Days 31 & 32 (7th & 8th September 2016)
Colorado Trail segments 23 & 24
Lowest altitude – 8,918 feet Highest altitude – 12,820 feet
Section distance – 23.5 miles Cumulative distance – 410.7 miles
Section ascent – 3,475 feet Cumulative ascent – 77,394 feet
Under clear skies the night was cold at 12,526 feet, the altitude meaning that sleep was fitful. The colour of the sky in the morning was spectacular, the deepest shade of blue. With excellent weather and such a stunning landscape it did not take much effort to get up and pack the tent. Colorado mornings are designed to get you up early.
The trail contours easily around Canby mountain and descends to the dirt road leading to Stony Pass. Although short, it was a bit of a trudge along the road to the pass, the heat already building. I was soon frequently seeking shade to rest in.
Although there was no traffic I was glad to leave the dirt road and join the trail again. It passed through an old mining area and then a couple of small muddy looking lakes.
A combination of heat and rapidly disintegrating trailshoes meant that I suddenly developed the first blister of the whole trail. I was thankful that I had managed to walk over 390 miles without a single one, but was also cursing that one had finally crept up on me. My shoes really were a mess, becoming more uncomfortable every mile I walked. I stopped and padded out the inside heel with duct tape and covered the blister. The last thing that I wanted was foot problems putting an end to my hike when I was so close to the end.
Further along the trail the air filled with the sound of sheep. It took me a while to work out where it was coming from but I eventually spotted a mass of white dots in the upper reaches of a valley below me. Coming from a country where the uplands are full of sheep the sound brought me a little closer to home. You can just about make out the dots below.
I then spotted a large white dog trotting along the trail towards me. It barked but thankfully left the trail and gave me a wide berth. I’m assuming that it is one of the dogs that looks after the sheep. Although a dog lover my heart was in my mouth for a while as it was a large hound!
Soon I was picking my jaw off of the floor as a line of serrated peaks that had been teasing me all morning finally revealed themselves. The range containing Arrow and Vestal peaks are amongst the biggest and baddest mountains that I have ever seen. Huge jagged walls of rock rise high into the sky. I detoured from the trail a bit, heading to a large cairn, dumped my pack and gawped for a long time. The view was so good I felt a bit giddy, it was what I had travelled all the way to Colorado for.
The next wow moment came at the Continental Divide at the head of Elk Creek. It’s one of the iconic views that you often see pictures of when researching the Colorado Trail. With its vastness in front of me I stood for a while with goosebumps and drunk it all in.
In the photo below you can only see the upper reaches of Elk Creek. I was standing at 12,619 feet and would have to descend all the way down to 8,918 feet at the Animas River. My knees were complaining before I had even started.
The switchbacks that wind their way down are brilliantly built and blend well into the hillside. It’s difficult to get a photo that shows their full extent. They make easy work of the steep decent and when on them you’re never really sure where they will take you next.
Down next to the clear and rushing creek the hills were a riot of colour as the vegetation was changing from green into various shades of yellow, orange and red.
The narrow path was soon squeezed below towering walls of rock and at one point it became a steep and loose scramble across unstable ground.
The upper section of Elk Creek before you enter the tree line is a magical world of rock and scree, a pinkish hue contrasting with the green pines. It really is magnificent and one of the most spectacular sections of the entire trail.
I wanted to camp around ten miles short of Molas Pass so that it would be a relatively easy walk the following day. I ended up stopping in an open grassy meadow surrounded by rocky peaks. Only a couple of people passed me later that evening and a pair of deer soon became comfortable with my presence, grazing close by.
The following morning I was up and packed long before the sun had chased away the shadows deep in Elk Creek. The surroundings became more verdant as the trail descended towards the Animas River. At a pond I stopped and chatted to a bow hunter, the season having just started. He had spent the night high above tracking Elk, however he was not successful and was now returning home. I’m not a big fan of hunting, however using a bow probably evens the odds over using a high-powered rifle. I can imagine that bow hunting takes a lot more skill to be successful.
It was really hot by the time I reached the Animas River. I had filled my water bottle prior to this as the river had become heavily polluted during a recent mine spill. It was running clear and clean but had previously been heavily discoloured. I thought it best not to chance drinking it. It is however a really idyllic valley, running along its length is the Durango to Silverton steam railway.
In the heat the two thousand feet ascent to Molas Pass nearly finished me off. Initially the trail goes up cruelly steep switchbacks through the forest. At one point I could hear a steam train far below me make its way towards Silverton. I passed a few people heading down for a picnic with a plan to walk back afterwards. I couldn’t comprehend wanting to go both down and then back up in one day!
As the trail evened out I detoured for a couple of hundred metres to a waterfall. There I removed my shoes and soaked my feet in the freezing cold water. I filtered plenty of water to get me to Molas Pass.
It felt like it took forever, toiling in the heat to get to the pass. I could hear the traffic from a long way off but it never appeared to get any closer. As soon as I hit the road I stuck my thumb out, keen to get into Silverton for a cold sugary drink and a large pizza. Thankfully it only took ten minutes to get a lift.
Zero Day seven – Silverton (9th September 2016)
I really enjoyed my time in Silverton. I checked into the Blair Street Hostel where I had booked a private room in advance. It was a great base from which to explore this laid back tourist town. The weather was excellent so I enjoyed wandering about taking in the sights and sitting on shady verandas to fill my face with food. The most important task was to find some replacement footwear to get me to Durango, the ones that I had been wearing were ready for the bin. I lucked out and got a pair of Merrell Moabs for $70 in an end of season sale. I was relieved that I had found something that I knew would be suitable to finish in. I did my laundry at a nearby RV park and managed to do a full resupply at the store in town. I could have happily ambled around Silverton for a few days, but was eager to get back and finish the Colorado Trail. I was about to set out on the final leg.