The Colorado Trail pt1 – Waterton Canyon to Kenosha Pass

by backpackingbongos

Days 1 to 6

Colorado Trail segments 1 to 5

Lowest altitude – 5,522 feet    Highest altitude – 10,929 feet

Section distance – 71.7 miles    Cumulative distance – 71.7 miles

Section ascent – 12,416 feet    Cumulative ascent – 12,416 feet

It was well before dawn when I left the micro basement apartment that I had rented via Airbnb for three nights in RiNo, Denver. The streets usually filled with hipster beards and tattoos were deserted. The area is still a bit rough around the edges so I hurried the few blocks to the Light Rail station. The ticket machine spat out a handful of change in coins which was annoying, extra ballast for my rucksack until I hit the first town.

The first train whisked me to Union Station, where I changed to one that would take me to Federal Station. There in the still pre-dawn light I met with David, my own personal Trail Angel. David had answered a Facebook post that I had placed a few weeks before, asking for a lift to the trailhead at Waterton Canyon. He offered his services and once I arrived in Denver he invited me into his home for dinner and took me sightseeing around the local area. This included an acclimatisation (acclimation in the US) drive to the summit of Mount Evans.

David dropped me at the trailhead just as the sun was rising, bathing the large sign in a warm glow. He soon left and I found myself alone with nearly 500 miles of trail stretching before me. I have to admit that I found it a bit daunting!

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The first step on a long solo walk is always the hardest. The fact that I had spent close to a year planning and sorting out all the practicalities meant that the easiest part was now in front of me. All I had to do was put one foot in front of the other and enjoy a few weeks of glorious scenery. I just had to make that first solo step.

Waterton Canyon is probably the least exciting part of the whole Colorado Trail. It’s where Denver meets the mountains and a popular recreation area. I wanted to be there at dawn to beat both the crowds and the heat. The temperature in town the previous couple of days had exceeded 35C. Not very pleasant for a heavily laden Englishman.

The trail follows a gravel road alongside the South Platte River for the first seven miles. It’s the home of Bighorn Sheep which sadly I did not spot. In fact the whole valley was devoid of any nature during the three hours it took me to walk it. Early in the morning it’s the natural habitat of lycra clad cyclists and runners.

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For me it felt like the trail started properly once it left the gravel road and became single track as it entered the forest. I started the first of what would be many long and tiring climbs up multiple switchbacks to gain and crest a ridge.

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I knew that the first three sections of the trail are popular with mountain bikers, therefore I started on a weekday to avoid the crowds. The trail was still busy with cyclists, although it has to be said that every one of them was polite and courteous.

My campsite for the night was dictated by water, or rather the lack of it. Apart from the South Platte River at the start there was water only at miles 8.7 and 16.8. It was midday when I reached the first creek, far too early to camp, therefore I decided to push on and do nearly seventeen miles on the first day. Normally I would ease myself in a bit more slowly, but as I found out water and weather was to dominate most of my schedule over the following six weeks.

Segment one ends at the South Platte River Trailhead where camping is not allowed.  Thankfully a few hundred metres before the river there is a large sloping meadow and several camping spots. It was wickedly hot as I pitched the Hilleberg Enan and I spent a while wedged under a bush trying to seek shade. Later I walked down to the South Platte River to collect water. It felt weird taking water from such a large river in less than wild surroundings. I however just had to trust my water filter, plus I would soon be filling my water bottles from much worse sources!

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When flying west and wanting to get up early, jetlag works in your favour. After a very hot and stuffy night in the tent I was up and packed before the sun managed to peek over the steep valley walls. It’s rare that my mind and body is so wide awake at such an early hour, but my body clock was seven hours ahead. I managed to work this to my advantage for most of the trip, getting into a routine of up at dawn and bed when the sun went down.

However on that second day I had a big incentive to be up early. I had an area which was the site of a huge forest fire to cross. This meant that there would be no shade available for one of the hottest sections of the whole trail.

Getting to the burn area involved a long climb through the silent forest, the switchbacks making easy work of the very steep slopes. They take the longest possible route to ascend and do so at a reasonably gentle gradient, at least doubling the distance. However it is an efficient way to climb when carrying a heavy pack.

It turned out that there were two burn areas separated by a cool shady forest that remained untouched. Thankfully it was still morning and cool when I passed through the first, although the devastation was evident.

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It was good however to return to the trees for the middle part of the day.

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I then crossed into the second burn area during the hottest part of the day, the two photos below show the same hill from different angles.

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It was not only the heat (in the mid thirties Celsius) that hikers on this section have to contend with, it’s the lack of water. It is ten miles between water sources meaning that my pack was heavy with three litres when I left the South Platte River. I was down to my last drops during the hottest part of the day.

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Thankfully the North Fork Volunteer Fire Department comes to the rescue after those ten miles. A short distance from where the trail hits a road is a firehouse building and a very welcome tap. If it wasn’t for that tap it would be at least another three to five miles to a reliable creek.

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I spent at least two hours in the shade of the building with another CT hiker. It was great to sit and chat whilst hydrating and cooking a late lunch. I have to admit that I am rubbish at names and didn’t take any photos of hikers that I met along the way. It was always good to have the company of like-minded individuals though, however briefly our paths crossed.

I had decided to only walk a mile or two past the Firehouse before finding a dry camp (a camp without access to water). I therefore filled up with six litres and set back off into the heat and strong sun.

Once a comfortable distance from the road a clearing was found and the Enan pitched. It was yet another uncomfortably warm night.

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One of the main things that I was worried about was food and bears. There would often be signs at trailheads providing information on how you should be storing your food.

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My chosen method was to place everything smelly inside odour proof bags from REI and then put inside an Ursack. The Ursack would then be securely tied to the trunk of a tree.

The first few days of the trek have merged into one in my mind. Landscape wise they were very similar. A series of thickly forested ridges were climbed with the odd grassy clearing appearing. Every day the hills would get slightly bigger and I would sleep at a higher elevation. It was a great way to get my body acclimatised to the altitude, slowly and steadily.

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The Lost Creek Wilderness was the first of six wilderness areas that I would pass through. During the early stages these were the parts that I enjoyed the most. Firstly cyclists are prohibited from these areas and secondly the trail would have a more primitive feel to it. Most of the time cyclists were polite but you still had to keep your wits about you, otherwise you would get the fright of your life when one came hurtling round the corner. In the wilderness areas you could properly relax and let your mind drift.

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With good mobile coverage I was using social media as a bit of a crutch to stop feeling lonely during the first few days on the trail. Unless you have done it, most people probably don’t understand the mental impact of heading into unfamiliar territory on your own for weeks at a time. My lowest point on the trail came when it seemed just about everyone back at home decided to tease me about bears. Nearly every message that pinged through had an image of a bear, stats about bears or news stories about bears. I got close to quitting and going home, that was the level of impact it had on me at the time.

My message now to folks is simply this. Try and live your life without being an idiot!

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At mile 49 the trail enters and follows an unusually straight six-mile meadow, an opportunity to escape the trees and enjoy a large open section. After feeling hemmed in by pine and aspen it was good to see the sky and horizon, even though the sky was dark and threatening rain.

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At one point I had to shoo several cows off of the trail, thankfully they were more docile than the stampeding beasts back in the UK. They had decided to occupy an open area where I had planned to camp. With that and the sky looking like it would storm I bashed my way back into the forest, finding a sheltered pitch on a bed of pine needles.

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The next day as I followed the trail up the meadow the sun broke through the swirling mists revealing some of the mountains that rise above the treeline. I was now above 10,000ft for the first time so thankfully the heat was not as intense as it had been. It was cool in the shadows and dew had moistened the grass.

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My aim on day five was to find an attractive camp spot about five miles from Kenosha pass. That would then give me a short walk to the trailhead the following morning before attempting my first hitch hike in the US. Johnson Gulch fitted the bill perfectly and was my favourite pitch in this first section of the Colorado Trail.

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I found a flat area with nice soft grass (pitching on good quality grass is a rarity on the CT!) with a stand of young aspen trees to provide shade. It really was an idyllic spot and after pitching early I spent a very lazy afternoon simply lounging about and drying damp kit from the night before. I think that it was the first time that I felt truly relaxed since the start.

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A few times during the late evening and into the night it looked like a big storm was developing. The clouds were towering above me and I could actually see them grow by the minute. However they moved away leaving clear skies and cool temperatures. Once it was dark my tent would occasionally be lit up by distant flashes of lightning, although I did not hear any thunder.

The six miles from camp to Kenosha pass took me much longer than anticipated. Not because the trail was tough but because I kept being distracted by the views. Every few hundred metres I would take off my pack and sit in the sun and just stare. I was now properly in the Colorado High country and from that point on much of the trail would be above 10,000ft. The crystal clear skies and lack of humidity meant that I could see for miles, including the mountains I would be crossing in the next section. However before I could do that I needed to do a few more miles of trail and journey into town to resupply.

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US Highway 285 came as a rude shock after a few days in the woods and mountains. It was busy with fast traffic, from which I was reliant on a lift into FairPlay twenty miles away. I crossed the road and stuck out my thumb. To my surprise within five minutes a car had pulled over and I found myself heading into town with Janet and Janet, two Colorado Trail veterans.

**I did this trek to support the work of the John Muir Trust, and in particular the John Muir Award. Details of the fundraising page can be found here.**

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27 Comments to “The Colorado Trail pt1 – Waterton Canyon to Kenosha Pass”

  1. Utterly awesome James, splendiferously so, wonderful photos. A cracking part one, more please!

  2. Must have felt like such a huge undertaking, setting out on that first day – and heat like that can be so draining in itself, without any added worries about water!
    You kept going though – great stuff 😊

    • Yes Im not very good in the heat and it did not help not really being sure if the next water source would exist. Luckily it got cooler as the hike progressed.

  3. The people teasing you would not have had the courage to do what you have done so forget them and take pride in completing such an amazing trip. Great report and photos!

  4. Now you’re in my territory, sort of! (Utah Rockies) although I’ve never done a backpack like that. Gorgeous photos, and loving the journey log, so very interesting.

    • Thanks Cali. I was tempted to detour into Utah on the drive back to Denver and go to Arches NP, bit too far though!

  5. Great write up James – already looking forward to the next installment, although I have to say reading your trip reports always makes me feel jealous! Pics are great and those big skies look fantastic…

  6. Fine reading and fine photos, James. Well done for not quitting and for overcoming that mental hurdle. I can only imagine that feeling of taking that first step on a long solo trek. I hope to one day be in the same position. Thanks for sharing😀

    • I found that a long trek like this is more mental than physical, its getting up morning after morning wether you fancy it or not that is tough.

  7. Nice how the trail gave you time to settle in to the altitude. Even the lower sections look fantastic. Look forward to the high mountain sections reports.

    • Yes its great how you have a few days at lower elevations at the start. Some people do the trek the other way round but you are up at 12,000ft on the second day. That would be tough!

  8. What a splendid start, Sir. I thoroughly enjoyed your FB posts – it was a lovely fix to take me away from the humdrum of normal life. It’s good now to read the whole thing.
    Again, massive congratulations of this.
    🙂

    • Thanks Mr Sloman. Its normal humdrum life for me now 😦 It feels like ages ago that I finished the trail. I need to find some sheep nibbled grass in the UK to camp on now.

  9. Safe to say that despite harboring dreams of such a trip, I don’t think I would contemplate such an undertaking solo. Well done that man. Knowing that you finished I’m keen to see you becoming more at ease with the adventure as the trip progresses. Nice work 😀

    • Hi there Andy! I think that I would prefer to do a trip like this solo. It’s great to be able to dictate your own schedule, stop where you want and get up when you want! Yes I did feel more at ease as the days passed. I was buzzing towards the end!

  10. Excellent write up,looks a tough trail,not sure id like to walk that long on my own,these days.Great pics too get writing..Dont think I was one of them ? But ignore “Armchair warriors” full of shite most of them …peter

  11. scrap tha all of them are full of shite !

  12. Really enjoyable read thanks James. Would love to do something similar … just need the offspring to grow up and bugger off! In the meantime reading about such amazing trips is the next best thing. Looking forward to part 2.

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