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.
Zero day four – Buena Vista
Out of all the towns that I visited on the Colorado Trail I think that Buena Vista was my favourite. The main reason being its size and the accessibility of its services. I had pre-booked a room via Airbnb whilst on the trail (its worth having the app on your phone whilst doing a thru hike). The owners Grace and Jan are slightly bonkers but in a good way. The house is decked out in full on American Victoriana and I kept expecting a line of lace clad women to jump out of the wardrobe to do the can-can.
Everything in Buena Vista is within walking distance and during the two nights I was there I made a couple of visits to the House Rock Kitchen for burgers, and the Evergreen Cafe for breakfast. A supermarket is within walking distance and there is a small but well stocked outdoor store (expensive!). What more does a thru hiker need?
Remember David who gave me a lift to the trailhead and appeared at camp just after mile 100 to bring me brownies? He was passing close to Buena Vista so stopped to bring me a bag of homemade cookies! David has section hiked the CT so a while was spent pouring over maps with a few tips passed on. Thanks David!
Days 18 to 20
Colorado Trail segments 13 & 14
Lowest altitude – 8,194 feet Highest altitude – 10,003 feet
Section distance – 36.6 miles Cumulative distance – 252.5 miles
Section ascent – 5,844 feet Cumulative ascent – 47,099 feet
Grace kindly gave me a lift back up to the trailhead and decided to walk with me for half an hour. I’m embarrassed to say that it took me a while to locate the trail on the other side of the road. I initially led us in completely the wrong direction. We got speaking to a man who was camping by the creek for a few days. Bears had been spotted in the area and he showed us the remains of a dog bowl that he had accidentally left out overnight. The bears had given it a good chew.
It took a bit of searching to eventually find the elusive trail marker, although paying more attention to my map would have helped. It was great to have the company of Grace and her little dog for a mile or so. Although she has lived in the area for a while she had not explored this section of trail before, so she left with plans to return with her husband.
Further along the trail I found myself catching up to a long line of older female hikers. I made the mistake of not making my presence known until the very last minute, which nearly resulted in me being attacked by the hiking pole brandished by the woman at the back. I had done the hiker equivalent of running up behind someone and going ‘booo’.
Unfortunately the weather soon started to turn for the worst with dark clouds building and rumbles of thunder. It was about to become a wet and stormy couple of days.
The storm soon hit so I was thankful to be in the shelter of the trees. The storm passed but left in its wake a legacy of heavy persistent rain which soon overwhelmed my waterproofs. I quickly got fed up and decided on an early camp near Maxwell Creek. If I had of continued it would have been at least four miles to the next water source, despite the large volumes of water falling from the sky.
I managed to find a sheltered pitch some distance from the main camping area and away from the trail. I just about managed to wedge my tent between the trees, a bed of pine needles adding some cushioning. I passed the afternoon reading and eating, later listening to a pair of hikers pitching their shelters nearby. It was not the sort of weather in which to go outside and say hello.
It rained through the night leaving the forest damp and silent in the morning, an atmospheric mist rising through the trees. I shouted my greetings to the guys in the nearby very badly pitched tents as I passed. They had obviously spent a lot of money purchasing the lightest Cuben Fibre contraptions but had not yet mastered the dark art of keeping them upright.
The views were restricted that morning but the damp forest made me feel a bit closer to home.
Unfortunately there is a long road walking section to Mount Princeton hot springs and beyond. At one point the resort is just below you but the road takes a snaking route in the opposite direction, eventually winding its way down the hill.
It may have been the weather but I found the resort to be a bit of a soulless place, clusters of buildings and pools huddled under the cold grey sky. I found the store, purchased an armful of unhealthy snacks, stuffed my face and then went back for round two. You could easily do a resupply here for a couple of days on the trail, but be warned it’s not cheap.
There was another two and a half miles of road walking before I could escape back into the hills at the Chalk Creek Trailhead. As I climbed the clouds were gathering once more, the familiar sound of thunder in the distance.
Once across Chalk Creek there would not be any water for nearly seven miles, this meant that I had to continue whether I wanted to or not so as to avoid a dry camp. There were a couple of moments when I really did not want to continue, I wanted to be safe and sound in a solid building so as to avoid the risk of being zapped by lightning. There was one humdinger of a storm where the hail was so heavy it hurt, I took shelter in the trees and watched natures fury around me. The ground was white by the time it had finished.
In Colorado storms can quickly turn to sunshine and it was soon summer again.
There are a lot of trees in the first half of the Colorado Trail with frequent feelings of Déjà vu. One thing that I could never get enough of though were the Aspen groves. Some of these were magical places with a stillness on the forest floor whilst the wind shook and whispered through the canopy above.
I like to arrive at trail towns during the early afternoon so as to maximise the time I spend lazing around. On the final morning of this section I was up early to complete the 14 miles by a reasonable time. After a couple of days of heavy rain it was a morale boost to spend the morning under sunny skies.
After descending to and crossing the North Fork Arkansas river the weather started to turn for the last climb of the day. I began to get nervous as it looked like it had the potential to be a really nasty one. The sky went black, the temperature plummeted and the wind picked up. It was at this moment that the trail passed right under a large metal pylon, its power line marching its way across the hills. I crossed open ground as quickly as possible, pulled on my waterproofs and legged it towards US Highway 50.
Just as I was about to reach Highway 50 I was caught up by Brenden and Skylar, who I had not seen since Buena Vista. As I was solo I was given first dibs at trying to thumb a lift into Salida, if there was room for three then we would all jump in. In the end I was picked up by a young man in a flash car who was a bit twitchy about having three smelly hikers for company. It was my only uncomfortable ride and I think that he may have been a bit stoned by the way he failed to stay on his side of the road. He dropped me off about five miles from town where I stuck out my thumb once again. Soon afterwards a pick-up with Brenden and Skykar on board stopped and I travelled into Salida on the open back. Thankfully the storm never caught me in the end, the wall of black remained on the horizon.
Zero day five – Salida
Salida is another pleasant town to spend some time in whilst on the Colorado Trail. It’s a bit more spread out than Buena Vista, but everything is still within walking distance. I had managed to bag a small reasonably priced apartment through Airbnb, complete with washer and dryer. Although I had only walked 37 miles from Buena Vista I still treated myself to two nights in town. The next segment to Lake City would be the longest, my pack the heaviest with eight days supplies. Whilst in Salida I managed to hook up via Facebook with Chuck Deveney, who offered me a ride back to the Trailhead. Chuck is the main Trail Angel in town and a thoroughly decent bloke. He picked me up outside the Patio Pancake Place after I had filled my belly with a massive breakfast (highly recommended if staying in Salida). It was an appreciative thru hiker who got out of his vehicle on a bright sunny morning and set out on the section of trail that unfortunately nearly broke me.
Last week in the far north of Scotland the sun rose at 8.46am and set at 3.31pm. The extended periods of darkness almost became meditative as the moonless nights swallowed the land. Bothies were my refuge; a fire, candles and the beam of my head torch pushing the darkness away. When dawn finally came the light was soft, the sun when visible low on the horizon.
Backpacking in mid November is a lottery where the odds are stacked against you. The forecast for last weekend was not very promising to say the least. The weather map had a big blob of blue over the country with fat wind arrows arriving from the South West. Despite this I just HAD to get out and HAD to wild camp. Sometimes I get an itch that must be scratched. A small patch of Wales sorted the itch out nicely and I came back a happier person with peat stains on my trousers.
This is a land of contrasts, high distinctive moorland, the fringes scarred by industry. It’s best to take the landscape as it comes, warts and all. The brutal decay was just as fascinating as the beauty.
I have lost my writing jazz at the moment so this trip report will take the form of a few snaps taken on my phone. Reuben proved himself to be a good model in this instance, as well as excellent company.