The big day has finally arrived! After months of planning, preparing and training, and after hours of shopping, repackaging, staging and mailing our resupplies, it’s final time to start hiking. We have whittled down our lives to what fits in a roughly 40 pound backpack (with 6 days of food and adequate water). It’s time to live the simple life, so to speak, and get back to nature. The task for the next 42 days will be simply to walk, observe, photograph, write…and walk some more.
The Colorado Trail, all 485 miles of it from Denver to Durango, has been on our radar ever since we hiked the John Muir Trail in 2016. That experience proved to us that we had the stamina for longer treks and whetted our appetite for more. We’ve backpacked and hiked in Colorado before (4-Pass Loop, Chicago Basin, etc.), but never for this length. Needless to say, we are eager with anticipation to hit the trail and see what the CT has in store for us!
We are dropped off at the Waterton Canyon Trailhead, the official start of the Colorado Trail at about 9 in the morning. It is a bright sunny day that already has the feeling it is going to be quite hot. We are fortunate to be driven here by our friend Bob who lives in Denver with his lovely wife Ann and their two daughters. Last night, they threw a marvelous send-off party for us at their home with eight of their closest friends and an insane spread of delicious homemade tacos with all the fixings—guacamole, salsa, esquites (corn relish)—and homemade ice cream pies for dessert!
As we are about to embark on a 485-mile 42-day jaunt into the wilderness, surviving on nuts and berries (and rehydrated meals), that final real meal is hard to get out of our minds. Last night was such a fun way to spend our final night in civilization for a while. Bob teases us, asking if we are sure that we really want to go through with this. There’s a refrigerator full of leftovers back home. Do you want to come back?
We laugh it off, but there’s always a little part of us that does want to turn around and go home before we do an undertaking like this. But after so much planning and thinking about this very moment, there’s no way we are going to let our nerves get the best of us.
We hug our gracious host goodbye in the parking lot and head in the direction of all the other runners and mountain bikers who we are sharing this popular recreation area just south of Denver with today. Not far down the trail is the official sign for the CT, and we take the obligatory trailhead shot. Now it feels like our adventure is officially underway! No turning back now!
Within minutes, we are stopped by a woman from the forest service who runs over to us and asks us to sign the trail register. We happily oblige, and she and her colleague warn us about some recent bear activity in the area.
We are all ears and take all of their suggestions to help avoid any unwanted encounters seriously. We, of course, already know everything they tell us, but it never hurts to hear it again, especially since it’s been a while since we have camped in bear country.
The trail is actually a hard-pack dirt road for the first 6.7 miles, and we enjoy an easy breaking in on the trail this first day on the CT. The road follows the South Platte River, and there are lots of birds enjoying this green oasis in an otherwise arid area. There are picnic areas with outhouses every few miles, each of them with a more threatening name—Rattlesnake, Black Bear, Mountain Lion—none of which we run into. Instead, we enjoy the pretty Colorado mountain views that we are getting our first taste of.
This area is known for Big Horn Sheep sightings, and we do manage to spot a group of them high on a rocky perch. They blend into the rocks and are hard to spot with the naked eye, but we count eight in all with the help of Matt’s binoculars.
At the last rest area, we take our lunch break and chat with some of the dayhikers who are taking a rest here before heading back to the trailhead. Just before we leave a young thru-hiker walks up and us really excited to meet us. He just graduated from high school, and this is his first big backpacking trip. He says we are the first thru-hikers he had ever met.
We filter some water here before taking off. Our intention is to get to the campsite at Bear Creek, just another 2.5 miles up the trail, but we don’t know if there will be any water there. Our data book says that there is likely water flowing in the creek, but this has been a very dry year in Colorado. We probably should mule up some more water just in case, but we decide to risk it and see what happens.
The trail from there leaves the road shortly after, and we also start climbing elevation. There’s not a lot of shade to speak of, and within minutes I can feel the sweat stinging my eyes.
Our packs feel much heavier now, but we keep plodding along, and eventually we make it to the camp. It is about 3:30, and there are a handful of hikers already there, lounging around and hanging out.
We get the water report and are warned that there isn’t a lot of it. We head up the trail a bit to check it out and find a small pool of water that looks like good enough to filter, at least we hope it is. The water looks clear, and there is the faintest of flows a little further up. We pull out our new Sawyer Squeeze filters for the first time and are able to collect enough water to make moving on to a dry camp a possibility.
We go back to the campsite to gather our packs. The crowd that has gathered at Bear Creek is very congenial, and they wish us luck as we head on. It is almost 4 when we set off, and the temperature is finally cooling down, which makes the bonus 4+ miles and 700 get off elevation gain go by a little easier.
We get passed up by a few interesting characters, including Nomad who is fresh off of hiking 1400 miles on the Appalachian Trail. He tells us stories of how brutal the trail was this spring with relentless cold, snow and rain. He is in top hiking form and doesn’t stick around for long with us slow pokes.
We pass a mother/daughter duo who are setting up camp just beside the trail. They tell us they are leaving by 3:30 to try to get through tomorrow’s burn section that is lacking shade and notoriously hot. We haven’t decided what our plan is yet, but we know we are moving on now.
In another mile or so, we come across another camp where two women are eating their dinner on an outcropping of rocks. They are the only ones here, and they tell us there is room for us there. We grab a spot right by the trail, set up camp and make dinner in quick order.
It’s almost dark when we go to hang up our bear bags, and we had down the trail to look for some trees with perfect branches at least 10 feet off the ground and long and sturdy enough to support a 10 pound bag of food and toiletries. We find one to give a try. Matt attempts to throw a rock attached to a special bear rope that we have brought just for this purpose.
He misses the first time, and the rope goes over a small dead branch that won’t work. He yanks on the cord to get it back down, and the branch breaks off the tree and smacks him right on the top of his head. He is clearly in pain, but he is lucky that the piece of the branch that hit him wasn’t any bigger. We are a little more careful about untying the rock and gently pulling just the string back over after that, and we are able to get both bags hung without further injury.
We are both eager to get to bed. We have decided to do the early morning departure after all, and our alarm will be going off at 4 am. Time to get some sleep!
Day 1 Trail Stats
Starting Point: Waterton Canyon
End Point: Dry campsite at Leaning Rocks, mile 11.8
Date on Trail: July 1, 2018