Tag Archives: Colorado

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

 

Back to the Mountain

Three weeks later, it’s like deja vu all over again. I’m standing in a valley looking up at a huge rock that I need to climb. Only this time, I know exactly what’s in front of me. For the third straight year, I toe the starting line of the Pike’s Peak Ascent Race.

Yep, everybody is headed for the top of that big one in the distance

Yep, everybody is headed for the top of that big one in the distance

The “Peak” is an unusual race in that you can actually see the finish from the starting line. Seeing it and getting there are two different things however. The course is 13.32 miles long, but it also climbs a total of 7,815 feet, ending at an elevation of 14,115 feet above sea level. This is a brutal race that typically takes a runner longer than a full marathon would at more normal altitudes. As an indication of its toughness, it was chosen to be the World Mountain Running Association’s 2014 World Championship Race. (I would not be challenging the front-runners.)

The race is especially tough on flatlanders such as myself. Besides the unrelenting climb, there’s about 20% less oxygen available than I’m used to….at the start. By the time you reach the finish line, the oxygen content of the air is down by about 40%.  In addition, the weather can be a tad variable. In 2013, I started the race on a sunny, 60 degree morning and broke through the tree line into a windy snowstorm.

The past two years, the race has taken me over five hours to complete; and it was not a pleasant five hours. Towards the top I had to stop and rest multiple times. It was that or fall down. During one section where the trail is etched into a cliff I repeatedly told myself to “lean left,” which was uphill. My hope was that by leaning correctly, I would merely drop onto rocks when I passed out, rather than head out into thin air. It seemed like a good plan at the time.

Standing at the start this year and staring at the finish line I had the same, “Holy shit, what the hell did I sign up for?” feeling as in past years, but it wasn’t quite as intense. While the lack of run training was worrisome, the month spent hiking at altitude gave me the confidence to know I could finish; I just didn’t know how fast (or slow) I’d be. It would be interesting to see how much the toughened legs and extra (or are they just bigger?) red blood cells help.

It’s clear and warm at 7:30 AM when the gun fires and about 1,100 of us start jogging through the town of Manitou Springs. Another 700 or so “elite” runners started at 7 AM.  The first mile or so on roads thins the crowd, but it is still a clog at the start of the trail which, for the most part, is single file. For the first several miles there is a combination of a slow jog on the flatter sections (under a 10% grade) and walking the steeper sections.

By the time I reached the water station at Barr Camp, (7.6 miles and 4,000 feet of climb) I had been going for a bit over 2 hours. The time was a few minutes faster than in previous years, but I felt much better. At tree line (10 miles and 5,700 feet of climb)I was still just barely ahead of my earlier attempts.

Still moving above tree line

Still moving above tree line

Above tree line is where things get tough. In years past, the final 3.1 miles (5K) has taken me nearly 2 hours. This is where hiking 500 miles at altitude began to make a real difference. With no 30 pound pack on my back and plenty of extra (or are they giant?) red blood cells to deliver fuel and oxygen to the leg muscles, there was no need to stop, or for that matter, even slow down dramatically. I grind up the final stretch, passing dozens of competitors as I went. The weather remains clear with temperatures in the 50s. I finish the race, actually feeling good, at 4:44:44, nearly a half hour faster than my previous best time this century. My first thought on finishing was, “Crap, I’ll have to hike the entire Colorado Trail again next year if I want to improve my time.” Perhaps the glass is still half empty.

After a short visit with my brother Dan in Denver, it was time to head out. As I drove away, I still hadn’t decided whether to head east, back home, or west to deal with those few miles of the Colorado Trail I had skipped to ride the train into Silverton. I guess I’ll see which way I turn when I get to I-70.

Pikes Peak, as seen from Garden of the Gods.

Pikes Peak, as seen from Garden of the Gods.