Sunday, June 30, 2013

Day 9: Guller Creek to Tennessee Pass

The birds sang my morning wake up call. Shortly thereafter I heard a mountain bike roll over a root and then continue up the trail. 5:30 a.m. A bike packer getting an early start on the climb? Later that morning I met the lone cyclist, just out for an early morning ride before the rest of his day's responsibilities caught up with him.

We soon climbed above treeline through beautiful, high alpine meadows to Searle Pass. Just before the pass we met a work crew, using picks, shovels, and other hand tools to make improvements to the trail. We really appreciate all the work on the trail by the Colorado Trail Foundation and its many volunteers who have worked so hard to create and maintain this incredible trail!

From Searle Pass we traversed the grassy, alpine hillside, followed elk footprints along the trail across Elk Ridge, and descended to the blustery Kokomo Pass. So far, Colorado's high country seems less rugged than the Sierra Nevada mountains, with grassy alpine hills and rounder mountains covered with snowfields and spring wildflowers. But I am developing a new respect for lightning. Afternoon thunder showers occur almost daily, and you don't want to be caught above treeline when it is time. Clouds were already gathering by 10:30 today, and I felt grateful when we dipped back below treeline.

We met two CDT hikers as we continued toward Camp Hale, Michigan Wolverine (PCT '12) and Tatu Joe, former PCT speed record holder, and really enjoyed talking to them both. Sierra also enjoyed looking around Camp Hale and learning more about its history (there is an excellent, informative monument at Tennessee Pass, right across from the trailhead), but was upset by all the graffiti there, which she felt was extremely disrespectful to those who served there, including the 10th Mountain Division.

From Camp Hale, we followed the trail's somewhat convoluted route to Tennessee Pass, where we picked up our resupply before hiking on to a somewhat buggy camp in the woods.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Day 8: Breckenridge to Guller Creek

After a brief stop to refuel at Daylight Donuts (where we resisted the urge to purchase donuts in favor of healthier, longer lasting breakfasts) we headed back to the trailhead. Dark clouds were already gathering when we arrived. Hoping to reach the ridge before the storm hit, we set off quickly.

Hiking out of Breckenridge on the weekend is not the best idea. Like salmon swimming upriver, we fought a steady stream of mountain bikes as we climbed. Most of the cyclists were safe and courteous, but constantly dodging bikes significantly interrupted our forward momentum and slowed our pace. But after a few miles the trail became significantly steeper, and the mountain bikes disappeared.

Like the low warning growls of a protective dog, thunder rumbled just behind us as we reached the crest.
We quickly scrambled over the top, hoping to reach treeline before the storm hit. The thunder roared louder and louder as the storm approached. We were still following the high, exposed ridgeline when the sky opened and it began to pour. We stopped briefly to throw on rain jackets and pack covers, then dashed down the trail. Soon we felt the sharp sting of hundreds of little balls of ice pelting the backs of our legs. Our pant legs quickly soaked through.

After a mile of traversing the high, exposed hillside, we spotted a grove of trees ahead and made a beeline for them.
Huddled in the trees we layered up, adding rain pants over our sodden hiking pants and Z-packs cuben fiber mitts over our numb fingers. We emerged from the trees much warmer.

Hail littered the ground like freshly fallen snow. Hail, sleet, and then rain continued to pelt us as we descended. Reaching Highway 91, we headed into Copper Mountain where, despite the wet and cold, we enjoyed milkshakes with Jeff who is now heading home. We said goodbye, and then headed back up the trail.

After navigating the maze of use trails and service roads behind the Copper Mountain ski resort, we climbed into a beautiful canyon. We followed a creek past several active beaver dams to a high, open meadow where we are now camped in the trees.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Day 7: South Platte River, Section 2

The sun peeked over the eastern horizon at 6:01, illuminating our tent. Nature's morning wake up call.

Returning to the trail, we began winding our way through the woods. The early morning sounds of the forest had reached full volume. Crickets creaked in the grass near the trail. Birds warbled morning greetings from high perches in the trees. Hundreds of hidden insects whirred and rattled.

The trees opened to a high grassy plateau with views of rocky crags and the surrounding mountains. Charred logs and stumps gave testimony to a lost forest, destroyed by fire, but the tall grasses, blooming yucca plants, and other hardy plants and flowers breathed new life into the area.

After several hot, dry, exposed miles the trail dipped back into the cooler shade of a forest and climbed to a ridge. Another Colorado Trail hiker sat sprawled across the trail, enjoying the view of Chair Rocks. As we hiked on, we enjoyed smooth, reddish-brown rock formations somewhat reminiscent of the Buttermilk boulders near our home.

We soon entered another burn area, more desolate than the first. No grasses covered these hot, dry hills, but creamy white yucca blooms, greenish-yellow cactus flowers, and spiky purple thistles brightened the view. We descended quickly to the South Platte River, where we waded in the cool water, Section 2 complete. We are now ready to return to Breckenridge to continue where we left off on the Colorado Trail.


Thursday, June 27, 2013

Day 6: Waterton Canyon, Section 1

With the Lime Gulch fire under control and sections 1 and 2 reopened, we decided to head back to hike the sections we missed. The drive back was an adventure in itself. One red fox scurried across the road. Then two deer sauntered in front of the car. But I wasn't really surprised until three horses plodded up the road toward us. One of the horses stopped to nuzzle my hand through the open window when he passed.

For logistical reasons, we decided to hike Section 1 eastbound, so we began our hike at the South Platte River trailhead. Although the river looked cool and inviting, the heat sizzled as we began our hike. Shaded pockets of cool morning air provided our only relief as we trudged up the long, hot climb to the ridge. By the time we reached the top of the climb, we both felt ready for a shower. The dense foliage of the next canyon provided little relief. Instead it seemed to trap and intensify the heat and humidity of the day.

Clouds of little orange butterflies greeted us as we approached a narrow trickling stream. We crossed the stream several times as we descended the canyon. Each time the clouds of butterflies were so thick, it was difficult to avoid them.

Several local hikers had warned us that it was too early to see Bighorn Sheep, which live in the protected habitat of Waterton Canyon. So when Sierra exclaimed, "Look, Bighorn sheep!" I responded, "Oh no, I'm sure it's just deer." But just down from the Stronia Dam, a small flock of Bighorn Sheep grazed near the trail. We watched as they grazed, using their horns to jockey for position. Their sandy colored coats were mottled, and it looked like the sheep were in the process of trading thick winter costs for sleeker summer ones.

The last 6.5 miles followed a dirt road down the narrow, rocky Waterton Canyon. The road paralleled a river, and cool green pools of water invited us to swim to find relief from the oppressive heat of the day. But numerous signs proclaimed "no Swimming" so we trudged on.

Water birds freely ignored the prohibition against swimming, and we enjoyed watching them as we hiked. A family of Canadian geese perched on a rock in the middle of the river. A young duck skittered over a section of rapids, then clambered back up and skittered over the rapids again, like a child at a water park.

Eventually we reached the trailhead, which is also the eastern terminus of the Colorado Trail. We will be camping near the Little Scraggy Trailhead tonight, and hiking section 2 tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Day 5: Breckenridge Zero Day

Spending four days on the trail hardly warrants taking a zero, but we decided to take a family day together before my husband Jeff leaves Colorado. Breckenridge is a fun little town with tasty food, free gondola rides and bus service, and an eclectic little used book store, Old Man Berkins. We spent most of our day just wandering around, exploring.

The Lime Gulch fire is now under control, and the beginning of the Colorado Trail is now open again. Rather than hiking on tomorrow, we'll be returning to the beginning to hike the sections we missed.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Day 4: Georgia Pass to Breckenridge

Our tent walls flapped and fluttered in the cool mor ing breeze. Reluctantly, we scrambled out of our down cocoons and donned puffy jackets while we quickly packed up our camp. 48 minutes later we were heading down the trail, still swaddled in warm, long sleeves.

The first rays of the early morning sun blanketed Mount Guyot with a warm, golden glow. But the warmth did not extend to the trail, which dipped into the trees just below our camp. We hiked with our eyes riveted to our feet to avoid the many obstacles in the rocky trail.

Suddenly, I noticed a reddish golden form loping along the trail ahead of us. A fox? Whatever it was, it didn't linger long enough to allow positive identification.

A few miles down the trail we heard an eerie chorus of howls and yips echoing up the canyon. Although I have often heard coyotes howl and hip while hunting together a night, I have never heard them during the day. And the closer we came to the sound, the more it sounded like the ordinary barks and whiles of domesticated dogs. Sure enough, we soon spotted a kennel or breeder tucked away in the woods, with several husky dogs running around outside. I later learned that we had passed Snow Caps Sled Dogs, the largest Siberian Husky kennel in the nation. The noises followed us as we continued down the canyon, leaving us with no doubt as to why the kennel was in such a remote location!

Reaching the bottom of the canyon we found a popular car camping area with large tents parked on the grassy river banks and smoke rising from early morning campfires. As we navigated the maze of use trails near the campground, we saw a hiker approach. "You just answered my question," he said by way of greeting. Sycamore, a Continental Divide Trail hiker, was also looking for the trail.

As we climbed to the next ridge we began to notice dead trees piled next to the trail in tangled, jumbled heaps. The bark beetle has killed large swaths of forest in Colorado. Breckenridge has been hit particularly hard.

Just before lunch we came upon a group of several hikers stopped in the middle of the trail. "Looks like a traffic jam!" I quipped. "Is that Mama Bear?" A blond hiker broke from the group and headed up the trail toward us. "You must be Rockin!" I exclaimed. Rockin, a friend of our friend Wired, is a teacher in Tehachapi along the PCT. Rockin's middle school students interviewed Sierra about her PCT hike, and we've exchanged numerous e-mail messages. We were excited to finally meet in person!

Rockin and her son Silly Chili are hiking a large section of the CDT this summer (see, most recently with our friend Wired. We enjoyed talking for a while. Moments after she hiked on we met LoveNote, another friend of Wires who is hiking the CDT this summer. SweetFish and Ninja soon followed, then Annie and Breeze. With so few people hiking the CDT in any given year, so many hikers together in one place constitutes a herd!

We continued our descent to Breckenridge, dodging the many mountain bikes as we went. Although mountain bikes are allowed on several of the other sections we've hiked, the handful of bikers have been courteous and we have not minded sharing the trail with them. But the sheer volume of bikes in the Breckenridge area made it impossible to keep up a steady pace, and not all of the riders were as safe and courteous as the riders we met on the more remote sections of the trail.

Just before Breckenridge we discovered another cooler of trail magic. By the time we reached Highway 9 it was just after 5. The trail crosses the highway without benefit of traffic light or crosswalk. We watched hundreds of cars whiz past on the busy highway before dashing across during a break in traffic. Jeff met us at the trailhead, and tomorrow we will be taking a zero day together in Breckenridge.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Day 3: Rock Creek to Below Georgia Pass

Wispy white clouds filled the sky. Although they looked innocent enough, I am beginning to see a pattern. The earlier the clouds begin to form, the more likely we are to have thunderstorms. Yesterday the clouds started to gather in late morning, and the thunderstorms hit in late afternoon. Today the clouds were gathering by 6:30 in the morning. Not a good sign.

Smooth yellow Butter and Eggs and creamy white Milk Vetch flowers blanketed the grassy hillside as we climbed out of Rock Creek. We passed through groves of aspen with lush green grass and yellow Butter and Eggs contrasting with the smooth white trunks of the aspen trees. Bright purple columbine greeted us as we descended to Kenosha Pass.

We stopped for lunch in a beautiful, aspen-shaded meadow near Deadman's Creek. Next up? An almost 2,000 foot climb to the top of Georgia Pass (11,800 feet) along the Continental Divide. We reached the top in late afternoon, enjoying views of the surrounding grassy alpine hills and rugged, snow-capped mountains. Sadly we could also see a plume of smoke back in the distance, the start of yet another lightning strike wildfire along the trail.

Just below the pass we found a large cooler full of sodas and candy for hikers: trail magic! And, as we opened the registry to thank the trail angel we discovered a note addressed to Mama Bear and Monkey from our friend Wired who is hiking the Continental Divide Trail this year (see her excellent blog at! Wired had reached the trail magic only two hours and fifteen minutes before we had! We just missed her!

We lingered at the cooler for a while, then continued down the trail, which will overlap with the Continental Divide Trail for the next 100 miles. Having reached our goal (Georgia Pass), our pace and attentiveness dropped considerably. I accidentally plunged my right foot into icy snow melt water and repeatedly slipped on the small snowbanks blocking the trail.

Although we would never camp on an exposed ridge during a thunderstorm, the threatened storm never materialized. We found a beautiful, open camp on the ridge near fellow Colorado Trail hikers Peeps and Liz. The altimeter now reads 11,457 feet, and we feel like we're on top of the world!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Day 2: Payne Creek to Rock Creek

Rrrrrrrip! My heart sank as the nylon webbing I was using to cinch our tent to my pack tore away from the pack fabric. Apparently even the best ultralight packs have a limited life span, and after 3,000 miles I'm afraid my trusty ULA Catalyst may be nearing the end of its life.

The trail climbed over 10,000 feet before descending to a beautiful grassy meadow. The North Fork of Lost Creek carved a windy path through the deep grass. Thick dams of sticks and mud blocked the flow of the creek to form several beaver ponds, each with its own mossy beaver lodge built of piled sticks and mud.

Bursts of color dotted the canyon: soft burgundy cones on the fir trees, pale purple iris blooms, deep purple shooting stars, white furry tufts of bear grass, and fields of bright yellow dandelions. Dropping into the next canyon, the rustle of aspen leaves startled me like the hissing of a rattlesnake. At other times the wind shaking the aspens sounded like the gurgle of a nearby stream, giving a false promise of water ahead.

The clouds flirted with us all afternoon. Thunder rumbled overhead. Rain fell in a mist so gentle it felt like walking through a dense fog. Lightning danced on the ridge ahead.

Walking into a thunderstorm isn't generally a good idea, but we had several good reasons to continue forward: (1) we were on an exposed ridge, (2) the trail dropped into the trees, and (3) there was no camping in sight. But a half mile before we reached camp near the Rock Creek Trailhead, the sky opened up and began to pour. The thunder and lightning became louder, more insistent, and much closer together.

The rain continued as we set up camp. We threw all our gear inside and huddled under a tree to cook dinner. The rain finally stopped at bedtime.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Day 1: Little Scraggy Trailhead to Ridge Past Payne Creek Trail

Our Colorado Trail journey begins at the Little Scraggy Trailhead, 28 miles southeast of the traditional start in the closed Waterton Canyon. Through trial and error, we managed to find our way to the trailhead without the benefit of a map. Along the way, we passed the staging area for the large firefighting crew working on the Lime Gulch fire, and many, many local fire departments.

Several mountain bikers were already at the trailhead when we arrived, packing up snacks, water, and spare tubes into tiny Camelback packs before riding over to the trail. Unlike the PCT, the Colorado Trail allows mountain bikes on the sections of the trail that do not pass through a wilderness area. Section 3 proved to be popular with mountain bikers. Once on the trail, we encountered several riders every hour. Most of the riders were just out for the day, but a few were bike packing, carrying their gear to spend one or more nights on the trail. One rider, Jason, planned to ride the entire Colorado Trail, taking the mountain biking alternate routes around the many wilderness areas along the way. We wished him well on his adventure.

The trail slowly climbed all day, passing through arid pine and aspen forest. Beautiful yucca blooms reminded us that we are still in the high desert. Large, purple columbine, brightly colored paintbrush, and a mix of several varieties of yellow wildflowers suggest the high mountains to come.

Shortly after lunch we crossed Buffalo Creek, stopping to drink some delicious, cold water. But as the afternoon progressed, we did not reach any other water sources. Finally we reached a small trickling stream with a few semi-stagnant pools. Our new friend Tex ran ahead up the trail to scout other water sources but there were none. Using Sierra's titanium cup, we scooped water out of an inch deep pool of water a few ounces at a time. It took the better part of an hour to scoop up enough water. Water bags full, we hiked a short distance up the trail and made camp on the ridge.

Friday, June 21, 2013


After weeks of headlines about the many fires in Colorado, on Wednesday I woke to the news I had been dreading: the Lime Gulch fire had closed Section 2 of the Colorado Trail. By Thursday afternoon the fire had spread. Denver Water closed Waterton Canyon, effectively closing down Section 1 as well.

With no other clear alternative, we have decided to start at the beginning of Section 3 instead. When we reach Breckenridge at the end of Section 6, we will reassess. If the fire has been contained by then we will return to Denver to hike the 28 miles we will otherwise have to miss.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Colorado Trail: Guidebooks, Maps, and Planning

Anyone planning a Colorado Trail thru-hike should start with Paul Mags The Colorado Trail End-to-End Guide, a free online resource.  This online guide is an incredibly helpful resource.  The guide answers the most commonly asked questions, identifies all of the available maps, guidebooks, and other resources you might want to take with you, and provides information about the towns closest to the trail for resupply. The Colorado Trail Foundation's website also contains useful information.  Current trail conditions may be found on the Colorado Trail Foundation's Facebook page. 

Other books and resources that might be helpful in planning are: (1) The Colorado Trail Guidebook; (2) The Colorado Trail Data Book; and (3) The Colorado Trail Map Book.  Some hikers may choose to hike with just the Data Book and/or maps from the Map Book.  I'm choosing to bring all three because I like the additional detail and enjoy reading about natural history along the trail.  As I did with our PCT guidebooks, I have carefully divided the Colorado Trail Guidebook and Map Book into sections and added the appropriate sections to each of my resupplies so that I will only carry what I need for the upcoming segment(s) of the trail. 

Free GPS waypoints are available from Bear Creek Survey, makers of the Colorado Trail Map Book.  Bear Creek has also makes maps and provides free GPS waypoints for the Continental Divide Trail!  Although we are not planning on using GPS frequently, I have downloaded all of the waypoints and associated maps onto my iPhone, just in case.

The Colorado Trail Map Book we chose is very detailed and convenient, but may not meet the needs of all hikers because it only shows a narrow corridor around the trail.  We are planning on staying fairly close to the trail, venturing off only occasionally to climb a few of Colorado's 14ers.  Anyone considering significant alternate routes (other than the newly added "Collegiate West Loop" which is now included in the map book), should probably choose a different map option.

After reviewing the potential resupply locations listed in the End-to-End Guide, we've decided to resupply at the following locations: (1) Breckenridge; (2) Leadville; (3) Princeton Hot Springs; (4) Salida; (5) Creede; and (6) Silverton.  We tried to choose locations that are reasonably close to the trail and convenient to access.  Our resupply boxes are already packed and ready to go, although we plan to buy some fresh food locally to supplement our resupplies.

Colorado, here we come!