Zero day two – Frisco
Walking through the streets of Frisco I was struck by just how strong the sun was. The sky was the deepest blue that I have ever seen, the lack of humidity plus the altitude gave it an unreal quality. Although the air temperature was only around 21C I could almost feel my skin sizzle and it was impossible to see without sunglasses. A far cry from the grey and damp UK.
Frisco itself also has an unreal quality to it. It felt like the set of the Stepford wives had been transported into the Rocky Mountains, everything seemed a little too perfect. It was squeaky clean and its inhabitants / visitors were slim and tanned with dazzling white teeth. A far cry from the loud, brash and overweight image of Americans that I had in my head. There was a good pick of bland and overpriced restaurants to choose from, so I spent a good proportion of my time in town filling my face. Despite my negativity in this post I still enjoyed the place in a Disneyesque sort of way.
The main reason for a Zero day on top of food and rest is to resupply. One thing that I have noticed in small American towns is that there are usually no grocery stores in the centre. They also lack corner shops so you can’t even pop out for a packet of crisps and a mars bar on a whim. Resupply in Frisco involved a long hot walk to the out-of-town Safeway. I did however come back with a reasonable haul for the three days it would take me to get to Leadville.
Days 10 to 12
Colorado Trail segments 7 & 8
Lowest altitude – 9,197 feet Highest altitude – 12,495 feet
Section distance – 38.2 miles Cumulative distance – 142.6 miles
Section ascent – 8,091 feet Cumulative ascent – 25,703 feet
Getting out of Frisco is a dream. You simply hop on a bus and remember to get off at the right stop. I was back on the trail not long after dawn, the shaded areas of grass covered in frost. The first section of trail that day was a bit of a chore, a series of switchbacks through an area of dead forest with the roar of traffic from the highway below. However after cresting and descending a minor ridge I was back in the wilds again, the mountains ahead piercing a deep blue sky.
I had a realisation early that day that I was suddenly feeling fit. My pack was around 16kg and I was climbing hills above 10,000ft. Yet the hiking was beginning to feel more and more effortless. With over a hundred miles behind me a more positive mindset was creeping in, I might just get to Durango!
On the climb towards the Ten Mile Range the trail passes through some beautiful grassy meadows. The short-cropped grass was almost calling me to pitch my tent. I somehow managed to resist.
The Colorado Trail climbs and climbs and climbs during this section en route to crest the Ten Mile Range between Peaks 5 and 6, at an altitude of 12,495 feet.
Once on the ridge I was struck with how similar the mountains looked to some of the Scottish Munro’s. However the big difference here is that the mountains are at least 10,000ft higher.
I found a sheltered spot in which to eat lunch and was kept entertained by a nearby yellow-bellied marmot that was whistling and keeping an eye on me. A Colorado Chipmunk was seeing how close it could get to me in the hope that I might drop a crumb. I think if I had turned my back it would have been straight in my pack looking for food.
The trail follows the ridge for a while and I came across the following sign that made me chuckle a bit.
Ten minutes later I was no longer chuckling when I stumbled and fell, my knee taking the brunt. I dusted myself off and gingerly hobbled to a nearby stream to clean off the blood and grit. A squirt of alcohol hand gel stung a bit but I was satisfied that the wound was clean.
Amongst the beauty of this part of Colorado are patches of ugliness. Directly below me lay the Copper Mountain ski resort and a very busy highway. The large rectangle area of land in the photo below is a car park that would take thousands of cars. I would be passing through Copper Mountain the following day.
Until then I still had the beauty of the mountains to enjoy and a long 2,500 foot descent.
I hadn’t really decided where I would spend that night. As I hit Colorado Highway 91 the databook said that camping was prohibited for the next four miles. I decided to carry on and see what the options were. In the end I found a nice flat spot in the forest close to a creek, just after a sign stating that I was on National Forest land. I took that to mean that camping should be ok. Although close to the resort and the busy highway the night was reasonably quiet, a small ridge in front of me blocking out the noise.
The following morning the trail led me right across the edge of the resort. I had thought about stopping for a second breakfast but was keen to get back into the mountains again. Within a few miles I was back in paradise.
It was a long and hot climb to Searle Pass at 12,043 feet. The trail was busy with Mountain bikers but they were all really friendly and chatty. I kept leapfrogging one group, showing that foot travel in these mountains can sometimes be just as quick as on two wheels. That’s on the uphill though, I was pretty envious to see them whizz back down the single track.
Once over Searle Pass there is a long section all above 12,000 feet that would be very exposed if any storms rolled in. I was lucky to cross it in perfect conditions and it was a section that I enjoyed immensely. In parts it reminded me of the Moine Mhor, a high Arctic plateau in the Cairngorms.
Kokomo was the last of the three 12,000ft passes before the trail descended into the headwaters of Cataract Creek. I was very tempted to camp at the tree line but something in my head told me to descend lower. In the end I found a great grassy clearing in the forest at 11,078 feet. I arrived feeling really hot and bothered and I found myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable. I forced down my evening meal but was immediately sick. I spent an hour or so laying in the shade, willing the sun to go down so I could get in my tent and go to sleep. A combination of altitude, sun and dehydration had caught me out for the first time.
Later that evening I was joined by a father and his young son who were walking as far as the Princeton Hot Springs. They were good company, until the chill of dusk sent me into my tent and sleeping bag.
There was another frost the following morning and I managed to be up and packed before the sun had risen above the surrounding steep mountains. It was a long descent through the forest until I found myself walking through sagebrush in a low and hot valley at just 9,300 feet. It’s amazing how in Colorado you can be in high Alpine meadows and then a few hours later in near desert conditions.
The final six miles to Tennessee Pass on US Highway 24 were long and hot. For some reason I had expected to arrive at the road, stick out my thumb and immediately be whisked into Leadville. In reality it did not work that way. I arrived at the road thirsty after running out of water and stood at the side of the road for an eternity whilst vehicles whizzed on by. The main problem is the geography of Tennessee Pass. It’s at the crest of a steep hill, right after a bend. By the time drivers have spotted you they don’t have time to make a decision whether to pick you up, they have passed and gone around another bend.
In the end salvation came in the form of a local man driving down from the nearby ski resort. He was kind enough to drop me right at the door of my Airbnb in Leadville.
Zero day one – Fairplay
The fact that the hotel reception sells oxygen canisters suggests that the small town of FairPlay is located at a high altitude (9,953 feet to be precise). Janet and Janet dropped me off right outside and I hurried in, excited at the prospect of a hot bath and clean clothes. However it was far too early to check in so I was forced to make a beeline for the Asian Fusion restaurant next door to fill my belly.
I had decided before setting off that the Colorado Trail was not going to be some form of macho ordeal. I had come to Colorado to enjoy myself and make the most of an extended time away from work. I’ll leave the whole fastest, longest, biggest, lightest to the more heroic backpackers out there. Therefore my plan was to stop off at as many towns as possible along the way, spending two nights at each. That would give me a full day of rest and time to resupply at a leisurely pace. Although as a person I’m at my happiest when in the mountains, I have to admit that I really enjoyed the small mountain towns of Colorado.
US Highway 285 thunders through the outskirts of FairPlay. However if you make a detour into the old part of town a very pleasant surprise awaits. It’s like stumbling into a movie set and I spent a very pleasant couple of hours walking around. The town sits in a grassland basin known as South Park and is supposedly the inspiration for the cartoon of the same name. Before we begin hiking again here are a handful of photos of the town.
Days 7 to 9
Colorado Trail segment 6
Lowest altitude – 9,197 feet Highest altitude – 11,874 feet
Section distance – 32.7 miles Cumulative distance – 104.4 miles
Section ascent – 5,196 feet Cumulative ascent – 17,612 feet
A good way to get to know a stretch of tarmac intimately is to stand on it and attempt to hitch hike. That’s what I did just after dawn for half an hour in an attempt to get back on the trail. Half an hour does not sound very long but it’s an eternity when you are standing with your thumb out whilst practicing your best smile. In the end I was picked up by a big Texan in a big pickup pulling a big trailer. He was on his way to a motor cycle rally and the big trailer contained a big Harley Davidson. Everything in the States is big.
It was good to be on the trail again and I was soon moving after signing the trail register. I was struck by the grassy plains that lay at my feet, stretching endlessly to the horizon. For someone from the UK it is hard to get your head around such large and empty spaces. It’s also at nearly 10,000ft!
Some of the creeks crossed by the trail are named on wooden posts. Deadman Creek sounds like it should exist in an old western. I thought that it would be a good place to sit and enjoy a snack. However I only managed to filter a litre of water before being chased away by the mosquitos.
One of the reasons that I had left FairPlay so early was because I was keen to cross the 11,874 ft Georgia Pass before the afternoon storms rolled in. It is the first properly high section above tree line and I was nervous about being up there with any risk of thunder and lightning. In the end I only got about nine miles that day before the first rumble of thunder sent me scurrying into the woods. No sooner had I pitched than hail started to batter my tent, I was quickly inside and glad of my decision to stop at around 2.00pm.
At one point during the afternoon I could hear three storms banging away in different directions. They soon disappeared and the sky cleared but I could not be bothered to pack up again and continue.
I slept that night at 10,879 ft and was glad to get through the night with no real side effects from the altitude. All I found when sleeping high was that I would feel a bit restless in my tent and that my sleep would not be as deep as usual. I would frequently wake up hungry but then realise that my food was tied to a tree a hundred metres away!
An early camp deserves an early start, so I mustered up some enthusiasm to rise at 5.30am whilst the sky was still full of stars. After repeatedly banging my head on the same branch in the dark I managed to pack everything away and be on the trail for 6.30am. Now that’s got to be some record for me!
As the trees began to thin I had my first glimpse of the impressive mountains that surround Georgia Pass.
When you have spent a lot of time walking through trees there is something rather special about being able to see the path you’re walking on snake off into the distance. Above the tree line and approaching Georgia Pass there was a feeling of freedom and space. That’s what I had come to Colorado for.
Colour was beginning to seep into the world as I arrived at the highest point. With barely a breeze it was deathly quiet and with no one around it felt that the trail belonged to me. It was a great feeling to be so high.
Sadly this high point in the trail was a bit of an introductory tease, a flirt with the Alpine meadows. Before I knew it I was heading back into the trees again.
The Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail run together for a significant distance. Sometimes there would be a CT blaze showing the way, sometimes a CDT one. Occasionally both would be located together.
I turned into a fully fledged hiking machine that day, covering nearly twenty miles. I watched a storm build above some distant mountains and then slowly move towards me. I found myself running between open sections of trail, relaxing when I got back in the shelter of the trees. When the storm finally hit it was all mouth and no trousers. Lots of thunder and lightning but the rain and hail was short-lived.
I made it as far as Horseshoe Gulch that night, my fingers crossed that the stream would be flowing. Thankfully it was and I found a nice grassy pitch as far away as possible from the less than scenic power lines that run down this valley. The tranquility was shattered for about an hour that evening when 150 mountain bikers came whizzing down the trail on a race. I’m glad that I was safely tucked into my tent at that point and not on the trail!
Do you remember David who I introduced in part one? He was the chap who took me to the trail head, invited me into his home for dinner and took me sightseeing for the day. Well the next morning David turned up at my camp at 7.30am with a bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies. If that’s not trail magic I don’t know that is. Thanks David.
I think that a good proportion of those cookies did not make it the four miles to the Gold Hill Trailhead. In fact I may have had a cookie related breakfast. I was in no real hurry as all I had to do that day was walk those four miles and then get the free bus into Frisco where I had booked a motel for another zero. I therefore made the most of the sunny morning and sat down plenty of times along the way.
I wonder what happens to hikers who walk the Blair Witch Trail at night?
One of the signs that I began to enjoy seeing were those indicating the National Forest land boundary. As far as I am aware this indicates freedom of access and to be able to camp. The other side would usually indicate private property and request that you do not leave the path.
Reaching CO Highway 9 was a bit of a shock to the senses, a cacophony of noise as vehicles rushed by. I took shelter from the heat in a bus shelter, waiting for the free half hourly bus that would whisk me to my motel in Frisco.
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