Posts tagged ‘Colorado Trail’

March 12, 2017

The Colorado Trail pt9 – Maggie Gulch trail to Molas Pass

by backpackingbongos

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.

February 5, 2017

The Colorado Trail pt8 – Spring Creek Pass to Maggie Gulch Trail

by backpackingbongos

Zero day six – Lake City.

The first thing that the cafe owner said to me was, ‘Well you’re not from Texas’. During the weekend I was in town it felt like the whole of Texas had decamped en-mass and were staying in Lake City. It turned out that there was an ATV festival and the main street was full of weird and wonderful mud splattered off-road vehicles. At times it was like an alternative Mad Max, where the cast were very well fed.

I enjoyed Lake City, it has a rough and ready charm, a million miles away from places like Frisco which can feel just a bit too shiny. The food was different too, a southern influence such as fried Catfish, which I decided I liked a lot.

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Although in town I was reminded that I was still in bear country, the bins being bear proof. I had been following a Colorado Trail Facebook page on the walk, and it was on the outskirts of town where a thru-hiker had her rucksack stolen from outside her tent. It turned out that the culprit was a tagged young bear. Luckily the pack was found in a nearby creek.

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I had lucked out on accommodation, managing to bag a one bedroom ‘apartment’ via Airbnb. It was pretty rustic but nice and clean and much cheaper than the local hotels. It was good to have my own kitchen, a great way to save a bit of money. Within a couple of hours the place was strewn with damp gear, whilst I headed out for supplies to get me across the next section of trail.

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One thing that I have to point out with regards to Lake City is cost. The small store is well stocked and had everything I needed to resupply for the four days it would take me to get to Silverton. It just hurt a bit when the small basket of groceries cost over $70!

My major worry however were my shoes, the previous 357 miles of trail had been tough on them. The mesh had split and the inner heel was wearing away. The local outfitter only had really heavy boots so I had no choice but to hope that they would last until I got into Silverton.

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Town was quiet when I left at dawn on the Monday. I walked to the outskirts to find a spot suitable to hitch from. Luckily it only took half an hour to get a lift from a local out for a drive. He was great company as the road climbed back into the mountains, conversation easy. It was only when at Spring Creek Pass whilst he was helping me get my pack out of the boot that I noticed the gun and ammo strapped to his chest. Something that you would never see in the UK!

Days 29 & 30

Colorado Trail segments 22 & 23

Lowest altitude – 10,908 feet  feet    Highest altitude – 13,271 feet

Section distance –  29.8 miles    Cumulative distance – 387.2 miles

Section ascent – 7,344 feet    Cumulative ascent – 73,919  feet

A few cyclists passed me close to the trailhead and then I was on my own for the next eighteen miles of this long high altitude day. I had made sure that I had left Lake City with plenty of water as it would be nearly nine miles before I found a reliable trickle. After climbing out of the trees the trail passed across the rocky Jarosa Mesa, a real feeling of space on this wide open landscape.

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It is only the thin air that alerts you to the fact that you are hiking above 12,000ft when crossing these grassy plains. Then suddenly you come to the edge and the world is laid out below your feet. There are all sorts of superlatives that I could use to describe the view and how I felt when I reached the edge of that world. I felt deliriously happy, a huge grin on my face which was simultaneously being battered by the wind and baked by the sun. I’m not afraid to say that I pulled my head back and howled as loudly as I could into the wind.

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I was high both literally and emotionally and I was only going getting higher as the trail climbed along the ridge. I could see it disappearing up the steep rocky nose of the mountain in front of me. It appeared to be impossibly steep.

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At the top I once again found myself walking across wide open grasslands. The landscape was truly immense, it really is hard to put into words the sense of scale. I felt tiny under the deep blue skies that day.

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As I reached the highest point on the trail at 13,271 feet I was glad that the skies had remained blue all day. There really would not be anywhere to hide if a storm blew in. I counted my blessings and hugged the sign.

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From the highest point there is a steep descent of a thousand feet to the historic mining area of Carson Saddle. The shadows were beginning to lengthen and my legs tired after walking seventeen miles from Spring Creek Pass. I was keen to find somewhere to pitch but I wanted to get away from the various jeep roads at Carson Saddle.

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I continued on into a beautiful valley, following the trail for a mile until I found a rough campsite next to a stand of pine trees. It was on a bit of a slope and the ground was lumpy but I was far too tired to push on any further. Even if I had the energy it would soon be dark, the sun was already turning the highest peaks a shade of orange.

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It was a strangely warm night considering the elevation, I was camped at 11,885 feet and the night should have been cold. I was woken at around 4am by rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning. Worryingly this was still going on at 7am when I got up and started to pack. Typically it waited until I was out of the tent before it started to rain but the dense pines provided shelter whilst I sorted out my rucksack.

It was one of those mornings where I was in and out of my waterproofs every few minutes. I passed a pair of very heavily laden men from Texas who were not very keen on conversation. They were moving so slowly that they were soon a couple of dots in the distance.

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The weather broke down with alarming speed. The temperature plummeted and the rain showers were replaced by snow. It happened so suddenly that I did not have time to put on trousers, instead I pulled on waterproofs over my shorts. The wind picked up, blowing curtains of snow up the valley, the surrounding mountains becoming hidden in the murk. I took shelter for a while in a thicket of dwarf willow, pulling a warm fleece and gloves out of my pack. It was fun but my main worry was lightning following the sudden snow shower.

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I hurried across the 12,919 foot pass, dropping into the Pole Creek drainage area. The view ahead was both impressive and daunting, especially with the prospect of remaining above 12,000ft for the next twenty miles. The snow eased but the sky ahead remained dark and angry, giving the mountains an ominous air.

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It was after passing Cataract Lake when the snow started again in earnest, this time big fat flakes that quickly settled on both the ground and me. Being in trail shoes my feet were soon freezing, along with my legs, still clad in shorts underneath my waterproofs.

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I did think about pitching my tent and calling it a day but I decided that I would be warmer by continuing walking. It was another steady climb up onto another saddle, this time at 12,909 feet.

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Eventually the snow shower passed, patches of blue amongst the ragged clouds. A combination of snow and sun was pretty spectacular.

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Another snow shower quickly rattled through, the trail wet with melting snow, too cold to stop for a break and some food.

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Finally the sun came out and stayed out. It was not long before I was able to walk in shorts and t-shirt again. I was constantly amazed at how quickly the weather changed on the Colorado Rockies and how the temperature would fluctuate.

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The trail that afternoon was a joy, taking me to 12,982 feet on a high point of a ridge. I was in marmot country and the air was full of their whistles. I was glad that the cloud and snow had retreated as the landscape in all directions was absolutely fantastic. Apart from the trail there was no sign of human presence to be seen.

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By mid afternoon I found a grassy patch just below the trail, a cold clear spring nearby. Sheltered from the wind it was great to laze in the tent and read my kindle. These mountains are so big that it did not feel like I was camped at 12,526 feet, the highest on the whole trek. I did not feel ill camped at that altitude but it did affect my sleep and I found myself restless in the night, the sleep I did have punctured by weird dreams. Most importantly I was spared any storms.

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November 2, 2016

The Colorado Trail pt4 – Tennessee Pass Trailhead to Avalanche Trailhead

by backpackingbongos

Zero day three – Leadville

I really enjoyed my stay in Leadville. Although obviously touristy it does have a certain old world charm. Its claim to fame is being the highest incorporated city in the United States at 10,152 feet, that is certainly high! I managed to pick an excellent Airbnb which had the luxury of a comfy private room but the vibe of a laid back hostel. It was full of an interesting mix of thru-hikers, including a couple doing the CDT, alongside mountain bikers and runners. The owner allowed the use of his bike to get to the supermarket, which as usual is out of town. Although acclimatised to hiking my lungs were not quite equipped to deal with the exertion of peddling. I overdid it and arrived at the store with my head and lungs feeling like they were going to explode.

During a long backpacking trip I dream of pizza when eating ramen and couscous day after day. It’s something that I rarely eat at home, perhaps my body needs all that fat from the cheese when on the trail. High Mountain Pies satisfied that particular craving whilst in Leadville. Highly recommended if you are ever up that way.

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Days 13 to 17

Colorado Trail segments 9 to 13

Lowest altitude – 8,916 feet    Highest altitude – 11,889 feet

Section distance – 73.3 miles    Cumulative distance – 215.9 miles

Section ascent – 15,552 feet    Cumulative ascent – 41,255 feet

It was suggested that I set off out of town early to try to thumb a lift back up Tennessee Pass. That way I would be able to get a ride with locals commuting to work. The suggestion appeared to pay off as one of the first vehicles stopped. They were from a nearby town and were heading to pick their daughter up from Denver airport. As the scenery passed and we chatted away I had a feeling that all was not right. The scenery appeared to be slightly different from when I travelled into town. I was horrified to learn that we were heading up another pass in the wrong direction. It turned out that they did not know the road that Tennessee pass was on whilst I assumed that they did! Thankfully they turned round back towards town and and took me up the correct pass, adding a chunk to their journey. It was with some relief that I put on my pack and continued along the trail.

The first part of the day was spent passing through Idyllic meadows en-route to the Porcupine Lakes. The trail gained height slowly and easily. As this section of trail passes through both the Holy Cross and Mount Massive Wilderness areas there is no worry about being mown down by a speeding mountain biker.

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Close to the lakes the trees began to thin out giving great views of the surrounding rocky peaks.

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It was magnificent being so high above the valley, a thick blanket of trees below filling the horizon. The trail itself was pure magic as it traversed the hillside. However, this section above tree line had me nervous as clouds had been building all morning.

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In life fears are usually unfounded, however in Colorado my fear of storms was usually grounded in reality. The one that afternoon came in quickly and left a legacy of rain that lasted for hours. It arrived just as I reached the shelter of the trees, rumbles of thunder filling the air. As I descended I would pass large open areas which I would quickly scurry across like a mouse. The storm was slow-moving and I stood and watched for a while whilst white curtains of cloud tracked down a nearby valley. The white was hail and I could see it settling on the ground on the opposite hillside. It was soon battering me.

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The booms of thunder only lasted an hour or so but the rain continued, cold and soaking. That evening it was a case of pitching my tent, collecting water and then diving for cover and not going outside again until the following morning. When morning did come I made a futile effort of drying out my wet gear, something that does not happen quickly in a damp forest.

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Mount Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado at 14,440 feet dominated the view for much of the following day. Once again the thunder clouds gathered in the afternoon, the summit being hidden from view by swirling mists. At times it reminded me of the Scottish Highlands on a wet summers day. The blue Colorado skies were beginning to feel a long way away.

After passing the Mount Massive Trailhead the Colorado Trail joined the Mount Elbert Trail for a while. Despite the weather there were still quite a few folks coming down from the summit. It was only an hour or so to sunset so they must have been up there during the thunder and lightning. One couple said they had heavy snow on the summit. It was a bit like watching people descend from Snowdon; jeans, street trainers, leather jackets etc. When folks asked me where I had walked from, they appeared very taken aback when I said Denver!

Another night was spent on a damp forest floor, flat and comfortable for sleeping but having an inner tent full of pine needles soon gets old.

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I was excited the following morning and up and packed early. The reason for the excitement was the prospect of a hiker friendly store very close to the trail. Four miles later I took a narrow and occasionally ill-defined side trail that led straight down to Twin Lakes, situated on CO Highway 82.

The store was a bit of an oasis and I did a mini re-supply to supplement the food that I had carried from Leadville. I then sat for an hour outside in the sun stuffing myself on fizzy drinks, coffee, ice cream and crisps. A few other thru-hikers were also hanging out. This included Brenden and Skylar who were also doing the Colorado Trail and had started around the same time as me. There was also a pair of older hikers who were completing the CDT after being snowed off the previous year. Sadly the restaurant was not due to open for a few hours so the meal I was looking forward to did not materialise.

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I left the others to enjoy beer in the sun whilst I set off down the highway alone. It was probably only a couple of miles to pick up the official trail again where it crosses the road. However it was very hot that afternoon and the straight as an arrow road seemed to go on for eternity.

There then followed one of my least favourite sections of trail as it wound its way along the north shore of the huge lake. I had stupidly forgotten to fill my water bottle at the store or purchase some Coke as planned. I was gasping as I plodded along the endless dusty trail through sagebrush with no shade.

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By the time I reached the dam I felt ready to collapse, the toilet blocks that I had passed did not have any taps or water. I decided that I would not be able to make it the five or so miles to the next water listed in the data book. In the end I took water straight from the large murky lake and hoped my water filter would do its job.

The south shore means decision time with regards to the trail. It’s where it splits and you have the choice of the Collegiate East or Collegiate West. The western route is the newest segment of the trail and takes a spectacular route mostly above tree line. I decided to take the Collegiate East route, which although has nearly the same amount of climbing is much more sheltered from the weather. The storms during the last couple of days had made me nervous about being high and exposed. My goal at that point was simply to go the distance.

I passed an enthusiastic young man who told me that none of the creeks until the next trailhead were flowing, and that I should fill up at the lake. This I duly did and staggered off up the switchbacks with six litres in my pack. My knees were buckling under all that weight.

Once again I camped on the dirt floor in the forest, this time on dry dust rather than pine needles. My tent was beginning to look rather shabby.

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The next morning I was quietly swearing at the enthusiastic young man I passed the previous evening. It turned out that a couple of the creaks still had trickles of water. The backbreaking walk to camp had been totally unnecessary. Another mile and I could have camped next to fresh running water.

I woke to a beautifully clear and sunny morning with not a cloud in the sky. That day the trail was to show just how cruel it could be. Under an increasingly hot sun I walked dusty tracks and trails with a carpet of crickets hopping in front on me whilst their larger brethren span in the air making loud clacking sounds.

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The trail descended and descended into a deep valley, dry and parched, the ground sparsely covered in vegetation, the odd cactus poking its head out of the dust. It was far too hot and bright.

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The trail dropped me all the way down to 8,916 feet which in itself was cruel due to the heat. The cruelest thing however was that I now had to climb back up to 11,845 feet to the spot where I wanted to camp.

After crossing Clear Creek it was up, up and up to gain a ridge from Waverley Mountain at 11,653. At the top I met up with Brenden and Skylar for a while before descending again. The sting in the tail involved a 1,200 foot descent to 10,430 feet before the final climb to 11,845 feet. The whole thing during a sixteen mile day was totally exhausting. I soon regretted not being on the higher Collegiate West route, which once high stays high.

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The sun was getting low in the sky as I crested the Mount Harvard ridge and came to a home-made sign on the trail. I have to say that it made me smile and feel rather pleased with myself.

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With the sun setting I started to feel a bit nervous being out on my own, I began to imagine Mountain Lions shadowing me, ready to take me down when I least expected it.

A small trickle amongst dwarf willow saw to my water needs and I found a sheltered pitch on the tree line. I fell asleep happy with the knowledge that two hundred miles were now behind me.

I woke and got up at dawn after a rather disturbed night. Something had been shuffling round my tent during the early hours, occasionally pinging the tent guys. I kept poking my head out, shining my torch and wildly shouting into the dark night. There in the cold of light of day as I unzipped the tent was a rabbit. The wild beast of the night being smaller than expected.

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It was great to start the day so high with weather so good. Hills rolled off into the distance, their wooded slopes hazy in the early morning air.

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One of the highlights that day were the Harvard Lakes. It was still and quiet and I had my fingers crossed that I would spot a moose standing at the shallow waters edge. Alas it was not to be.

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Once again I was crossing the grain of the land, the trail either going up or down hill, never flat for long enough to get into a good stride. The trail dropped down to the North Cottonwood Creek Road and another hot section.

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From the County Road it is less than seven miles to the Avalanche Trailhead where I would be able to head into town to resupply. Unfortunately a ridge on Mount Yale stood in the way and it was a tough 2,400 foot climb followed by a similar descent. The scenery helped with the pain though.

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The final descent to the trailhead is steep, culminating in a series of zig zags. I spotted a couple and their dog below and decided to put into action my getting a lift plan. This involved walking as fast as I could to catch them up, spending a few minutes chatting with them, befriending their dog, and then setting off at top speed down the trail. By the time they had got to their car and driven onto the road I was already standing there with my thumb out and a smile on my face. The plan worked and I was quickly on my way to Buena Vista. The reason they picked me up was because their dog liked me, which apparently means I am a good person.

October 16, 2016

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.

October 10, 2016

The Colorado Trail pt2 – Kenosha Pass to Gold Hill Trailhead

by backpackingbongos

Zero day one – Fairplay

The fact that the hotel reception sells oxygen canisters suggests that the small town of FairPlay is located at a high altitude (9,953 feet to be precise). Janet and Janet dropped me off right outside and I hurried in, excited at the prospect of a hot bath and clean clothes. However it was far too early to check in so I was forced to make a beeline for the Asian Fusion restaurant next door to fill my belly.

I had decided before setting off that the Colorado Trail was not going to be some form of macho ordeal. I had come to Colorado to enjoy myself and make the most of an extended time away from work. I’ll leave the whole fastest, longest, biggest, lightest to the more heroic backpackers out there. Therefore my plan was to stop off at as many towns as possible along the way, spending two nights at each. That would give me a full day of rest and time to resupply at a leisurely pace. Although as a person I’m at my happiest when in the mountains, I have to admit that I really enjoyed the small mountain towns of Colorado.

US Highway 285 thunders through the outskirts of FairPlay. However if you make a detour into the old part of town a very pleasant surprise awaits. It’s like stumbling into a movie set and I spent a very pleasant couple of hours walking around. The town sits in a grassland basin known as South Park and is supposedly the inspiration for the cartoon of the same name. Before we begin hiking again here are a handful of photos of the town.

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Days 7 to 9

Colorado Trail segment 6

Lowest altitude – 9,197 feet    Highest altitude – 11,874 feet

Section distance – 32.7 miles    Cumulative distance – 104.4 miles

Section ascent – 5,196 feet    Cumulative ascent – 17,612 feet

A good way to get to know a stretch of tarmac intimately is to stand on it and attempt to hitch hike. That’s what I did just after dawn for half an hour in an attempt to get back on the trail. Half an hour does not sound very long but it’s an eternity when you are standing with your thumb out whilst practicing your best smile. In the end I was picked up by a big Texan in a big pickup pulling a big trailer. He was on his way to a motor cycle rally and the big trailer contained a big Harley Davidson. Everything in the States is big.

It was good to be on the trail again and I was soon moving after signing the trail register. I was struck by the grassy plains that lay at my feet, stretching endlessly to the horizon. For someone from the UK it is hard to get your head around such large and empty spaces. It’s also at nearly 10,000ft!

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Some of the creeks crossed by the trail are named on wooden posts. Deadman Creek sounds like it should exist in an old western. I thought that it would be a good place to sit and enjoy a snack. However I only managed to filter a litre of water before being chased away by the mosquitos.

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One of the reasons that I had left FairPlay so early was because I was keen to cross the 11,874 ft Georgia Pass before the afternoon storms rolled in. It is the first properly high section above tree line and I was nervous about being up there with any risk of thunder and lightning. In the end I only got about nine miles that day before the first rumble of thunder sent me scurrying into the woods. No sooner had I pitched than hail started to batter my tent, I was quickly inside and glad of my decision to stop at around 2.00pm.

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At one point during the afternoon I could hear three storms banging away in different directions. They soon disappeared and the sky cleared but I could not be bothered to pack up again and continue.

I slept that night at 10,879 ft and was glad to get through the night with no real side effects from the altitude. All I found when sleeping high was that I would feel a bit restless in my tent and that my sleep would not be as deep as usual. I would frequently wake up hungry but then realise that my food was tied to a tree a hundred metres away!

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An early camp deserves an early start, so I mustered up some enthusiasm to rise at 5.30am whilst the sky was still full of stars. After repeatedly banging my head on the same branch in the dark I managed to pack everything away and be on the trail for 6.30am. Now that’s got to be some record for me!

As the trees began to thin I had my first glimpse of the impressive mountains that surround Georgia Pass.

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When you have spent a lot of time walking through trees there is something rather special about being able to see the path you’re walking on snake off into the distance. Above the tree line and approaching Georgia Pass there was a feeling of freedom and space. That’s what I had come to Colorado for.

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Colour was beginning to seep into the world as I arrived at the highest point. With barely a breeze it was deathly quiet and with no one around it felt that the trail belonged to me. It was a great feeling to be so high.

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Sadly this high point in the trail was a bit of an introductory tease, a flirt with the Alpine meadows. Before I knew it I was heading back into the trees again.

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The Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail run together for a significant distance. Sometimes there would be a CT blaze showing the way, sometimes a CDT one. Occasionally both would be located together.

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I turned into a fully fledged hiking machine that day, covering nearly twenty miles. I watched a storm build above some distant mountains and then slowly move towards me. I found myself running between open sections of trail, relaxing when I got back in the shelter of the trees. When the storm finally hit it was all mouth and no trousers. Lots of thunder and lightning but the rain and hail was short-lived.

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I made it as far as Horseshoe Gulch that night, my fingers crossed that the stream would be flowing. Thankfully it was and I found a nice grassy pitch as far away as possible from the less than scenic power lines that run down this valley. The tranquility was shattered for about an hour that evening when 150 mountain bikers came whizzing down the trail on a race. I’m glad that I was safely tucked into my tent at that point and not on the trail!

Do you remember David who I introduced in part one? He was the chap who took me to the trail head, invited me into his home for dinner and took me sightseeing for the day. Well the next morning David turned up at my camp at 7.30am with a bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies. If that’s not trail magic I don’t know that is. Thanks David.

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I think that a good proportion of those cookies did not make it the four miles to the Gold Hill Trailhead. In fact I may have had a cookie related breakfast. I was in no real hurry as all I had to do that day was walk those four miles and then get the free bus into Frisco where I had booked a motel for another zero. I therefore made the most of the sunny morning and sat down plenty of times along the way.

I wonder what happens to hikers who walk the Blair Witch Trail at night?

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One of the signs that I began to enjoy seeing were those indicating the National Forest land boundary. As far as I am aware this indicates freedom of access and to be able to camp. The other side would usually indicate private property and request that you do not leave the path.

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Reaching CO Highway 9 was a bit of a shock to the senses, a cacophony of noise as vehicles rushed by. I took shelter from the heat in a bus shelter, waiting for the free half hourly bus that would whisk me to my motel in Frisco.