We decided against it. Our goal was to hike the Colorado Trail, and we would stay on that trail regardless. Anyway, how could they know that the ridge walk would be better if they hadn't done both?
While Robyn and I continued down the road, a white SUV came up the hill and pulled off into a pullout just in front of us. He had actually passed us while going downhill and turned around to come pick us up. He was a college student from Durango planning to meet a friend in Buena Vista to hike up Mt. Antero, one of Colorado's 54 fourteeners. We were ever grateful to get a lift for the remaining mile and a half to our day's starting point. After getting out of the car, we both wished him luck and happily returned to the trail.
Our plan leaving Salida was to get to Silverton in 6.5 days. This was ambitious. It meant we would have to cover more than 20 miles per day with lots of climbing and time above treeline. Our packs were heavier than they had been since the very first day of the trail with all of the food we needed to carry. The weather needed to be good so we would not have to run off ridges in lightning storms. Our bodies needed to hold up, something they had just barely been doing the past few days on the trail. However, we figured if things were not going to plan, we could bail out early and go to Creede or Lake City, two small mountain towns not too far off the trail in the second half of the section.
The first 8.5 miles of the day gained 3100 ft. in elevation, taking us to the Continental Divide. We had both dreaded this climb, thinking our heavy packs would weigh us down. Fortunately, though, it went by fairly quickly with beautiful fields of wildflowers and a gently graded trail until a steep 700 ft. climb in the final half-mile to the ridge. There we joined the CDT and expansive views of the Monarch Crest opened up around us. Small alpine forget-me-nots and phlox carpeted the tundra landscape. Puffy cumulus clouds were scattered through the sky, holding promise of a fair-weather day. It was a great spot to sit down for a few minutes and enjoy everything around us.
As we had a snack and took pictures, several mountain bikers came by. They asked us about our day, then about our hike and our plans after they found out we were hiking across the state in one push. Most of the CT hikers they had met were section hikers, meaning they would do a 50 or 100 mile section at a time and come back the following year to complete another section. The bikers were out for a day ride, and the they warned us that there would be many more mountain bikers along the trail during the next few hours.
Both Robyn and I are mountain bikers. We mountain biked the Kokopelli Trail and White Rim Trail with groups of high school students. Lots of our time on weekends during the school year is spent mountain biking. Usually we don't mind seeing mountain bikers when we are out hiking, but this time was a bit different. Over the course of the next two hours, there were more than 50 mountain bikers that would suddenly come upon us from behind, wait until we got off the trail and pass us. Most were courteous and called out that they were approaching, but the few of them that were tearing down the trail and slamming on their brakes 10 feet behind us gave them all a bad name. The ridge walk was amazing, but looking over our shoulder every 10 seconds to make sure we were not going to get run over by a mountain bike got old quickly.
Reaching Marshall Pass after 14 miles of hiking was a welcome sight. Most of the mountain bikers had branched off the trail shortly before this, and those that remained were few and far between. The sky had clouded over and rain was falling lightly. We were both happy to be in the trees and not above treeline as we heard thunder overhead. We found an inviting place to sit down, take shelter, and have lunch.
Three different trails branched off from the dirt road at Marshall Pass. I got up while Robyn prepared our lunch of tortillas drizzled with honey to figure out which trail was the Colorado Trial. I saw a confidence marker on one of the posts, then saw a lone backpacker with a red rain jacket coming up the road the opposite way we came from. He looked familiar. As he got closer, he waved. Amazingly, it was Keith. I was dumbfounded because he was not on the Colorado Trail and he was supposed to be a day ahead of us.
While having lunch with us, Keith told us his partner had decided not to continue hiking the trail. That morning, Keith's nephew drove from Denver to Salida to pick him up and drive him to the Marshall Pass Trailhead. Keith didn't start his day until noon and missed the turnoff I just went to look for as he was putting his rain jacket on. It had been an ominous start to the second half of his adventure, but he was still in good spirits and extremely happy to see some familiar faces. We decided to stick together and enjoy each other's company along the rest of the trail since we had very similar itineraries.
The trail gradually climbed above 11,000 ft through thick stands of fir trees. Just before reaching the junction with the Silver Creek Trail, we met up with two other thru-hikers named Damion and Mike. After introducing ourselves, thunder began to rumble nearby and we saw several flashes of lightning. We took cover as rain started to fall and the storm moved directly overhead. There was a clearing nearby and there was no way we were headed out into the open with lightning all around.
The four of us waited around for half-hour, making light of the situation and comparing our experiences thus far on the trail. Mike was from New York and had been hiking for three weeks. Damion had no permanent home, but was most recently living in California. He had also been on the trail for three weeks. They both were easy to talk to and get along with. Sitting under the trees talking and snacking while waiting for the lightning to clear was quite enjoyable.
When the lightning and thunder appeared to have passed, we were all on our way again. Damion quickly turned off to head down the Silver Creek Trail where he had planned to camp. We never ended up seeing him again. Mike, Keith, Robyn and I continued on, hoping to cover another half-dozen miles before calling it a day. The clouds loomed ominously overhead, but no more lightning came as we walked along the Continental Divide.
Seven Creek was obviously the place to camp. When we arrived, there was another couple already camped along the creek and a solo hiker nearby in the meadow. It was a backpacking party. Robyn and I had not camped with more than one other person for the previous two weeks, and now we suddenly were in close quarters with four other hikers and one more nearby. We all joked around with each other, talking about our good times and misadventures on the Colorado Trail and other trips we had done. The party was a blast.
The next morning, Mike and Keith were out of camp by 6:15 am and Robyn and I finished our morning routine of breakfast in bed and packing by 6:30. The air was chilly for the first hour as we hiked along the canyon bottom. We were both wearing long tops, long pants, gloves and beanies. The trail climbed from 10,280 ft. to 11,080 ft. in just over 2 miles, giving us a good morning wake-up call. When the sun came over the ridge, the temperature warmed considerably and we took off all of our warm clothes and put on sunscreen. The land we were walking through was definitely one of extremes.
We continued uphill for another mile and a half until crossing Sargents Mesa at 11,600 ft. The trail crossed in and out of meadows with wildflowers beginning to bloom all around. Robyn and I continued hiking along, following the ups and downs of the trail as it ran along the Continental Divide. After two hours, we found Keith and Mike sitting at a trail junction. Baldy Lake was a half-mile off trail, but was the only water for the next 4.5 miles. Robyn and I both had nearly two liters still in our packs, so we continued on. Keith and Mike had slightly less water, but figured they would be fine and followed behind us.
At 11:30 am we stopped for lunch. Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz. The mozzies came out as soon as we sat down, even though we were miles from the nearest water source. I draped our tent fly over my legs to protect them and everyone else put on long tops and bottoms. After setting up our defenses, we ate and talked about the upcoming parts of the trail. The sky, which had been sunny all morning, suddenly darkened as a massive black cloud blew in from the east. We decided our break had been long enough and pushed forward.
Within 15 minutes of the cloud blowing in we were being hailed on. Robyn and I stopped to put on our ponchos and sat under a tree for several minutes until the hail turned to rain. Always thinking of forward motion and covering our daily miles, we continued on. As we approached the summit of Middle Baldy, elevation 11,680 ft., I turned back for a moment to let Robyn catch up with me. We were still in the trees, but thunder was churning overhead high in the clouds and I thought we should be closer together.
"Boooooom!" Light flashed around me as thunder exploded all around us. I dropped to the ground and threw my trekking poles (lightning rods) as I instinctively covered my head with my arms. Robyn and I were both on the ground, shaking.
"Take off your pack - it has metal in it," I told Robyn. We put our packs under a small fir tree and ran 20 yards down the trail to a well-covered area. Robyn and I sat down between some trees under the overhanging branches with our ponchos fully covering our bodies. Lightning struck all around us, followed immediately by thunder. We were both terrified, sitting in near silence trying not to let rain seep under our ponchos. Robyn told me she saw the initial lightning bolt touch the ground just behind me while I was waiting for her. I took a deep breath and hoped the storm would pass quickly.
After 30 minutes, Keith came tiptoeing along the trail, antsy to keep moving and get warm. Robyn and I were not going anywhere. Lightning was still all around us. We convinced Keith to hang out for a few more minutes before crossing over the day's high point. Both Robyn and I were getting cold, so I walked back to our packs and got some warmer clothes. It was still raining hard and thunder clapped, so I hightailed it back to our waiting spot. Minutes later, Mike walked up the trail, also getting cold and ready to move on.
The lightning continued to strike, so we all sat and waited. After an hour and fifteen minutes, we saw a patch of clear sky opening to the north. Ten minutes passed with no thunder. We were all shivering, so we decided to move on. Mike and Keith initially led the way, with Robyn and I just behind. They stopped momentarily at a clearing in the forest. When I got to them, I kept going. I felt it was safer to keep moving and head downhill than stand and wait. As quickly as the storm moved in, it moved out. There were still clouds in the sky and the trail was wet, but the rain, hail, and lightning were gone. We all took a collective sigh of relief. I had never been so close to getting struck.
We walked along the Continental Divide for most of the day with clouds coming and going. There were a few brief periods of rain and thunder rumbled nearby occasionally, but nothing as threatening as before. Near the end of the day, several dirt bikes passed us, spraying mud up at us as they went by. We had read in the guidebook that these were originally dirt bike trails, but we all wished they wouldn't ride so aggressively in these muddy conditions. There were several downhill sections that were severely rutted in the middle, making walking very awkward.
Twenty miles after we started the day, we began a long descent towards Hwy-114. Mike and Keith were both ahead of us again as we stumbled down the hill. Robyn and I were both feeling the effects of the lightning-caused adrenaline wearing off. Just before reaching Lujan Creek Road, we saw a large tent to the left of the trail. Keith suddenly popped out of the forest with a huge smile on his face. "It's trail magic!" He exclaimed. Robyn and I both looked at each other and figured it must be a good thing.
The tent was set up for the use of thru-hikers of the Colorado Trail and the CDT. There were lounge chairs, a propane double-burner stove, sodas, water, and lots of food including hot dogs, basmati rice and a variety of candy bars, chips, and candy. After I filmed for a few minutes, I went into the tent and found Keith reclining in a lounge chair drinking soda and Robyn eating oreo cookies. This was hiker heaven. We didn't get to meet him, but later learned the whole setup was put together and maintained by a man simply referred to by his trail name of Apple.
We joked around for a bit, took some pictures, then joked some more. None of us could get enough of the lounge chairs. It felt so good to sit and slouch. Somehow, Mike had walked right by the trail magic. We figured he was headed down the trail and thought this was someone's car camping setup. Minutes later, though, as we were talking about how he was missing out, he came ambling back up the trail with a huge grin on his face. Mike realized what he passed when we didn't catch him after he waited for us at a nearby junction. He was embarrassed at first, but that quickly passed.
The evening was fantastic. We were all in high spirits after dragging for the second half of the day. Bertha (my left shin) was feeling much better since leaving Salida as were Robyn's friends - Fred, Nigel and Normalena. Other than normal fatigue, we were starting to feel better physically. We both really enjoyed having Keith and Mike along with us. There was not a single place in the world either Robyn or I would rather have been than on the Colorado Trail, lounging next to our very own dose of trail magic.