The Big Empty – 90 miles to Creede

August 26, 2015

Rocky Mountain Taxi brought Holli and me back to the Colorado Trail.  Low clouds and an overcast sky set the mood for the day just as the thunderstorm yesterday ushered us down to Highway 50.
A long gradual ascent along South Fooses Creek eventually led us to the Continental Divide at 11,908 feet above sea level.  The forest along the creek was brilliant green after the rain.  The air was filled with a fresh pine scent and piles of pea sized hail still lingered from yesterday’s storm.

We topped the divide and began a long ridge walk with a view of the mountains to the south and west.  A line of dark clouds clothed the distant peaks and rain showers were visible as rumbles of thunder warned us to move quickly.
We worked our way below tree line and a cold rain began to fall.  We caught up with Ryan and Julie as the four of us worked our way toward the Marshall Pass trailhead.
Holli and I led the way down as Ryan and Julie ducked under trees to try and shield themselves from the rain as Ryan’s jacket wasn’t as waterproof as advertised.
After two miles of soaking rain and wind we spotted the cabin to our left.  We arrived at the trailhead and took a short walk on the road and found the cabin unclaimed for the night.
Ryan and Julie took a short cut to the trailhead and missed the cabin.  They set up camp in the rain and later paid us a visit when the rain subsided.  Abby was also camping at the trailhead but she arrived before the rain set in.

looking southwest from the Continental Divide

Cabin at Marshall Pass trailhead

August 27, 2015

The cabin was welcome refuge from the rain.  More rain fell in the night and the wind blew drops from the trees until after sunrise.  It was nice to not pack up a wet tent but I knew we would be hiking in cold wet weather today.

We had 90 miles to cover in five days and our 14 plus yesterday put us behind schedule.  I mapped out a plan to cover 22 miles and get us back on track.  Water sources are 11 to 12 miles apart for much of this section of trail so would dictate where we camp.
We left the cabin and began a gradual rise back to near 12,000 feet.  Thick fog and mist covered the mountain and sealed us off from the large views we knew from the day before.   The forest looked dark and mysterious under the heavy sky.

The trail took us near treeline and a cold damp wind blasted the small spruce trees surrounded by meadow.  A few cattle bawled through the fog and wind.  We couldn’t see them but the herd must have been 50 feet below us.

The world was closed in because of the weather but the atmosphere around the Colorado Trail changed when we left Highway 50.  Day hikers were gone, only five mountain bikers passed us yesterday, and no roads, buildings, power lines, or other man made intrusions could be seen from up high.  I felt the solitude of empty wilderness for the first time.

Our lunch stop for the day was on a damp log near the trail in a pure stand of lodge pole pines.  Fog still cloaked the tree tops but the mist had abated.

As we sat eating and gazing into the empty forest, motion caught my eye.  A lone cow elk crossed 50 yards in front of us.  The ghostly creature moved in silence and disappeared into the fog.
The high point of our day was achieved at the end of segment 16 were a faint jeep track crossed the trail at Sargents Mesa.  Views of the Sangra de Cristo Mountains could be seen to the southeast many miles away across a broad plain.

The clouds lifted as the day wore on and by 7:00 pm we reached the trail intersection to Baldy Lake, our camp for the night.  The lake was our only water source within miles so the 1/2 mile walk off trail (the CT anyway) was necessary.  Almost 23 miles were covered today and most of it in blustery conditions.
Ryan, Julie, Abby, Peter, and Alyse all joined us for the night.  A bright moon lit up the night as we all escaped the cool breeze in our tents.
August 28, 2015
Holli and I were the first to leave camp this morning and said goodbye to our trail community.  We were shooting for a longer day than the rest as Abby was getting off tub trail to resupply in Gunnison along with Elise.  Peter was suffering from a lower leg injury and was taking some time off at the trailhead as well.  Ryan and Julie were planning a lower mileage day.
We loaded up with water and set out to finish the rest of segment 17 and beyond.  We took a break at Razor Creek which had a campsite but the creek was dry.

I was leaning over getting the food bag out of my backpack as I noticed a horses head enter my peripheral vision. The horse was reaching for some grass along the trail and after a moment of curious pause I then noticed the rider.  The cowboy silently allowed me to respond and we greeted each other.  The gentleman spoke with an easy Texas drawl.  He was scouting for elk and had ridden up from a nearby trailhead.  We shared our elk encounter from the previous day and he shared that most of the elk were above 12,000 feet.  He hadn’t heard any bugling yet and commented that it would be a tough start for the archery season slated to open tomorrow as bow hunters rely on bugling to call in bulls.
Near the end of segment 17 a hiker caught up with us as we were walking on a forest service road heading to the highway.  His name was Benjamin and he was hiking the Continental Divide Trail southbound.  Carlisle, England was his home and he had come to the United States for a grand adventure.  He was over 1,800 miles into his hike and estimated that 900 remained to the Mexican border.  250 hikers began the journey south and Benjamin figured that at least 200 had quit.  His 25 mile per day average had put him two weeks ahead of most of his companions and he mentioned that he might wait in northern New Mexico until they catch up.  He didn’t want to be totally alone in the less travelled parts to the south of Colorado.

We entered a patchwork of forest and open meadows as we crossed the highway and made our way into segment 18.  By late evening we arrived at Los Creek and set up camp in the open meadow 100 feet above.  Cold, damp air was settling into the valley and it was ten degrees warmer up on the grassy bench above the creek.
The full moon rise above the eastern horizon as we crawled under our quilts.  The silence was deafening and I gazed out at the dark forest that bordered the empty meadow until my eyes wouldn’t stay open anymore.  All was silent until Holli started snoring anyway.


Baldy Lake

 August 29, 2015

Another near 23 mile day to Los Creek put us well into segment 18.  The easy terrain and open range made for a really enjoyable change from the forests and alpine areas of the last 300 miles.  We set out to see how far our legs could carry us today.

We met a man riding a motor cross bike on the trail this morning.  A blue healer dog was sitting on the gas tank with his head over the man’s shoulder.  It looked odd but we soon realized that the motorcyclist was a rancher.  There were two motor bikes and the dog pushing heifers toward a corral.  The dog worked the cattle masterfully and soon the herd was pushed from the far end of a 1,000 acre pasture into the gates of the corral.
We stopped for water by the road and the friendly ranchers stopped to talk and make sure we were alright.  They were moving the heifers back home to Saguache for the winter.

We left segment 18 and entered 19 by early afternoon.  The landscape began to change as we entered the Cochetopa Creek watershed.  A few trout fisherman were parked above the creek.  We visited with a gentleman from Texas before we left the two-track road and began the trail along the creek.  Holli is still polishing her yogi skills but I had to get her away from the nice man when she bluntly asked for a beer.  I think she was kidding but I was embarrassed enough to move on.  Yogi is a term used by hikers to describe the begging that we often engage in when near more civilized campers (as in Yogi the Bear).

Cochetopa Creek led us up and away from the broad meadows and the mountains on either side began to close in.  The creek formed gentle pools behind the many beaver dams and raced over rapids in between.  Beavers had cut aspen trees nearly 1/4 mile from the water and 100-200 feet above the stream.  Trout were sometimes visible in the clear pools.

Our first major stream crossing occurred at a washed out log bridge.  We made the crossing on bare feet but the smooth rocks and cold water were good therapy for our feet.

We arrived at the Eddiesville Trailhead around 5:30pm to finish segment 19.  We pushed on another mile and a half into segment 20 and camped above Cotchetopa Creek on a boad grassy bench.  We were just inside the boundary for the La Garita Widerness.

I set up camp as Holli prepared supper.  The meal was instant mashed potato with bacon crumbles, freeze dried vegetables, powdered milk, and Parmesan cheese mixed together.  One of the best meals on the trail so far.

I watched trout jump and rise in the creek and soon retired to the tent for another moonlit evening slumber.

August 30, 2015

The goal for today was finish segment 20 at the top of San Luis Pass, walk a mile off-trail to a jeep road and hope for the best in getting a ride to Creede nine miles away.

We walked along the creek towards the headwaters and saw many more beaver dams as we climbed up the valley.  Some of the dams were six feet or more tall and the backwaters teemed with trout.  The trail was narrow and overgrown in places and truly felt wild.  Moose tracks covered the trail in places.

We broke out above treeline and gained the ridge of San Luis Peak.  At 14,014 feet it is the most easily climbed 14’er near the Colorado Trail.  We passed on the opportunity as town as our focus.
The mountains beyond were reward enough though as the landscape over the pass was extremely different from any we had hiked through before.  The mountains seemed more jagged, the valleys deeper, and rock formations towered over the alpine bowl were we stood on the edge.  We had finally arrived at the San Juan Mountains.
We entered the new world in awe of the ridge line high overhead and the steep alpine tundra below.  We circled the bowl and dropped to treeline on the other side.  The trail stayed above 12,000 feet for nearly four miles as we made our way to San Luis Pass and th end of segment 20.
We reached the pass around 12:30pm as dark clouds boiled up around us.  Sunshine broke through in patched as we left the Colorado Trail and began the one mile walk down to the jeep road.  We kept our fingers crossed that a Good Samaritan would help us get to Creede.
We neared the rough parking lot and could see four SUV’s parked on the open mountainside.  I noticed the door open on the driver side and told Holli to hurry or we might miss our chance.
We hit the parking lot and the woman was taking pictures of her husband finishing the trail behind us. Carol and Dan are from Fort Collins and Dan has been completing sections of the CT on weekends over the last several years.
Dan started segment 19 before 6 am this morning and ran over 26 miles to the end of segment 20. He completed both segments in a little less than eight hours.
I don’t know who was more pleased to have a ride, Dan or Holli and I, but it was amazing how the timing worked.
Carol drove the suburban down the jeep road in 4WD Lo and the transmission in first gear and her foot on the brake.  We lumbered over pot holes, washouts, crossed streams, rocks, and navigated hairpin turns before finally reaching the “gravel” road.
Carol and Dan dropped off in Creede and visited for awhile until we snapped a few pictures together and said our goodbyes.  People like Carol and Dan make adventures like this possible.  I am grateful for their kindness.

Completing segment 20 put us at 342 miles on the Colorado Trail.  There are eight segments remaining which cover the highest terrain and the San Juan Mountains.

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