We climbed from one ridge to the next like stepping stones, each successive ridge climbing higher and higher. Tall fir and pine trees were soon replaced by hardier, scrubby alpine varieties. Then the trees disappeared altogether, replaced by colorful meadows filled with wildflowers.
With one high, alpine ridge left to climb, a loud boom of thunder shook the hills followed by a sharp bolt of lightning ahead. Raindrops began falling, slowly at first, but steadily picking up speed. We stopped to put on raingear and consider our options. But from where we sat, high on an exposed ridge, none of the options looked good.
As the wind shifted, we decided to press on. Lightning could easily reach us anywhere on the ridge, and moving on over the final climb would bring us to the safety of treeline more quickly than if we chose to retreat. Thunder rumbled all around us as we pushed up the final climb, but the lightning stayed comfortingly in the distance as we climbed the final ridge, then descended to treeline.
Stunning red rock cliffs and spires greeted us on the other side of Kennebec Pass. The rocky red walls rose straight up the canyon, as majestic as the walls of any palace, as sacred as the most revered cathedral. Our pace slowed to a crawl as we stopped to examine the richly colored variety of rocks that had eroded and fallen from the cliffs over time.
Descending into the canyon, we soon reached the Gaines Gulch waterfall. A sheer red rock cliff wall rose up several stories tall. Water spilled over the edge, running down the cliff face and pouring into a large waiting pool. From there, the water flowed into Junction Creek, which we followed down the canyon. Water, at last.
After crossing Junction Creek several times, we began to climb, steeply at first, then gradually as we traversed the hillside. We planned to camp at a site noted in the Data Book, passing several other nice camps along the way. As dusk approached, we spotted two tents ahead on a wide section of the trail. Joe (age 79) and his friend Dave (also in his 70s) were finishing the last 50 miles of a Colorado Trail thru-hike started years ago. The seasoned Colorado Trail hikers informed us that we had inadvertently missed the camp noted in the Data Book over a mile ago!
Hiking on, we began searching for camp, any camp. Finally, we spotted a flat space near the trail. We set up quickly to minimize the rain drizzling into the tent.