Colorado Trail, Day 39: The X-Factor

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We have been thinking about how we were going to handle today’s hike since before we ever set foot on the Colorado Trail. Today, we are facing an infamous 22-mile stretch with no water, and it is going to be a challenge no matter which way you slice it.

Our last guaranteed water source was two miles back at Straight Creek, and we will likely not see anything else with a decent flow until reaching Taylor Lake, some 22 miles later. Lucky for us, though, we have the “X-factor,” courtesy of our trail angels extraordinaire, Rob and Amy, that is going to help us get through it.

When the alarm goes off at 5, we all get moving this morning. Today is our last day with Rob and Amy. Together, we will hike to their car, which is about 7-8 miles up the trail, and then they will drive back to Durango, via Silverton to pick up their other car that they left at Molas Pass.

Since it is our last day together as a foursome, we take a little extra time to chat over breakfast and enjoy each other’s company before hitting the trail. Last night’s campsite was a bit slopey, so we all collectively groan when we see a nice, big flat spot in the forest about 10 minutes further down the trail. Oh well!

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We emerge from the forest out onto a ridge that is straight as an arrow for as far as our eyes can see ahead of us. We occasionally get breaks in the trees to our left providing views of the distant mountains to our east. It is still quite hazy this morning, so the mountains appear as layered silhouettes similar to scenes you might find in the Great Smokey Mountains.

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Before we know it, Segment 26 comes to an end at a small parking area at Hotel Draw Road, and we begin Segment 27. We pick up another old logging road, this one lined with large patches of fireweed and other wildflowers that seem to be attracting a huge number of Dark-eyed Juncos and Pine Siskins. Most of the flowers have already gone to seed by now, and the birds are clearly loving it. It is already getting quite warm, so we drop the bags to zip off our pants legs for the day.

For the next seven miles, the trail roughly parallels Forest Service Road 564, criss-crossing it several times along its path. We continue to follow the ridgeline between 10 and 11,000 feet, getting great views into the drainages that drop off far below us.

When we reach the junction to the Corral Draw Trail, there is a sign posted stating that the trail is closed due to fire activity. This is the famous 416 Fire in the Hermosa Creek drainage that closed the Colorado Trail south of Molas Pass for several weeks in June and July.

Rob tells us that the fire is still smoldering, but, apparently, it isn’t posing a big enough threat any longer to require any further action. We can just barely make out some ridgelines of fire damage on this hazy day, but it is clear that many beautiful acres of forest have been scorched in this remote wild area. What a shame!

We continue on the ridgeline until the trail crosses Forest Service Road 564 for the last time. This is where Rob and Amy have parked their white Nissan X-terra. Inside, they have cached a 5-gallon container of water for us!

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That is obviously way more than we need, so we have told other hikers about the opportunity for some guaranteed water here. Eden and her older brother, Micah, are here waiting for us, and, just as we arrive, Juli and the two others come up behind us. We are all thrilled to have as much water as we can carry, and we top off all of our containers. Rob and Amy also volunteer to take our trash, and Matt and I are able to offload a lot of items from our backpacks that we won’t be needing for these last three days on the trail.

This is about as good it gets, but Rob and Amy have another surprise in store for us. They have been using our blog to do some recon, and they noticed us drinking Diet Coke and San Pellegrino Limonata in one of the photos from our Zero Day in Salida. In addition to the cold drinks, they have a couple of bags of Swedish fish, one of our favorite sweets. Yum!

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Unfortunately, this is the end of the hike with our two friends. We so enjoyed their company over these past few days. Matt says that having them around has been like having the family visit on Survivor. In addition to all the concrete things they did for us (like rides to the trailhead, picking up a few supplies, and caching water), they also gave us the boost of energy we need to complete the Colorado Trail. Thank you so much, Rob and Amy!

We give them big hugs and continue on our way. We still have about 12 miles to get to Taylor Lake where we will find nice camping and fresh water. From the trail, we can now see Orphan Butte rising above us, and we begin the climb up towards the ridge.

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We stay below tree line and find a nice log in the big shade where we can have lunch. This is the third day in this leg of the CT, so we have to switch from cheese and crackers to a PB&J tortilla wrap, which is always a sad day for me. For whatever reason these tortillas are a little drier than what we are used to, making the wraps even harder to stomach than normal. I will certainly be happy to give this lunch main course a break until our next hiking adventure. Unfortunately, I manage to puncture my sit pad while we are sitting on the log. Bummer!

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After lunch, we continue to climb, and, soon enough, we are up to 11,300 feet. At the top is a short spur trail along a ridge that leads out to a viewpoint. We pull off and drop our backpacks to go check it out. We really haven’t done this kind of thing much on the CT. It almost feels like we are levitating as we walk down the trail without the heavy weight of our bags. On a clear day, I am sure that the view would be a lot more spectacular, but the haze is leaving us a little underwhelmed at the moment.

Once the trail bends to the south, we are surprised to see a big plume of smoke coming from the Hermosa Creek area. The wind is blowing strong, but, thankfully, it seems to be moving the smoke away from us. Every now and then a big orange flame pops up from the base of the smoke, which is quite alarming. Is the fire getting worse because of the wind? How would we know if we were in danger? We continue walking hoping that the trail will lead us away from the fire instead of bringing us closer to it.

We are aiming to get all the way to Taylor Lake, which is still over 6 miles away. Rob and Amy told us this is a destination campsite, and, with this being our second-to-last night on the trail, we are anxious to make it count. Most of our climbing for the day is going to happen now, at the end of the day, which is definitely not ideal. But the skies are clear, and pushing on feels like the right move to make, even though we probably won’t make camp until after 7.

This section of the trail is called Indian Trail Ridge, and, as soon as we get completely above tree line, the wind becomes increasingly intense. It is late afternoon now, and the scenery and the views are getting more beautiful with every step we take. As photographers, this is exactly the combination we love to see.

The thing we are not loving is the wind. On one of the steeper climbs, we go up a series of tight switchbacks. Every time we turn into the wind, I have to keep my head down at exactly a precise angle to prevent the strong gusts from blowing my hat right off my head! If the trail were any more exposed, I’d be worried about being blown off the trail. It’s a relief whenever we reach a windbreak and get a chance to let down our guard for a bit.

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We know that we have a series of hills to go over before a final, steep descent down to the lake, but the trail keeps playing tricks with us. We keep thinking that the uphill we are climbing must be our last, only to find another higher one beyond it. The trail is much steeper and rockier than we expect, but we keep reminding ourselves that we are strong and that we’ve hiked tougher terrain than this. All we need to do is to keep moving forward.

It’s a short-lived celebration when we do finally make it to the high point. There is a second summit, slightly lower, just a quarter mile beyond. After that, we begin a very steep descent down to the lake. This trail evokes memories of the Alta Via 2 in the Italian Dolomites as we navigate the treacherous, rocky terrain. Within just a few minutes, we can see Taylor Lake stretched far below us. This is the prize we have been working all day to reach.

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We only have a half-mile to go, but this is one of my least favorite types of trail; with tired legs, it’s even worse than normal. My progress slows way down, and it feels like forever until we are on a flatter, more forgiving surface. It’s a relief when we reach the bottom.

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Soon enough, we come to a trail junction and take the short spur trail to Taylor Lake. The trail leads us through a maze of waist-high willow bushes near the eastern shore. A few tents are tucked in tight into the willows to get a break from the incessant wind. We pop out near the shoreline and find a spot a bit more exposed but with easy access to the water and a stellar view of Sharkstooth Peak glowing pink behind us. It’s too good to pass up, so we decide to give it a go and set up our camp here. It’s a little difficult to find a level spot that won’t have us sliding into each other all night, but I finally settle on one close to the campfire ring.

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Matt really wants to go for a swim but, once he tests the water, settles for wading in ankle deep and washing his feet at this late hour. The temperature is dropping quickly, and we need to put some warmer clothes on!

We eat dinner on the later side tonight, and it is almost dark by the time we are finishing. We can hear some rustling around in the bushes but don’t think too much of it. I stand up to pack up tomorrow’s lunch, when I suddenly see a deer leaping over the willow bushes. She lands no more than three feet away from our tent and seems as surprised to see me as I am to see her. I let out a loud gasp as she veers away from me and runs in a full gallop beyond us.

Matt is sitting on the ground and can only guess what has happened by the strange sounds and the terrified look on my face. What has got the deer acting so frisky? Is something chasing it? What would have happened if we had set up our tent closer to the willow bushes? What a moment!

A few minutes after all that excitement, we hear another hiker calling out to us. It is Aspen, and she is coming to our camp. We met Aspen and her husband and dog as we were about to drive out of Silverton, but now she is alone. She is all freaked out by the deer in camp. She says that there were at least four of them running through her camp, very close to her tent. Sure enough, we can see the glowing eyes of at least four of them in the meadow just a few feet away from us.

Aspen wants to know if we think they will calm down and go away. We aren’t really sure, but we really hope so. Another one of those leaps might end with a crushed tent! We offer to help move her tent over closer to ours if it will make her feel any safer, but she says she will be fine. She just wants to wait a little while to make sure that the deer are done with all of their tomfoolery.

We end up chatting for the next 45 minutes or so about the trail and how bittersweet the impending ending feels. It’s funny because Aspen started on July 1, the exact same day that we did, but this is the first time that we are meeting on the trail. It’s a shame because we really enjoy talking travel and hiking with her. She will be ending the trail tomorrow, hiking out the final 23 miles to join her husband and dog who are waiting for her in Durango.

We turn off our headlamps as we are talking to see the night sky. This is the best view that we have had of the stars during the entire trail, and it is awesome that it is happening here in such a beautiful location. As the sky gets darker and darker, more stars pop out, and, eventually, we can even make out the Milky Way stretching right above us.

When it finally feels like things have settled down for the night, Aspen heads back to her tent, and we crawl into ours. At 20.7 miles, this was one of our longest days on the trail, but it was definitely worth all the extra effort it required to get here. Taylor Lake will likely be our last campsite above tree line!

Day 39 Stats

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Starting Point: Trailside camp below Straight Creek, mile 441.6
End Point: Taylor Lake, mile 462.3
Mileage: 20.7
Segments: 26 & 27
Date on Trail: August 8, 2018

2 thoughts on “Colorado Trail, Day 39: The X-Factor

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