Category Archives: Trail Report

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

 

Walking in Circles: A New Book

Many backpackers dream of taking epic, once in a lifetime thru-hikes that take months and cover thousands of miles. The author is not one of those people. For me, the best thru-hikes are those that are still epic, but take weeks, rather than months to complete.
The Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) is one of those trails. At 170 miles, the distance is less intimidating than many, but the experience is still amazing. This is a great trip for anyone that wants to immerse themselves in a possibly life changing adventure, but doesn’t want to give up the life they have to do it.

Make no mistake, this trail is not an easy hike. It weaves through the Sierra Nevada after all. However, the scenery is amazing, thru-hike logistics are simpler than most and navigating the loop is pretty direct. Come along with me and discover all the specific challenges and rewards of a thru-hike around the TRT through my new book: Walking in Circles: Backpacking the Tahoe Rim Trail. As an introductory offer, the E-version is only 99 cents when purchased through Amazon during the month of January. Be warned, however. Once you’ve finished the book, your bucket list may have gotten a little longer.

 

 

Trail Report: East Fork Backpack Trail

I had been looking for a couple decent days in December to get out for “one more” backpacking trip. It was a combination of needing to test/review some new equipment and just wanting to get out again before winter really set in. The forecast wasn’t looking good, with the “pick day” of the week set to have a high temperature of 40 with overnight lows expected in the high 20’s. Not great, but the best of the foreseeable future, so I decided to head out on a relatively local overnight; the Backpack Trail at 4,900 acre East Fork State Park. The 15 mile lollipop loop has a couple official camping areas on it, including one at the most distant spot. That’s the one I was heading for.

You need a permit to spend the night on the trail so I stopped by the park office at around 1 pm. There are two official camp areas and I chose the more distant of them. The paperwork was painless and the permit was free. I also learned that I had the only permit given out for the evening. Apparently, everyone was smarter than me. There was no problem finding a spot at the trailhead parking lot and got rolling by 1:30.

I spent the afternoon hiking 8 miles out on the trail. With partly cloudy weather the temperature peaked around 40. With that I was comfortable wearing only hiking pants, a nylon t-shirt and a lightweight fleece pullover. The path was well constructed and well marked. A couple creek crossings involved rock hopping, but most gullies were bridged. For the first several miles, the trail was either flat or rolling, going to great lengths to avoid steep drops and climbs by skirting several of the creeks feeding Harsha Lake. (The lake was formed as a flood control measure on the East Fork of the Little Miami River.) Throughout the stretch there were some nice views of the 2,600 acre reservoir.
At a bit over 6 miles, I hit the loop part of the trail and grading changed significantly. The flat portions were still flat, but I climbed and dropped steep 100 foot elevation changes three times in the last mile and a half. The sun was setting by the time I arrived at Camp 2. There were plenty of choices to set up my tent and a few small buildings as well. One was a three sided shelter reminiscent of those on the AT. It seemed in decent condition. Two smaller sleeping shelters appeared to be significantly rougher and the two hole latrine was woefully short on doors. As the light was fading, I kept the inspection short and hustled to set up camp.
My tent was quickly up and I dove into it to pull on a Brynje shirt and long underwear that I was testing. Some hasty scrounging resulted in enough wood for a small fire just as the weak December sun dropped below the horizon.

I was pleasantly impressed with the instant warmth the “Thermos” provided. Rather than digging through the pack for more clothes through the evening, I was able to enjoy eating my Subway dinner and possibly (hypothetically speaking) drained a small flask in comfort. The full review of the base layer is over at TheTrek.co.

Through the night the wind rose and sleet would occasionally rain down. I was staying comfortable in the tent I was testing until I heard a loud pop underneath me. My immediate thought was, “Crap, my air mattress just blew out. I’m going to freeze my ass off.” However, a quick inspection showed that the mattress was still holding air, I had just lost some of the internal baffles. The mattress was now shaped a little less like a mattress and little more like a giant football. It took a little work to stay up on the cushion and off the frozen ground, but with careful positioning, it worked out fine.

Nights are long in Ohio in December and when I started breaking down camp at 7 am, it was still dark. It was also windy and I was getting hit by a light shower of ice pellets. With enough clothes, I was able to stay warm, other than my hands. My lightweight nylon gloves were no match for the cold. My fingers were frosty enough that breaking down camp became difficult and by the time I was ready to hike out there was no need for a headlamp. However, I was still early enough that I saw several turkeys just leaving their overnight roosts.

Continuing around the loop, it appeared most people went back out the way I had come in. The trail wasn’t quite as obvious and with everything covered in fallen leaves, I had to backtrack a time or two. It wasn’t long though, until I was back on the “stick” of the lollipop.

Despite the temperature in the 20’s and a biting wind, I generated enough heat by walking to stay comfortable. Unfortunately, conditions began to deteriorate and I was soon walking through a localized snow squall. The flakes stuck to my fleece, and while I was still relatively warm, I was soon going to be damp. Time to add the rain jacket. If nothing else, the slight snow cover made the walk out feel much less repetitive than it otherwise would have been. Several sightings of deer through the flakes also added to the interest.

Light snow cover highlights the trail

I continued hiking and the weather eventually improved a bit. At around 11 am I got back to my car where my thermometer read 24 degrees. It wasn’t an expedition up Everest, but a good trip nonetheless. The East Fork Backpack Trail turned out to be a good option for quick overnight. New backpackers or those starting later in the day might also make use of Camp Area 1. It’s less than four miles in and is located before the steeper climbs. There are also a couple “unofficial campsites along the way. I asked one of the Rangers about them. Obviously they aren’t recommended, but if you run out of daylight or endurance and need to use one, he seemed fine with it.

Day one route to Camp 2