The Colorado Trail pt3 – Gold Hill Trailhead to Tennessee Pass Trailhead

by backpackingbongos

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The trail follows the ridge for a while and I came across the following sign that made me chuckle a bit.

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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.

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Until then I still had the beauty of the mountains to enjoy and a long 2,500 foot descent.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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13 Comments to “The Colorado Trail pt3 – Gold Hill Trailhead to Tennessee Pass Trailhead”

  1. Fabulous photos and great narrative. Loving the posts James.

  2. Superb. Deeply envious!

  3. Great reports and magnificent photos – making me feel quite nostalgic for the good ole US of A at times!
    You’ve got to watch those Stepford Wives though, they could be anywhere…..

    • Aye it’s a great place to visit. There are no Stepford wives where I live, I saw a woman on the street in her dressing gown and slippers this afternoon……

  4. cool words and pictures! thank you for sharing you journey….

  5. Doesn’t get much better than that James. Great photos.

  6. Thanks for sharing such a great experience

  7. I see what you mean about the Scottish feel. Some of those images could be from Lochaber or Affric. That last campsite looked rather nice. Altitude can wreak havoc with your body, I remember that only too well from my Alpine climbing days

  8. What an experience James, your write ups get progressively better and better. Your tenacity in getting over illness and dogged determination shine through.

  9. Great trail report, very envious, superb photos.

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