Colorado Trail, Day 31: Storming Snow Mesa

Today we begin the 5th leg of our Colorado Trail adventure, hiking from San Luis Pass near Creede down to Molas Pass near Silverton. The next 68.1 miles will largely be above treeline, so we are crossing our fingers that we will get a good weather window that will allow us to finish this stage in only 4.5 days. It’s a little ambitious for us, but we are feeling strong and hope we can do it. It all starts today with Day 31, so here goes.

We have arranged a ride at 7:30 with a Creede local named Debby who will give us a lift back up to the trailhead this morning. This gives us just enough time to grab one more quick breakfast at the Snowshoe Motel (including some of those famous pastries!), and, most importantly, for Matt to slam a couple cups of coffee before hitting the trail.

Juli and Eden are riding with us, along with Kristen and John, a young couple from Mississippi, who are also on the CT.

Debby has a small, red pickup truck. We pile all of the backpacks in the back, and Matt, Kristin and John nestle in among the bags and try to get as comfortable as possible. Eden and I sit on little jump seats behind Debby and Juli. It’s a cozy, 45-minute ride up through Creede and along rough Forest Service roads back to San Luis Pass.

Just outside of town, there are a bunch of old buildings from Creede’s mining days. Debby tells us that there are only about 500 year-round residents nowadays, but, back in the the late 1800s during the mining heyday, the population of the town swelled to over 10,000 people. The mines and the saloons were open 24/7, and it was quite the hoppin’ place to be. Looking at the old, dark brown mining buildings, it’s easy to imagine Creede in wealthier times. What a place that would have been to see!

By the time we get up the road and our bags are all unloaded, it’s already after 8:30 in the morning, a much later start than we would normally like on a big day. Luckily, the weather is looking good, and we start out without a single cloud in the sky. Debby wishes us a safe hike, and we all thank her for the ride and give her $10/twosome for her payment. (She only charges $25 for this service, no matter the number of people, which is a steal of a deal, especially considering how rough the roads are that she is driving!)

We have a mile to hike on the West Willow Creek Trail to get back to the CT. Unfortunately, this is a bonus mile for us that isn’t counted as part of the official Colorado Trail mileage, and it’s all uphill. But, after a true rest day in Creede yesterday, it feels good to be back on the trail, and, before we know it, we are already at the trail junction that marks the start of Segment 21 that will take us to Spring Creek Pass.

Right away, we are faced with another uphill climb of almost 1000 feet over 1.3 miles. It seems that this trail means to whip us back into shape today! Up we go, huffing and puffing our way up to a saddle at 12,887 feet. From there, we immediately drop all the elevation we gained only to do it all over again.

It is super windy at the top, so we don’t linger long. If this weather holds, we want to make miles and get through Snow Mesa today.

On our way down, Matt spots three male Big Horn Sheep chilling out on a rocky ledge far above us. We can see their impressive curled horns with our naked eyes from below, but it’s cool to check them out with the binoculars for a better view. We also get another up-close view of a ptarmigan hen and her chicks, who are looking almost full-grown at this point in the summer.

There is a large group of horseback riders on the trail today. We saw them first at the lower parking lot, and Matt found out that they are on a four-day excursion, so chances are most likely that we will run into them several times during this leg of the trail. We pass each other a few times before lunch, and then they are gone for the day.

Our third and final climb is our biggest of the day. This one is up to Snow Mesa, a high alpine plateau that we are warned not to attempt to cross if the weather is bad. At an elevation of over 12,000 feet and nowhere to run or to hide for over nine miles, we aren’t taking any chances. Lucky for us, the skies continue to be absolutely clear today. “There’s not a mean cloud in the sky,” says Eden. We are counting our lucky stars because we were dodging thunderstorms every day before we arrived in Creede. A cloudless day where we aren’t worrying about the arrival of menacing clouds is such a luxury for this segment.

We break for a quick lunch just before the final climb. The horses catch up to us again, and we are happy to let them pass us and take the lead for a while.

Next, it’s on to the mesa. There’s a strong breeze that helps keep us cool all afternoon. For the first time that I can remember in a while, we stay in our long pants and long-sleeved shirts all day long. The mesa, in particular, is dusty, and I try to keep my distance from Matt as he kicks dust up into the air and, consequently, all over me.

The expanse of Snow Mesa is pretty incredible. Everywhere we look, it is flat and barren in all directions. The mesa is covered in dried, yellow grasses, and, every ten to fifteen feet, a clump that is only slightly larger sticks up to break up the monotony just a little.

Just when we think there is completely nothing out there, Matt spies a Horned Lark feeding in the grasses. This is a “lifer” for us, and it’s a pretty cool bird to see. He has a striking black facial mask and a pale yellow throat. Every now and then, he will raise his black ear tufts that give him the appearance of having horns. Matt has been hoping to see this bird since Day 1, so he is super excited!

When we finally get to the end of the mesa, we are eager for a change in the trail. The only problem is that the trail leads us down the face of the mesa, and the slippery, rocky terrain is about the last thing our tired legs were hoping to see. It feels like we are stepping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

We pick our way carefully down the rocky path. Once we hit treeline, it’s a little easier going. We still have 1.8 miles until the end of the segment, where we are hoping we will find water and a place to camp. We can hear the highway below us for quite a while, but it’s definitely a relief when it finally comes into view.

There is a spring-fed creek running next to the highway where many hikers, including Juli and Eden, are filtering water. We join them and top up to four liters apiece in order to make dinner, breakfast and to have three liters for tomorrow’s long 18-mile haul.

Once that chore is done, we head across the highway to the Spring Pass Information Area, where a sign clearly stating “No Camping” is being fully ignored by the 8 other CT hikers and bicyclists who have gathered here for the night. This is a day-use area with picnic tables and a clean, vault toilet that proves to be too luxurious for us all to pass up.

We set up our tent for the night, hoping that no Forest Service rangers will drop by the area before we leave early tomorrow morning. We are absolutely filthy and have to spend some quality time cleaning our dirty legs and feet from the day’s dusty trail conditions.

As soon as night falls, a cold front of air comes drifting down the mountainside and settles into the camp. We retreat into our tent and sleeping bags and settle in for another pleasant night of sleep.

Day 31 Stats

Starting Point: San Luis Pass Traihead, mile 343
End Point: Spring Creek Pass Trailhead, mile 357.8
Mileage: 14.8 (+ 1 from parking lot on FS 503 to rejoin SLP Trailhead)
Segment: 21
Date on Trail: July 31, 2018

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