This post is for those planning a hike on the Colorado Trail. I don’t like to keep track of statistics for the sake of competitive comparisons with other hikers but I do think it is helpful for someone planning their own hike. Everyone has a different goal when pursuing a long distance hike. Our goal was to finish the hike and every part of the planning was to help our chances of making it all the way. Lightweight but adequate gear and minimizing luxury items were a couple of the strategies we used to ensure a successful hike. I also tried to add a few resupply stops to keep our packs light, especially in the north half of the trail. Town stops are a double edge sword because it breaks up the trip into smaller segments but town stops can also suck the will to hike out of you, especially if the weather is not perfect.
My backpack base weight (less food, water, and fuel) was around 15 pounds until we switched shelters at Leadville. Then my base weight was about 15 1/2 pounds. Changing shelters lowered Holli’s pack weight from 13 to 12 pounds. She may have added some weight back by including a set of “town clothes” in Breckenridge. On the longer resupply sections I would carry all the food and give the lighter tent to Holli for a few days. As we ate the food, I would then take the tent back to lighten her load. I carried little more than 28 pounds and maybe 30 if the water bottles were filled. I tried to carry a quart of water or less between water sources but a few days between Salida and Creede it was necessary to carry more.
We had planned two rest days or “zero days”. Breckenridge was our first planned stop but we rested for two days due to a fever and headache I was fighting on our day off. Creede was the other stop. I considered pushing on without a rest in Creede but thunderstorms were passing over the mountains that day so we may not have covered many miles anyway. I am not willing to risk hiking above tree line when lightning is a possibility. I like to cover miles but sometimes you walk faster when you are not dead. Some hikers continue in those conditions but there is no equipment or skill that can protect you. If you are outside, you are vulnerable in an electrical storm. Hiking above tree line makes you the tallest object.
Our total miles were 410 by trail. We had a few extra miles walking to Twin Lakes, taking a wrong turn in segment 14, and walking off trail to get to Creede. We were on the trail for 29 days and walked for 26 days. It likely would have been 33 and 30 had we continued on to Durango. Our average day was 15.8 miles or 14.1 miles if you include the three rest days. Our longest day was about 23 miles but we did several days in a row near 20 miles per day.
Here is a daily log of our hike:
August 7 – 16.8 miles
August 8 – 11.5 miles
August 9 – 13.2 miles
August 10 – 16.6 miles
August 11 – 18.1 miles
August 12 – 15.2 miles
August 13 – 13.0 miles
August 14 – 12.8 miles
August 15 – Breckenridge
August 16 – Breckenridge
August 17 – 8 miles
August 18 – 17.4 miles (Leadville)
August 19 – 14.8 miles
August 20 – 19 miles (Twin Lakes)
August 21 – 21.4 miles
August 22 – 18.7 miles
August 23 – 13.7 miles (Mt. Princeton)
August 24 – 12.5 miles
August 25 – 10.4 miles (Salida)
August 26 – 14.3 miles
August 27 – 21.9 miles (plus 1/2 mile to Baldy Lake)
August 28 – 22.5 miles (plus 1/2 mile from Baldy Lake)
August 29 – 19.8 miles
August 30 – 11.4 miles (plus 1 mile to Forest Road 503)
August 31 – Creede
September 1 – 17.4 miles (plus 1 1/2 miles back to trail)
Semptember 5, 2015
I did the math a few weeks ago and knew that many events would need to fall into place in order for Holli and I to finish the trail by September 8th.
Holden (Holli’s son) graduates from basic combat training at Fort Sill, OK on the 10th. We have completed 410 miles of the Colorado Trail and 75 miles reamain to Durango. That leaves us with four days and 18.7 miles per day to finish on the 8th, drive six or seven hours to Denver, and then ten or twelve hours to Oklahoma. The math works to complete the trail but everything has to go perfect including the weather.
We walked to the trailhead at Molas Pass yesterday under heavy cloud cover and rain. The rain continued most of the afternoon and night in Silverton.
We had dinner with Brad while doing all of our laundry. The laundromat was located at a campground near the Hungry Moose Bar & Grill so we enjoyed dinner while I ran back and forth moving clothes from the washer to the dryer and back to the restaurant.
The Blair Street Hostel (hikers, bikers, and dogs included) was home for the night and some hikers came down from the pass after us and reported snow and near whiteout conditions above 12,000 feet. The weather wasn’t helping our case for moving on.
Holli finally made the decision to finish our hike at Silverton. I left the decision in her hands and she made the right choice. It would have been a fun challenge to finish in four days but the travel to Oklahoma would not have been fun. Besides, I would not want Holli to miss any time with Holden.
I felt a little sad watching Brad prepare his pack for the final leg of the trip but also knew that I was greatful for making it this far without incident. We met many extraordinary people on and off the trail. I have seen Colorado in a way that relatively few visitors will experience.
Holli has transformed herself from a very green hiker to a competent long distance trekker. She has battled through cold, heat, rain, sleet, hail, lightning, sore feet, blisters, aching knees, dirt, sweat, sunburn, smell, wild animals (fear of), and trail food. She probably has 75 more miles left in her but doing it in four days would have been a challenge.
So for now we will plan to finish the trail next summer. We had also chosen to take the East Collegiate Route between Twin Lakes and Marshall Pass. We can now go back and complete the West Collegiate alternative route which adds 80 miles through the Collegiate Peaks.
We said goodbye to Brad after having lunch with him. Brad was heading back to the trail later today. Rain and thick clouds were still surrounding the peaks over Silverton so he was waiting for the rain to pass before venturing on.
Holli and I took the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to Durango. I chose the outside gondola car and enjoyed the soot from the steam powered engine. The scenery was enjoyable but I missed the trail already.
September 6, 2015
I think we booked the last hotel room available in Durango. Motorcycles were in town for a Labor Day bike rally so hotel rooms were in tight supply. We are now headed back to Denver in a rental car.
August 31, 2015
Thunderstorms rocked the mountain tops around Creede this morning so we decided to take the day off. Holli and I hustled to get laundry done, groceries purchased, and a good meal on Sunday night so today was our day to relax.
We toured the historical museum, visited a few local shops, and ate a lot of food while watching the storms pass over the mountains. Creede has a rich mining history but tourism is the main economy today.
September 1, 2015
Holli and I met a fellow hiker from Texas yesterday. Brad joined Holli and I on our ride back to the trailhead at San Luis pass. Local trail angel, Debbie, picked up our trio at the Snow Shoe Lodge and drove us up the rugged forest road to the pass. Shoe took us as far as Willow Creek and we walked the remaining two miles back to the Colorado Trail.
Snow Mesa was the featured obstacle to cross today. A steep climb out of the pass took us to near thirteen thousand feet, down 1,200, back up a thousand to finally lead us to Snow Mesa. The Mesa is a six mile expanse of rolling alpine tundra that sits above 12,00o feet elevation. The treeless expanse was bordered by rounded mountains to the north and fell into a deep canyon to the south. Thousands of acres spread across the vast roof top of the world. Jagged peaks of the San Juan mountains stretched across the western horizon miles away.
A flock of sheep covered a hillside to our right with the sheep herder standing guard. A thunderhead with a vail of rain drifted along on our left. Thunder rumbled on occasion and pushed Holli and I to cover ground faster but the Shepard stood his ground without flinching. His horse stood tall and brilliant against the green and gold tundra thought he was probably a mile or more away.
We covered the Mesa in a couple of hours and rain fell as we descended from the tundra back into spruce trees. Spring Creek Pass was a thousand feet below us and soon could hear highway noise as trucks lumbered up the steep grade and crested the pass.
Brad, Holli, and I stopped at the trailhead and took advantage of the picnic tables for a late afternoon snack. Rain showers had moved on and a soft evening glow led us two and a half miles to our camp area. Tree line was visible several hundred yards to the west and a cow moose grazed on the trail 50 yards away. We decided to give her the trail for the night as we slipped into the woods to find a level spot for our tents.
September 2, 2015
We left the trees and began a near 30 mile stretch of alpine tundra hiking this morning. The moose had left the area by morning sunlight filled the meadow that seemed so dark and mysterious the evening before.
The climb away from treeline was gradual and lifted us to the another broad Mesa with 360 degree views. Clouds soon obscured the blue sky and again the hike became a race against thunder
We reached the high point of the Colorado Trail (13,271 feet above sea level) around noon after walking through rain, sleet, and hail for a few miles. The sun appeared for awhile as we took a lunch break at the top and visited with a couple of section hikers.
We descended 500 feet from the high point but the trail stayed between 12,000 and 13,000 feet for the rest of the day.
We dropped into Carson Saddle as a thunderstorm passed to the south. We took refuge next some old mining ruins as the storm rumbled across the towering peaks overhead. We were back on the trail after a half our rest only to dodge another storm passing to our west a couple of miles later.
The magic of the trail once again revealed itself as we watched a group of five bull moose graze in the valley below us as we headed toward the final pass on our way to Cataract Lake and our camp area for the night.
We reached the pass as the storm moved away and thick gray clouds replaced the billowing thunderhead. The warm air below the pass turned into a stiff damp wind as we descended into the valley and arrived at the lake. We managed to cover 20 miles of rugged terrain in thin air and less than pleasant weather. The scenery…well…some of the most outstanding I have every witnessed.
September 3, 2015
The alarm went off at 5:40 am as usual but I could tell through the tent walls that it was overcast. I laid in my quilt trying to summon the strength to get up and tear down camp but the cold air kept me still. A flash of lightning in the morning darkness added an edge of tension to the morning as well. Lightning is serious enough in the trees but positively terrifying when you are at 12,000 plus feet and more than fifteen miles from treeline by trail.
Light rain pelted the tent and I knew our only option was to walk out way out of this. We had camped near Brad and he agreed with our plan to keep moving despite the potential light show.
Lightning wasn’t an issue for the rest of the morning fortunately. Thick gray clouds, fog, rain, and sleet pelted us as we worked our way around mountains and through passes. The scenery was indescribable at every turn as fog gave way to towering mountains and deep valleys. The perspective given by the inclement weather turned the rugged Colorado mountains into an alien world that seemed millions of miles from home. Pictures in books or magazines could never capture the landscape we travelled through. My cold, stinging fingers and shortness of breath were the reminders that I was a part of this.
The sky began to clear by early afternoon. The overcast sky kept the thunderstorm development at bay and I was unsure how to feel as the sun burned through the clouds.
Holli and I hiked with Brad for the rest of the day. We passed another flock of sheep and marveled at the rugged terrain they were able to graze. The Shepard looked on as the wooly critters swarmed the mountain top.
We covered another large expanse of rolling alpine tundra as we left the rugged peaks and headed toward the Animas River valley. Thunder began to echo off of the distant peaks just as we topped 12,600 feet and began the long descent following Elk Creek.
We dropped for several miles into the canyon and back into the lush forest. It had been more than 36 hours above treeline and the forest seemed like a long lost friend. It was warmer too.
September 4, 2015
The clearing sky was short lived as day broke with overcast skies. I was penalized again for not breaking camp when the alarm went off and soon rail pelted the tent canopy.
We packed up the sleeping gear and put on our hiking clothes while eating a light breakfast in the tent. The rain soon stopped and we packed up the wet tent and headed toward the Animas River crossing and Silverton eleven miles away.
Steady rain fell as we passed several tents of weekend hikers lining the trail. The rain persisted for the next few hours as our feet had become waterlogged and the trail a mess of puddles and small streams of water.
We reached the river before noon and began the steep swithbacks on the far side. The narrow gauge train whistled as we rose a thousand feet above the valley. Fog cloaked the mountain tops as the train lumbered along deep in the river valley.
We reached the trailhead at the highway and tried to work our charm for a ride into Silverton. Three muddy hikers were not appealing to most of the visitors at the trailhead so we resorted to the cell phone. Within twenty minutes we had a ride. Jan at the Blair Street Hostel in Silverton came to our rescue.