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.
old mining cabin
liked the sign on the left next to cabin
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.
at the overlook
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.
Camie, Diana, Jim, Ross, Nandi, Paul, Danelle, Beth, Mike
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.
Diana, Jim, Nandi
They look like ants up there
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’d walk 500 miles for a CT Nut Brown Ale
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
WANT TO VACATION SOONER? IF SO, THIS VACATION CLUB IS FOR YOU!
The last time we tried backpacking Segments 15-17 on the Colorado Trail, we got washed out about four miles into Segment 16. It was time to make up Segment 16 and 17. We decided to do two day hikes rather than camp again. Segment 17 was 20.4 miles with an overall net declining elevation in the southbound direction which we completed first as it was longer than Segment 16 which totaled 16.2 miles. We had to tack on an additional 0.4 to each segment in order to get to the car parked on the 4-wheel drive road.
I have to say after last weekend with spectacular views and wonderful wildflowers on Segments 23-25, these two sections were terribly anti-climatic! Segment 17, in particular, was unfortunately quite boring. I think I may have only taken 20 pictures in 20 miles. There were a few sporadic wildflowers and perhaps one view that was blighted by a forest of beetle kill. I wish I could say something nice about the section, but for the most part, the only nice part was the company and the raspberry bushes.
Dusty and I hiked Southbound while Margaret hiked Northbound, in order to do the key exchange and swap cars at the end of each trailhead. We had stayed The Lodge at Saguache the first night for $20 per person as it was within an hour of both trailheads. The lodge was nothing to write home about, but we had a roof over our heads, clean towels and linens, and a nice lady that helped us.
For our second hike, however, two of us needed to be closer to Poncha Springs, so we discussed the logistics over pizza at The Village Pub Pizza & Spirits. For a small town, this place was pretty nice. It had a great atmosphere and the pizza was delicious. We arrived early, so the evening started out quiet, but soon the place filled up. At that time, they could have used some more staff, but overall, we were glad to try the new place out.
Dinner discussions led Margaret and I to camp at the top of Marshall Pass while Dusty headed back up the 4-wheel drive road to Sargents Mesa where she slept in the car. Segment 16 was nicer than Segment 17. It offered a few more views and wildflowers. The path was far less rocky as well which was a welcome relief. A small aspen grove and a mining cabin made it a little more interesting too. Unfortunately, we had to share the trail with motor bikes. It’s not too exciting to breath the fumes, but they were nice, just as the mountain bikers on Segment 17 were extremely polite. I felt sorry for most of them as they were walking their bikes over all the rocks!
dryer than last time!
looks like an elephant to me
While the hikes weren’t the most exciting, the path was much dryer than our last attempt. In addition, it was a good choice to day hike these segments as there were limited water sources. More importantly, the segments are complete, and I only have the last three segments to finish and celebrate completing the whole trail! I’m very excited to accomplish this feat next week. ETB
WANT TO VACATION SOONER? IF SO, THIS VACATION CLUB IS FOR YOU!
Danelle, Nandi, and I drove up to Lake City and camped at the hostel in preparation for our 57 mile backpacking trip which would knock out segments 23-25 over the next 5 days and give us time to make the seven hour drive home with a short hiking day on Monday.
We got to the trailhead around 8 after Danelle maneuvered her SUV over a rough four-wheel drive road. We planned on an easy first day as Danelle had fallen to altitude sickness on this segment the previous year for the first time, and I tend to be prone to it as well, though we exhibit entirely different symptoms!
We started down a jeep road that traveled through the open tundra past remnants of mines until we veered to the right onto the trail after about a half mile. We followed the gradual descent of the single track through intermittent willows as we admired the expansive views. Along the way, we spotted marmots, one of which happily posed for us, pikas and field mice, before we began our first ascent, about 1,000 feet over two miles. The grade wasn’t too bad, but climbing to nearly 13,000 feet with full packs lended itself to slow progress. We were even slower as we stopped to admire lovely wildflowers and interesting rock formations.
the mushroom looked bronze!
Soon we reached the top of the pass only to descend 750 feet over the next two miles where we passed by lovely Cataract Lake to begin our next climb. We slogged through the mud before gaining our next rise about 6 miles into the segment. Upon our ascent, a lovely waterfall came into view which gave us a great excuse for a rest and lunch.
top of the pass
This is where Danelle felt nauseous and soon vomited. Altitude sickness again, oh no! We needed to get her down to lower altitude as fast as we could, so we turned back toward the trailhead. Nandi and I ditched our packs at the lake as we decided we’d take Danelle to the car and then hike back to camp. It would be easier for Nandi and me to split the weight of Danelle’s pack while Danelle could hike with only her water bottle.
Her nausea returned twice in the six miles back to the car. While the return to the car sucked for us all (and obviously Danelle the most), at least we got to see some moose among the willows which we didn’t spot a few hours earlier. After five miles and mounting 13,000 feet again, I was feeling rotten and had to stop. Nandi took Danelle the additional mile to the car and lucky for them they caught a ride on a dune buggy for the half-mile along the jeep road.
moose behind lake and willows
moose in the willows
With Danelle at her car, the dune buggy brought Nandi back to the single-track trail where she met me, and we hiked 5.7 miles back over the pass and to the lake as coyotes barked and howled and marmots scampered all over the place. Now, with my head was pounding, I was relieved to arrive at camp and hoped I wouldn’t be packing out in the morning!
As clouds reflected in the lake’s glassy waters, a deer trotted through our campsite. What a lovely spot we found. If only the night of strong wind and cool temperatures wasn’t FREEZING! I donned all the clothes I brought with me…two pair of socks, two pair of pants, a t-shirt, a long sleeve shirt, a ski sweater, a down jacket, a wool hat, and mittens. Tucked into my down sleeping bag, it took me hours to get warm, if at all.
Nandi used tent stakes for chopsticks because she forgot her spoon!
After a fitful night, we arose to find frost on our camelbacks and welcomed the sun that eventually poked through the clouds around 7:30am. Beginning with the climb where we turned around yesterday, we warmed us up quickly. Unfortunately, the sun and warmth was short lived.
After two enjoyable hours of excellent hiking through high alpine meadows blanketed with wildflowers and dotted with lakes, our luck ended. It was time to zip ourselves into our rain gear as drizzle fell from the cloudy skies. For the next four hours, we followed the trail up and down the ridges as the cool wind blew on our dampened outer shells.
Wanting to save all my layers for another night of high altitude camping, I tried my best to stay warm in my t-shirt and rain jacket. As such, I jogged down the descents, though I expect some people could walk that fast, and walked as fast as I could up the inclines. Occasionally, I stopped to admire the astonishing landscape with dynamic clouds rising from the lower valleys. We passed by more wonderful wildflowers, though squatting in the rain to snap a photo while trying to keep my lens clear of rain drops didn’t appeal to me.
After four hours in the rain and a mile into segment 24, and chilled to the bone, I finally cried, “Uncle”. We’d covered the minimum eleven miles we needed to reach achievable campsites and water locations noted in the databook within the remaining days of our trip. While we would have liked to go further, we found a relatively flat spot (unmarked in the databook) near a creek whose water came from an ice and snow-covered lake just above the trail.
We pitched our tents in the rain and slid into our sleeping bags while we watched it drizzle for two more hours! Finally, some relief came around 4pm. The skies cleared, the sun appeared briefly, and Nandi pumped some water for the morning as neither of us we even hungry for dinner…unusual! I ate a few dry snacks and figured I would pay for it later…about 12:30am my tummy was grumbling.
After another restless night, we awoke to clear skies and damp gear. We let the sun dry out our tents a little before we got on the trail around 8am. I was hoping to leave a little sooner, though Nandi wasn’t in a hurry to leave her warm sleeping bag! We had about 6.5 more miles above treeline with thunderstorms in the forecast based on a two day old forecast, the last time we had cell service.
On this portion of the hike, I was reminded why I suffer through cold nights, rain, etc. The scenery was simply magnificent! We followed the rolling tundra, again peppered in wildflowers, while we enjoyed panoramic views of the surrounding 13,000 foot peaks and valleys beyond. I think we passed by an alpine lake every half mile to mile.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Soon we reached the trail intersection where we dropped down off the divide into Elk Creek. I’ve never seen anything like it. The path switched back and forth down the open tundra for half a mile. It was so cool to follow switchbacks along a “grassy knoll” rather than through a forest.
We passed by remnants of a mining tunnel and cabin, marveled at more spectacular wildflowers, descended through a majestic canyon, crossed the creek, and welcomed trees! I just can’t even remotely give justice to this area via words or pictures.
The trail paralleled Elk Creek for the next seven miles as we descended toward the railroad tracks. The shaded forest felt like a sauna as the sun heated the wet soil. I felt like I was great a free, natural facial. The path, sometimes rocky and sometimes soft with pine needles (which we wished for more often) provided lovely views. About three miles from the train tracks near a beautiful beaver pond, we started running into several alert, upbeat hikers. They had just arrived on the train and enthusiastically asked, “Where are you coming from?”
With over ten miles under our belt today and about 38 miles in total, I wished I had taken the train! My energy level was depleted, and I felt a little demoralized, knowing we still had four more miles to go, and they were all setting up camp by the pond! We continued following the creek, passed the trail to the train stop, and eventually descended to the tracks where we crossed a bridge over the Animas River and continued up the trail to Molas Creek where the water source was much clearer. We found a small campsite tucked in the nearby aspen grove and crammed our tents side by side.
With a pile of wood and a fire ring available, I briefly considered a small campfire, but our tents were too close to the ring, and it started to rain! After a great day of sunshine, and we were happy to have our tents up to take cover. Fortunately, the dark cloud moved on, and we were outside cooking dinner and enjoying our nice find…another site not in the databook.
All the way down at 9,000 feet beneath the trees, we looked forward to a warm night’s sleep. I crashed hard for an hour and then awoke hungry. Not eating dinner the other night had caught up to me. All my food was in my bear bag hanging in a tree away from camp. I tried everything to fall back asleep, but finally at 2:30am, I strapped on my headlamp, trounced across the campsite, untied my bear bag and had a snack! With my tummy full, I managed four hours of sleep.
This morning, clouds peppered the sky, a sign for rain. We hoped for the best, but expected the worst, as the weather this summer has been far from cooperative though I will say yesterday was glorious! Of course, what comes down, must go up, right? At least in the Rockies. Our hike began with an ascent out of the valley we had descended into yesterday.
Switchbacks took us up 1,500 feet through ever greens and aspen over the next two miles until we exited the treeline. We followed the tundra past a lovely lake to Molas Pass where eventually we got limited cell service and we able to confirm Danelle was OK, and she had picked up our Northbound hiker who was helping out with the car shuttle.
We stopped at the pass briefly and chatted with a lady who was visiting her son who attended college in Durango. She wanted to try on my pack to see how much it weighed. I humored her, though warned, “It’s sweaty!” She was giving us so much credit which was so nice, but compared to all the through hikers, we were pansies. And with only a liter or two of water and almost no food as we were on our last night of camping, the pack was relatively light!
From the pass, we climbed again. Dark clouds rolled in, large raindrops and small pellets of sleet spattered on us as loud claps of thunder sounded in the distance. The storm was headed our way as we hiked as fast as possible across the ridge dotted with single dead trees, clearly once struck by lightning! I was relieved to find the trail turning was from the black sky and leading us into the clear as we reached the trees. Much to my dismay, the path shifted back toward the menacing weather, but somehow we managed to walk around all the threatening weather and stayed rather dry. And once again, we enjoyed lovely wildflowers.
In the protection of the trees, we stopped for a quick lunch before following the undulating terrain through shoulder-high wildflowers until we finally reached our campsite after 13 miles. It was another great spot, this time designated by the databook, though we never saw the nearby lake. Instead we found multiple creeks, though I imagine at least one of them wouldn’t have been running in regular weather.
We enjoyed a nice afternoon at camp, cooked dinner, and turned in early as we hoped for a 6:30am start to finish the last 12 miles and to drive home. I’m not sure if I liked this portion of our hike because I was 12 miles away from finishing what turned into a 70-mile hiking trip or because the landscape was littered with wildflowers, creeks, and waterfalls.
The sun lit up fields of indian paintbrush, wild geraniums, blue columbine, buttercups and more. The trail led us through rolling tundra as we steadily rose to the top of the 12,500 foot pass where marmots basked in the sunshine. Soon, we dropped back down below the treeline as we crossed several creeks and admired lovely waterfalls. The creeks were especially cool, as the rocks were the color of white chalk, so the seemed exceptionally clear.
We stopped for lunch by the creek before our final climb which was an easy grade. I reached the top first and stopped in awe. I quietly savored the view, when Nandi reached the top and simply exclaimed, “Wow!” It was definitely a WOW moment! It was like looking through a kaleidoscope. Yellow, red, purple, and white dotted the grassy valley which was surrounded by mountain peaks that reflected a variety of browns and greens in the sun as sky slowly filled with billowy clouds. We couldn’t have timed our arrival to the saddle at a better. What a great way to end our climb!
With only two miles to go, we picked up our pace, descending through the trees to the car as a few rain drops started to fall. A deer nibbled on grass near the parking lot and lake. All that was left was to maneuver a four-wheel drive road. While it wasn’t terribly smooth, we survived to tell about it! Despite the challenges, it was a great trip and Segment 24 may be my favorite on the Colorado Trail thus far. Segment 5 in the fall is a close second. ETB
WANT TO VACATION SOONER? IF SO, THIS VACATION CLUB IS FOR YOU!
About ten days ago, we experienced an unpleasant backpacking trip in the rain. After 17 hours of a non-stop drizzle coupled with gear failure, we aborted the trip. With this recent challenge burned in our minds, we thought twice about backpacking Segments 21-22 this past weekend as more rain was in the forecast…80% chance Friday, 20% chance Saturday, and 80% chance Sunday.
We joked we had to hike all 33 miles in one day. Soon this came closer to reality. Saturday’s chance of rain increased as Sunday’s decreased, so we decided on two long day hikes. We needed to make it worth while to drive 4.5 hours to Lake City.
Mike and I headed out around lunch-time on Friday, to set up our tents at the only place in town that was available, Elkhorn RV Resort. I knew nothing about the campsite that Mike found except it had showers, wifi, and coffee which seemed rather exciting compared to normal. Apparently, there was a grassy area for our tents. I was trying to imagine this place in my mind. Surely there would car campers around, I thought. Nothing is that commercialized for tent campers.
Oh my, we arrived to a parking lot of RVs and 4-wheeling dune buggies in the rain. The grassy area was the lawn dotted with picnic tables in front of the office between two giant RVs and the wifi was slower than the 3G available in town. At least they had hot showers and coffee, and the “quiet hours” notice that was posted said 9:30pm. None-the-less, with our plan completely changed, this was our best option.
Mike and I wandered around town and finally settled on Southern Vittles for dinner. I was a little hesitant about ordering southern comfort food in a small mountain town, until I saw three cars with Texas license plates in front of the restaurant. Mike mentioned some people call Lake City…North Texas, and he was right. This town was over run with F150s and Texans. Who knew I’d have to drive 4.5 hours to get the best fried okra in Colorado. Their fries (on their own not great), but dipped in their cream gravy were perfect! It’s a good thing I had a 17.2 mile hike planned tomorrow as I gorged myself on fried food and enjoyed the Texas atmosphere.
all TEXAS license plates!
Dusty and Ross made it to camp around 9:30pm. We worked out a plan to leave camp by 6am to get to our respective trail destinations. Dusty and I were hiking southbound beginning at the beginning of Segment 22 while Mike and Ross were hiking northbound from the end of Segment 22. The key exchange was to take place somewhere near the middle.
As a group, we departed late, but Dusty and I still managed to be on the trail by 7:30am and hoped to miss the afternoon storms. With a rough 4-wheel drive road to maneuver, the boys made it to the trail by 8am. The overcast sky didn’t seem promising for a dry hike, but it didn’t seem threatening yet, so off we went with our fingers crossed.
Dusty and I began our climb up a muddy, dirt road and stepped aside as an occasional 4-wheel dune buggy or SUV rumbled by us. We joked, does hiking the whole trail count if we hang on the back and drag our toe along the ground? After a few miles, we crossed over a minuscule creek that we assumed was only flowing due to the torrential rains this season. It looked more like rain water running through a gutter rather than an actual creek. If I were a thru hiker, I wouldn’t rely on getting water here or for that matter anywhere else on this segment!
Soon, we beared to the right onto a single-track pathway marked with rock cairns that support tall posts. Along the way, we enjoyed magnificent views of distant mountain ranges. We particularly admired the two red peaks that were a stark contrast to the green terrain. Around mile four or so, we stumbled upon a sheep herder, his dog, and a huge bunch of ewes and rams. A few woolly sheep donned bells that jingled while they trotted away from us as we strolled along the trail.
We continued above treeline for the next few hours as we passed a mountain with a large antenna and a yurt where we considered staying had we gone the backpacking route. Soon we dipped into a marshy area where we slogged through mud. We continued trekking through sludge beneath the cover of the dead forest, destroyed by the Rocky Mountain Pine Beetle. We climbed a series of switchbacks until we left the trees, and remained above treeline for the next seven miles until we completed the segment.
We found Ross and Mike after leaving the trees, exchanged our keys and trail experience, and continued on after a quick lunch break with weather threatening in the distance. We trekked through the high mountain meadow dotted with wildflowers until the sprinkles finally fell. As we stopped, to pull on our rain gear, a fellow hiker asked, “Does it always rain here?”
While we generally get an afternoon thunderstorm, this dreary weather with a constant drizzle sure has been rough. “Not usually like this,” we responded. Dressed in rain jackets and rain skirts (Dusty’s made of a trash bag), we followed a ridge with magnificent views of a canyon below. Marmots made their home nearby, and as we began a steep ascent along the rocky trail we passed by several chirping pikas.
The rain was light for the first thirty minutes and even gave us an hour break as we gained a few miles, but then it began again as we descended the ridge to a grassy saddle just above some ponds to the south. This was when we heard the first clap of thunder.
We had three miles to go which included climbing 500 feet to the highest point on the Colorado Trail (13,271 feet) and was followed a steep downhill on the trail which paralleled a jeep road that passed an old mine and led to the parked car. With enough cover on the southeast side of the mountain and no lightening in sight, we proceeded to the bend. With an unobstructed view of the clouds that were not of the thunderstorm variety and the misty valley below, we kept up our quick pace. While we slid along some mud and were somewhat wet, we made it safely to the car with only having to endure the rain for two hours. This was a much better outcome than last week!
All that was left was to maneuver the 4-wheel drive road that according to the Colorado Trail Guidebook, was “not for the squeamish. It is very steep, rocky, and narrow with many tight switchbacks and some significant exposure.” We added slick mud to the mix too once we knew which road to take! We got to the car that Mike and Ross had left us, and roads traversed in every direction. While we had our databook and trail app, our guide book with directions was in the other car! We were able to see Lake City to the north on the map and confirmed with 4-wheeling folks nearby that the road we wanted was to the right, and off we went!
Ross and Mike beat us back to the campground, and as soon as we arrived they were ready to eat! We didn’t even take off our wet shoes before we headed to Restless Spirits Saloon for pizza. I can’t say it was my favorite and it is only ranked #8 of #13 on Trip Advisor, but the campground lady recommended it. From our perspective, we were really only looking to load up on carbs and protein as we had another big day ahead of us. The best part about the restaurant is that my friend Marissa from one of my tennis teams happened to be climbing a fourteener in Lake City, so she and some of her friends joined us!
Back at the campground and exhausted, I was ready for quiet hour to begin at 8:30pm! I put in my ear plugs and tried to sleep, but I think I just had anxiety about the next day’s hike. We planned to be at the trailhead by 6:30am and would have gone sooner if maneuvering a 4-wheel drive road in the dark wasn’t a factor, but I still wasn’t confident this would give us enough time to get off Snow Mesa, a five-mile stretch above treeline with no shelter from an electrical storm for which the guidebook provides significant warning! This anxiety couple with a bear rummaging around the trash cans at the campground kept me up most the night.
With little sleep, I was dragging at the 4:15am wakeup call. Tents and all packed up an in the car by 5am, we headed toward Creede. It ended up taking us two hours rather than the planned 1.5 hours to get on the trail. The weather proved chilly this morning, though sunny, which was nice to see. We hiked in 1.5 miles along West Willow Creek to San Luis Pass to begin the Segment 21. The trail begins with a steep 1,000 foot gain over a mile to the saddle just under 13,000 feet. Nothing like getting the heart rate up in the morning! The climb took us through many willows and past a variety of wildflowers to lovely panoramic views.
As I trudged along slowly with the view of a car atop a peak nearby, I wondered, why do I do this to myself when I could just drive! Just as soon as we reached the saddle, we carried on to the other side, where we descended 1,500 feet over two miles! This is when I wondered why the trail isn’t etched around the side of the mountain…why all the up and down? Anyway, it was easier to follow our momentum down in a light jog rather than to try to plant our feet to stay at a walk.
beetle kill forest
As soon as we reached the creek, we climbed back up another steep grade and repeated the process once more until we exited the treeline around 5.5 miles into the segment. For the next 7.5 miles, we would remain above 12,000 feet. Heading up again, we spotted the boys come over the ridge. They looked like they had taken a walk in the park, while we were struggling our way uphill! They had seen grouse and a herd of elk along with the typical marmots and pikas. Dusty exclaimed sarcastically, “We’ve seen three amazing chipmunks!” We had seen pikas too, but that was it.
where’s waldo? mike? ross?
The boys had gotten on the trail thirty minutes before us, so they beyond half-way when we met them, but we were excited to hear the rest of the way was flat, rolling terrain! Hmmm, as we climbed for the next mile, all-be-it, at a slightly lower grade, I began to wonder what was Mike’s definition of flat! To my relief, after we ascended the next ridge, we could see Snow Mesa below. With clouds in the distance, we stopped for a brief PB&J lunch before we dropped onto the mesa.
Now, with rain in view (ahead and to the left), but no lightning or thunder, we committed to hike as fast as possible for the next four miles. My whistle jingled on my pack as I stepped on and off the rutted trail. Dusty donned her headphones for extra motivation. We really felt like we were zooming across the endless trail that fortunately turned to the right of the black clouds ahead. As I past each post supported by rock cairns, I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be nice if these were evenly spaced. I could count off every quarter mile without stopping to look at my progress on the app.
Unfortunately, this was not the case. They were simply there to mark the trail which I also appreciated. After an hour on the mesa, I finally decided to see how far we had gone. UGH…demoralizing…only two miles!! How could we be so slow?!? We didn’t stop to chat…we just kept going. Dusty suddenly caught up to me when thunder boomed! Fortunately, we only had fifteen more minutes on the mesa when the rain began, and we reached the edge at the second rumble across the sky. We slipped into our rain gear and quickly dropped in below the treeline. Despite the menacing looking clouds, we made to the car after only being sprinkled on for thirty minutes. This was quite exciting and we were very happy to see the road and parking lot below while generally staying dry!
end of the mesa!
We texted the boys to let them know we’d be in town within the hour. We were certain they were waiting on us. No response. We wandered around and settled on Kip’s Grill for dinner. We still hadn’t heard from them. Dusty tried the satellite phone, but had communication problems due to the weather. Now, we were a bit concerned about them. Was there trouble on the muddy road we drove up this morning? Did they have to duck and cover from lightning? What was up? They were killing time for an hour while their phones were on airplane mode waiting for a response to a satellite phone message they had sent since they thought we were out of range! Eventually we all managed to scarf down some food and make the long drive home. This was a great way to knock out two more segments of the CT, and I definitely want to revisit Creede and Lake City. ETB
WANT TO VACATION SOONER? IF SO, THIS VACATION CLUB IS FOR YOU!
What an adventure hiking Segments 15-17 of the Colorado Trail. Seventeen hours of rain resulted in significant gear failure and a trip termination.
We drove three hours to Fooses Creek on Thursday afternoon to begin our hike. Parked on Highway 50, we followed Fooses Creek Road 2.8 miles to our campsite located just before the main trailhead. While it isn’t terribly fun to walk a road, it was part of the CT and to finish the WHOLE trail, we had to make the walk. Fortunately, the dirt road narrowed through some aspen groves which made it somewhat scenic and the intermittent sprinkle wasn’t too much of a bother. The rain continued off and on for the evening which was a little annoying while trying to enjoy an evening around the campsite, but is was nothing compared to what we had in store for us.
We packed up our wet gear Friday morning and departed camp just before 8am. Dusty, Margaret and I had never hiked together before, though Margaret had hiked with others in our group who are segment hiking the Colorado Trail. Little did I know, Margaret who must be in her late sixties or early seventies, may be the faster hiker I’ve ever met. She can hike as fast as a twenty-year old male. As such, she took off and Dusty and I trailed behind.
After about an hour into the trail, we found Margaret waiting for us. After this, I suggested we have a time or place that we meet…next stop 10 o’clock just before our last chance to filter water for five miles. During this time, we meandered through fields of waist high wildflowers that were just spectacular. I don’t know if they are always like this in the area or if it was due to the generally wet weather conditions over the last month. Regardless, they were a delight.
So far we had followed a gradual ascent to mile 8.2 where we ate an early lunch and filled up with water just in time to tackle one of the steepest grades on the entire Colorado Trail, a 668 foot climb over a ½ mile to the crest of the Continental Divide. We enjoyed the magnificent view before carrying on in a southeasterly direction. For the next few miles, we mostly followed the ridge above the treeline and admired the expansive views as we watched threatening weather in the distance.
Soon, we dropped down onto a jeep road that ran through an evergreen forest. By 1:45 we had reached a piped spring for more water and descended to the end of Segment 15 at Marshall Pass. Our original plan was to camp in this area after hiking 11 miles for the day. Our early arrival, however, prompted us to aim for four more miles to a campsite near Silver Creek.
Just as soon as we continued on, a light sprinkle fell from the overcast sky. The rain steadily increased, so we stopped quickly to slip on our rain gear. Margaret was still working on her pack cover while Dusty and I were waiting, so we told her that we would head on since she hiked much faster than us. This decision proved detrimental to our hike.
We could see the trailhead at the beginning of Segment 16 from the road. As soon as we reached it, the trail split in two…the left-hand fork was marked with the CT sign and the right-hand fork obviously was not. The single-track rail ascended into the forest where Dusty needed to take a break. As such, she said she would wait for Margaret, and I would carry on being the slowest of us three.
Within minutes, we ended up in the eye of the storm. Thunder clapped and lightning struck simultaneously. Fortunately, we were in the cover of the trees. With the weather coming from west to east, I opted to proceed hiking south to get out of the mess. I passed two hikers holding umbrellas under the two tallest trees in the forest. I thought to myself, that is a loaded gun.
Anyway, I passed through the forest on the narrow path (or should I say narrow stream) while stopping every now and again near small trees as thunder boomed. I was slightly chilled while resting, so I only waited a few minutes at a time to keep my core temperature up. I thought that Margaret and Dusty would have caught up to me by now, but since they hadn’t, it seemed they must have hunkered down somewhere.
After four miles and two hours in the rain, I had reached the proposed campsite on my own. I asked a passing mountain biker if he had seen them, and he described one girl that fit Dusty’s description. About ten minutes later and now a chill in my bones, Dusty showed up. The first words out of her mouth were, “So I guess Margaret isn’t with you?” The deduction was accurate!
So, at this point, Margaret had been missing two hours. We decided to give her until 6pm (or two more hours) to show up before we called search and rescue. In the meantime, Dusty and I hiked down to Silver Creek Trail with our packs on as we needed water and there was supposed to be good camping in the meadow near the creek. Aside from one nice campsite with a dead tree that Dusty did not want to camp near, the others were limited, spread out, and too close to the creek.
Now, really drenched and really cold, I was willing to risk the dead tree falling over hypothermia setting in, but Dusty felt better being on the main trail while waiting on Margaret. We wandered around some more while looking for a site as virtually the whole forest was dead from beetle kill. Eventually, we settled on an open space near the trail junction and hoped for no lightening. I guess there is always something to worry about in the elements.
My gear, despite being packed in trash bags was rather wet. Dusty’s was somewhat damp. We have decided single wall tents are useless in rainy conditions. I’m not sure they are worth the lighter weight! 6pm came and went…no Margaret. As such, we texted Dusty’s husband through Dusty’s Delorme Satellite Phone (which I think I will invest in), and asked him to call the Sheriff. Messages trickled back and forth for a few minutes, when suddenly a man stopped at our tents and asked if we were hiking with another lady. “Yes, in fact, we have been looking for her,” Dusty responded.
Margaret showed up a few minutes later after having taken the wrong trail for five miles and then having to backtrack. What a relief it was to find her and call off search and rescue! Lucky for her us, her tent with a fly was dry. Unlucky for us, it was a single person. That didn’t matter at the time. We three ditched our wet belongings in my tent as it was rendered useless and all of us squeezed into her tent for warmth. We didn’t think we’d all be in there for the next FOUR hours, but it never stopped raining!!
Around 10pm, the drizzle let up for about eight minutes. Dusty made a run for it and settled into her damp, but warm enough space. Margaret and I laid uncomfortably on rocks with one sleeping bag between us until morning. I doubt if any of us slept more than an hour or two…I know I didn’t.
At 6am, it was still raining…7am, the same…8am, no change. At this point, all of us agreed to abort as it didn’t seem like the sun was ever going to come out and we wouldn’t be able to dry our gear. Dusty texted her husband to come get us…at least a four drive. In the meantime, we had to hike four miles back to Marshall Pass. After 17 hours, the rain stopped around 9am. We made a “run” for it!
The challenges facing us at this time were twofold:
We were going to be at the pass well before “pick-up” time, so we hoped to hitch a ride down the thirteen-mile dirt road to town or set up Margaret’s one-person tent for shelter should the rain begin again.
We were hiking southbound while others in our group were hiking northbound. We had planned to meet in the middle to exchange keys to our cars parked on the opposite ends of the trail. We were now abandoning them without a key.
Fortunately, I brought a spare key with me in case we missed them on the trail and this was a Godsend. At the same time, I was stressed about them not knowing our whereabouts. Without cell phone service, the only thing we could do was pass a message along with through hikers that their key would be at their car, likely on the front left bumper. Like the old game, “telephone”, we gave the message to about six hikers. Come to find out, Mike and Ross received the message, though convoluted, as they hiked through the rain for the next two days to the car! This was a great relief to me.
Upon reflection, while our hike didn’t go as planned, ultimately, we made the right decision as our gear would have never dried under the conditions, a deluge of rain for three days. Having said that, we learned our lesson not to split up and to perhaps even stick with our original plan which would have kept us dry by camping at 2pm. It is interesting to note, if we were hiking individually and not in a group, we all would have made a different decision which was to pitch a tent where we were, but without any form of communication between us, we knew we had to make it to mile 4 on Segment 16 as that was the plan we discussed.
Now, back to hiking…Miraculously, we reached Marshall Pass and the cover of the pit toilet just before the rain ensued. We ate a snack as we patiently waited for anyone passing by with a car. It didn’t take long before a mud-covered, drenched mountain biker joined us at the bathroom…then another one. They wondered aloud, “Where is the closest motel?” Many of the mountain bikers were competing in the Leadville 100, and the race had dwindled down to 21 competitors as the conditions frankly SUCKED!
As we sat huddled in the shelter, two or three trucks drove up and out popped a bunch of car campers who needed to use the facilities. Given they had just driven up Marshall Pass Road, we didn’t think they’d be turning around immediately to go right back down, but we shyly asked, “You don’t happen to be driving into Salida, do you?’
At first they answered, “No”, but this one lady seemed very concerned about us. Eventually, she said, “Well the backseat of my son’s truck as been converted to bench for the dog, but see what you think.”
I responded, “We squeezed into a one person tent last night. I don’t think it could be anymore crammed. We aren’t picky. We are just looking for a ride into town.”
She also seemed to be concerned that our backpacks would get wet in the bed of the truck, to which I said, “That doesn’t matter. They are already soaked!”
I didn’t want to miss the opportunity, so I jumped up and turned to Dusty and Margaret, “Let’s go!”
We three piled in the back as Deanne, Danny and their dog Penny drove us down the road to the convenience store in Poncha Springs. It turns out, they were camping near their and had randomly taken a scenic drive up to Marshall Pass. They wouldn’t accept gas money, beer, or lunch, so we graciously thanked them for being our trail angels. We happily waited in the dry cover of the convenience store for the next hour or so until Dusty’s husband retrieved us.
All that was left was to get the key to Mike’s car and then shuttle to my car at the end of Segment 17. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but after all the driving, we finally made it home around 8:45pm. I was happy to have my own bed! ETB
WANT TO VACATION SOONER? IF SO, THIS VACATION CLUB IS FOR YOU!
Another segment of the Colorado Trail is marked off the list…Segment 14 (20.4 miles) with a 3-mile side hike to Browns Creek Falls that is definitely worth the detour!
Just about every weekend I am in town this summer is dedicated to finishing up the 484.6 mile trail. Thus far I have completed 292.7 miles over the past few years.
This weekend I planned backpacking Segment 14 solo, but needed transportation from the end of the segment back to the beginning at Chalk Creek Trailhead to get my car. The Colorado Trail Foundation provides a list of helpers if asked, but the two places I tried contacting in the area didn’t respond.
In a bit of a bind (as I preferred not to hitchhike even though I’ve heard it is a reasonable option in the area), I posted my plan on the Colorado Backpacker’s Meetup site. Lucky for me, two backpackers signed up! Alyssa, who had no experience backpacking, but a lot of experience camping; and Darrell, who knew his way around the woods and loved maps.
I was both excited and apprehensive to have two strangers join me, and I’m pleased to say, I’d backpack with both of them again. We had a great trip!!
I met Darrell at the Wooly Mammoth parking lot. He was from Tennessee and moved out to Colorado a few years ago for the mountains. He is an engineer and owns his own consulting practice. He really has a passion for hiking and backpacking and has completed the entire John Muir Trail.
We then met Alyssa in the parking lot at the Knotty Pine in Bailey as she was coming from Conifer. Once we shuttled the cars to the end of the segment at Hwy 50 and piled into Alyssa’s Jeep, we learned that she is an engineer at Lockheed and had planned to through hike the CT the prior summer, but the plans fell apart. So now, she got to at least experience her first backpacking trip.
We arrived at Chalk Creek Trailhead around 3:30pm and planned to hike in about 4 miles to a dry campsite. It was quite a warm day for June and VERY dry. For the first backpacking trip of the season, the 1,000 foot gain over the first 1.4 miles proved slow going as our feet sunk in the sandy trail and we inhaled dust and smoke from a Utah fire. The switch backs led us through intermittent open areas and pine forests before we finally reached a nice view, where upon we descended to a small, lush valley before crossing Eddy Creek Rd.