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.