Colorado was nothing short of an adventure. The high Rocky Mountains gave us rugged peaks, pristine water and knarly weather. With a knack for the unpredictable, this state tested my resilience, adaptability, and patience.
Right from the start, Colorado taught us that we’d have to be ready for anything. In Encampment, the final town stop in Wyoming, I learned of the Big Red fire burning just south of the state border that would force a dirt/paved roadwalk detour. This fire, like most in the burning West this Summer and Fall, would be left to burn until snow came. The National Forests are abundant with beetle kill trees that will regerminate after a deep burn. So despite human’s recreational interests, this is what’s necessary for the regrowth of the forests.
Once south of the fire, the terrain quickly became more rugged and exhausting. Steeper climbs at high elevation, unforgiving weather and colder temperatures. But with that, impressive views above treeline and clean drinking water. I was also psyched to have access to higher quality foods (especially produce) at restaurants and grocery stores and explore the not-yet-trendy Colorado mountain towns. The downside was, I spent more money in this state, as the weather made us want to sleep inside at motels more often than usual.
From Steamboat Springs to Winter Park, we enjoyed some fun leg burners around Parkview Mountain and James Peak. A beautiful area, and still relatively tolerable weather. New challenges began presenting themselves each day, like “How to we layer our clothes to stay warm but minimize sweat?” and “How do we figure out how to time going over the high passes to avoid the afternoon wind/rain/hail/snowstorms?” There was one afternoon that Dingo, One of Us, and myself delayed going over a peak to set up the tent while the sky pelted hail down for an hour. Dealing with these obstacles became a daily routine. As a treat, whenever we dropped down to lower elevations, we got a taste of fall: the smells of dirt, leaves and crisp air and clouds of yellow Aspens.
From Winter Park, Dingo and I hitched 60 miles into Denver, where we’d enjoy a few planned days off. Our first time to a big city since starting the trail was quite a culture shock, but made easy with the support of Serenity, a friend who hiked the PCT last year. We felt at home staying at her place downtown, where I appreciated having like-minded company and not needing to constantly explain and defend the decision to choose adventures over conventional ideals. Trips to REI, re-evaluating gear for the next stretch, putting together boxes of Luna’s food and supplements from Sojos and Vetriscience (and some human food too), and eating. Lots of eating. Four days later we left, with some gear changes: REI Quarter-dome 2-person tent, my Jetboil stove, rain gear, gloves, and some wool layers. We were delighted to have Serenity’s company for the first night back on the trail to wrap up our visit.
After leaving Denver, shit hit the fan. Literally. After going up and over one pass at 12,500ft, we were greeted with a snowstorm that forced a stop to the day in order to avoid getting stuck camping on the exposed ridge. We woke up to 6 inches of fresh snow, with a 20 mile stretch ahead, including two big passes, before reaching town. This was arguably the toughest day yet. No microspikes for traction, 2 foot snowdrifts, thoughtful navigation, freezing feet, and piercing winds. Offset by the most beautiful views of untouched snow that I’d ever seen. So we made it through.
Winter had arrived, but Dingo and I decided to stay hiking the trail as long as possible. We’d gotten word that nearly every southbound hiker behind us (and some in front) was forced off the trail by weather/gear, and had either quit or decided to skip the remaining 300 miles of Colorado and walk the pavement into New Mexico. Some also opted for the lower, but scenic Great Divide Mountain Bike route. By choosing the Silverthorne and Collegiate East routes, we were mostly successful. Weather and terrain was challenging at times. But to be in these stunning mountains, in the absence of other people, was a real Colorado treat. It was four weeks on trail that Dingo and I walked alone without seeing any other CDT hikers (just the occasional day hiker and 2 Colorado Trail hikers). It was strange to think we were probably the last thru-hikers to walk the trail for sections of Colorado until next summer.
We reached the notorious San Juan Mountains and decided to give the high route a go. In Salida, we’d both had boots, gaiters, and microspikes mailed out to make it official. With a pretty solid weather window, it was doable. A lot of the snow had melted from the previous storm, so we'd only be dealing with drifts and north side patches. This would be a ~150 mile stretch with stops in Lake City and Pagosa Springs. It was mid-October by now, well past the “you should be through the San Juans by Sept. 15” speech deadline. Most of the route was above 12,000 feet, traveling on exposed ridges and snow. The hard part about the CDT, is that it’s tough to get info about trail conditions because of the few number of hikers out there. We knew a few hikers had made it through the snow just days before, but conditions change quickly in this mountain range. You just have to go in with some bail out options and see for yourself. It was going great to start, until the day going into Lake City, when we were hit by a blizzard on an exposed section of trail and struggled to keep our fingers and toes warm enough. After that, the forecast showed temperatures dropping again and we decided we didn’t want to spend the next few days trying to keep our water bottles from freezing. So, we gave up on taking the high route. In hindsight, we probably could have made it through. But we thought it would have been brutal on us, with 800 miles left to hike. So in the end, we didn’t.
Hiking with a partner and kickass dog made a big difference with the solitude and decision-making here. We kept positive throughout it all, and were able to take more risks than if alone.
Even getting off the ridges, we weren’t out of the wind yet. The Creede route had some eye-watering winds and single digit temperatures at night. Ramen bombs and hot coffee, paired with spectacular mountains, were my saving grace through Colorado. A few more cold nights and we would drop down to Cumbres Pass and be into New Mexico.