Owen’s Colorado Trail Adventure, 2008
I left the Kassler trailhead a little past 5:30am on Monday, August 11th. The eastern sky over Denver was beginning to glow and there was just enough light to make my way along the access road to Strontia Springs Dam. It was a perfect morning, inside and out. I was excited to finally be underway after months of preparation and the temperature was cool and refreshing.
By the time I hit Wellington Lake (~60 miles), the freshness had faded a bit. I stopped to refill my water bottles and pick up some fuel for the trail: Hostess donuts, cinnamon rolls, and chocolate milk. Mmmm, the beginning of high-calorie, sugar-laden trail food! This was also the beginning of a long and sometimes desolate road detour (around designated wilderness) to Tarryall Reservoir. It’s a strange, but beautiful stretch of land slowly recovering from the massive Hayman Fire of 2002.
I was looking forward to a burger and fries at the pub beyond the reservoir (~105 miles), but they were closed – gone on vacation! So I made do with a few handfuls of sesame sticks and then spun up the road towards the mountains again. Shortly after re-connecting with the Colorado Trail, I floated through groves of aspen and soaked up panoramas of Jefferson and the Ten Mile Range.
I managed to make it over Kenosha Pass as the sun was setting, then turned on my lights to tackle Georgia Pass a few miles beyond. Halfway to the top my body shut down and decided it was time to get some sleep. I lay down on a pile of pine needles, cozied up in my sleeping bag, and passed out stone cold for the next four hours. It’s amazing how well you can sleep when you are really, really tired and distanced from the stressors of everyday life.
My watch alarm went off at 4am and I hiked/rode the rest of the way to Georgia Pass under a full sky of stars. The sun finally rose again as I crossed the Swan River and swooped through some of the best singletrack on the Colorado Trail (above Breckenridge). Eight o’clock in the morning found me outside of the Alpine Deli in Frisco (~160 miles), waiting impatiently for the doors to open. Then, after stocking up on WAY too much food (Sharkies, Clif Bars, oatmeal raisin cookies, fig newtons, and some fresh fruit), I spun up the bike path to Copper Mountain. One more stop to call home and grab a double-shot espresso (sooo goood!) and then I was back on the Colorado Trail proper.
Despite my knobby-wheeled bias, I don’t understand why some people consider mountain bikes more damaging to the trail than horses. Copper Mountain has an extensive horse stable tourist operation, and for the next few miles I rattled over hoof-marred, shit-strewn, urine-soaked dirt. I even walked slowly behind a long train of horses until the Colorado Trail finally veered up valley and stretched its wings towards Searle Pass.
Up and over Searle Pass (lots of hiking, but also lots of high-alpine views and vibes) and then Kokomo Pass (12, 280’). The trail from Kokomo Pass to Camp Hale always registers high on the adrenaline scale. It drops 2200’ in just over four miles of twisting singletrack. Past the bunker remnants of Camp Hale and on to Tennessee Pass (~185 miles). This is where the heat and miles started to catch up with me. I dunked my head and then my whole body into the ice-cold waters of Wurtz Ditch and slowed my pace for the road detour into Leadville. Once in town I got some real food and made one of the best purchases of the trip: a euro cycling cap to dunk in creeks along the way and keep the sun out of my eyes. Cooler heads do prevail!
A prime section of Colorado Trail south of Leadville leads to one of my favorite places on earth: Twin Lakes. This is where Natalie and I got married, and I felt absolutely fantastic as I dropped from the Mt. Elbert trailhead to the lakes below. A pleasant tailwind sped me down the north shore and around the dam. I was in familiar territory now and welcomed the peace of mind that came with it.
A third major road detour around designated wilderness brought me into Buena Vista (~250 miles) at 9pm. I coasted up to K’s Burgers and ordered a bacon-double cheeseburger with onion rings and a coke. It was a nice night and all sorts of people were milling about licking ice cream cones and hanging out. I caught a few strange glances, but I’m sure my odor was now more offending than my appearance. I passed on a game of hacky sack with the high school crowd to grab some more fuel from the gas station next door: fig newtons, nutter butters, elk jerky, and the best trail food ever invented: a Starbucks Frappacino. In hindsight I wished I’d grabbed twice as much as I did. I managed to wobble up the road to the Avalanche Trailhead before falling into my sleeping bag for night number two.
I woke before sunrise and hit the trail. Unfortunately I was a bit too eager and passed through Princeton Hot Springs before the convenience store opened. This was the last chance to pick up food and supplies until Lake City, 140 miles beyond… Ah well, I counted my calories and figured I had just enough to make it.
I crossed Hwy 50 at noon and began the climb up Fooses Creek to the Continental Divide. The first (and only!) raindrops of the trip began to fall, but not enough to make me put on my jacket. This was another low energy moment for me so I stopped to down some electrolyte beverage and dip my legs in the creek. It would be another 40 miles before I realized that, in my haste to get moving again, I left the rest of my drink mix (about 500 calories worth!) in a ziploc baggy in the middle of the trail. I hope a fellow rider or hiker was able to put it to good use…
From low to high. Cresting out on the Monarch Crest trail after hiking up Fooses Creek was one of my best moments on the trail. I had been worried about dodging lightning along the Divide, but there was nothing but blue skies! Five miles of gorgeous views and fun singletrack brought me to Marshall Pass, pretty much the halfway point of the journey. I felt good, but realized that the next segment of trail was one of the most demanding: rocky, twisty, and short on water.
Part way down one of the gnarliest sections of trail, I encountered an old codger on horseback coming the other direction. He looked trail-hardened and wise beneath his dusty cowboy hat, and his words confirmed it: “My GOD this is a fucking rough, steep piece of trail!” I laughed and agreed. He told me to be careful and then kicked his horse into gear. I did the same.
Several hours later I hit the wall (ran out of energy). I sat down in the middle of Sargeant’s Mesa and dug feebly through my bag for my drink mix. With all of my possessions strewn across the trail, I realized my mistake back at Fooses Creek: I had 500 fewer calories than I thought! That might not sound like much, but at the time it made the mental difference between riding vs. walking to Lake City. This was another low point for me, but it’s amazing that when faced with situations like this, you do what you’ve got to do. I recounted my calories and put myself on strict rations. It wasn’t ideal, but I was pretty sure I’d make it.
Two elk, a hawk, and a fews cows later, I passed near the summit of Middle Baldy Peak (11,645’) in the last rays of light. I put on my vest and arm warmers, and then plummeted down to Razor Creek. Instead of traversing evenly along the shoulder of the ridge, this segment of trail followed every little up and down along the spine of the ridge. After telling myself “just one more switchback”, I finally gave up and resorted to putting one foot in front of the other. Finally the trail topped out one last time and then dropped me onto Lujan Creek Road. A few miles of blissful downhill later and I rolled up to Hwy 114, a remote stretch of pavement between Gunnison and Saguache. After glancing at the map and considering the next day’s ride, I managed to crawl up Pine Creek a ways before succumbing to sleep on a rocky bed (~350 miles).
Since I wasn’t familiar with the next section of trail through Saguache Park, I waited nearly until daylight before slipping on my cold, wet chamois and throwing a leg over my bike. Twenty yards later I had my first (and only!) mechanical of the trip: a flat tire for no apparent reason. Ten minutes of fumbling with a new tube and I was back in business.
After Saguache Park was the fourth major road detour. Dirt roads aren’t always fun or exciting, but in my opinion this area is some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen. Wide open spaces, a couple of cattle ranches, and (finally!) the welcoming cliffs of Cathedral. In my next life I want to come back as a fly fisherman in Cathedral!
I ate the last bit of my food (a handful of sesame sticks) a few miles before Slumgullion Pass and then coasted downhill to Lake City for lunch. Mmmm, time to stock up on more Hostess delectables, chocolate milk, Gatorade, cookies, and a ham and cheese sandwich at the Town Square gas station. I shared a table here with a CT hiker and his dog, Brutus. They had left Denver two months ago and were taking their time to get down south. They loved the Lake City area so much they decided to stay a couple of weeks! Me, I left after thirty minutes.
Up and over Cinnamon Pass on well-traveled jeep trails (it seemed so much steeper and longer this year!) and then down, down, down into Silverton. This would be the last stop before Durango (75 miles further on), so I made sure to stock up on the essentials: more cookies, more Gatorade, some trail mix, another ham and cheese sandwich, and two Frappacinos. Caffeine is the most wonderful drug when you’ve only slept 12 hours in three days!
I left Silverton in the soft evening light and climbed up Molas Pass with complete peace of mind. For the first time I knew I was going to make it to Durango! And the weather continued to be clear and dry, an anomaly in the San Juan Mountains. I planned to ride until midnight to Bolam Pass, about 20 miles down the trail. I had plenty of time so I was in no rush. I used the granny ring as often as possible, ate regularly, and bundled up when the sun set. My lights faded at the Rico-Silverton trail junction, so I sat in the grass and dug out fresh batteries and the rest of my sandwich. Under a ¾ moon the surrounding mountains looked sometimes an arm’s reach away and sometimes miles away. It was a strange light.
Last year on this segment of trail I met a backpacker in a driving rainstorm. He was kind enough to leave me with one piece of advice: get past Cascade Creek as soon as possible because there was a lot of bear activity there. Needless to say, I approached Cascade Creek with a bit of trepidation this year. “Hey bear”, I called out, “heeeeeeeeeyyyyyyyyy beeeeeeeaarrrr”! I tried to make as much noise as possible, but after a few minutes I realized how silly I must look/sound so I shut up and rode in silence… And then, just ten feet after the Cascade Creek bridge, I ran into the biggest pile of bear shit I have EVER seen! I didn’t take the time to see if it was still warm, but I could tell it was plenty fresh!
With a fresh surge of adrenaline I dropped a few gears and started charging down the trail – “HHEEEEEEYYYYY BEEAAAAAARRRRR”!!! – only to hit a rock and tumble ass over tea kettle (my only crash!). Fortunately I landed in soft bushes and my bike was fine. I realized then that that bear didn’t want to see me anymore than I wanted to see it, and my lights were probably enough to scare the it away. But that didn’t stop me from yelling myself hoarse over the six miles to Bolam Pass.
Just before midnight I coasted down to Celebration Lake for my last bivvy of the trip. The ground was coooooold and without a sleeping pad my body heat was sucked right out of me. This was definitely the most uncomfortable night of the trip, but I managed 4-5 hours of fitful sleep.
I rose before dawn the next (last!) morning with only 50 miles to go! Only 50 miles, but I knew from last year it was some of the toughest terrain on the Colorado Trail. Lots of ups and downs, hike-a-bikes, and technical sections. All culminating at Indian Trail Ridge (12,300’), a rocky spine of trail that juts high above the surrounding forest. Last year I waited out a lightning storm and fought off hypothermia on the ridge (only 30 miles from Durango!), but this year the weather was GORGEOUS. Bluebird skies and a pleasant breeze lifted my spirits and brought me to Kennebec Pass, the “gateway to Durango” (at least in my mind).
This is the last major mental and physical hurdle the Colorado Trail has to throw at through-hikers and bikers. Gudy Gaskill, founding “godmother’ of the trail, certainly didn’t take the easy way home! The trail segues from treeless high alpine terrain atop Indian Trail Ridge, to mountain meadows at Kennebec Pass, to dense forest at Kennebec Road, and finally to scrubby oak and thistles at Junction Creek. Last year I thought it was all downhill to Durango from here (ha!), but the trail pitches up and gains another thousand feet, traversing in and out, over and through several more creeks and aspen glades. More bear poop, more hiking, more sweating. And then finally the trail turns and drops definitively to Durango.
I think I felt better over the last five miles of trail than I had the entire trip. I was charging turns, railing berms, and catching air -- until I almost wrecked in a rock garden. I eased back then and enjoyed the last moments of this incredible journey… At 2:15pm on Friday afternoon I rolled up to the southern terminus of the Colorado Trail (four days, eight hours, and forty five minutes after leaving Denver). I felt great. Hot and completely spent, but great! What a ride.
I can only shake my head in disbelief at the good fortune I encountered along the Colorado Trail: perfect weather, interesting people, no major mechanicals, and no major physical or mental meltdowns. I cashed in some serious good karma along the way and I am very grateful to everybody who loaned me some of theirs (I’ll pay you back)! The stars may never align like that again, but I’m already hoping they do next summer.