All posts by jrahtz24

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.

Terrain

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.

Camping

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

 

Gear Review: Osprey Exos 58 Backpack

 Osprey Exos 58 Details:

Size: Small 55 liter, Medium 58 Liter, Large 61 Liter
Weight: 2 lb, 11 oz, to 2 lb, 12 oz
Load Range: 20-40 lbs.
MSRP: $220
Warranty: Lifetime

I have used an Osprey Exos 58 pack for years and believe it has been a great all around choice for backpacking. Apparently, I’m not alone in that thinking either. The results of The Trek’s 2017 survey of AT hikers listed it as the most popular pack. Last week, I presented a program at the Adventure Summit in Dayton. The featured speaker, Dale “Grey Beard” Sanders (oldest man to thru-hike the AT) began his presentation by walking out on stage wearing an Exos. When I check my gear closet, two of the three backpacks in there have Exos written on them. So, I had high expectations when Osprey sent me the newest version of the Exos 58 to test.

Grey Beard showing off his pack

I have had extensive experience with older versions of the pack. Besides numerous weekend trips, my first Exos 58 carried my gear on thru-hikes of the Colorado Trail, Long Trail and John Muir Trail. When I sent the pack back for repair of a worn hip belt attachment, I learned that their All Mighty Guarantee was the real deal. Rather than repair the pack they sent me a newer model, at no charge. That pack was happily carried on thru-hikes of the Tahoe Rim Trail and Sheltowee Trace and remains in good shape.

This newest alliteration of the Exos 58 has not yet been on any thru-hikes, but enough shorter trips (Twin Creek and Caesar Creek backpack trails in Ohio and up and down some serious elevation changes in Great Smoky Mountain National Park) to give me a good feel for the new model.

The Pack

Like past versions, the pack is built around an aluminum frame with Airspeed suspension which allows for ventilation room between the load and your back. At 6’ 2” with a 22” torso measurement, I went with the large; actual size 61 liters. The medium is 58 liters and the small is another three liters smaller.

The Exos has a main, top loading compartment, two large side stretch pockets, a large front, stretch/mesh pocket and a removable “brain.” If the brain is removed, an integrated flap still covers the main compartment. There’s also an internal sleeve designed to handle a 3 liter water bladder.

My first test was to see how it would handle one of my larger loads. Arrayed in the photo below is what I pack for a multi-day trip in temperatures down to 25 or so at night. Since it is required on occasion, I included a 650 cubic inch bear canister. The load also contained a solo tent, 20 degree bag, pad, cook kit, 2nd set of clothes, fleece, down vest, rain jacket, rain pants and typical odds and ends.

All my crap!

It all fit!

The entire load fit with (a little) room to spare. No item needed to be hung or strapped to the outside of the pack. My weight at that point was 20 lbs., including 2lb., 12 oz for the pack. Adding in two liters of water and four days of food at 1 ½ lb. per day put me right at 30 lbs.
The pack felt comfortable at that weight, easily adjusting to put most of the tonnage on my hips through a well padded hip belt.

Osprey states the pack can handle up to 40 lbs., but my personal experience was that comfort drops quickly above 35. Thankfully, I rarely need to go that high. With lighter loads (two days of food, no bear canister, no brain), the pack was just a joy to carry. The side compression straps kept smaller loads from shifting. Heavy or light, I had no issues with ill fit or rubbing.

A smaller load without the “brain”

Overall quality of construction was very high. While it has All Mighty lifetime warranty; don’t expect to need it. Although the pack closely resembles the earlier model, there have been some significant changes that affect the use of the product.

New Model Changes

The hip belt has been redesigned to have a wider, but shorter padded area. I found that it quickly adapted comfortably to my body. It also appears to allow the belt to be tighten around a smaller waist size. On the Colorado Trail, I went from 180 pounds to about 165 and nearly ran out of hip belt adjustment. This new version would alleviate that issue. For those that like lots of pockets, the downside to the change is that the zippered pockets on the hip belt are gone. I suppose I could use a few more of the dozen pockets on my cargo pants.

Heading up toward Chimney Tops in GSMNP

The other small pocket to disappear was on the shoulder strap. The folks at Osprey state they were looking for simplification with these changes. On the flip side, the side “water bottle” pockets were made larger and can now handle items like tent poles (or in my case, rain gear) while still giving access to a water bottle without having to remove the pack.

The sternum strap can now be quickly adjusted by simply sliding it up or down, a significant improvement.

The pack comes in two color options; the red & black pictured or a two tone green. I vote for the red & black as it shows up better in pictures and when you lay it down on the trail. Note to whomever found my “forest green” fleece along the Sheltowee Trace Trail: you’re welcome.

Overall, the pack is built to be more durable than past versions. The frame is slightly redesigned, and there’s less stretch material and more nylon on the remaining pockets. The Airspace mesh and brain attachments have been beefed up as well. This should all add to long term durability. On the downside, this tougher version does result in a weight penalty. The Exos 58 in large now weighs 2 lb., 12 oz. This is four ounces more than the previous model. For those looking for the lightest weight possible, removing the brain drops the total by 4 1/2 ounces. In addition, the trekking pole attachment, sleeping pad straps and side compression straps can all be removed to save a bit more.

If weight is an issue, you can consider the Exos 48, though you only save two ounces with that version.  As I occasionally use a bear canister though, the 58 is my choice.

Pros and Cons

• Strong history as a quality lightweight pack. Lifetime Warranty.
• Airspeed suspension keeps ventilation between the load and your back.
• Very comfortable with loads up to 35 lbs.
• New version appears more durable than older model.
• Hip belt can tighten further for smaller waists.
• Easy adjustment of the height of the sternum strap.
• Larger side pockets can handle more than just water bottles.

• Hip belt and shoulder strap pockets have disappeared
• Weight has crept up four oz.

The Verdict

Reward for a steep climb

While certainly not ultralight, I’m a fan of the pack’s design. I’m willing to pay some weight penalty for the comfortable carry and rugged construction. In addition, the ventilation on the back provided by the Airspeed suspension was huge plus on uphill climbs even during some unseasonably warm February weather. Come July, I’ll enjoy the ventilation even more. For me, the comfort and carrying capacity of the Exos 58 “outweigh” the benefits of lighter packs I’ve tried.

Osprey has taken a winning design and fine-tuned it for simplicity and durability. Despite the loss of pockets and the addition of four ounces, the Osprey Exos 58 remains a great option for either overnights or thru-hiking.