Pfiffner Traverse, CO (part I)

A wee Blissful on 1,100 feet of Cooper Peak Pass talus gained in 1/4 mile above Hell Canyon.

Exhausted and dirty with swollen legs, blistered lips and starved for anything besides bars and jerky, Katlyn and I stop at the hippest laundromat just off Pinedale, Wyoming’s main drag. Here, we put every bit of gear through the hottest available cycle while stuffed moose, elk and pronghorn loom above.

After finishing the Wind River High Route, we needed to help Katlyn retrieve her car. But this required a long bumpy exit from the Big Sandy Trailhead, an hour along the very range we just crossed and another tedious rock-filled back road to our start a week ago at Green River Lakes.

Richard was happy to help out, but that required staying close since the ”Green Emerald” (her Chevy convertible) was only moving in second gear. It was a late night, flashers-running trip but finally, while the clothes were spinning, we learn all that was needed was for lines to be drained. That’s when Katlyn suggested we drive to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and give another high route a try.

Andrew Skurka is a legend in backpacking circles. A National Geographic Explorer of the Year, he took what was more of an idea for an 80-mile line following the highest bits of the Divide in Colorado’s Front Range, and hammered it into a traversable reality featuring extensive off-trail travel and substantial vertical gain and loss, just like we did in the Winds.

Katlyn and I feel fit and experienced, if tired, after our most recent high route and find we both have the time. Besides, Colorado is (kind of) on the way home, so it’s only natural to head right back out on another high route.

Details, details: The Pfiffner passes through Rocky Mountain National Park, Indian Peaks and James Peak Wilderness, requiring permits to camp. A phone call inquiry got me to Trevor who both discouraged a ’last minute’ plan while also vague on closures.

We manage to nab the only remaininv tent site at gorgeous Moraine Park Campground in Estes Park, waking before sunrise to be first in line at the permit office. The afternoon before, we met Katlyn atop Berthoud Pass to arrange a car drop at our exit, but her car barely ground up the switchbacks and needed a tow.

No way our hike was getting stopped by a ‘minor inconvenience’ like lack of transportation. Still, we’re unsure how permitting would transpire. It must be Trevor’s day off and we’re greeted by friendly, helpful – and most important – knowledgable Sarah, who informs us much of the northern part of the park is closed to cross country travel due to fire damage.

Still, she picks an entry point through Wild Basin on the eastern side of the divide, and, in spite of the fact it’s Labor Day weekend and nearly sold out, locates a couple of sites we’ll use as we climb over a magnificent pass to join the ‘Primary Pfiffner Route.’

Our fabulous permitting ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Back in the saddle again in the Rockies
Loose scree on Boulder Grand Pass helped by a boulder handrail.
One cairn at the top of the pass with Thunder Lake and Lake-of-Many-Winds below.

I hug Richard goodbye after a big breakfast and a nosy ranger asking if we’d camped in the lot overnight – sheesh, they must get a lot of rule breakers – then head back up fully loaded on easy trail, slowly climbing into the bowl that begins the meat of our second adventure.

Trails like this through pine forest along a stream of gentle falls and building views are filled with hikers, many camping yet even more day hiking. An older woman led by a you a REI guide asks if we have maps. This combination of crowds and more new hikers on trail during covid has contributed to an increase in bear visitations. When ’rewarded’ with food, they’ve increasingly come to associate backpackers with easy meals.

So, a hard-sided bear resistant container is required for overnight travel in Rocky Mountain National Park. Katlyn carries her food inside her pack and straps a nearly empty container on top to use at night. We’re also required to follow Leave No Trace principles, and Sarah slips us a couple a Wag Bag portable toilets.

We’re in camp around 10,700 feet early, flat and tucked in the woods. Woodpeckers, noisy Clarks Nutcrackers and friendly Red Breasted Nuthatches fill the air. The lake is close and we start lunch just as a storm builds and thunder booms in the aptly named Thunder Lake. I head back and sleep away the afternoon, waking only for an eerie orange glow as the sun sets before getting the best sleep of the trip.

Boulder Grand Pass rises like an impermeable rock face above the talus bowl of Lake-of-Many-Winds, 12,000 feet high under lapis skies. A well-used trail rises through heart leaf arnica and hot pink mountain paintbrush, only one bit of rock climb to advance as water rushes down and crickets hop out of our way.

I lead strong on inclines, glad I have something to contribute as my legs wobble on talus. We’re used to it now, seeing a flat expanse with no trace of a trail and simply getting ourselves on it. I see a cairn at the top of a chute, one filled with slippery and dusty glacial til, stones rolling down as I step up.

There has to be a better way! But this mess appears the most used and in a little way, I come to solid rock acting as more of a handrail than a route. My trekking poles are shoved from side to side as I reach and pull or press down to push myself higher.

Truth be told, it’s not hard or technical, just exhausting – and dirty. My freshly laundered clothes stink now. But it’s a half hour of exertion and we’re up and out on a leaning football field of tundra and rocky ramps as if oozing out of the ground. Behind us is the keyhole hook of Longs Peak, the park’s largest fourteener. Ahead, a necklace of lapis lakes tucked into pointy pines.

The most direct route is straight down to the trees, then a sharp left up towards a final lake and another pass. But we have a better idea.

Perhaps we can sidle this deep valley and follow the U around, skipping what will inevitably be a blowdown nightmare through an uncharted forest. But exactly where is there cliff band to follow and cliff edge to avoid?

Mountains rise above us, most notably The Cleaver, reminding me mountains can care less what we choose to do out here, just two tiny specks in a vast wilderness. We choose a route carefully, thrashing through willow and ensuring any move won’t leave us stranded.

I am slightly behind Katlyn, following a small shelf of grass when suddenly I hear a bang.

The bear canister on her pack somehow wiggled out of its tether and flies down the cliff. We reach out our hands as if to command a stop, mouths open with not a word coming out. It slides, bounces, bangs and somersaults before coming to rest in a small pile of talus.

Getting down requires some scrambling, me mostly on from a sitting position But we kept our eyes on that box – an expensive and necessary piece of gear, storing a stove, a jar of peanut butter and gas. Oh, no! What exactly happens with that kind of impact, anyway?

Katlyn is worried. What if the canister blows up? She hides behind a rock touching it with her trekking pole. I keep my distance and suggest she put on her sun glasses.

Nothing blows up when she removes the lid, but the peanut butter jar ejected its sticky contents on everything a a bear-proof canister has instantly become a bear-attractant.

All we can do now is focus on sidling forward out of this cliffy-ness and towards Fifth Lake. Something strange happens in that moment. It’s as if the bear canister led us through its wild trajectory, right to s path. It’s not a proper hiking path, but one beaten down by elk hooves, avoiding fallen trees, staying on an even line and leading right over avalanche paths towards a pristine lake and shaded lunch spot.

Isolation Peak Pass is next, beautiful and almost cliche as Moomaw Glacier clings to the side of the peak and it’s more heavy breathing up steep meadow and into a hanging glacier before another rise past East Inlet and up the precipitous col.

Tundra above East Inlet right after Boulder Grand Pass.
Katlyn rescuing the bear canister and hoping it won’t explode.
Sidling below Moomaw Glacier toward Isolation Peak Pass.
Longs Peak from Isolation Peak Pass.

The passes are straightforward and easy going even hovering around 12,000 feet. Perhaps we’re lulled into thinking it will be all easy going ahead. I should point out that route finding and cross country traversing are slow and tiring. You can’t simply zone out like on trail, even if the way is obvious. The ground is uneven and many micro-calculations are made along the way to avoid water, steep sections, rock or just tussock you’d prefer not to have to negotiate.

The reward is not seeing any trace of people so ferns and flowers remain intact, alpine tundra plants like mosses with tiny white flowers are abundant and deep purple mountain marsh gentian open up like champagne flutes in wind-waving bunches.

It’s a fairyland of tarns and mountains, the final push a gateway into a special place also beautifully named – Paradise Park Research Natural Area. There are dozens of these pieces of land set aside for scientific study, left alone to simply let nature do its thing. We’re welcome to explore, but not allowed to camp.

Clouds build fast as we pass tarns spilling down the hillside and rock seemingly growing out of tundra. It’s steep down on stair step tussock into the woods, spotted coral root and common fireweed brightening our descent.

Thunder rumbles, long and ominous, turning the forest into a dark and mysterious place. There is no ’way’ through, just to reach a blond meadow that will lead to another pass. Paradise is very much in its natural state, one of blowdowns. It’s tedious in the gloom, but lucky for me, most are only one tree high and an easy stride over.

A few drops of rain splat on my arm, but not enough to take out rain gear as we leap over the last tree and join a meadow like a carpet rolled out to the mountain bowl. We still need to watch our footing over elk trails and deep streams hidden by grass, ones we shout out in warning as “meadow holes!”

Fir and rock fringe the meadow, a warmup act gor the smooth, steep slide of pass we’ll catch tomorrow. We cut off slightly up and over another stream flowing out of a no-name tarn. It’s a magnificent bowl carved beneath Watango and Hiamovi Mountains exfoliating truck-sized boulders into the still water.

Katlyn announces when we leave the research area and arrive at a thin strip of national park. There are no ’durable surfaces’ here for camping and we set on soft grass, lovely as a bed, but destined to leave our tents a dewy mess by morning.

Still, it’s glorious in our bowl, water gurgling nearby and the light turning the crags a deep shade of gold high above. I lay down to eat, tired and happy, while Katlyn carefully cleans peanut butter off the bear can.

Entering magical Paradise Park.
Any off-trail route comes with the risk of blowdown.
The rockies hold huge glaciated meadows with numerous watery trap doors.
Working our way to an unnamed tarn during a thunderstorm that was noisy but dry.

As expected, we’re soaked in the morning. Sleeping bags now have a protective fabric, so a damp bag does not mean I’m damp, only that we’ll need to find a sunny spot to dry things as the day progresses.

I’m awaked by cracking branches and peer out on a mighty elk running in to check us out. He bounces as he moves, elegant and athletic. We pack wet and begin sidling towards the pass.

It’s grassy steps, mostly, and easy to avoid rocks, then straight up to the pass. The lake sits below, deep and dark then disappears behind rock. Paradise Creek snakes through the meadow. We’re tired, but it’s again like climbing a ladder. 

The top leads into Hell Canyon, an easy descent of rocky ramps like tongues down into willow-enveloped wetlands. And what is that ahead? A kind of roller coaster of talus spitting straight down into a slide of green. Steep, straight down, relentless. 

Skurka jubilantly points out that Cooper Peak Pass is 1,100 feet over a 1/4 vertical mile, ending with a bolded exclamation point. How can someone be this excited about a long, hard, straight-up, non-stop, calf-burning pass?! 

Truth is, I don’t know most of this at the time as we send ourselves through lush tundra, still filled with flowers. We hear voices wondering if yet again, a coupla of ‘splainers are on the way. 

But no! It’s four women heading up the pass and asking for beta on the blowdowns. This canyon is accessible by easy trail and many hikers use it for a loop. But when we point to Cooper Pass that we’ll be on in a moment, they freak. 

That cannot be climbed!

Then one remembers seeing a man come down it with goats. Well, ok, then. If it can be descended with a herd, we’ve got this!

Admittedly, we’ve got an optical illusion on our hands. It appears a 90-degree angle, but there’s some slope, some tufts of grass to grip onto. But what about the talus above? Well, that’s way down the line. 

We wish the quartet good luck and again sidle the cliff to get into position. Small drops, meadow holes and lumpy tussock slow us down. Below, a dog barks. It’s still shady where we walk, but sun covers a flat spot by the lake where campers dry their tents – a task we’ll catch up on later. 

As we reach the band of vomited tussock, an avalanche path we have to climb, we hear cheering. For us? You bet, and we’re going to play this up. The grass makes thin shelves to hang onto, but there’s no stopping here. My legs are on fire and the land is disintegrating under my feet. 

Katlyn finds a line to the right which looks steeper to me, while mine finds the rocky stream and holds for a few dozen feet before fading into disintegrating scree. “Move right!” Katlyn offers, but it requires superhuman strength to power past.  

I’m on all fours not so much because my pack pulls me backwards and the height is dizzying, but I spend less time placing all my weight on individual bits of earth. 

About 700 feet above the lake, I no longer hear the cheers and shimmy up to a boulder which appears solid. I need a break and can hardly believe how far I’ve come. Katlyn catches me breathing heavy and wild eyed by the scale of our ascent. 

And that’s only halfway through.

Morning reflections from our camp spot near Paradise Pass.

Katlyn points out Cooper Peak Pass, an avalanche slide of never ending climbing.

Coneheads and talus.
The descent to Island Lake was far more tedious and treacherous.

These high route projects have brought out a new appreciation for talus, especially on slopes. Here, it’s steep up to the horizon where the sun begins to peak out, glaringly blinding. It’s mostly solid but hard to keep lifting my body up and on and the pass feels just there.

But like a dream, I move in slow mo and cannot believe this height. I only look back to check that Katlyn’s progressing but fear snapping a picture and my phone popping out of my hands to the bottom for a rerun of this climb. I admit little technique is involved besides brute force and determination. Still it’s a haul and feels like rock climbing. 

When we finally pop over, it’s into a talus-filled bowl, one lone lake below, cold and remote. It’s not quite the drop, but dizzyingly steep and hard to grab hold. To get purchase I sit and reach for anything solid. How do runners throw their bodies down these ball bearings? 

I have to admit this is dreadful and I’m completely out of water. 

A more stable line of cliff appears and I stabilize using my hands as the slope eases and we reach the first lake. Below is another with an island, a partial rock bridge jutting out as if ruins of a castle. We navigate still more talus which leads to cliffs. Worn out, we decide to simply downclimb and splash through the water. 

 My knees hurt, my thighs, my feet. I’m dead tired pulling into a grassy stretch surrounded by krumholz. The sun is hot and the sliver of shade is delicious. The sky and lake both are deep blue, a gentle breeze cools my wet feet and I crash. 

Have I ever been this tired? I wonder, not wanting to move. Talus gives way to ramps, drops, gullies and another magic lake seemingly floating above distant mountains. A chipmunk zooms up a vertical face like an Alex Honnold of the animal kingdom and we watch, transfixed. Gourd Lake glistens, pristine in this high valley. 

It’s hard to go when we meet trail, gently switchbacking 1,000 feet to Buchanan Creek, peaks disappearing as we drop. It’s less than a mile to Thunderbolt Creek, fish darting from our shadow as the water winds through a side valley of meadow leading towards a steep pass below tall spires. 

Exhausted now, we set camp and turn in hoping to be refreshed by morning. But it’s not meant to be. Too much work, too far, too hard, all of it takes the will and strength from us and Katlyn makes the call to save the final passes for another time. 

Above Gourd Lake on the Pfiffner Traverse with Thunderbolt Peak behind and across a valley.

Superb trail maintenance is a must after a catastrophic windstorm.

Meeting the CDT at the Devils Thumb.
At 13,000 feet just as the altitude, smoke and exhaustion got the best of me.

I dream of inviting old boyfriends to a dance, the kind I like the best where everyone just grooves as a group and I feel ok saying goodbye until next season, grooving to the beat I’ve been given today.

We still have miles and miles to walk on the Continental Divide Trail, up and over Mount Adams (with minimal views) past Junco Trailhead where a volunteer remarks on the growing size of backpacks over the years, through a burn area and finally to a tiny camp spot next to a babbling brook where the sunset turns surrounding peaks a deep mauve. 

We talk all day, on and on about our lives, hikes we’ve done, people we know and hope to keep our pace and maybe rejoin the Pfiffner. Snapping twigs wake us and we later spy the culprit – a lovely young moose with long, shapely legs and a soft, boxy snout. 

She watches us climb through a spectacular blowdown which stretches for miles up a canyon and into the Devil’s Thumb. Without trail crews clearing a path, these pick-up-sticks of fully mature trees were surely impassable. 

The trail climb higher and higher, a giant’s front lawn close to 12,000 feet rolling above ski hills and towns. Sadly, smoke from California wildfires settles in the valleys and obscures the view. It also begins to affect my breathing. 

I make my best effort, cruising on brightly colored tundra with mountain lakes winking from below. I drink and eat, even scoring a beer from a friendly tourist at Rollins Pass, but my mind gets foggy and it’s clear I can’t keep going. 

Trail magic appears in the form of a road nearby. We descend overland and meet a couple, Chuck and Karen, happy to get me down as quickly as possible on a dirt road filled with basketball-sized rocks. 

They must have taken pity on my sorry state because they drive out of their way to deliver us over the pass to another town where my friend, also Karen, picks us up and gets us cleaned up, fed and watered. 

It’s an odd and sudden way to end, but we both felt sick from the exertion and an overland high route is nowhere to make a mistake. Katlyn leaves by bus to retrieve her car after a good rest and I stay longer, talking and laughing with my friend a filling up on fur therapy from her dogs before I too need to head home. 

The project is not finished and more is still to come, but we both agree more rest time might be in order for a trail of this magnitude. It’s harder in some ways from the Winds – messier with more altitude gain and loss. Plus Colorado is hotter with longer water carries and seemed to sap my strength faster. 

I’ll  return to finish but got now feel pride jumping right in on another high route, challenging my mind and spirit and savoring the emptiness and vastness in less explored reaches of the backcountry.

Until then, stay tuned!

Richard says, ”My wife’s always smiling when she’s moving her body.”


Colorado Trail

The Colorado Trail, or CT, passes through 567 miles of the Rockies from Denver to Durango and shares half of its length with the Continental Divide Trail. Through the Sawatch Range, there are ample opportunities to bag 14ers (peaks over 14,000 feet.)

become a patron!
A perfect summit day for Mount Princeton, 14,197 feet.

going backwards

I wanted to walk another long trail, but I didn’t have quite the time for 500 miles. So, I decided to give the Colorado Trail a try, but start at the end and tick off as much as I could of the most spectacular scenery first before having to head back home and back on air.

My hiking friend from England, Ted, joined my husband and me in Denver and we drove to Durango for the start. We had a little joke about our crew; as the trail heads above 11,000 feet in the first 20 miles, we knew we’d need to go slow to acclimate. But that was mainly for my benefit as I take longer than average to settle down in the mountains. Richard has asthma and Ted is 17 years older than us, so in some ways, we were all at a disadvantage and a moderate pace wouldn’t crush anyone’s spirit.

Sadly, the altitude wasn’t our only problem. That August, a monsoon settled over the Rockies and wouldn’t let us out of her grip. We had days on end nearly completely socked in by constant precipitation, both rain and mist. Some days, there were no views at all, so when they finally opened up, we were on our knees with gratitude.

Wild flowers proliferated, including the state flower of columbine, which grew in huge bushes as we came off Blackhawk Pass. We camped below the pass the night before, with all of it to ourselves in dry conditions. The previous night at Taylor Lake was also deserted and filled with flowers as the storm clouds moved away, but someone left us a gift of their poop under a rock right at the campsite. Nice work!

A lotta rain = a lotta flowers.
Richard and Ted gossip during a break in the ever-present rain

showers bring flowers

It seemed every time we were certain the rain was moving on and we had clear sailing, clouds would develop and quickly turn ominous. We did all we could to avoid ridges and mountaintops in the afternoon, but the pattern was confusing even in the light – but thoroughly soaking – rain.

And that brought up the issue of how to stay dry when backpacking. Sure, we had rain pants and raincoats, but inevitably we’d sweat inside the coats and feel clammy and damp. We came across people wearing umbrellas as hats and they seemed to be doing fairly well, but only in the woods. Once out in the wind, the hats lost some of their covering power. I have yet to give umbrellas a try and I welcome your feedback on that. My Kavu hat was brilliant with its wide brim keeping at least my face totally dry.

One particularly long day of lots of rain and no views, we met a couple wearing giant mittens. They were all smiles, happy to be walking in whatever weather came their way – or just too much in love to notice much else. They told me they picked up these mitts made of eVent fabric from Mountain Laurel. I am now a proud owner and swear by these miraculous pieces of gear.

The mitt fits over your hand – plus any glove you might want to wear for warmth – and cinches tight around your jacket. If you have your hand up in front of you on walking sticks all day, you stay absolutely dry. I highly recommend them.

They also gave us beta on a snowmobilers hut ahead that might make a nice place to stay rather than set up the tents. We found it and claimed the little log cabin for ourselves, never quite figuring out how to start a fire in the stove, likely because the flue was stuck closed. We also noticed the rattraps around, so put one crumb in and set it just in case. Sadly, it was a matter of minutes before it sprung on a poor little beast.

Storms build in the distance as we descend Mount Shavano.
Snowmobiler’s cabin near Marshall Pass Road.

gear for staying dry

But this was days away, below Monarch Pass and after Ted and I bid farewell to Richard who finds a week’s hiking – and shitting in the woods – enough for him. We made a good team that first week, acclimating together and passing the time all crammed into our Big Agnes talking up a storm while I cooked in the vestibule and the rain lashed down.

I was always on the lookout for a site with a view but the boys won out when they convinced me not only would we have no view in non-stop mist, but also, out in the open, we’d be soaked through and through. The tent worked well, as did packing the things that needed to stay dry – like clothes and my sleeping bag – in separate Granite Gear eVent stuff sacks. (Noticing a pattern here?)

I have never been a big fan of pack covers, which tend to blow off, rip apart, or cover only part of the rucksack. I also find simply lining the bag inconvenient, because you might want to remove contents and set them in the elements until you’re ready for them.

Things I did not do on this trip that have now become part of my routine is to wear trail runners rather than boots. If the sole is rugged and the toe box protected, mesh shoes dry faster than boots and are close to the same in protection. Gators help to keep water out of the shoe, but in constant rain, an ankle-covering boot will take in water just as easily.

We had an actual river form on the trail one day, rushing, pulling sticks and muck with it and creating its own powerful force to sweep us off your feet. Fortunately, the maintenance crew created exits for the rushing deluge and it plunged down a ravine off-trail.

While the rain was our nearly constant companion, there were plenty of sparkling clear days of long views, fields blanketed in wildflowers and superb walking. The three of us found decent sites near water and with terrific views (if clear) for six nights as we worked our way towards Molas Lake Campground, where Richard would take the historic Silverton narrow gauge rail back to Durango and the car and Ted and I would push on as far as we could get in two weeks.

All smiles when the sun came out.
For several days, the CT stays close to or above 12,000 feet.

Rocky Mountain high

I was disappointed that swimming was prohibited in Molas Lake, but delighted with the little store that we cleared out of its junk food. It’s rare when planning a hike that I remember how famished I am on the trail – or that I sometimes lose my appetite entirely and only want salt and sugar. Sated and rested, Ted and I left earlier than Richard to get a good start on a day that took us down massive switchbacks to 8900 feet and right back up to 12,000.

Richard tells us that all he needed to do was stand on or near the tracks and wave down the train. He reports it was a blast to ride back, though tourists gave him a funny look kitted out in backpacking gear and reeking after a week on the trail.

Ted and I had smashing weather all the way to Mine Camp, where we looked out on an approaching storm that thankfully fizzled while I made dinner and promptly spilled it all over the ground. Like good hikers, we just took our sporks and grabbed the clean bits.

The next days were the most spectacular, keeping us above 12,000 feet for a few days with wild, expansive views. We found great sites close enough to water and with plenty of solitude. It was spooky to cross a bowl and pump water from a trickle of creek, the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

Columbine, Colorado’s state flower was in massive clumps all over the high mountains.
The CT has wildly changing landscapes.

zero day in Creede

The CT high point at 13, 271 was totally shrouded in cloud, but that didn’t keep me from snapping a picture. Likewise, Snow Mesa was completely obliterated, but as an exposed ridge that oftentimes attracts some of the most savage lightning storms, we felt safe in rain, if not a little cranky and cold.

The trail meandered on and on, and up and up. As we got closer to the cut off for Creede and our resupply, I saw cairns marching up the mountain and out of sight into the clouds. “I can’t go up that!” But Ted urged me along and we popped up and over and into a long valley on a rutted rocky road.

Five miles to town, but this isn’t such bad walking, I thought, just as it started to really piss down. Conversation stopped and it was as if each of sucked our necks back into our shells to press on. We saw a car, but it was parked with a sun screen on the windshield, likely a hiker far away now.

Then rounding a bend, I spotted a truck – and the doors were open. I began running. “Wait! Hello! Wait!” I yelled. I must have looked like a crazy person. Two fellows were loading in some gear and gave me a languorously long look. “Who are you?” they asked.

I told them we had been hiking and needed a ride into Creede. What they were loading in their truck turned out to be gold mining equipment, but when it became obvious we had zero interest in their claim, they were all smiles and gave us a lift down, even helping us find a place for the night at the height of tourist season.

Of course, the weather cleared and we had a lovely night of food, showers and laundry. But we were up right when the post office opened the next day and back on the trail, the sky, of course, clouding back up.

Storm approaching at Mine Camp high above the Silverton-Durango narrow gauge railway.
A trail angel left several cases of soft drinks for weary hikers on this lonely stretch of the CT.

thirsty hikers

Things changed after Creede, with long stretches on high plateaus. The big mountains were behind – and ahead – but for now it was a new world. I liked it, but I imagine if you were really limited on time, you might want to avoid the flat parts – and the parts where you briefly walk on road. But as a thru-hiker, I love taking it all in, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Crossing Seargent’s Mesa was a favorite as it opened out with views to the peaks far in the distance, the ground crowded with fancifully weathered logs. We camped below at Tank Seven Creek when the wildest storm seemingly came out of nowhere. I raced to bring in my drying clothes before diving into the tent, a bolt striking far too close for comfort.

Later, on one long lonely section, a trail angel parked a horse trailer and filled it with sodas. Ted and I grabbed a couple of Fantas and he poured grape pop right into his water bottle. Of course it exploded a few minutes later as the pressure built up, a cause for much teasing.

As we approached Monarch Pass, we were delighted with views opening up of the spectacular Sawatch Range, one huge humping 14er after another in an elegant line. It was here that we met mountain bikers – and a group with special mountain motorcycles. I was impressed with their consideration. Signs on the trail tell wheels to yield to two legs – and wheels and two legs to yield to four-legs. From what we saw, everyone was accommodating. Nice work, Colorado!

Tunnel of trees in mist on the Colorado Trail.
Big Agnes after a storm.

peak baggers

By the time we crossed US-50 – where a motorcyclist’s chick took my picture crossing the highway and I gave her a one-fingered wave for the scrapbook – we knew peak bagging was in our future. There were a few days left before Richard would return to pick us up. So we thought why not hit two at once and the first ones on the trail, Shavano and Tabeguache. Our supplies were dwindling and we were pretty wrecked by that point, but we pushed our bodies to the trailhead, a spur off the CT, and planned to get an early start.

I’d like to mention one thing here about the map we used. The Colorado Trail Datebook put out by the CT Foundation coupled with Eric the Black’s CT Pocket Atlas. Combined, they provided all the information needed including the estimated state of the water supply, whether a trusted creek was full all season or only partially or – my most favorite – whether to expect only a “seasonal seep.” The areas where water was absolutely not available is, of course, critical. I am indebted to these people for creating such good resources.

But there was no definitive answer on water near the trailhead. We knew about a mile further was a good source and we also looked for steams along the way, but we saw nothing. And then, just as we passed the cut off for Shavano, running right across the trail was a little burbling spring! Praise the goddess, we were good to go. The tent went up in the woods and we prepared for our first day hike in three weeks. Ted even tried a bath right there on the trail. Thankfully, no one was walking by at that moment.

It’s tough work getting up a 14er. The trail junction is just under 10,000 feet so it was all up through bristle cone pines to an eroded saddle, then rock hopping in high winds. The place was packed and it only took a little coaxing to get Ted to continue on to bag two peaks in a day. But once we came down, we could see the storms raging over the distant peaks and so picked up the pace. When it hit us, it was ice pellets in the face all the way to the tree-line, then thunder as we descended through the woods.

CDT shares the trail

Having a little taste, we wanted more, so arranged a ride up Mount Princeton’s rutted road and took in another 14er before giving up the trail and awaiting Richard’s arrival. We then rounded up the trip with the little gem of Mt. Huron which the boys allowed me to run up as they kicked back at the meadow. It was there that Ted and I agreed next summer, let’s do ‘em all.

And one day, we might finish the CT. Or who knows, maybe go back and do it all over again and hope for clearer skies. NOTE: I’m hoping to repeat it all next season on the Continental Divide Trail, which splits off before Durango to head into New Mexico.

A quick shout out to Princeton Hot Springs resort. They offered to hold a resupply box for us for as long as we needed at no charge. They’re located directly on the trail and it’s worth a stop for at the very least a beer and a meal. You have a view in the shade of Mount Princeton and even though we were smelly and dusty, they let us hang as long as we wanted on their beautiful veranda.

Clowning around near Monarch Pass.

Fifteen Fourteeners, CO

The Sawatch Range is a high and extensive group of mountains in central Colorado right along the Colorado Trail that eight of the 20 highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains, including the highest, Mount Elbert at 14,400 feet.

become a patron!
scree slope, Mt. Antero

My friend and I scaled all of the peaks in two weeks, with (mostly) perfect weather, all 15 14’ers in central Colorado’s Sawatch Range. Some backpacking, some brew pubbing and lots of heavy breathing. Pro tip: prepare for all weathers, get an early start and be ready to bail, but enjoy every step of the journey.