What does it mean to hike nearly 500 miles on a single trail? And what have we learned about ourselves in the process? These are my waking thoughts on this our 40th day out on the Colorado Trail. It’s our final full day of trekking, so I guess I’m in a bit of a reflective frame of mind as we begin our day. We have less than 25 miles to go to the southern terminus of the CT, but it’s hard to wrap my mind around the totality of our longest thru-hike. It seems like yesterday when we began in Waterton Canyon just south of Denver, and yet the passage of time out on the trail never ceases to amaze me. How did we get from there to here? It’s too long a trail to grasp as a whole, and perhaps that’s part of its beauty. It defies any easy description, and just quoting a big number, 485 miles (490 if you do the Collegiate West), doesn’t really do the CT justice.
Thru-hiking (really any hiking) is an amazing experience, if you truly give yourself over to the trail, and let it take you wherever your eye, your mind, and your feet wander. So, we put put one foot in front of the other, and keep ‘er movin’!
It’s chillier than expected when we awake beside Taylor Lake. There are ice crystals on the tent fly for only the second time this whole trip! We are so glad that we pushed yesterday to get to this destination campsite—not just for the incredible display of stars we saw last night but also for the sunrise as it lights up the mountains and the stillness of the water reflecting everything. One of the deer from last night is here for her morning sip of water. I have a sense of inner peace, contentment, and deep satisfaction as I sip my morning coffee. Mornings like this are exactly what backpacking is all about and what keeps us coming back for more.
Aspen stops by to say farewell before she hits the trail. She is pushing hard and hoping to walk into Durango and into the arms of her loving husband today, so we wish her a safe journey and hope she’ll stay in touch. We can tell she is conflicted about finishing, just as we are. All good things must come to an end, but there’s something about these mountains and forests that none of us wants to leave just yet. We linger longer than usual and take a few extra pictures of the lake and surrounding scenery before finally setting boot to dirt, so to speak, and beginning the trail today.
As we leave Taylor Lake, we are heading towards two bowls below an impressive wall of jagged peaks that look like they were carved out by glaciers long ago. The golden morning sunlight is illuminating them, and we can see where the path will take us up and over Kennebec Pass. All the vegetation around us reminds us that fall is just around the corner.
Shortly after passing the Kennebec Trailhead we ease ourselves over a gentle saddle and take one last look behind us at the impressive San Juan mountains. Although we have plenty of trail in front of us, there is a palpable sense that we have turned a final bend in the trail. We will spend the rest of the day making our way down a series of narrow valleys toward Durango. We will drop below 10,000 feet of altitude and not return to these heights again on this trip.
Almost immediately the scenery changes to reinforce this realization. The color of rock and even the path turns a deep, almost burgundy red and looks more like the canyons of the desert southwest than the Rocky Mountains. The species of pine trees changes, and the evergreen needles of the pine trees begin to share space with aspens and even oaks. It’s warmer too as we descend, but we are grateful for the cloud cover that keeps the direct sun at bay for much of the day.
There is little water available today, so we stop for lunch at Junction Creek near the bridge. This, according to the Databook, is the last reliable water source until after our intended campsite, so we fill up enough to last us through early tomorrow. We chat over lunch with a few hikers, one of whom is northbound for a shorter backpack, the other two, Craig and Mara, are also going out tomorrow. They have done a modified route that began in Rocky Mountain National Park on the CDT and included much of the CT.
After a good rest, we begin the final climb of our CT hike, one last relatively gentle 1000 foot ascent over several miles to the high point of today’s trail. It’s bittersweet when we get to the top knowing it really is all downhill from here.
We hike for a few more miles trying to sum up our thoughts in different ways—favorite campsites, most beautiful stretches of trail, longest days of hiking—but words keep failing, so we lapse into periods of introspection, and each try and take it in as best we can. I focus on the butterflies and flowers lining the trail. We walk without saying much until Alison breaks the silence to point out a horny toad that she has spotted beside the trail.
We were thinking of hiking to the last legal camping spot before the end of the trail, but we spy a sweet spot a few miles shy of that. It’s a private site with a rocky shelf that looks out over the valley in the direction of Durango, and it’s too good to pass up. After setting up camp and making dinner, we spend the last minutes of daylight relaxing on the rocky shelf and taking in a final sunset in the wilderness.
All too soon we’ll be walking out of the woods again and back into “civilization” for an extended stay. We know the images and memories of our Colorado Trail thru-hike will sustain us until the next time we hit the trail. As the sky fades to black a verse from John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” drifts into my consciousness:
Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake
And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky
You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply
Rocky mountain high
Day 40 Stats
Starting Point: Taylor Lake, mile 462.3
End Point: Trailside camp, mile 477.9
Segments: 27 & 28
Date on Trail: August 9, 2018