent our last night on the trail around a small campfire and saved much of the water we lugged for over nine miles to put it out!
We tried to sleep in for our final day on the trail as we doubted Carvers would be serving us our free beer for completing the trail at 10am. Of course, we were ready to go around 8am anyway. Once again, I took off at a quick pace again. I just couldn’t wait to accomplish my goal. Along our descent, the forest turned to scrub oak. We stopped to enjoy Gudy’s Rest, a bench with a view honoring the founder of the trail, Gudy. Soon, with about a quarter mile to go, we stopped for a photo by a boulder piled with several cairns before I ushered Jim to the front and told him to lead the way to finish.
Upon completion, we lifted our packs over our head and held up an awesome banner that Paul had made for all of us. I thought this was such a kind gesture. We relished the moment for some time while taking photos by the sign before we finally headed to Carvers. We got there a little early for lunch, but they were able to serve a few appetizers before we ordered our meal. Around 11am, we figured it was five o’clock somewhere, so were ordered our beer, the Colorado Trail Nut Brown Ale. It went down like water along with my steak sandwich!
I felt very happy to enjoy this moment with six fellow Southbound hikers and our two Northbound hikers who finished the previous day and drove from Bolam Pass to Durango to celebrate with us. I only wish Danelle hadn’t succumbed to altitude sickness two weeks prior, so she could have submitted for her completion certificate as well. I know she will knock out that pesky segment 23 as well as 24 and 25 in no time! After lunch at Carvers, we all enjoyed showers and some deserved relaxation time. ETB