Colorado Trail, Day 32: Reaching New Heights

Boy, we think we get up early, but the two mountain bikers in camp have us beat by an hour on the wake up call. We hear the tires crunching down the gravel past our tent at about 4 am! Off they go for a big day on the trail. We also have a big day planned, but we are content to start the hustle and bustle at 5 am. We head up a logging road on a gentle ascent for several miles, eager to knock off some of today’s trail while it’s still cool and early in the day.

We are making good time when, off in the distance, we see a phalanx off fuzzy wool coming at us, mowing down the short grass as it moves. We’ve seen scenes like this before in Albania and Peru, but never here in the US, so it seems out of place. We watch as the sheep move together, guided by a shepherd on horseback and his trusty sheepdog. The sheep seem oblivious to me as I photograph them, until I make a sudden move, and they all scurry away from me.

The next long phase of the trail has us steadily ascending another mesa above treeline, and we feel like we are doing Snow Mesa (from yesterday) all over again. In fact, we look back across Spring Creek Pass and the valley we crossed and can now see Snow Mesa through the haze off in the distance.

The only thing distracting us from our hike today are the many horned larks that we see flitting about in the grass and making their peculiar call. We saw our very first yesterday (a lifer for both of us!), but today we are able to observe the male with his “horns” flared when he’s perched atop a rock and on alert. We also see females and at least one juvenile staying close to mom!

For a brief time we descend back below treeline and enjoy a little shade and the first real lush greenery and wildflowers we have seen in several days.

It doesn’t last long, but when we emerge we have the San Juan mountain range looming ever larger in front of us. With the help of our Peak Finder app, we are able to identify a few prominent peaks, including Windom and Sunlight Peaks (which we recognize by name from our trip into Chicago Basin a few years ago) and Red Mountain, noteworthy for the color that stands out from the surrounding peaks.

It’s very hazy all day today. We know from our friends in Durango that this is because of the many wildfires currently burning in California. It’s crazy how far the smoke travels! We hike a bit further on the open mesa and then decide to stop for lunch at the edge with stunning views below and off in the distance.

The horse caravans, with whom we are sharing the trail, finally catch up to us and pass us by. We can also see two large Boy Scout groups. Everybody seems to stop for lunch at the same time. We are a little worried about where everyone is headed, as virtually none of the campsites we’ve encountered on the CT can support such large numbers of campers.

As we pass by the Scout groups, we discover that they are going at a much slower pace. In fact, they were supposed to hike at Philmont Scout Ranch this summer, but this popular high adventure camp is closed due to the wildfires that burned in New Mexico this summer. Along with the Colorado fires that almost threatened to prevent us from completing the CT, countless thousands of acres of forest must have burned this summer. We certainly cannot take for granted that the beauty that surrounds us will last forever!

We know that we are in for the big climb of the day all the way up to the highest point on the CT. We can see what lies in front of us, so we are eager to keep up the good pace we have established so far. As we make our way up the steep, rocky switchbacks to the first plateau, we see that the first horse caravan has stalled.

As we get closer, we notice that a few riders have dismounted. One older woman is being helped as she scrambles up the boulders away from her horse. It appears her horse became skittish when the incline proved too steep, and now he wants out! This causes a horse jam of sorts and a whole lot of confusion. One woman almost gets bumped off the trail, and another almost gets kicked by the other horses who also were clearly not happy. We are a little concerned about a runaway horse or being hit by falling rocks, so we keep our distance.

With no way around them on the narrow trail and no way for us to help out, we have no choice but to take off our backpacks and patiently wait just off trail as the group sorts things out. In the meantime, the skies are looking more and more threatening. We still have a lot of elevation to gain, so this couldn’t have happened at a worse time for us. In the end the group has to walk their horses back down several switchbacks to level ground, regroup and start all over again. We are delayed about 45 minutes.

With the “traffic” finally clear we continue our climb. Once we got to the difficult section, we can see why the horses were uneasy. It proves difficult enough with hiking poles and backpacks to maneuver. This section of trail could use some maintenance—either some stepping to control the erosion or a reroute to cut a more gentle switchback for both hikers and horses. I can’t even imagine what this would be like on a bike!

A few switchbacks beyond we encounter Laura, the 71 year-old rider with the problem horse, who was left alone while the others sorted things out. We help her to a more comfortable seat and ask if she needs any water or food. She thanks us and says she is determined to get back on her horse and finish what she has started. Knowing the others will catch up to her soon, we head off.

Of course, once we reach the top of this pass we realize it’s a false summit. We contour the mountain, dip down, cross a rocky scree section of trail and dip down again before making the final switchbacks to the highest point on the Colorado Trail at 13,271 feet. It’s extremely windy up here, so, with yet another milestone behind us, we plod on downhill.

The horse caravans eventually pass us and thank us again for our kindness to Laura. We are now on a dusty, slippery road that we share, not only with horses, but with jeeps and ATVs. My left shin is starting to really throb on the downhills, but there’s little to be done about it so we press on.

As we finish the segment descending to Carson Saddle we see the remains of an old mining operation below surrounded by fireweed in bloom. The sun peeks out from behind the clouds and lights up the entire valley in golden light. It seems like it’s been a while since we had this kind of light, and it lifts our mood as we head off in search of a camp for the evening.

We stop at a stream and fill up on water, splash our faces and wash the dust off our bare legs. Refreshed we press on noticing at least seven tents camped fifty feet below the trail at the first marked spot in the data book. It looks too steep to climb down and, frankly, too crowded. As much as we enjoy meeting fellow hikers on the trail, what we really seek is solitude in nature, so we pass this by in hopes of finding a quieter spot to ourselves.

Less than half a mile further up the valley we find one of those perfect sites with a great view, a little protection and a good space for the tent. It’s all smiles as we take off our packs for the last time today.

All our aches and pains melt away as we admire the view and set up our camp for the evening. The nightly foot cleansing ensues.

The sun warms us as we clean up. I enjoy a cup of coffee, and we notice a small herd of our elk grazing down below. We are even rewarded with a proud, male dusky grouse who struts through camp with his tail feathers up, displaying his red neck patches to attract any females who may be interested in his company.

As the sun goes down, we enjoy a warm meal satisfied by another great day on the Colorado Trail.

Day 32 Stats

Starting Point: Spring Creek Pass Trailhead, mile 357.8
End Point: Trailside camp left of trail between streams, mile 376.6
Mileage: 18.8
Segments: 22 & 23
Date on Trail: August 1, 2018

4 thoughts on “Colorado Trail, Day 32: Reaching New Heights

  1. This is a truly incredible journal you two have of your hike. The photos and descriptions are awesome! You need to turn it into an e-book afterwards and charge for it.

    I’ve never had the desire to hike the Appalachian or PCT, but the Colorado trail always seemed doable. Thanks for letting me travel vicariously.

    1. Thanks, Jeff! We appreciate the compliment, but I think we may have to pay people to read it! The CT is definitely a nice introduction to thru-hiking, but it is a long way from you now. Nepal is ideal for trekking in October when your wife has her time off. It’s that of any interest to you?

      1. Nepal is very much of interest for a trek. She only has one week off in October, but all of June and July. I remember you did a trek in northern India. What time of your did you do that one?

        I grew up in Oklahoma only about 9 hours from Denver. Colorado is where I fell in love with the mountains.

        How does the Colorado Trail compare difficulty wise to other treks you’ve done?

      2. Nepal is best in May or October. We hiked there in July, and it wasn’t as rainy as we feared it would be. On the other hand, it was really cloudy and overcast, so we never really got to see the mountains, which was a shame. There were also leaches everywhere! Yuck!
        We did two hikes in India. One was in Uttarakhand (near Nepal), which is best in June. The other was in Ladakh, where it is very arid and can be hiked in July. Both were great, but the altitude is crazy. We went over 16,000 foot passes almost every day!
        The CT was relatively easy compared to a lot of the treks we have done. There were almost no parts of it that were out of my comfort zone. That’s my kind of trail!

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