Posts tagged ‘The Colorado Trail’

March 21, 2017

The Colorado Trail pt10 – Molas pass to Durango

by backpackingbongos

Days 33 to 37 (10th to 14th September 2016)

Colorado Trail segments 25 to 28

Lowest altitude – 6,983 feet    Highest altitude –  12,500 feet

Section distance –  73.9 miles    Cumulative distance – 484.6 miles

Section ascent – 11,709 feet    Cumulative ascent – 89,103  feet

There was frost on the cars outside the Blair Street hostel when I left not long after dawn. Silverton was still in shadow as I walked down the main street to the petrol station on the outskirts of town. Traffic was light and I was not having much luck with the few vehicles that passed. It was cold standing there in my shorts and showing a bit of leg was perhaps having a negative effect. I got talking to a local guy who was putting up some election posters across the road. He took pity on me and ran me to the top of Molas pass in his pickup.

It was good to get on the trail early and I was soon passing Little Molas Lake. It looked rather splendid under the deep blue sky.

The first few miles that morning was the busiest section of trail I had walked on for a while. Good weather on a Saturday had brought out the day trippers. The area was also rather crowded with various hunters coming and going from the trailhead. Being from the UK it was a surreal sight seeing loads of men in full camo lurking in the woods. They had obviously gone to great expense to buy all the gear and looked like they were about to be shipped off to a war zone. Their ‘uniform’ was then topped off with orange caps and bibs, which understandably means they don’t accidentally shoot each other. Obviously a good idea with so many guns about but surely that then defeats all that camo?

Gun shots filled the air for a few miles. I think that if I was furry and had four legs I would have left the area. I enjoyed my trip to the States greatly but I left completely baffled with regards to the obsession with guns.

The trail does a big high level traverse of the valley before reaching a saddle between two peaks.

I crossed a high pass and took to the switchbacks on the other side. It was hot under that gin clear sky and shade was at a premium. I eventually found a stand of pine, removed my shoes and socks and lay out my tyvek groundsheet. It was good to lounge in the shade for half an hour, watching groups of hikers and mountain bikers go past.

Camp that night was about a hundred metres from the trail. It took me a while to find an area that was both flat and not either covered in vegetation or stones. One of the benefits of having a small tent is that you can squeeze it into some small spots.

The following day it looked like the weather was about to turn, the blue skies replaced by a grey haze. I was passing through a landscape that would not look out of place in a western. High meadows, pine forest and huge rocky peaks on the horizon. I just needed a cowboy to trot past to complete the picture.

The trail was magical as it weaved its way around various ridge lines. My reverie however was shattered by the whine of trail bikes, something that always seem out of place in such wild areas. The sound soon grew louder and a pair passed, leaving me in a cloud of fumes. I’m almost certain that the section of trail that I was on was not open to motorised vehicles. They were gone but I could hear them for ages as they made their way up to Blackhawk pass.

As I approached the pass I had my eye on the weather as the afternoon clouds were beginning to build. It would be far too early to stop for the night so I continued, hoping for the best.

There was some interesting geology at the top of the pass with bands of red rock. I could make out lines of showers nearby so did not hang around for long.

With the risk of storms I decided to pitch in the forest, picking what looked like a flat and well used site below the trail. Perception can be deceptive though as the site was far from flat. I managed to get an acceptable pitch but once the tent was up I found myself being physically and verbally assualted. I had obviously entered the territory of a very determined and antisocial squirrel. Whenever I was out of my tent I would be showered with pine cones, the air filled with squirrel obscenities.

The assault continued the following morning whilst I packed my gear away. Thankfully my hat deflected most of the pine cones, although the language the squirrel used was obscene.

I filled up my water bottles and drank a litre as the databook said that the next reliable water source was at Taylor Lake, 22 miles away.  I knew that it was unlikely that I would get that far in one day, it would also mean crossing the high point of the Indian Trail ridge late in the afternoon. That is one section where you really don’t want to get caught in a storm. My only hope was a seasonal spring 15 miles away. Most water sources during the previous weeks had been running so I set off with my fingers crossed.

The weather broke down early and I spent a terrified half hour crouched in the woods, too afraid to move through a short treeless section of trail. Thunder and lightning were directly overhead and hail battered the hood of my jacket. At one point I thought it had finished and got up to move on, only for another huge crash of thunder to stop me in my tracks.

The storm passed leaving cloud and rain in its wake, a damp misty afternoon was spent walking through the woods.

The trail was liberally covered in what looked like bear scat, full of berries. I never got to see one on the entire trail but judging by the amount of bear shit on the trail it was likely a bear saw me at some point.

Late that afternoon I began to look out for the seasonal spring, my fingers crossed that it would be running. The databook is a little ambiguous about the exact spot. However at around mile 454.4 along a side trail on the left (over a fallen tree) I found a trickle coming from a marshy area. I ended up scrambling down a rocky slope for a bit as the trickle was easier to collect in my platypus. There was plenty of camping nearby, although no one shared my campsite that evening.

Since leaving Molas pass I had been crossing paths with a dad, his daughter and her friend. They were easily identifiable from a distance due to the bear bell that they were carrying. I soon hated the sound of that bear bell, the silence of the woods disturbed by a constant jingle jangle. As I was setting up camp I heard the familiar sound on the zig zags above me, so I did my best wolf howl. I heard them stop and one of them ask, ‘what was that?’. ‘A coyote’, came an answer. ‘It must be very sick’, I heard another say. I need to work on my inner wolf.

The weather continued to be grey and cloudy the following morning as I climbed higher into the forest. Where the forest cleared I saw banks of cloud swirling around the surrounding peaks, the odd shaft of sunlight penetrating the gloom.

I finally rose above the tree line high on Indian Trail Ridge. At first the ridge is wide and grassy, the trail winding its way through patches of stunted pine. Banks of cloud was rising and falling in the large void to my left.

The trail gained the ridge and swapped to the other side, the view opening up as the last wisps of cloud finally drifted away.

Finally the trees were left behind, the trail climbing ever higher, a sweeping ridge in front and behind me. A stone cairn was perched gracefully on the end of a big drop down to the forest below. I could have sat there for hours transfixed by the vista surrounding me. There was a huge sense of space and height on Indian Trail ridge.

However, I could not remain still for more than a couple of minutes as a huge storm cloud was building in front of my very eyes. There is something unnerving about staring at such a beast when its base is lower than you. In all directions towers of white clouds were reaching into what now was blue sky. It was time to move on, and quickly.

At one point Indian Trail ridge becomes a narrow rocky arete with a small conical peak to cross.

Although perhaps one of the most thrilling sections of the entire trail, I was relieved to finally start the descent from Indian Trail ridge towards Taylor lake. In the afternoon sun it was like a glistening jewel on the plateau below. It’s a steep rocky descent and I started to feel a little bit tired after the excitement of the ridge.

Down at the lake I could sense the weather building so I pushed on rather than stop for lunch as planned. I only managed to put in a short distance before the storm broke. As the thunder rumbled and the hail started I was thankful that I had descended in time.

It felt a bit weird passing vehicles parked at the Kennebec trailhead, although it is only a jeep road. I hunkered down nearby in some bushes to shelter from the weather to have lunch before the last proper pass on the trail, Kennebec pass at 11,700 feet. The weather cleared for me at the top giving clear views towards the end of my hike, now only twenty one miles away. It felt a bit strange knowing that the rest of the hike would be in the forest rather than high in the mountains.

However the trail did not let me easily slip away from the mountains. I first had to cross a long and steep section of talus. I slowly inched my way along the narrow trail, a slip would send me sliding hundreds of feet down the steep and loose slopes. There was nothing to hold onto for balance and the dry gravel underfoot does not help you get much of a grip. The photo below shows the trail back towards Kennebec pass.

The rest of the afternoon was spent descending endless switchbacks in the forest, the sky clouding over with spots of rain. I have to admit that I soon found it a bit of a chore as the trail wound its way down and around the steep forested slopes. I had thought about camping near the bridge at junction creek but the bear bell gang had just pitched. I’m sure that they would have been fine company but I really fancied spending the last night on the trail alone.

The next spot that I had identified had also been taken so I found myself continuing even further, after that I simply could not find anywhere to pitch my tent. I collected some water and continued hiking. The light began to fade and I still could not find anywhere to camp. On and on I walked into the darkness, a purpose in my stride. I kept thinking there must be somewhere suitable to pitch a tent. In the pitch black of night a big storm rolled in, lightning flashed around me, the wind picking up to a roar, the trees shaking and groaning. In the lashing rain all I could see was the tunnel of light from my head torch. I continued to pound the sodden trail, I almost felt like I could not stop! Finally after a 23 mile day I could not continue any further. I kicked a couple of cow pats off the only flat bit of ground I could find and pitched my tent. It was gone 9pm and I was soaked and hungry. Not the best way to end the last full day on the Colorado Trail.

The last morning on the trail involved packing a wet tent into a wet pack whilst wearing wet clothes and shoes. I set off down the wet trail and back into the wet forest.

I soon came to the viewpoint of Gudy’s rest, named after the founder of the Colorado Trail. It was occupied by the couple and their dog who were pitched at the last campsite I had passed the previous evening. We discussed the storm and they said that the wind had ripped down their shelter just as they had settled down for the night. The trail is ready to give you a good battering when you least expect it.

After they left I sat on my own for a while, contemplating the trail behind me. I was now keen to finish, eat pizza and check into a hotel.

The final four miles felt much longer and I passed a few day hikers heading into the hills. When you have been in the woods for weeks you notice how perfumed non thru-hikers are. The smell of detergent and deodorant can be smelt from a mile off. I’m sure that they thought the opposite of me in my trail stained clothing.

In true Colorado fashion I ended up racing a storm to the finish line. The sky darkened and thunder rumbled overhead, it was far too warm to put on my waterproof jacket so I just got wet instead. I managed to get a quick snap of the trailhead sign and then set about trying to calm an anxious dog that had obviously run off from its owner. It had come running down the trail as the thunder started and headed directly for a parked car. It then ran back up the trail and back to the car. I managed to coax it over and talked to it gently until its frantic owner arrived. She said that the dog had been spooked by the storm and had run off. For my good deed I got offered a lift into Durango just as a heavy downpour started. Result!

Throughout the hike I found that an English accent opens a few doors when in the States. People are often keen to stop and chat and find out about the UK. I have forgotten the woman’s name but she was thrilled to meet someone from England. She gave me a tour of Durango, showed me where my hotel was and dropped me outside what she considered to be the best pizza place in town.

The pizza was good and the beer was even better. As I sat there dazed and confused a guy asked me if I had just finished the Trail. I said that I had and asked how he knew. His reply was, ‘I can see it in your eyes, you’re still in the woods’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

December 16, 2016

The Colorado Trail pt5 – Avalanche Trailhead to US Highway 50

by backpackingbongos

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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In Colorado storms can quickly turn to sunshine and it was soon summer again.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.