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.