Friday, September 25, 2009

The Colorado Trail: Day 23-25

The previous day, Keith found us a ride from our hotel in Silverton to the trailhead on Molas Pass at 6:15 am. Amazingly, she showed up. It probably helped that Keith's deal included $15 for her. The three of us always liked to get an early start, so we happily split the cost three ways and were out of town as the sun was coming up behind a huge bank of ominous looking clouds.

The woman drove us the five miles out of town to where we had left the trail at the entrance to Molas Lake. Robyn, Keith and I all gave her a sincere thank you and looked at each other in preparation for our final three days on the trail. We were all excited for the next segment through the San Juan Mountains, but a little tired from the previous three weeks on trail.

After putting on our packs and walking across the street, we quickly realized something was not quite right. The trail had been clearly marked for 400 miles, but suddenly there were no markers in sight. We explored two different branches of jeep trail, but one abruptly stopped at a creek and the other was headed in the wrong direction. I took out our maps and realized our mistake. In our walk towards Silverton while finishing the previous segment, we had taken a right at the final intersection when we should have taken a left. The three of us decided the quickest way to find the trail would be to walk up Hwy-550 until we found the it closer to the top of the pass.

The trail was right where it was supposed to be. We found it just after a large bend in the road and laughed. Now we were ready to begin our final push on the Colorado Trail. We walked by Little Molas Lake, admired the view back towards the Animas River Canyon, and turned to the north. Even though the sun was up and poking through the clouds occasionally, I was wearing my light fleece jacket, gloves and beanie. Since we were going to be at or above treeline most of the day, I was hoping the clouds wouldn't build and bring thunderstorms.

The trail rolled along, climbing and descending through amazing patches of wildflowers. There were Larkspur nearly as tall as us, Carrots, Sunflowers, Paintbrush and Monkshood. I thought it couldn't get any better, but as we approached the Engineer Mountain Trail after several hours of hiking, fields of wildflowers opened up. I was taking photos and video every few steps as our surroundings got better and better.

Fortunately, the clouds were dispersing as we headed up the Rico-Silverton Trail and gained a pass just south of Rolling Mountain at 12,490 ft. Even though we were all well-acclimatised, the combination of high altitude and steep trails left us winded every time we gained a saddle. Even so, I felt a strong sense of accomplishment each time we crossed into a new drainage.

When we came to treeline after descending a series of switchbacks, the three of us pulled off the trail to have some lunch. We were all feeling pretty good, helped along by each other, the scenery, and the pull of Durango and the end of the trail. Robyn and I had our normal lunch of a tortilla smothered with honey. It wasn't exactly filling, but we supplemented it with Cliff Bars, trail mix, and jelly babies. We were existing on a high calorie drip, steadily taking in food throughout the day.

The trail dropped 1500 ft. in the next three miles until reaching a bridge that crossed Cascade Creek. We all had re-filled water shortly before and began another ascent, preparing to cross our third saddle of the day. We were all spread out along the trail, walking at our own pace. I would stop every 10 to 15 minutes to make sure Robyn and Keith were still doing well. Without incident, they always were just behind me with smiling faces.

While taking a short break at a creek just below the saddle that would lead us to Bolam Pass Road, we noticed all the rocks in the creek were stained white even though none of the rocks around us were that color. The three of us were all familiar with common water quality problems like giardia, but this environment and the impacts of mining also created another serious issue called acid mine drainage.

There are many abandoned mines in Colorado that have lots of pyrite, a mineral that is made up of iron and sulfur. When this mineral is exposed to air and water, a chemical reaction occurs that produces sulfuric acid. As the sulfuric acid builds, it lowers the pH of the waterway and can cause major problems with aquatic life and stream-side vegetation. If the problem is pronounced, it can make the water unfit for human consumption. It is this buildup of acid that is also responsible for the white coloration of the rocks.

When we reached the saddle, we had great views of Lizard Head, a prominent 400 ft. tower outside of Telluride. While lounging and enjoying more snacks, thunder rumbled overhead. We were above treeline near the highest point in the area. It was time to get moving.

After walking by Bolam Pass Road and Celebration Lake, we made our way to our fourth saddle of the day, this time below Hermosa Peak. It was only 3 pm and we had covered 22 miles. The three of us knew we would have to cover more miles to put ourselves in position to finish the trail two days later.

It is always nice to finish a day with a gentle downhill stroll to a campsite along a creek. This didn't happen for us on day 23. We knew we needed to get over Blackhawk Pass to find a water source for the evening, but didn't realize we would be making a climb of 600 ft. in six-tenths of mile to gain the pass. Normally, this wouldn't have been a huge topic of conversation, but at the end of a 28-mile day with more than 4,000 ft. of climbing, we were not thrilled to be going up again. Then, when we dropped into the Straight Creek drainage, there was a large group of high-school aged students right where we wanted to camp. There was nothing left in our legs, so we found a reasonable spot to camp well off the trail several hundred yards from the group.

While setting up camp, we all noticed the lack of mozzies. Swatting wildly at regular intervals to kill them had become something of an evening ritual for us while eating dinner and preparing camp. This was one ritual we were happy to have a break from. Robyn and I cooked risotto over our tuna-can alcohol stove, joked with Keith about our nice climb to finish the day, then headed to our tent for another great sleep.

After breaking camp by 6:30 am, we walked 1/2 mile down the trail and re-filled our water bottles and bladders at Straight Creek. The guidebook and maps indicated it would be our last water source for 20 miles until coming to Taylor Lake. The three of us all took one gallon of water, the maximum we could each carry. We figured we would be at Taylor Lake by 3 or 4 pm.

The trail dropped steadily for the first few miles. Just before reaching Hotel Draw Road, we ran into a group of ladies who were out on the trail with several llamas. They were Durango locals and gave us the inside scoop on where to stay and where to eat. We were getting close.

The trail rolled along, passing through some recently logged areas. We would walk through a logged section with no cover for several hundred yards, then enter a wooded section for about the same length. When we stopped for lunch around 11:30 am, the clouds had enveloped us and were starting to rumble overhead. The three of us were happy to have a break to see what the weather was going to do before heading out into another open section. Just before sitting down, I noticed a slight twinge in my right shin. My left shin, also known as Bertha, had hurt for nearly a week earlier in the trip. I hoped this new pain would disappear during our down time.

Robyn and I were munching on our trusty lunch of tortillas with honey when the skies opened up. Pellets of hail hit the ground one at a time at first. Within 5 minutes, we all had our rain gear on and were huddled under the branches of some small fir trees for cover. Thunder boomed around us occasionally even though the lightning was still in the clouds. The three of us had learned our lesson earlier in the trip about moving with thunder nearby. We were not going anywhere.

The three of us figured the storm would pass as all the others had done. We were not quite right about that. I was reclining on my pack with my poncho covering my whole body and actually fell asleep for a while. After an hour and fifteen minutes of waiting, a patch of clouds opened up and the hail stopped. We hadn't heard thunder for fifteen minutes, so decided to move on. We were all getting a bit cold and knew movement was the best answer.

The trail climbed steadily for a mile and came to a series of switchbacks. After reaching a bench with an expansive meadow on our left the clouds opened up again. This time we were not lucky enough to have dry hail pellets. It was raining full force. Again we took shelter under some fir trees to wait out the storm. Within 5 minutes, we saw several flashes of lightning and accompanying thunder. The storm was right over our heads.

We waited for the storm to pass for another hour. We all felt antsy, knowing we had only covered 15 miles for the day. Unfortunately, the next few miles along the Indian Trail Ridge were above treeline and very exposed. The guidebook warned that this area could be dangerous during afternoon thunderstorms. Our antsyness had to wait.

At first, rain dripped from the hood of Keith's rain jacket and our ponchos. After an hour it was pouring off of us. We were all getting cold and the storm wasn't moving. It was only 4 pm, but we collectively decided to put up our tents so we could stay dry.

Our tent was up in a few minutes and we were in our warm clothes within 5 minutes. Keith setup his tent just as quickly and was already beginning to make tea. Robyn and I reclined and tried to make light of the situation. This was only the second time we were really delayed by storms over the course of 24 days. We were bummed not to be moving, but knew we had been incredibly fortunate with the weather.

There was only one thing we could think of while sitting in the tent. Food. Our thoughts and conversations always drifted towards food after several days on the trail or during breaks. This was the longest break we ever took on the trail, so our natural inclination was to eat. At 4:30 we began to cook ourselves dinner. We figured a full stomach would help lift our spirits and warm us up.

By 5 pm the rain stopped, but there was no way we could make it over the Indian Trail Ridge and down to Taylor Lake before dark. We read that section was a great hike and didn't want to miss the views by hiking it in the dark. The three us were also not sure the storm was done. As our quonia cooked, I walked back out onto the trail to see what was up ahead and came to an intersection. To the right was a side trail for views. I decided to scurry to the end of it to see if the storm was passing.

When I reached the end of the side trail, I could see the outline of the high San Juan Mountains to the east. The clouds were below me and above me which created a spectacular vista. I snapped pictures and video for several minutes, then headed back towards our makeshift camp. I knew the food would be waiting.

After some talk, we decided to setup camp right where we were and call it a day. It was our shortest full-day in terms of distance covered. We knew that meant the next day would be long. The three of us only packed food for two and a half days on the trail from Silverton to Durango, so we didn't have enough to split the remaining 30 miles into two days. We would have to cover it in one go. The three of us also had to be careful to conserve our water. Each of us had about a liter and half left. That would have to see us through the night and eight miles of hiking in the morning.

We were awake early to clear and cold skies the following morning. Keith, Robyn and I had become very efficient at getting out of camp. The excitement of the final day filled all us with energy, but we knew we had lots of ground to cover. There was no time waste. We were on the trail by 5:30 am.

My shin was quite sore as we walked along. I knew that would make the day especially difficult given we would be descending nearly 6,000 ft. I couldn't figure out what I had done to aggravate it. I thought by this point in the trip my body would be well-adapted, but knew I couldn't dwell on it too much. There was lots of ground to cover and I would have plenty of time to rest after reaching Durango. Since I called my other shin Bertha, I decided this shin should get a name that started with a "B." Bartholemule fit the bill perfectly.

By 6:30 am, we had passed an intersection with the Grindstone Trail and were above treeline. When we saw how exposed the terrain was, we were all content with the decision we had made the previous day to huddle down and wait out the storm. We would have been walking lightning rods on the ridge during that storm.

When we reached a gap in the ridge, we heard some commotion to the west and saw a herd of elk moving into the forest several hundred feet below us. This was the first herd of elk we had seen on the entire trail. They bugled below us and were gone before we knew it. We all had huge smiles plastered across our faces. The sky was clear and we were seeing some wildlife. Things couldn't get any better.

Things did get better. While walking along the ridge, we saw two more herds of elk. We had gone from seeing flashes of elk in the distance to more than 100 in a matter of an hour. Robyn and Keith took pictures while I filmed them, hoping the bugles would be caught by the microphone in my camcorder.

When we made the left turn down to Taylor Lake, I took the last sip of my water. We were all fortunate the weather had improved so much. The three of us would have had a major dilemma
if we woke up to thunderstorms because we would have been short on both food and water. We would have had to re-trace our steps for 15 miles to get water, but we would have ran out of food. That was a situation we were happy to avoid.

Bartholemule hurt with each downhill step, but I was able to keep moving forward. After we treated water from the outlet of the lake and began the 1.5-mile walk to Kennebec Pass, we crossed paths with a group of ladies out for a day hike. When we told them we came from Denver and were finishing the Colorado Trail today, they quizzed us with a barrage of questions. One of the ladies gave us a homemade energy bar that tasted great. Keith, Robyn and I all felt pride in what we had done while discussing it. It was nice to share our experience with people who were genuinely interested in what we had done.

The trip wasn't over yet, though. We still had 22 miles to cover and it was already 10 am. On our way up to Kennebec Pass from the trailhead parking lot, we saw another herd of elk and I saw a coyote run across the trail. I couldn't believe we were seeing so much wildlife on our last day when we had seen so little perviously. It felt as if we were being rewarded for our patience.

Our descent into the Junction Creek watershed was not as steep as we thought it would be. The trail was well graded and easy to walk. We motored along at a good pace and covered the 6.5 miles from the pass to the bridge at Junction Creek in just over two hours. We started making predictions when we would reach the Junction Creek Trailhead and the end of the Colorado Trail. The three of us all agreed we would be there between 5 and 6 pm.

I felt ambivalent as we made our way closer to the terminus of the trail. After reaching the top of an 1,100 ft. climb over the next four miles, we could see down towards Durango. I felt great about what we were about to accomplish - nearly 500 miles of walking through our new home state. I was ready for a nice shower, clean clothes, good food, lots of sleep, and water that I didn't have to treat with chlorine. The end felt like it was coming at just the right time.

Even given the fatigue I was feeling, the pain that Bartholemule was bringing, the anxiety caused by waiting out lightning storms, and the stench from wearing dirty clothes everyday, I knew that something very special was ending. I loved being out on the trail with clear, easy to define goals. Every day I knew I would be out walking with friends and seeing some of the most amazing mountains in the world. Robyn and I had made it together with no major problems. Our relationship felt as strong as ever, something not all couples experience after an extended period together in the backcountry. We had made a great new friend in Keith, someone we would keep in contact with and perhaps meet again for another adventure. There were lots of other great people we had met like Mike and Debbie. I was sad knowing this would all be done when we checked into a hotel, changed into our clean clothes and ate at nice restaurant.

The end of the trail came quickly. We had walked from an alpine, tundra environment down through fir forests and into pine forests as we neared Gudy's Rest and the second bridge over Junction Creek. When we made it to the bridge, we told Keith we only had 1.6 miles left when we really had 2.6 miles left. Keith knew it wasn't right, but we got a great response from him.

We all walked along in our normal fashion. I was out in front, followed by Robyn, then Keith. We reached a large boulder with cairns on it that were set up by people who we presumed had finished all or part of the trail this summer. We added another for the three of us.

We passed several hikers and, before we knew what to say, were standing at the trailhead sign and the end of the trail. The three of us had started on the same day within an hour of eachother and finished together 25 days later. There was nobody there to congratulate us or throw a big party. We took photos, a few last bits of film, and congratulated eachother. We walked to the end of the parking lot and found a ride into Durango within 10 minutes. Before we knew it, we were being driven down the road at 30 mph. Our life as backpackers moving at 3 mph on The Colorado Trail was now our previous life.

The woman who drove us into Durango was unbelievably friendly. She dropped us off on the main street after taking us to several hotels that were already full. Keith and I figured she was close to offering us a room in her house to stay in, but we would not have been comfortable with that. Keith found a hotel room first, then we found one across the street. After showers and a quick call home, we went out to eat a Mexican restaurant. They treated us like kings after Keith told them what we just accomplished. They even brought us a dessert of ice cream and fudge on the house that was way too big for us to finish. We took the trolley back to our hotels and planned to meet up the next day before Robyn and I were to head back to Boulder. Robyn and I were asleep just after the light went out, knowing we had just walked across an amazing state that we could now officially call home.

Still to come...Final thoughts, life after the Colorado Trail, and gear lists.


  1. Well, this was just an amazing trip, and a blog that did it justice. You described it well. I believe your site should be entered into some Blogger's Hall of Fame, or at least linked to the CT website. I'm in the process of printing it out right now.

    The video clips really make it!! Very interesting sense of humor to tell me that there was 1.6 miles left to go when there were in fact 2.6. An insight into Morgan/Robyn humor!!

    I share the sentiments of having another adventure together...I just read about the 24 folks who finished the PCT on Sept 18th. We could have easily made that number 27...

    With profound thanks you guys!

  2. Hey Keith,

    Thanks for the comments. Telling you there was 1.6 miles was an oversight on my part - even math teachers make blunders when they are anxious to eat! However, we do like to mess with people occasionally!

    I am very much looking forward to a hike of the PCT. It would be another great adventure for us.

    Many thanks to you Keith. It was great to spend that time of our summer with you.