Archive for January, 2017

January 20, 2017

The Colorado Trail pt7 – Saguache Park Road to Spring Creek Pass

by backpackingbongos

Days 25 to 28

Colorado Trail segments 19 to 21

Lowest altitude – 9,527  feet    Highest altitude – 12,887 feet

Section distance –  41.2 miles    Cumulative distance – 357.4 miles

Section ascent – 8,459 feet    Cumulative ascent – 66,575  feet

The transition from Segment 18 to 19 simply involves turning off the dirt road and continuing along the trail. I was half way through a very long and hot day, my water supplies running low on this dry section.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I really enjoyed this part of the trail. It was the wide open grasslands and a real feeling of space. The narrow trail marched on into the distance, rising and falling through dry and shallow valleys. The sky dominates, a few fluffy clouds meant that I was fairly confident that it wouldn’t storm that afternoon. The only signs of life for a while was a lone fox crossing my path in the distance.


Three miles later I was relieved to arrive at Van Tassel Gulch and a fenced in spring. I found a gap in the fence on the downstream side and filled my water bottles with cold and clear water. Bliss on such a hot day.

A steady climb of 600 feet through the forest was a cruel way to end a nineteen mile day. I stopped and chatted to a large group of day hikers who asked where I had walked from. There is a sense of pride in saying Denver, over 320 miles away.

Cochetopa creek is an oasis after the dry desert like landscape the trail had just passed through. It was a treat to see so much greenery and the silvery flash of water below.


On the valley bottom I quickly pitched the tent on a bed of lush green grass. It really reminded me of camping back in the UK where we are not short of green pastures. It was a relief as the shadows began to lengthen, the heat of the day being replaced by a cool dampness.


As I later lay in my tent I saw Miles arrive on the hill above. He took advantage of the view and pitched up high, I was far too tired to make the effort to communicate. I slept well, excited at the prospect of climbing high into the mountains again.

I packed up and was walking early the next morning with Miles for company. Miles does not need a separate trail name as Miles suits him very well, he can sure pack them in. His conversation and company was good but I have to admit that I struggled to keep pace with him that morning. The previous day I had left camp close to dawn whilst he set off very late in the morning. I pretty much walked all day with only a few short breaks, he would stop often to read his book. Despite that he only ended up an hour behind at the end of the day!

River crossings are not something you really have to worry about on the Colorado Trail, the bridges are generally very good. It just happens that the bridge over Cochetopa Creek was washed away and it is a reasonably large river. Being late in the season it was easy to cross with care in bare feet, although colder than expected.


I walked with Miles for a couple of miles past the Eddiesville Trailhead, stopping at one point to howl back at the Coyotes. He was running out of food so had decided to put some big miles in to get to Lake City the following evening. Whilst he pushed on and disappeared into the distance I was happy to plod and take my time.

The Cochetopa Creek is your companion for many miles as you walk up this long valley, slowly gaining height. I started the day at 9,719 feet and ended it at 12,200 feet but was still contained within the valley. The landscape slowly changed, alternating between forest and some beautiful alpine meadows. The surrounding mountains gaining in stature the further up I got.





I met Miles again, head in a book where the trail starts its ascent to the saddle below San Luis Peak. The weather had started to look threatening so he had decided to stop and wait to see if the storm threat cleared. It did soon after I arrived so he set off once again. Our paths did not cross again on the trail.

I had grand plans to summit the 14,019 foot San Luis Peak early the next morning, so decided to camp high that evening. I continued climbing to 12,220 feet and found a pitch surrounded by dwarf willow. It was slightly higher than my tent so I hoped that if a storm brewed I wouldn’t be a lightning magnet.



No storm came but I did have a fright in the middle of the night when something large came crashing through the nearby undergrowth. It was probably only a deer but you end up with a vivid imagination when camping out in such a wild spot on your own.

I was up early to bag a 14’er but it was clear that a trip to the summit was not going to happen. The wind had picked up and cloud covered the higher peaks, spots of rain in the air. The wind really hit me on the 12,612 foot pass and I was worried about all the cloud swirling around. The views were pretty amazing though.


The trail stayed high for the rest of the day, culminating in a 12,887 pass. It contoured along the slopes of some massive peaks, climbing up and over several saddles.


All the time the cloud was building and at one point I watched as it formed in front of my eyes like tendrils of smoke from a boiling cauldron.



At San Luis pass bands of rain moved in and it was on with my waterproofs, then head down for a climb over another saddle. I have to admit that I felt vulnerable being so high above the tree line with nowhere to shelter if a storm rolled in. The walking itself however remained easy. It was that part of the hike where I was feeling fit and my body was fully acclimatised to activity at over 12,000 feet.



The weather cleared just in time for the descent into one of the most stunning parts of the trail up until that point. Huge cliffs rose above a high sheltered valley, the trail descending through Alpine meadows. It was a real ‘wow’ moment.



It was barely past 2.00pm when I came to a spot where I could not resist the temptation to camp. With such unpredictable weather I also decided that it would be foolish to continue and tackle the infamous Snow Mesa that afternoon. It was a section of trail that I was really looking forward to but with a healthy dose of trepidation.

The Enan was pitched in hot sunshine and gear that was damp from the previous night soon dried. There were a couple of established fire pits nearby and I was keen to have the first campfire of the trip. There had been a fire ban the previous few weeks which had even influenced my choice of stove. The alcohol stove that I had purchased especially for the trip had to be replaced at the last-minute by my trusty Jetboil. Any stove in a fire ban area has to have an on / off valve and alcohol as a fuel source was off-limits.



I spent a couple of hours that afternoon foraging the surrounding forest for fallen branches, collecting a small pile of wood. The romantic idyll of sitting high in the mountains, the smell of wood smoke and a huge sky full of stars was about to be realised.


And then the storm broke. I’m not too proud to admit that I nearly shit myself. One minute it was a hot and sunny afternoon, the next all hell had broken loose. The thunder made the ground shake, probably amplified due to the surrounding high cliffs. The sky became dark and angry and the hail pummelled the tent until it was a deafening roar. It was the sort of storm that would be impressive and exciting viewed from the safety of solid walls. Alone in the woods it was terrifying. Then as quickly as it arrived it was gone, my pile of wood soggy and dripping. I never did have a fire during the whole of the trip.

It was damp the following morning, a hint of Autumn in the air and foliage as I made my way through the forest.


I was in the trees for a couple of miles before climbing above 12,000 feet, the trail would not drop below this height for the next eight miles.


The trail rose to 12,785 feet, slopes plunging many hundreds of feet into the valley below. Huge chalk coloured cliffs rose out of the trees and the flat featureless Snow Mesa filled the middle distance.


The trail gave a fantastic high level promenade, once again contouring around some big peaks, a mixture of grassland and scree covered slopes.



Snow Mesa was breathtaking, once again the scale of the landscape was hard for someone from the UK to get their head around. It undulates around the 12,300 foot contour and there are zero places to shelter from the weather. It’s the sort of pace that I could happily stride across for days. If the weather was predictable.




The reason why Snow Mesa filled me with trepidation was its reputation for storms and the subsequent lack of shelter. As I was crossing I noticed the clouds above me were building. The blue skies and friendly white fluffy clouds were being replaced by a mass of dark moodiness. It’s almost like they sensed my fear.


Twice the heavens opened with heavy showers of hail, twice I made myself as small as possible in shallow ditches. Thankfully the storm never arrived, although a cold and steady rain did. As I crossed the final part of Snow Mesa I was engulfed in mist and felt very sorry for the couple who were heading in the direction from which I had come.

The descent into a rocky valley led me back into the trees where I passed a guy and his llama. It looked like a fine way to carry your gear into the hills.


I arrived at Spring Creek Pass filled with the anticipation of getting into Lake City and filling my face with food. I had spent seven nights on the trail since leaving Salida and the prospect of a shower and soft bed was also appealing. Sadly my hope of getting a quick ride into town was dashed as car after car passed without stopping. Spring Creek Pass does not have a reputation of getting an easy ride and I was finding reality in that reputation. I would put on an extra big smile for the folks turning out of the parking area but I failed there as well. One guy nearly hit another car in his desperate bid to avoid eye contact. Another guy alone in a huge car said that he did not have enough room! The best moment however was reserved for when a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction stopped. What happened next is a bit of a surreal blur. I found myself standing holding the hands of two strangers at the side of the road whilst they prayed that I would find Jesus on the trail. They then insisted that I take $30 before they drove off. That would never happen in the UK! I have a feeling that perhaps they thought I was homeless.

I was finally rescued after standing there for three and a half hours by a couple of locals and their dog who were returning to their pick up truck. I often found that all the best people in the States had a dog with them. Not only did they take me the seventeen miles into lake City, they bought me a late lunch. I was very grateful to be in town.

January 8, 2017

Video – Moments on the Colorado Trail

by backpackingbongos
January 6, 2017

The Colorado Trail pt6 – US Highway 50 to Saguache Park Road

by backpackingbongos

Days 21 to 25

Colorado Trail segments 15 to 18

Lowest altitude – 8,816  feet    Highest altitude – 11,908 feet

Section distance –  63.7 miles    Cumulative distance – 316.2 miles

Section ascent – 11,017 feet    Cumulative ascent – 58,116  feet

Chuck dropped me right at the trailhead, he gave me lots of good information and refused to take my offer of money for fuel. Another CT thru hiker started at the same time as me but I soon lost him as he powered down the dirt road. It was to be a short eight mile day, however it was a continuous slog up hill with a heavy pack.

My pack was heavy as the plan was to walk a 105 mile section without any resupply points. I was aiming to do this in seven to eight days, which adds up to a lot of food! To add to the heavy pack I was aware that I would be entering some long dry sections before I got to Lake City. I have to admit that I had left Salida with a feeling of trepidation.

It was a Saturday so the trail was fairly busy as I headed up and into the forest, most folks however seemed to be going in the opposite direction, including a steady stream of mountain bikers.


As I got close to the last water source before the Continental Divide the weather changed, the sky became grey with spots of rain. I was getting near to the tree line so thought it prudent to pitch in case a storm rolled in. I found a grassy spot, literally a couple of feet from the trail itself. Mountain bikers continued to pass me through the afternoon, by evening the woods were silent.


I was up early to take advantage of the morning blue sky. A pattern had developed, warm sunny mornings followed by cool, cloudy and often stormy afternoons.



The views at the top of the Continental Divide at 11,908 feet were breathtaking, the peaks of the Rockies spread out in all directions.


The next couple of miles stayed high, sticking to the mountain ridge, winding around a few stunted pine at the very limit of the tree line. The clouds were quick to start rolling in that morning, high and exposed it would not be an ideal place to be during a storm. I was glad that I had cut the previous day short.





The morning had been peaceful but by the time I reached the one and only shelter on the entire trail the idyll was shattered. It was a Sunday and I was on a section that is extremely popular with mountain bikers. By midday I was having to step off the trail every couple of minutes to let groups of speeding cyclists pass. It was definitely clear that they thought they had right of way and I was expected to move, even if there was nowhere to move to. Parts of the trail were very narrow with steep drop-offs with nowhere for me to go. There is nothing more frightening than being weighed down by a pack and being faced with a speeding bike. A couple of times I was unable to get off the trail quick enough and found myself being clipped by handlebars. It was a very unpleasant section as I descended to the Marshall Pass Trailhead.



Once at the trailhead it was twelve miles to the next water source where I planned to camp for the night. I managed to fill my water bottles from a swampy creek that had an aroma of cow about it. I was extra careful so used my filter and gave it a good dose of Aquamira.

The twelve miles to Tank Seven Creek was a bit of a slog. Parts of the trail are accessible by motorbikes and sections through the forest were churned up.


It was with relief that I got my tent up that evening just as a light rain started, it had been a long and stressful eighteen mile day. My advice is not to do this section of trail at the weekend!


The sun the next morning made everything feel better. I was aware however that there would not be any reliable on trail water for the next fourteen miles. I filled my stomach close to bursting and set off with three litres to see me through the day. It was a pleasant morning as I climbed steadily through the forest. The stream of mountain bikers had been left behind, the only people I saw that morning were a pair of thru-bikers who were happy to stop and chat for a while.

In fact the whole morning was excellent until the incident with the dead cow. It was laying on the trail at the edge of the first Mesa. It had obviously died very recently as there were no flies and no smell. In fact it could have been sleeping if not for the fact that its udders had been surgically removed, a single entrail laying across its stomach. It was obvious that its death had not been caused by an animal, there was no sign of a struggle and the cut was clean and clinical. Alone in the wilds my mind put it down to either aliens or a sick pervert. Large predators roam these woods and it would soon be attracting them. I was glad to leave it behind and walk onto the grassy Mesa.


The trail stays high for a long time on this section, miles above 11,000 feet and at one point crossing a high point at 11,769 feet. As usual the weather began to break down during the early afternoon, dark clouds rolling in with a few spots of rain.


Descending from one open grassy area I could hear the slow chug-chug of an engine behind me. I have to admit that I was a bit put out at the intrusion into the wilderness. It also took an age for the vehicle in question to catch me up. It turned out to be a local cowboy of antique age riding a quad bike. He looked like he had stepped straight out of a movie, wide-brimmed cowboy hat, a face of wrinkles, lips and chin stained by chewing tobacco. He asked if I had seen a black cow and I told him of the dead cow I had passed earlier. He soon continued on, the old cowboy on what looked like a sit on lawnmower. I wish that I had had the guts to ask for a photograph.

It was just before the highest section of the day where I thought I was going to die. The storm rolled in quickly and hung just to the right side of the ridge, for what felt like forever. The only thing in my favour was that the ridge was wooded, so the odds of a direct hit from lightening was evened out a bit. I cowered by some low bushes as the hail pummelled me and the thunder fought its battle overhead. Twice I thought it had stopped so I started hiking again, only for the storm to start raging.

The storm eventually stopped but the rain continued for the rest of the day and late into the night. A cold steady rain that soaked me to the skin. I was really counting on Razor Creek to be flowing so that I could pitch for the night. If not I would have to go to bed thirsty as there was no way I would make the extra nine miles to Lujan Creek.

Razor Creek was ‘just’ trickling and it took a while to fill my bottles. Luckily there was no cow activity which I had read can pollute this water source. A good grassy pitch was found nearby.

Later that night came the Stephen King like experience of the trip. In the distance I could hear the slow chugging of an engine. This got closer and closer, finally descended into the valley where I was camped. It was obviously the cowboy still out looking for his cow. However it was nearly midnight and it was tipping down with rain. It felt just a bit creepy. I turned off my torch and put my head in my sleeping bag, hoping that he would not come over and murder me.

The skies cleared during the night, the temperature plummeting and freezing my soaking wet gear solid. It was not fun getting out of the tent and pulling on frozen trailshoes and walking through frozen grass.



I set off loaded up again with water to pass through another section of trail where water is either scarce or contaminated with cows. I passed through cow pastures, slowly stripping off and drying my wet gear under an increasingly hot sun. After a mentally tough previous day I was happy to put in a short twelve miles when I came to a large grassy area close to Pine creek.


It was at Pine Creek where I had my first sociable night at camp. Miles turned up a couple of hours later, pitching nearby. He had just finished school and was taking time out before going to college. He had started out in a group of four but his mates quickly bailed on him, leaving him to continue alone. I don’t think that I would have had the mental fortitude to have continued a journey like this on my own when I was his age.


My plan was to hike nineteen miles the following day so I was up at dawn, everything once again coated in thick frost. I left Miles sleeping in his tent, possible plans made to meet up again later that day.

The next section of trail drops as low as 9,366 feet and enters an area that to me felt like semi desert. Under a cloudless sky the temperature soon soared, with little shelter I was glad of my hat and a plentiful supply of suncream. Just to make the heat a little bit more challenging it was also another dry section, cows making any available water undrinkable.



Despite the hot and thirsty hiking I enjoyed this section immensely. There was a sense of space that is hard to get your head around when you live in the crowded UK. The undulating grasslands spread out into the distance, broken up by the odd clump of trees.



I set my sights on one such clump in the distance. It was my goal to not stop until I got there, the reward would be my lunch, some shade and half a litre of water. I was just a speck moving through the landscape and it felt like it took forever to get there. When I eventually did I spread damp gear out on the ground and retreated into the shade.


After lunch I had no choice but to go back out into the searing afternoon heat, shelter becoming more and more sparse. I hit a dirt road, following it towards the distant mountains. The few pickup’s that passed left a trail of dust in their wake.



Segment eighteen ends in the middle of nowhere, space to park a couple of cars next to the dirt road, the nearest town a long drive away. I turned my back on the road and continued along the trail. I had another three days before I could head into town.