the start

i got dropped off at the trailhead on june 29 to find the start (waterton canyon road) closed. unexpected emergency repairs or something to that effect was the reason. wouldn’t be a real adventure if started according to plan.

there are two alternate starts: indian creek and roxborough state park. as i stood by the roadside looking over a map to figure out which would be the easiest and fastest to get to, a driver stopped and asked if i needed a ride. they were headed to roxborough state park, so that’s where i started. carpenter’s peak trail is the trail that basically takes you to the colorado trail. following it with some other connector trails, i popped out right at the end of waterton canyon road a couple hundred yards from where the actual trail begins.

i was actually glad that i had to take the roxborough alternate. it was most likely more scenic and more in the spirit of hiking than a 6 mile road walk, which is how the colorado trail begins. if i were to hike the colorado trail once more, i would start there again. the views were great and it was really a nice hike.

i didn’t  take any pics at the start. i was dropped off with another hiker and felt self-conscious pulling out the camera. i was elected to take the lead and navigate as i had electronic gps enabled topo maps through an app called trekarta that showed all the area trails. she had only the colorado trail databook. as i was in front, it felt awkward to me to stop and take pics. i soon got over that, mainly because i hiked probably 95% of the trail alone.

the trail

a 500 mile arduous walk in some serious mountains. that’s pretty much the synopsis.

90,000 feet of elevation gain and loss and an average height of 10,400 feet above sea level. you can find different numbers all over the internet, but those are pretty much the ballpark for the collegiate west route, which i took.

most of the trail is nice tread. some of it is tough simply due to the nature of the nature it passes through. some of it is tough for a whole host of other reasons, but overall it’s a great hiking experience.

colorado trail collegiate west and collegiate east sign

the views are beautiful. pictures do no justice.

the hiking can be brutal. pictures again do no justice.

i experienced temperatures from freezing to over 90f/32c. sometimes in the same day.

storms. storms. bad weather. and more storms. i maybe had 6 or 7 days of hiking out of 22 with no storms.

storm at top of searle pass on the colorado trail

that’s a pic of the first major storm i encountered. i was crossing searle pass at 12,044 feet. i stood there for probably 5 minutes trying to ascertain the storm’s direction. it was over 3 miles to the next pass. all of those miles were at 12,000+ feet and exposed. it became clear that the storm was headed directly at me. how bad and would lightning be involved were the next things to figure out. another few minutes and the answers were pretty bad and yes. there were some large boulder outcrops as i had approached the pass. i went back and huddled under one as the storm went over me. it was cold. really cold. even with my rain jacket and pants on. a couple of times, i left the protection of the boulder to venture out and see how bad it was. i’ve no idea how strong the wind was (i estimate at least 40mph), but it was right in my face and blowing my rain jacket hood off my head. the rain was also coming down pretty hard and being blown right into face making it difficult to even keep my eyes open. back to the boulder i went. i saw lightning only twice, but i was on the other side of the mountain away from the storm. i did hear rolling thunder on numerous occasions. after 20 or 30 minutes of being under the large rock, it was clear enough to make the 3 miles to kokomo pass.

by the time i made it to kokomo pass it was threatening to storm again. and that’s how the trail went. there were several days where i cut the hiking day short and pitched camp due to an approaching storm. some days i had to contend with more than one storm. most times the storms lasted for not more than half an hour. some times, they lasted for many hours.

i got caught in two hail storms.

the first i would call minor. i was climbing to a pass and the storm came over. it dropped a sprinkling of rain and then started to hail a bit. small, b.b. sized. nothing too bad. i was able to take cover under a small cluster of spruce trees, several of which were dead from the bark beetles. i needed protection from the wind and cold more than the hail, really.

the second was a pretty major hail storm. i was at 12,000+ feet and completely exposed. i could see the storm and saw that it was dropping precipitation. at first, it seemed that it was going to pass around me. it soon became clear that it was going to pass over me going the same direction i was. the rain came first. not much of it and it quickly turned to small hail. i kept hiking as there was really nothing else to do. soon, however, the size of the hail grew such that walking was really no longer an option without a helmet. hail as large as 1/4″ in diameter was bouncing off my head and stinging the ever-living crap out of the tops of my ears. an ice ball that size hitting your skull is pretty unpleasant. when it happens many times, it becomes downright uncomfortable. i hustled to a large stone cairn by the side of the trail. it was the only protection anywhere around. i got on the leeward side of it and crouched down as low and as close to the stones as i could. i pulled my backpack over my head for modest protection. i remained in this position for about 10 minutes. when i finally stood up and looked around, the ground was white . . . encrusted with small balls of ice.

that said, i enjoyed the storms. they added an element to the hike that made it a bit more raw. storm clouds building, growing dark and angry. lightning streaking through the sky in a blinding flash. thunder rolling and echoing, seemingly shaking the mountaintops. it was all exhilarating.

the hike in numbers

days on trail: 22
rest days: 0
average miles/day: 22.4
average hours/day hiked: 12
shortest day trail miles: 16.1
longest day trail miles: 29.3
night hikes: 0
resupplies: 4
trail magic instances: 4
times my camera fell more than 3 feet: 4

the hike in pictures

thoughts on the hike

500 miles is just about the right length for a thru-hike. not too long. not too short.

having completed the colorado trail, i would most certainly hike it again. the trail was varied and challenging, but not too tough overall. it can, though, be momentarily brutal at times. for me, that simply adds to the adventure.

the colorado trail is wide open at the top of the world. you feel free. confined and limited only by yourself for the most part.

all my gear worked exactly as planned. my decision to take only one trekking pole was the right one. i never needed or even wanted trekking poles for hiking. other than 2 creek crossings and one sketchy ridge crossing, its singular use was to support my tent. the only things i would change are the shoes and shorts. my shoes were simply too stiff. they gave me some small blisters that really never amounted to anything. just some minor discomfort that eventually faded away. i had forgotten that my previous pair of topo athletics had done the same thing. the shorts became annoyingly a little too long. i jostled with the idea of changing to some 5″ inseam shorts before i left, but felt i had already spent enough. so, i stuck with the 7″ inseam.

i resupplied in frisco and twin lakes, then sent resupply boxes to monarch crest and molas lake. i was happy with that strategy and would probably do the same again if i were hiking similar mile days.

as far as my actual food, i would absolutely change what i ate. i consumed about 3,000 to 3,500 calories a day. most of that was processed carbs and sugars. i found that lara bars, kind bars, complete cookies, and things of that nature just did not provide the sustained energy that i needed to not crash during the long, steep climbs. i clearly made my food work, but it was not pleasant on numerous occasions. the day i hiked into monarch crest, i felt absolutely awful. my legs were shaking. my energy level was basically zero. i ate a bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich; a huge frito pie (loaded with meat. there were no non-meat options.); and an ice cream sandwich. i rested for about 3 hours and the hike out was freaking awesome. the best i had felt in a number of days. i also packed out a hot dog for dinner that night. what i would change about my food, i’m not entirely sure. but, i feel that i need more protein variety and more fats. i’m sure i can find vegetarian options that would work, but it’s pretty clear that animal protein and fat is like rocket fuel. maybe those carnivorous humans have hit on something.

i wish i had taken more pictures. i didn’t because a quick snap never really captures the scene and is wasted time. additionally, a picture is two dimensional; there is no depth to it. it takes time and mental energy to acquire a photo that relays the energy and emotion of a mountain view. hard to devote 10 minutes to every potential picture when you have miles to make. plus, well, the storms. my fuji x-t3 and the lens are weather sealed, but not weather proof. when i felt that the rain was going to fall hard enough to potentially cause problems for my camera, into the backpack it went. so many times i wished i could have had it out to try to capture the view during some of the storms. i just couldn’t justify the risk. i also took quite a bit of video. times where i could have been photographing, i was videoing. i haven’t processed let alone even looked at any of it. video is so much more time intensive to process. for me anyway.

i wrote down ending mileages and start and end times in the databook. i had thought about taking a journal with me, but i knew i wouldn’t feel like spending 30 minutes at night writing. i was correct. after 12 to 14 hours of hiking, an hour setting up camp and fixing dinner, then eating dinner and looking at the water stops, mileage, and potential camp sites for the next day, it was usually around 9 or 9:30 and i was whooped. all i wanted to do was clean my cook pot, crawl into my sleeping bag, and crash. and that’s pretty much what i did. once i laid down, i was usually asleep in minutes. thinking on it now, maybe i could have just made brief notes about the days. as it stands now, the entire hike is like a fading memory. the days of it bleed together into a single, jumbled event.

 

trail magic

first instance

i picked up my resupply box at monarch crest. i needed 6 dinners to make it to molas lake, my next resupply. i had packed only 4. thinking back, i’m pretty sure i figured that i could easily pick up 2 dinners at monarch crest. well, my figuring was pretty wrong. monarch crest was definitely a meat eater’s paradise. more importantly, there were really no options for hiker dinners. no tuna packets. no knorr sides. no mountain house meals. no ramen packets. a package of summer sausage and cheese was pretty much it. i procured one of those for one dinner. i then got a single hot dog for that night. why didn’t i get 2 hot dogs? excellent question. i had already spent $40 on food there. another $3.50 seemed excessive. so i was going to make do with 1.

i hiked along and popped out at the marshall pass trailhead. there was an suv with doors open and hood up parked next to the large sign and area map in front of which a man was standing. i walked through the parking lot looking for a blaze or some indication of where the trail was. he said hello and asked if i was thru-hiking as i meandered around  i responded yes and then asked if he was having vehicle trouble. he said no, he was just allowing it to cool off. we had a conversation about my thru-hike and the colorado trail in general. as our talk was coming to an end, he says, “hey, do you happen to need any food or anything?”

i’m pretty sure my eyes bugged out of my head. i chuckle and  say “well, as a matter of fact . . . ” i then proceed to tell him how i shorted myself 2 dinners.

“i’ve got all kinds of stuff. take whatever you need.” he gave me two greenbelly meals2go and a tailwinds powder drink mix.

i offered to pay him, as those things are expensive, and he said no.

“i’ve always wanted to do some trail magic for someone,” he said.

with a stupidly large smile on my face, “well, you certainly did it for me,” i replied. “i can’t thank you enough. these have made my day.”

second instance

sometimes stuff just gets left along the trail. a blood orange white claw was a welcome addition to the dinner one night.

third instance

at the spring creek pass trailhead, i stopped for a lunch break. just a peanut butter complete cookie, a couple of spoons of peanut butter, and a squirt of honey. i started the short hike up FSR-547. as i hiked up, i saw something shimmering at the top. soon, i saw that it was a sign. it said “jolly rancher trail magic.” as i walked past, i saw an ez-up, several chairs, a camp fire, and a guy sitting in something like a pool recliner. he beckoned me over and introduced himself as “jolly rancher”. he had all sorts of kitchen stuff spread out on 3 tables under his ez-up. he says he’s got a baked potato in the camp fire that is just about ready if i want some. sour cream, cheese, and some shredded meat were offered as toppings. i said i just had some lunch down below. he offered to scramble some eggs and said he had water and some tea. i declined the eggs and said the tea sounded nice. he asked if i would like anything else and told me to look inside his cooler. he had some ranch dip in there. so i had some ranch dip with tortilla chips and we sat around the camp fire. he told me he had been camped there for 2+ weeks giving hikers food and stuff and letting them charge up their electronics. he said he was going to have some pasta and seasoned meat for dinner around 5. sounded good, but i had miles to cover. after 30 minutes, i thanked him for the chips, dip, and tea. they really were appreciated. any extra calories on trail are always welcome. i also sincerely enjoyed talking with him. it was pleasant hiker conservation. so, i hiked on up the trail. 10 miles later i made camp 2 hours early as a storm approached. i wondered if it would have been better to camp with him and have a real dinner.

fourth instance

i was hiking along and passed a guy just finishing up getting water from a small stream.

“how’s it going?”

“good,” i respond. “and with you?”

“great. hey, would like a beer?”

i’m dumbfounded. “seriously? can i just get it and keep on hiking?” i’m not one to let anything get in the way of miles . . . except storms. i break for storms. usually.

“yeah.”

“i would absolutely love one!!!” i say probably a little too excitedly.

“they’re up there with those other 3 guys. a few of us hiked up for the weekend and i brought too many.”

i hike up and get a beer. the guy getting the water arrives a few minutes later. we all talk about hiking, how small they think my pack is, and other hiking conversation for about 30 minutes. i had a few storm stories to tell that we all laugh about. i thank them profusely for the beer and continue hiking. i can’t remember the brand, but it was a double ipa. and it tasted really good with my beans, rice, olive oil, and fritos that was dinner.

conclusion

it was a wonderful adventure. not counting hiking gear, it cost about $1100. i took greyhound there and back. that was $352. i spent one night at a motel in durango at $136. i didn’t keep receipts or a record, but around $600 total on food is probably pretty close.

i was ready to be done on day 19. that was more to do with not having any off days. i was ready for a break, but didn’t want to take one while hiking. 3 more days and i would be done. like i said above, i would definitely hike this trail again. and do it in july. yes, there were storms, but the snow was pretty much all gone and the storms that did occur really did not impact my hike too much.

here’s to a future colorado trail hike. may it be rough and smooth and beautiful and brutal.

Published On: August 11th, 2022

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