On paper, today is the shortest mileage day of this leg between Creede and Silverton. We only have to hike 14.5 miles, and, after the 15.8 and 18.8 mile-days that we have put in already, we wake up figuring that today’s hike should feel pretty easy. Funny how that’s not the way it works.
When we set off on the trail at 6:30, the early morning light in the valley is doing its thing and making the rosy peaks lining our morning walk look especially attractive.
We are enthralled by the scene and stop to take photographs of the mountains in golden light every few feet. It feels like it has been a while since we have had morning scenery as beautiful as this, and we take our sweet time traversing the long valley towards our first of many passes today.
When we pass some interesting rock formations with a field of pink fireweed in bloom just below it, all bets are off, and we have some fun shooting the gorgeous scene. This is the stuff we love!
In fact, it’s really difficult to make any progress at all this morning. Every bend in the trail reveals a new perspective of the valley with its walls of mountain peaks reaching high above us. With fewer miles to cover, we enjoy the opportunity to focus a little more on the photography this morning.
The valley floor is covered with willow bushes and a few small ponds. It looks like the perfect habitat for moose, and, sure enough, just before getting to the last possible watering hole, Matt exclaims, “There’s a moose!”
On closer inspection, we can see that there are actually two moose standing together near the pond. One is a large male with an impressive set of antlers, while the other is a much smaller male whose antlers are just coming in, perhaps only a year or two old at most. Two male moose together! We are thrilled!
As we continue to watch them, we spot another large bull feeding in the willow bushes about 50 feet away from the other two. No way! Three male moose together is crazy, right? Well, would you believe that there is a fourth one, too? We can hardly believe our eyes, but it is true! Limited to our wide angle lens and iPhone, this is the best we can do to document the event, but at least you can get a sense of it all.
Eventually all four male moose are hanging out together in a small meadow between the willow bushes and the pond. With them all standing next to each other, we can see that there are two that are full grown with huge racks. The two others are both immature, but one looks slightly older than the other. Again, we have to be content with just observing them from a distance through binoculars instead of photographing them with a long lens which is what we really want to do. We nearly lose it when the two younger moose stand together at the far side of the pond, casting a perfect double moose reflection. Double moose reflection!
This trek has been an exercise in accepting limitations and doing without every camera tool and gadget, to say the least. By the same token, it has also shown us the pleasures of putting down the camera every once in a while and finding joy in simply observing nature.
We finally tear ourselves away from the moose bachelor herd and start heading up to the pass. Along the way, there are really interesting hoodoo-like rock formations that we can get close enough to for photos.
Our first pass of the day is at 12,919 feet. We have already gained over 1000 feet since our campsite, but it is still quite early in the day, so we are feeling strong. As soon as we reach the high point, a bicyclist rides up and asks us to take his photo. He has been biking the Colorado Trail since Denver. He tells us that he often bikes the more popular segments at night to avoid people. Biking the CT in the daylight is crazy enough—I can’t imagine going down some of these trails in the dark. What a nut!
From there, we continue into the Pole Creek drainage where we lose all of the elevation we just gained. We will be walking almost 15 miles today, but we will never drop below 12,000 feet or get below treeline, which is pretty insane. We are hoping that the weather gods will be kind to us again for the third day in a row, which is asking a lot during the summer monsoon season in Colorado. At the moment, the skies are blue with just a few light wispy clouds to add a little interest to all the photos we are taking.
The trail takes us to a magnificent view of Cataract Lake, where Matt spots yet another bull moose in the willow bushes around the lake! This one is laying in the grasses and having a nap. Holding up that impressive set of antlers must get pretty tiring. The views from above the lake are spectacular.
The trail drops us down between Cataract Lake and another small lake that we skirt the edge of, and then it’s up, up, up to pass number two of the day.
This time we pass beneath impressive peaks that look so different from everything we have seen until now. It feels like we are finally in the heart of the San Juans, and it is easy to see why everyone has been raving about this stretch of the trail.
Once we reach the pass, the trail flattens out, and we hike for a good stretch on what feels like the top of a hill, that is if we weren’t at nearly 13,000 feet. When we finally descend into the next valley, it suddenly feels like we have entered a new place entirely.
Everything in front of us is a pleasant pastel shade. The mountains are all shades of pink, light green, blues and peaches. It is utterly breathtaking, and, lucky for us, it’s also time for our elevensies snack break, so we get to take the packs off and just enjoy the views for a short spell. While sitting there, we see two large Golden Eagles soaring high above us. Could this day get any better?
Back on the trail, this pattern continues for the rest of the day. We hike up a few hundred feet to our next pass then down again before doing it all over again. Each time we top out just shy of 13,000 feet and lose a few hundred feet with each descent. In the end, we do this eight times throughout the day, gaining over 3500 feet and losing nearly as much before we finally reach the end of the segment at Stony Pass Trailhead! Much of the trail today is on loose pea gravel making the descents even more challenging. Somehow, our “easy” day of this leg has turned out to be nothing short of exhausting.
Around 6:00, we finally get spit out onto Stony Pass Road and have to walk up the road a short distance to the start of Segment 24. It’s quiet at this time of day, and the only people we see are a few small groups of ATVs riding up and down the road. We are out walking long enough for the late afternoon light to make everything, especially the looming stony peaks above us look pretty.
We find some flat ground not too far from the trailhead to make our camp, and we get the tent up just in time to get inside before it begins to rain. We are camped out in the open, so we are thankful that it is just rain and no lightning or thunder. We are forced to eat dinner in the tent yet again. It’s not my favorite practice, but it sure beats the alternative on this rainy night. We are both whacked from the long day on the trail and expect sleep to come easy. Good night!
Day 33 Stats
Starting Point: Trailside camp left of trail between streams, mile 376.6
End Point: Trailside camp near beginning of Segment 24, mile 391.1
Segment: 23 & 24
Date on Trail: August 2, 2018