Today is said to be the most beautiful section of the Collegiate West Wilderness. We will be entering Segment CW3 at Cottonwood Pass, and we will spend almost the entire day above treeline. With so many miles of exposure, it is important that we hit the trail early in case the weather turns on us in the afternoon. So, when the alarm goes off at 5 am, we don’t dawdle.
At this point, we have our routine down. We can pack up everything by touch in the tent, and we work quickly. When Matt goes to get the bear bags, the sun is just coming up. He can’t resist chasing some of the pink clouds that are lit up by the pre-dawn light, so he runs to the end of the lake and catches a nice reflection.
Juli and Eden manage to hit the trail at least half an hour before us. We wave as they pass our camp and say that we will meet them up ahead somewhere, if not then likely in camp at the end of the day. We finish our breakfast and brush our teeth and then head out on our own by 6:30.
We still have 2.5 miles and 650 feet of elevation gain to finish Segment CW2. The sunlight is soft, making everything so picturesque. We try our best not to stop every ten feet for another photo of the gorgeous wildflowers in bloom with a stunning mountain backdrop, but the trail seems to be conspiring against us at every turn this morning.
Before long, we run into a father/daughter duo packing up their campsite. Steve (aka “Mr. Colorado”) and Emma (aka “Skeeter”) are from Denver and hoping to hike the whole CT, too, although Steve has been having some bad tendonitis in his calf and thinks that they will need to take some time off the trail soon. Steve hikes with us for a bit while Emma finishes packing up. He says that the CT is a lot tougher than he thought it would be, despite being able to get out on day hikes in the Colorado mountains quite often.
After a while, Steve drops back to wait up for Emma, and we continue to the top of the saddle, where we are treated to more stunning views.
While we are there, Deep Dish catches up to us. We are surprised to see him again, as we thought that he woud be well ahead of us, but he tells us he filled up on water at South Texas Creek and didn’t feel like carrying the extra 4 pounds last night anymore. We walk with him for a bit, but he is on the move this morning. He was hoping to hitchhike to Buena Vista at Cottonwood Pass, but the road is closed to all vehicle traffic while they are doing construction at the pass. He is going to have to hike an extra 15.9 miles to the end of the next segment before he can even try for a ride. He is out of sight within minutes.
By the time we get to Cottonwood Pass, everyone else we know on the trail converges on the scene. Steve and Emma take our photo at the cool sign that shows we are standing on the Continental Divide and then head on their way.
Juli and Eden are down at the tarn below the pass eating their breakfast. We drop our packs and grab our cameras in hopes of getting some good reflections in the still waters. Juli tells us that there is still no word about Paul, which makes us all a little more worried. Wouldn’t Ellen have texted us by now if everything were ok?
By the time we climb back up to our bags and set off on the trail, we are alone again. We can tell right from the get-go that this is going to be a fantastic day. We are already above treeline, and we can see the trail stretching out along the meadow-covered mountain tops in front of us for miles.
This is classic Colorado in our minds, but it reminds us off the amazing ridge walk we did between the Iris Burn Hut and the Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track in New Zealand. It’s not every day that you get to walk on a trail that looks like this, and we are relishing every second of it. We contour the mountains and head up to a ridge where Juli and Eden are having a break.
Eden has made a snow cone out of some Crystal Light—straight up—and snow from one of the last remaining patches of snow of the season. She says that it is delicious and insists that we take a bite.
We dig our spoons out of our packs and take a sample. After our long climb up to this spot in the Collegiate Peak Wilderness, it is hard to imagine something that could possibly taste any more refreshing at this moment. We are sold, and Matt goes back down the trail to fill our cups with some snow. We pour a packet of Cherry Pomegranate on top and feel like two little kids on a summer day. Thank you, Eden!
Juli is anxious to get through the exposed miles today, so they take off while we enjoy our treat. Once we start heading down the trail, I spot a ptarmigan chick on the path in front of me. Mama is just behind me off the trail, very close to Matt, and she is calling for her chicks, who appear to be spread out everywhere.
We head on our way, so the family can be reunited, and run into a male and female sitting in the next stretch of rocks. The male is making sounds that sound like a warning to his mate, who is hunkered down in the rocks and difficult to spot at first. We are hopeful that she is sitting on a clutch of eggs, but it appears there is nothing when she finally hops up as we pass. We seem to be walking down Ptarmigan Alley. They are everywhere today!
We continue to contour the mountainside on a thin, ribbon of trail for the next four miles. This stretch of the Colorado Trail makes all of the effort we have put into being here at this moment all worthwhile.
We have our eyes set on Sanford Saddle for our lunch spot, but the wind really picks up once we get close to the top. Instead, we run into a nice couple from Western North Carolina, Tricia and Austin, who are backpacking the Collegiate Loop, which is both the east and the west sides put together. Matt asks about the east side, since we are only doing the west. They are both in agreement that we definitely chose correctly to do the west side. They say that the east is pleasant, but it is a lot more accessible so there are plenty of people and hardly any views above treeline. Hiking there reminds them of the AT. In yet another small world moment, these two are about to move from Asheville to Burnsville, very close to where my parents live in North Carolina. We wish them the best on the rest of their trip and suggest we get together the next time we are in NC to chat more about our Colorado experiences.
With the wind blowing, we crest the ridge and descend towards Mineral Basin in hopes of finding a good lunch spot. Of course, we see yet another ptarmigan hen with chicks as we pass a scree field. Because we are so exposed, we are keeping a very careful eye on the sky, but, so far, the clouds today are not menacing at all and add an extra element of interest to the stunning landscapes that we are being treated to.
From there the trail snugly contours the east side of the mountains, and we have to hike a ways until we find a spot off the trail that is wide enough to drop our packs and have a seat. Juli and Eden found the same spot and are just packing up to leave. They are headed to the campsite either at mile 13.4 or at the end of the segment. They have to be in Salida on Saturday and are in a little bit more of a time crunch than we are. Off they go again. It feels like we have been playing tag all day, but it turns out that this will definitely be the last time that we see them today.
Over lunch, Matt and I look at the data book and backwards plan the end of this segment. We will be heading to Salida on Sunday, and the closest we can camp to the Monarch Pass trailhead is 8.2 miles from the pass. If we hike all the way to the end of this segment today, then we will have a really short day either tomorrow or Saturday. We quickly come to the unanimous decision that this amazing alpine wonderland is the place we should be spending our extra time. We will take a short day here and even out the mileage of our other days.
As we head down the trail, we couldn’t be happier with our decision. We come to a spot that is so dense with wildflowers that we drop our packs and pull out the cameras to play. The combination of hot pink Indian Paintbrush, lavender Aster and yellow daisies is stunning as a foreground subject to the majestic mountain peaks behind. We practically lay down on the trail in hopes of adequately capturing the spectacular scene. What fun this is when you are not worried about making big miles!
We also pass large boulder fields that cover the trail, and we take our time here, too. This is not only because the footing is a little tricky but also because this is the land of marmots, and we love marmots!
Matt spots a couple big guys down below the trail who seem a little curious about us but don’t come too close. Just before we are about to get to the dirt trail again, I spy a juvenile marmot sunning himself on a rock just a few feet above where Matt is standing. I yell for Matt to stop, and he does. I tell him to turn around, and the tone of my voice lets him know to move slowly. When he finally gets his head around, he sees that he is practically standing face-to-face with this lazy marmot, who doesn’t seem bothered by our presence at all.
I wasn’t sure how Matt would react to another close encounter with a rodent, but he handles this one like a champ. He even manages to get a few decent shots of the marmot with his iPhone. Life is good!
When we pass the stream at mile 7.0, we decide to stop yet again and filter our water before looking for a campsite. The setting is so pretty, and we are doing this so much earlier in the day today that it doesn’t even feel like it is a chore. It’s awesome when you make an unexpected decision that just feels so right.
We hike on until we find a campsite in a grassy bowl just below the trail and enjoy a relaxing and rejuvenating afternoon in camp. Matt finds the perfect spot to sprawl out in the grass, and he looks like he has died and gone to heaven.
We hope we can manufacture a few more days like this in the future because having the time to enjoy a practically perfect day in the mountains of Colorado is about as good as it gets. Cheers!
Day 19 Statistics
Starting Point: Small pond near trail, mile 216.6
End Point: Mineral Basin Trailside camp, mile 226.6
Segment: CW 02-03
Date on Trail: July 19, 2018