Colorado Trail, Day 34: Welcome to the Weminuche!

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We wake up this morning to a totally out of the ordinary phenomenon in our previous 33 days on the Colorado Trail—a blanket of thick gray clouds completely blocking out the sun! We had been warned that rain might be in the forecast but had hoped it would hold off until later in the day. This is not the type of start that we are hoping for, on this our last full day of trekking before reaching the end of this leg. On the up side, it’s much warmer as we sip our coffee and prepare to head out for the day!

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The opening miles today take us into landscape that is surprisingly reminiscent of the Laugavegur Trek we hiked in Iceland several years ago. Luckily, the clouds lift a bit, and the sun illuminates the far peaks enough for us to capture the stunning scene in our cameras. Within minutes, the clouds darken, and the rain begins to fall lightly. We stop to don our rain gear. This sets the pattern for the day—on again, off again rain, never for terribly long, but just enough to be bothersome.

There are dense flowers along the trail everywhere this morning, making the scene even more stunning.

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Just as with this first view of the mountains, the rain suddenly seems to stop, and the clouds part in time for us to enjoy impressive vistas along the way. So, you take what you are given!

The trail is up and down and contouring hills during the first seven miles. As I’m poling along, suddenly I notice something is amiss with one of my collapsible trekking poles. It appears to have snapped at one of the joints of the three sections and is only held together by a loose shock cord. I can’t believe the bad luck—barely 100 miles left to go, and one of my most important pieces of equipment has failed me!

I sit down on a rock, somewhat dejected, and try to figure a way to fix it, but I don’t have the right tools to even inspect what’s wrong. So, I fold up the bum pole and trek the rest of the day with a single pole. It feels really strange and leaves me wondering what to do with my other hand—I’m so accustomed to the rhythm of 4-wheel drive that 3-while drive leaves me feeling a little lop-sided on the trail! I’ll have to pick up new poles in Silverton or ask our friends from Durango to bring a spare. Oh well, on we go!

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As we trek across the highlands and deeper into the San Juans, we see looming off in the distance two impressive spires that remind us of the spires of Torres del Paine in Chile. These rather jagged 13-ers turn out to be Arrow Peak and Vestal Peak. They are dark grey in the distance and dominate our view for quite a while.

Mountain NamesIt’s still fairly chilly by mid-morning—48 degrees at 12,700 feet of altitude. I am reminded of a comment someone left on Guthook, dated August 27, 2014 “Snowed all day from Cataract Lake”! I guess I shouldn’t complain. Things could definitely be worse!

We pass a number of high mountain tarns, many of them still filled with water. In one of them we notice unusual animal prints—do they belong to a coyote or a mountain lion, or maybe from a large dog? The thought intrigues us.

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At mile 396.7 the Continental Divide Trail splits off of the Colorado Trail, turning south toward Mexico, a mere 927 miles away! We have been sharing the road with these long-distance thru-hikers for the past 383 miles, but we are on our own, so to speak now.

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As we reach the split in the trail, the horse caravan rides up from a different trail. They greet us warmly once again, and we chat briefly before they ride on. This is their last day as they are headed all the way to Molas Pass.

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Then, our old friends Scott and Kendra walk up. We first met them around mile 300 just before we stumbled upon some trail magic from Jan and Poo. Today we will cross mile 400 with them! I point out a golden eagle that I was watching before it landed in some willow bushes. We exchange moose stories and catch up on last night’s weather—they got hit with graupel along with Jon and Kristen up at their high altitude, pond-side camp.

Our conversation gets cut short by another wave of rain. This one comes in fast and brings with it quite a bit of fog, obscuring the mountains we had been marching toward.

As we reach a ridge and a split in the trail, the fog suddenly lifts, and the rain stops, treating us to one of the most magnificent views we’ve experienced on the entire trail. Directly below us is a deep valley carved by the headwaters of Elk Creek which is far below. To our right is a high mountain lake surrounded by green, and to our left is an impressive wall of sheer rock. As we look down we see an endless set of switchbacks and several hikers, including two with llamas, coming up.

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After we pick our jaws up off the ground, we take picture after picture, thankful that the weather cooperated at just the right moment. Welcome to the Weminuche Wilderness! After several days above treeline, it’s exciting to be losing elevation and heading back into forest. We start making our way down the switchbacks and stop to take photos often. What a gorgeous spot!

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After we complete the switchbacks we stop to inspect an old mine shaft. Kendra shows us some of the crystals and geodes she and Scott have collected along the trail so far. They look around for another to add to their collection but come up empty-handed.

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We let Scott and Kendra go ahead and take our time as we pick our way down the steep, rocky canyon alongside the Elk Creek which is only a foot or two wide at this point. The trail is quite technical here, and down is not our strength, especially with just one pole!

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The trail evens out a bit but still drops elevation quickly. We will eventually drop over 3500 feet before reaching the Animas River, so we have a ways to go!

We stop for lunch at the 400-mile mark (only 85 to go to Durango!) during another bout of rain. Jane and Andy pass by—they spent a night in the CT Foundation yurt and then camped at Cataract Lake. They got up super early and have been hiking since 3:30 am and are eager to find a campsite and call it quits for the day.

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We get rained on during lunch, but it has stopped by the time we set off again. Everything looks so green and lush now that we are below treeline. We wonder if they have had a lot more rain in this area recently.

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A few miles further on we come upon Scott and Kendra, who have set up camp near a pond with gorgeous reflections of the mountains. They point out Arrow and Vestal Peaks, visible through a notch in the canyon walls and now lit up! We take a snack break and refill our water and hang out chatting with them for a while now that it’s sunny once again.

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Wanting to get a few miles further down trail, we set off and lose several hundred more feet of elevation. Finally the trail comes down to Elk Creek and runs alongside it. This section looks so much like the trail leading to Chicago Basin which we hiked a few years ago. We are feeling a little bit of deja vu.

We find a lovely established campsite next to the creek and decide to enjoy our last night of “solo” camping (friends Rob and Amy will join us for the final push to Durango!) with the pleasant sound of the creek in our ears. It’s good to be back in the Weminuche!

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Day 34 Stats

Starting Point: Trailside camp near beginning of Segment 24, mile 391.1
End Point: Trailside camp along Elk Creek, mile  405.1
Mileage: 14
Segment: 24
Date on Trail: August 3, 2018

8 thoughts on “Colorado Trail, Day 34: Welcome to the Weminuche!

    1. We went to the Inside Passage on our honeymoon almost twenty years ago now. We had just discovered our love of nature photography and had heard of the beautiful golden light in Alaska and wanted to go there for all the National Geographic wildlife moments and landscapes we would capture. We should have done our research better because we had no idea that rain is the norm in that area! 😆 But a field of Fireweed in a photo can make any type of sky look better, for sure!

      1. When the sun shines in southeast Alaska, there is no better place to be. Those long hours of awesome light are the best. But, you get those 2-3 days a week. Last year, we had them 2 or 3 times a month. 😦 Have you been back since? When you retire you can work up there in the summer and you’ll get the great light more often.

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