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Trail Report: The Colorado Trail

Highest point in Colorado and 2nd highest in the continental US, Mt Elbert (14,433 ft) is reflected in Twin Lakes.

Often called “the most beautiful long trail in America,” the Colorado Trail (CT) winds across eight named mountain ranges, five river systems, six wilderness areas and some of the most awe inspiring sections of trail in the Rockies. The CT shares about half of its mileage with the Continental Divide Trail. The trail starts near Denver; ending 485 mile southwest at Durango. With an average elevation of over 10,000 feet, 90,000 feet of climb, few convenient resupplies and little support structure, this is not a trail to be taken lightly.


In the San Juan Mountains

The route does not go over any major peaks, but winds around them. In addition, the trail is well constructed and well maintained, with no “scrambling” required. Despite this, with big mountains come big climbs and big descents; often lasting five miles or more at a time. The highest point on the trail is 13,271 feet and long stretches are above tree line.

Getting There

Most thru-hikers hike from east to west. The climb is more gradual, allowing for a better opportunity to acclimate to the mountain elevations. The Eastern/Northern terminus is located at 11300 Waterton Road, Littleton, CO 80125. From Denver, take I-25 South to C-470 West to CO Hwy 121 South. After 4.5 miles turn left onto Waterton Rd.

There is both air and bus service between Durango and Denver.

Why Hike This Trail

Because it’s epic. The fact that it was my first thru-hike might affect my opinion, but the CT was pretty much everything I hoped for in an adventure. The scenery was second to none with incredible views on a daily basis. I saw plenty of mountain wildlife such as marmot, pika, elk and big horned sheep. I even had a close encounter with moose at 12,000 feet. The trail was challenging, but doable. The sun shined every day. There were no crowds, no permit issues. I even was able to stop a steam locomotive to use as a resupply shuttle!

While the CT was perfect for me, that doesn’t mean it’s a great trail for everyone. Is also important to know what this trail is not. The CT is not a social trail the way the AT is. I met less than a dozen other thru-hikers the entire way. As with most trails, it is getting significantly more popular (Over 300 successful end-to -end completions in 2017), but don’t expect crowds of other thru-hikers. There were no shelters, little trail magic, and resupplies were far apart. CT hikers need to be absolutely self-reliant.

High-altitude hiking has its downsides too. Morning sunshine often turned into afternoon thunderstorms, which were less than fun above tree line. I was postholing through snowfields in July. And there’s that pesky lack of oxygen. One fellow backpacker, a successful AT thru-hiker, told me that between the altitude and lack of support structure, the CT was actually the tougher hike for her. It all depends on what you are looking for.

Climate and Weather

The trail is under there, somewhere

On a typical year, the snow is melted back enough to start hiking east to west by the end of June. My starting date was June 21 and I dealt with significant snow at higher elevations for the first 150 miles. Starting from the west should be put off until at least early July. Winter returns early so plan your hike to be complete before October.

I was on the trail for 32 days and the sun did shine on every one of them. Bring sunscreen. There were also many afternoon thunderstorms which were occasionally violent. These need to be respected, especially when traveling above tree line. Daytime temperatures are normally pleasant, but the thin, dry atmosphere does not hold the heat once the sun sets. On several nights my 20 degree bag was near its limit. One hiker I met tried to get by with a 40 degree bag and by building fires on cold nights. During one long stretch above tree line (no firewood) he spent a rather uncomfortable night doing hours of calisthenics as a Plan B attempt to stay warm.


My highest camp at 12,500 feet. Just off the photo to the right, White Pine was on his 20th set of Jumping jacks.

Nearly all of the CT route is within either National Forest or Wilderness Areas. The only permits required consisted of an occasional self-issued form at a kiosk along the trail. With few exceptions, camping involved finding a flat area that had obviously been used by others before. The Colorado Trail Databook lists most of the sites I used. Generally, there was a water source in the vicinity and I only dry camped on one occasion. The only “amenity” at most camp areas was an occasional fire ring.

Bring a tent. There are no shelters and with long stretches at high elevation, there will be times when there’ll be no trees to hang a hammock from. While I never saw a bear, they are in the area. I “bear bagged” my food at night when a tree was available.

Water Sources

Despite the high altitude, the route was relatively abundant with creeks and ponds. The longest stretch I had between water sources was 15 miles, though my early season departure meant several sources were being fed by snowmelt.

Significant portions of the trail are open to cattle grazing. Many of the higher creeks are inhabited by beaver. Bring a filter and use it.

Resupply Options

There’s my ride.

The CT has the greatest resupply shuttle ever. After 400 miles of hiking, deep within the Weminuche Wilderness, there is a railroad track. Time it right and you can wave down a steam locomotive of the Durango & Silverton Railroad. Hand the conductor the fee and ride the train into your resupply.

Overall, resupply options are not abundant. Towns within easy reach range from 60 to 105 trail miles apart. There are some interesting resupply options though. There is free transit service with a bus stop at a trailhead near the town of Frisco. Another bus stop at a trailhead 14 miles further down the trail makes for an easy slackpack day.

I resupplied at Frisco (mile 104), Twin Lakes (175), Salida (253), Lake City (357) and Silverton (405 at the train). Boxes can be sent to each town, or groceries are available. The grocery selection is thin at Twin Lakes however. The trail also passes right by a general store at Mt. Princeton (mile 230). I did not resupply there, but had one whale of a 2nd lunch.

Closing Thoughts

Staring at the La Plata Mountains

If you are looking for big mountain scenery, enjoy being self-sufficient in the wilderness and have the time to hike 500 miles, the CT may be the trail for you. Epic views, wildlife sightings, incredible wildflower displays and plenty of sunshine are highlights. Thunderstorms, 5-10 mile climbs and postholing might be considered drawbacks.

Hiking east to west gives you over 100 miles to acclimate before going over 12,000 feet. (West to east gets you there in 23 lung busting miles.)

The Colorado Trail Foundation manages the trail and they do a great job. They produce a Colorado Trail Guidebook that provides a wealth of information about the trail and surrounding area. At 300+ pages, it is a better planning read than a trailside companion. Their Databook weighs under 4 ounces and provides detailed maps, camp and water locations as well as resupply intel. A still lighter option is the Guthook phone app, but the Databook worked very well for me on the trail and I never had to worry about battery power as I used it. (I did use some of my battery power listening to John Denver tunes. Rocky Mountain High seemed especially appropriate.)

A great place to begin research on the trail is at the Foundation’s website, coloradotrail.org. The site has quite a bit of information as well as an online store that sells the Guide and Databook. If you are looking for a journal type book to get a feel for the hike from one person’s perspective, I can recommend this one.

Regardless, when you finish the trail and get to Durango, swing by Carver’s Brewpub. When I finished they were providing thru-hikers with their first glass of Colorado Trail Nut Brown Ale on the house. I’m not sure a beer ever tasted any better.

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” John Muir

This article first appeared at thetrek.co


Tahoe Rim Trail – Up the Western Shore

Click here to get to the start of the journey. It was cold indeed camping above 9,000 feet at Freel Meadow. I ended up sleeping with the water filter in the sleeping bag again to make sure it didn’t freeze.

View from Freel Meadow

View from Freel Meadow

I rolled out of the warm sleeping bag at about 6 and was met by a cold and windy morning. The chill made it tough to put away the tent, plus the ground cover was wet and I wasn’t sure why. Matching the weather, breakfast was cold as I wasn’t sure I could get water to boil. That saved a little time so I was packed up and rolling by 7. Unfortunately, as I started hiking, I became somewhat dizzy. Not a good sign. This has happened on other long trips and I hadn’t figured out what the cause was for sure. The plan for the day was to stay hydrated and try to camp at a lower altitude. (After the trip I got checked out and found it was most likely a combination of dehydration and sleeping without a pillow that affected me.)

The trail continued heading away from Lake Tahoe through the morning and the scenery became even more impressive. Much of the day was spent traveling through multiple big meadows, such as aptly named Big Meadow, and surrounded by rugged mountains. 

Despite the topography I was making great time, getting to Round Lake for lunch and Showers Lake by 2 pm. The spot was so pretty, I almost called it a day, but decided to press on. By this time the trail had turned north again. 

Showers Lake

Showers Lake

Water got a more scarce beyond the lakes so I committed to a campsite around six miles further on. It was a tough climb, but the rugged beauty kept me going. The trail ran along with the PCT in this area and I spent a little time chatting with a southbound thru-hiker. He confirmed the stream was still wet near my chosen site for the night and I convinced him to make Showers Lake his destination.  

As I continued on, there were more discussions with other southbound PCT backpackers. They were all very nice and all young. At 58, I still can’t get used to being called sir. 

I rolled into my site at about 5 pm for a 20.5 mile day. The stream was but a trickle, but enough. The altitude was 8,400 and I drank throughout the day, so hopefully no dizziness in the morning. I had plenty of time for an Alpine Air freeze dried orange pineapple chicken entrée. It did not live up to my high hopes. 

Day 8 began by dropping down a steep hill then passing through another ski resort. The trail has passed through several resorts through the trip. After crossing a main road near mile 122 I arrive at what’s described in the guides as a seasonal stream. I expected, at most, a trickle but this is a raging torrent. Much smaller streams than this had been bridged, but here I needed to break out the wading sandals. Two TRT thru-hikers heading the other way had tried to throw their packs across the stream and it went badly, costing them their GPS. I took a test trip to make sure I could handle it, then went back and re-crossed with my pack. On the plus side my dusty feet got power washed. IMG_0302

After the rough creek crossing the trail and I climbed for a while. Met Gray Cricket who’s doing a section of PCT up to Mt Larson. He’d been section hiking for years and was hoping to finish in another 20. Sitting for a snack break I was interrupted by a chipmunk trying to get into my pack. This is a busy stretch of trail and they’ve learned. 

The next point of interest was Echo Lake. The reservoir is man made and generates electricity, which was probably why the creek was high. Beautiful vacation homes surround it and are only reachable by foot or boat. It’s also a great place for snacks and a milkshake, provided you get there before Labor Day. All I could do was look through the windows. There was a parking lot there and plenty of day hikers and some backpackers were heading for the Desolation Wilderness and Aloha Lake.

The climb out of Echo Lake was fairly steep and rocky. Most of the day hikers seemed to have turned back by this point. The trail was pretty open and, as always on this hike, sunny. Near Aloha Lake there was a trail intersection that was a bit confusing. I checked my GPS and it told me I was a half mile off the TRT. Everything seemed fine on the map, but without the GPS to agree, I began to lose confidence. Thankfully, while sitting under a tree rereading the map, two guys hiked up and assured me I was right and the GPS was wrong. 

Once I got to Aloha Lake, it was clear why the area was called Desolation Wilderness. The landscape was extraordinarily stark, with few trees and bare rock (boulders and cliffs) all around the lake. Some snow was still hanging on above the lake in the September sun. Aloha is a popular place to camp, but too desolate looking for me. I moved on. 

Aloha Lake

Aloha Lake

By the way, there is a permit required to camp within the Desolation Wilderness, and there are quotas in place to protect the area from overuse. Thru-hikers also need a permit, but are not affected by the quota. The only issue is that you cannot apply for the thru-hiker permit until two weeks before you enter the wilderness. Seems like no big deal until you figure the fact that I’d already been walking for over a week, had a day of travel time, and they mail you the permit. I received mine the day before I left for the hike.

Continuing my walk, I arrived at Susie Lake about 2:30. It was absolutely beautiful and the trail to it had been rocky and rough. By all accounts I should have stopped for the day. I was far enough that I could finish in 2 days and the next good camp spot was a difficult six miles away. 

Unfortunately, when I’m by myself, that simple logic doesn’t work. I can be at a spot so beautiful that you get a lump in your throat, but without someone there to share it with, after a couple minutes it seems sad and lonely. These times make me consider whether to keep doing long solo hikes. Sharing the moment with a text could help, but since I have Sprint, I wouldn’t know for sure. On every hike, I find extensive mileage where other carriers provide service and mine does not. That one percent difference seems to be centered over every trail I hike.

So, I decided to move on over Dicks Pass to Dicks Lake, 6 miles and a 1,600 foot climb and 1,000 foot drop away. The climb was open to the sun, rocky and unrelenting. In an effort to ease the weight of the load I only brought one liter of water, and that didn’t look like enough. After a mile or so, the plan was looking like a mistake. I was tired, hot and already dehydrated. 

Normally I frown on it in the wilderness, but music can help people through a tough effort. I pulled out my earphones and set the playlist to shuffle. The impact was instant. I could feel my heart rate rise and my pace quicken. 

A couple fast tunes had me moving right along. “Too Old to Die Young” (Brother Dege) had me thinking I might be pushing too hard. Then “L’estasi dell’oro {The Ecstasy of Gold} (Ennio Morrricone) came on. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s from the classic Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: the cemetery scene. If you haven’t seen it in a while, go to YouTube and watch the scene. I’ll be right here when you get back. By the time that song was over I was practically jogging up the mountain. The only thing to slow me down was hearing one of the songs from the U2 album that everybody got automatically. I have to find out how I can delete that. 

After a while I came across a PCT hiker filling up at a small spring and he told me I was very close to the top. All about perspective. For someone that just walked there from Canada, it probably did seem close. After another 20 minutes I closed in on the high point and the views were tremendous. Taking a break near the top I was joined by a couple marmots.. 

Looking back towards Susie Lake

Looking back towards Susie Lake

Despite being tired and thirsty, I can always go downhill. Kept moving and made the lake by 5:30. Lightheaded, but there after another 20+ mile day. A few other groups were camping in the area, but were plenty of spots around the lake and mine was in a group of pines on a bed of soft needles. 

As soon as I settled in, the coyotes started. The yipping serenade didn’t last long before I was asleep. At that point, I was 137 miles into the 170 mile trip.

I once again got an early start in the morning, rolling by just after 7. Several groups were camping around the lake, but I was first one moving. The trail stayed open and rocky as I dropped by more beautiful lakes and campsites. My morning snack was a Larabar apple pie bar. If you don’t expect it to taste like Mom’s, or Mrs. Smiths, or any apple pie you’ve ever had, it’s not too bad.

Eventually, as I dropped, the trail returned back into the forest and the tread smoothed out. Once again, it was another beautiful day as I strolled downhill for miles. Just before Richardson Lake, I got my first glimpse of Tahoe in a while, but it soon disappeared. All good things, like the downhill, come to an end and I began yet another climb. It was nothing like the previous day’s though. Heading north, with the sun at my back, the climb wasn’t too bad at all. I was carrying more water in an ongoing attempt to avoid being overly dehydrated.

Near the end of the climb was Barker Pass Trailhead and good numbers of day hikers. I talked with several folks and was followed for a bit by someone’s drone. Based on the blinking red light, the high pitched noise machine seemed to be signaling to me. In an international language I thought it might understand, I signaled back. It apparently took the hint and flew off to disturb somebody else’s outdoor experience.

Once I finally got close to topping out there were some great views of the lake. Dropping back down a bit, I found a campsite with a small stream. The site was small and dusty, but I was tired and needed water. It would do after another 20 mile day. Tahoe City was nearly in reach!

After dinner, about 7 pm, I climbed into the tent to relax and read for a few minutes. Next thing I knew, it was about 5:30 am. After 10+ hours of sleep it seemed like a good time to get moving. I packed up by headlamp and started down the trail just as it began to get light. 

An early start, hiking by headlamp.

An early start, hiking by headlamp.

The trail dropped a little way while being etched into the side of some rugged cliffs. I was around 8,000 feet and starting to see the beginnings of beautiful fall color developing around me. It wasn’t long before the drop ended and the path began the climb up towards impressive Twin Peaks. After several switchbacks I entered Granite Chief Wilderness; no permit required. A few groups were camping there and I assumed the crowd must be due to it being the weekend.  Just below the peaks the PCT split off and I turned for Tahoe City. 

Near Twin Peaks

Near Twin Peaks

After a couple more views of the lake the trail began a long drop into the woods. Over the miles the trail smoothed out and leveled out, eventually turning into an old forest service road. I knew I was getting close to civilization as I start meeting walkers with dogs. You can tell how far you are from a parking lot based on the size of the dog. Once you see a Dachshund or a Bichon, you’re within a half mile. 

Talked with a woman with three Belgian Shepherds (2-3 miles from a parking lot). She ask, “Where you from? You got an ache-sent!”

 “Cincinnati, and from where I’m standing, you’re the one with the accent.” (All about perspective.) 

With that, she couldn’t stop laughing. “Har har. Ache-sent!”  She ended up telling me about a couple restaurants to try. 

Right on cue, based on my dog mileage meter, I came to a parking lot. The trail continued across the street, hit another forest service road and went straight up the hill, possibly the steepest half mile of the entire trail. This hike was not over just yet. 

Knowing I had to be getting close, I kept pushing as the trail flattened out. I passed through a grove of yellowing aspen, across a meadow and finally to a sign saying Tahoe City: 2 miles.

The path dropped for most of two miles to a park, joined a bike/hike trail and crossed a bridge over the nearly empty Truckee River. Across the street was the hill I started up to begin the journey. I’d hiked either 170 or 173 miles depending on which guide I looked at. Regardless, it was just after noon and I was done! I’d hiked the last 75 miles in 3 1/2 days. I don’t recommend that pace. 

Looks like I'm done.

Looks like I’m done.

On the quarter mile walk up to the hotel, I swung into a grocery store for a Coke and a razor. A two week neck beard looks good on no one. Once cleaned up, I hit the Blue Agave Mexican restaurant again. It seemed a little ironic as I had carried tortillas for the whole trip and never touched one.