August 5, 2014
Waterton Canyon is a popular destination for mountain bikers in the Denver area. The South Platte River and the reservoir above the canyon are also an important part of the area’s water supply.
The trail head has a large parking area and it was busy despite being a Tuesday. Many of the vehicles were adorned with bike racks and the interiors held an assortment of trail maps and road atlases visible through the windows. I was snooping.
The monsoon season in Colorado has been a doozy this summer and today was no exception. Black clouds gathered above the foothills and hid the taller mountains to the west from view. The vegetation was lush along the river flood plain. The green grasses and flowers climbed the typically dry canyon walls as we walked the 7 miles of road that paralleled the river. Light rain fell as lightning flashed overhead and thunder split the silence and echoed off of the rock walls. A few bighorn sheep live in the canyon and we were fortunate to watch them climb the rocks as we hiked.
Holli and I made are way to the end of the road climbing gradually until the road ended and the single track began. For the first time the Colorado Trail took on the appearance of a trail.
We encountered the first series do switchbacks as the trail left the canyon and entered the forested slopes of Pike National Forest. The exposed areas were colonized by blue gramma, yucca, and prickly pear cactus. Plants more typical of the plains to the east. The north and east facing slopes held the typical Douglas fir and ponderosa pine of the lower altitude forests of Colorado.
The rain subsided long enough for me to pitch the tarp and for Holli to heat water for supper. She was fumbling through her gear and feeling a bit awkward with the new setup so I tried to help her with some of the little things that became second nature to me while hiking the AT.
We were settled in by early evening and retired under the tarp by 7pm as the rain and thunder returned. I was soon asleep as the quiet woods, light rain, and familiar feel of the sleeping bag and wool long johns put a spell on me.
We covered 8.7 miles according to the trail guide.
August 6, 2014
The morning light and clear sky helped us break camp and be on the trail by 7 am. Holli didn’t sleep well but I wouldn’t let her sleep in as I expected thunderstorms by afternoon. I didn’t let her have coffee either…I’m a fun hater.
She didn’t need the caffeine because fifteen minutes into the hike she was sleep walking and stepped over a prairie rattlesnake. I was about ten yards behind her and let out a primitive scream when I saw the snake. I told her to turn around and look at what she had just stepped over. She seemed wide awake after that. I snapped a picture and took a wide path around the docile critter.
The Colorado trail is divided into 28 segments. We finished the remaining 8.1 miles of segment 1 by late morning and were back on the South Platte River well upstream of Waterton Canyon.
Segment 2 is 11.5 miles long with no water source so we filled up our bottles at the river and climbed back out of the canyon. This segment was devastated by the Buffalo Creek fire in 1996 so many of the mature trees are gone. However, the scenery was breathtaking as the views were expansive and the mountainsides were covered in prairie grasses and flowers.
We hiked for about 6.6 miles and camped on a ridge top among some ponderosa pines. Storms didn’t threaten today and we enjoyed a still evening with sunshine and cool mountain air. A mule deer was our only visitor. 14.7 miles was a solid distance for our second day.
August 7, 2014
A thunderstorm passed to the south of our camp sometime in the night and just a couple drops of rain patted the tarp. We rose to a few clouds but mostly sunny skies. We finished segment 2 and crossed the highway to enter segment 3. A couple of day hikers entered the trail ahead of us but soon turned around as black clouds gathered in the mountains to the west.
We pushed on and I could tell that Holli was feeling uneasy as the storms approached. The rain began, lightning flashed, ear-splitting thunder cracked overhead, and small hail pelted our rain jackets as we took shelter under some small spruce trees. Twenty minutes later the storm passed and we continued hiking.
Lunch was eaten as another storm passed but less hail this time. Ear-splitting thunder kept Holli alert though.
The sun returned and and soon we were climbing a ridge toward higher ground as round three was approaching from the west. I set up the tarp for this one as we waited out the rain. The lightning and thunder were even more intense and Holli covered her ears and was near hysterical by the time the storm passed.
I knew this was going to be the pattern every day. The trail was at 8,000 feet and climbing above 10,000 feet tomorrow. It tops out near 12,000 feet before dropping into Breckenridge. So the lightning was going to be a fact of life if we pushed on with no place to hide.
We talked it over as I could see Holli was rattled by the lightning and thunder. We considered options for getting her off the trail but decided we would both hike back to the car and abort the attempt to Breckenridge. She was doing great with the hiking but the storms were beyond her comfort level and we hadn’t reached the high mountains yet. I didn’t particularly enjoy the light show either. At least not so close and frequent.
So we made our way back to a camp site situated on a small creek and made camp. Jason, a college student from Austin, TX, joined us for the evening but social hour was cut short by a fourth round of storms.
We ended up covering 17 miles despite the frequent weather delays.
August 8, 2014
I wanted to reach the Platte River today. Segment 2 leaves a hiker exposed in a few areas but we were off to a late start and didn’t start hiking until 8:30 am.
We encountered a few other hikers today as we haven’t seen many so far. Most of the trail users are on mountain bikes in the first three segments.
Storms overtook us again by early afternoon and I set up the tarp for lunch. Two rounds passed as we ate and took a siesta.
We reached the South Platte and camped just above the river and trailhead parking area. We covered 16.6 miles today.
August 9, 2014
Another beautiful blue sky morning greeted us as we packed up camp. We climbed the series of switchbacks away from the river and began the 16.8 miles left to reach the car.
We had been through the area just days before but I still enjoyed the mountain views and wildflowers along the trail. Storms approached again at 11 am and we hiked through light rain off and on until we reached Waterton Canyon.
We were soon back in the car and eagerly awaiting food, a shower, and clean clothes.
Holli covered nearly 75 miles of moderately challenging terrain in five days for a 15 mile per day average. With a little more mental preparation I hope she realizes she has the ability to hike this entire trail. She just has to want to.
As for me, I’ll be back to start over at Waterton Canyon, just not this year. This is a special trail and I want to save the experience for later. I wouldn’t mind a slightly less active monsoon season either.