[u]Arrival to Salida, CO[/u]
After successfully completing my goal of section hiking the John Muir Trail last summer, a new annual tradition was born to try and complete long multiday backpacking trips in different parts of the country. Well, now a year later, it was time to try for a 145 mile portion of Colorado Trail (Marshall Pass to Silverton, CO).
8 months of planning had finally gone by, and it was time to head to the airport. Shannon (Maca Daddy) and I were to meet at the Denver Airport where the two of us would head over to the bus terminal where we’d meet MikeVW (Eeyore) who had already been gallivanting in CO for a week. After a long bus ride through country roads, we were finally in the town of Salida. We stayed at the Simple Lodge and Hostel for two nights and while we were there, we got to meet a lot of fellow backpackers and mountain bikers. They shared a lot of stories with us about their respective adventures to this point. We also inquired a lot about what current trail conditions were like. Apparently, afternoon storms were rolling in like clockwork and the mosquitoes were out. I guess we were about to find out.
[u]Day 1 Marshall Pass – Tank Seven Creek[/u]
With the arrival of our third day in Salida, the time to hit the trail was finally here. The day before, we had arranged for a shuttle, thanks to the help of a local outdoors store, to come pick us up at 8:30. Our shuttle driver, Louis, a long time Colorado native, loaded us up in his car and we were off to the Marshall Pass Trail head. Kudos to our driver Louis, because it turned to be one a heck of a drive. Once off the main roads, we were on dirt/gravel mountain roads that bring us up several thousand feet to our starting elevation of 10,800 feet. These roads were definitely not meant for weary drivers as it was rocky, steep and narrow. It makes the dirt roads that climb up to Dolly Sods, in WV. look like child’s play. Upon arriving at the trail head, we unloaded our ungodly heavy packs (30-40lbs), took a group photo, and thanked Louis for the drive up there.
So after 8 months of talking about this trip, and much anticipation, our hike finally started. The weather was nice with partly cloudy skies with the temps being in the low 70s. Hiking in our first couple of miles offered up the first grand views of Colorado’s high country. It was absolutely stunning how big the terrain here was and how little you feel in comparison. It was truly humbling and felt great to be able to a part of it. When we weren’t in open terrain, we found ourselves walking through thick forests full of Aspen, Pine, and Fir trees. Pretty amazing to see. After another couple miles, we ran into our first set of mountain bikers and backpackers. We said our quick hellos and right at this point, the trail took its turn for our first major ascent. I’m not going to lie, at this point, I’d say we were about five miles in and I was getting my butt kicked by the altitude and the abnormal amount of weight I was carrying. Being an “UL Backpacker”, I wasn’t quite used to carrying 30+ pounds on my back. I have no idea how some of you folks do it routinely… cough.. Karan…
After enduring the physical toughness of it all and the lack of oxygen for the next six miles, we pulled into camp at Tank Seven Creek at around 2 in the afternoon. I was glad I planned this day to be a short one to account for acclimatization. I can’t speak for the others, but it had just felt like we had hiked a 20 mile day. As we were setting up camp, we noticed the clouds were getting thicker and that a storm was rolling in. 15 minutes later, thunder was crackling all around us. Well, according to my notes in which I’m currently referring to writing this trip report: “2pm + T-Storms + Altitude = Nap time”. That’s exactly what I did. A couple hours later, I woke to the sound of Mike gathering fire wood. I got up to help and shortly thereafter we were all eating our hot meals by a nice fire (with a little rain) , well except for Shannon who quietly ate his diet of nuts…
Note: Shannon has methodically picked his diet on the trail to be Macadamia nuts, Quinoa, and an assortment of other nuts and M&Ms. Why, I am still not sure, but in the end, he did not die of starvation.
Total Mileage: 11 miles
[u]Day 2 Tank Seven Creek – Razor Creek [/u]
Up at 6:30, and on the trail by 7:30, we started our 1800 ft ascent into the Cochetopa Hills. The climbs were gradual yet steady and the trail would meander through wide open meadows filled with grazing cows. I’m pretty sure the cows did not like our presence as whenever we got close, they would stare us down and moo pretty angrily at us. I think I saw one of them give me the finger… Well at least that’s my take on it.
Anyways by around noon, we were at the junction of Baldy Lake trail. We had planned to stop at Baldy Lake for a lunch break so we headed off the CT and descended 300 feet down into the lake. Once at the lake, I took the time to walk around a bit to take some photo shots, while Shannon and Mike were filling their water bottles and drying out some of their gear from last night’s rain. Soon thereafter we were accompanied by two dirt bikers who also picked the location to take a snack break and take some pictures. We didn’t end up staying too long as the mosquitoes here were plentiful and it looked like another afternoon storm was brewing. We wanted to make camp before the rain.
Back on the ascent we climbed back to the CT and climbed another 500 ft to a saddle point on the trail. Once on the top, the trail opens up and offers great views to the south west. At this point we had about two or so miles left, but from these views we could see darker clouds approaching ahead and a severe storm was landing just to our south. From this point on, we quickened our pace a bit and luckily enough we were at Razor Creek before the rains. Razor creek was at a trickle, but we were happy because this creek is dry in most cases. We cached up, and headed another 200 yards in a pine grove where we would camp for the night.
Again we made camp fairly early, but we took the time to relax a bit and get a nice fire going. Shannon at this point wasn’t feeling so well as I think his body was starting to reject his diet of just nuts. He decided to try and sleep off whatever he was feeling for the night. As for me on the other hand, I was trying to invent ways to make my Mountain House dinners better. This was the night the combo of Mountain House Chilli, bacon jerky and goldfish crackers was born! After dinner, Mike and I were headed to bed as well. After all it was getting close to 7:30 pm… can’t stay up all night, haha.
Total Mileage: 15.3 miles
[u]Day 3 Razor Creek to Segment 19[/u]
As today was the first planned long mileage day, and to try and beat the afternoon storms, we rose at 5 am and hit the trail by 6. Luckily from the night before, Shannon was feeling better and back to good spirits. This day started with two big climbs up a ridgeline through heavy fog. Halfway up our second climb, we met our first backpacker in 2 days heading northbound on the Continental Divide Trail. He told us some of his stories on the trail, including ones of some trail magic in which we would encounter soon and his goal of section hiking all of the CDT in the state of Colorado. Wishing each other good luck we pressed on.
We steadily hiked for the next several miles until we hit highway 114. The trail followed the highway for about half a mile and then crossed it heading towards Lujan Creek. At the creek, Mike took the time to filter water while Shannon and I headed forward for a bit.
Note: This is where Mike encountered some odd cat like creature crossed with a squirrel. It actually turned out to be some wild ferret but Shannon was convinced that it was some sort of alien creature that later used its power to erase the memory card on Mike’s camera. I also vote on this theory.
We all continued on the trail, after descending down over Cochetopa Pass, we noticed the darkening clouds quickly starting to surround us. We rapidly pushed ahead on the trail until right before it was completely exposed terrain. Here we decided to take cover in the low lying grove of trees and wait out the storm. Shannon and I decided to pitch our shelters while Mike ducked under a tree sitting on his sit pad with his full rain gear on. As the storm passed all around us, loud cracks of thunder echoed in the valleys next to us. Luckily, no storm hit us directly and after an hour and a half, the skies lightened up enough for us to continue on safely.
Hiking on, we noticed that the terrain started to change dramatically. We went from dense pine forests and to flat open dessert like terrain. You could see for miles on end here! When I reached the highest point on this flat highland, I could see a faint structure ahead with a car sitting next to it. I knew exactly what it was when I saw it, and when the three of us approached it a couple miles later, it was confirmed. It was the Trail Magic the backpacker we met previously had mentioned!!! We were quickly greeted by this guy named Apple who volunteered for the Colorado Trail Foundation. He had this dome tent (lightening proof) set up and in it was water, drinks, snacks, a place to stay if needed, and all other sets of goodies to a backpacker. He offered us Gatorade and snacks and provided us with folding chairs to sit on. What luxuries!!! We sat down and spoke about ourselves and talked about our love the trail. He loved doing this so much, in other years he would do the same trail magic thing along the AT somewhere in the Carolinas! Well, we didn’t want to get too comfortable here and we said our goodbyes and thank yous and headed back on the trail.
After two more miles, we were at camp. Carefully setting up around all the cow patties, we pitched just in time before another rain storm set in. With a quick break in the rain, Mike and I found trees that offered us some shelter from the rain so that we could cook our dinners and eat outside. Back to our tents and with more rain falling, it was time for bed after a long long day.
Total Mileage: 23.6 miles
[u]Day 4 Segment 19 to Stewart Cree[/u]k
It was another early start, and we were on the trail by 7:15. The trail continues along open valleys, and soon enough more cows are along the trail to greet us. The number of cows that we saw made me begin to question all the water sources that our maps were pointing out. Luckily, we were within a couple miles of a fenced in spring and cached up.
After many ups and downs, we finally arrive at the Cochetopa Creek valley. It was quite picturesque here as the valley bottoms were lushly green, the ridges around the valleys were brown with reddish rock, and off in the background were views of the high peaks ahead. After taking some pictures, we headed down in to the valley bottom where the trail begins to run parallel with the creek. At this point, we weren’t really following a proper trail but walking along a muddy old jeep trail with cow patties all over. Couple miles of following this wasn’t the most pleasant of hiking in my opinion, but scenery made up for it.
Soon enough, we finally were at the crossing point of the creek. Normally, there is a bridge made up of a couple of logs here to help cross without getting wet. Due to the heavy snows this past winter this bridge was damaged and made for our first creek fording of the trip. That water was super cold, as in about 20 seconds, my feet were completely numb. The three of us successfully crossed and at the other side, took the time for a quick break. Mike and I also used this time, especially while the sun was out, to wash ourselves a bit. Feeling somewhat refreshed and cold we pushed on.
The trail began to ascend a bit getting us higher up the valley but still continued to follow Cochetopa creek for a good while. Couple miles later, we were at Eddiesville Trail Head, where there was a parking lot and more importantly a pit toilet! It looked like this parking area is used for folks wanting to do a day hike or weekend backpacking trip to try and summit San Luis Peak, a Colorado 14er. We had our lunch here, and to this point, we had done about 13 miles and were wondering how much further we could go for the day. According to my itinerary, I had planned for the campsite at Stewart Creek seven miles and 1200 feet of climbing away. The seven miles was doable, but the 1200 feet of climbing we had to do to get to 11, 700 feet was certainly daunting. Heads held high, we got set, and we trekked on.
Of course, now that we were in the early afternoon time frame, the clouds began to roll in and rain was coming. The trail at this point was beginning to get muddier and more overgrown. It sort of reminded me of the trails in Dolly Sods. Not only were they getting muddier, it was getting very steep and slick as well and before we knew it, it was raining. It wasn’t until this day, where the trail conditions were starting to test my emotions. Not only was it wet and the terrain hard, but it was cold, lightning began to strike closer and closer, and the altitude was whooping all of our butts. I was feeling quite stressed, but what balanced everything out was the scenery around us. So many highs and lows was definitely a weird feeling to have.
At this elevation, I was starting to lag behind Shannon and Mike, but that was ok, I figured they would just leave me to die… haha J/K! At this point, the lightening was getting closer and closer and it was actually getting quite dangerous to be out there on exposed terrain. After seeing some close ones, I decided to get off trail and hide myself in some low lying tree cover. I was hoping that Shannon and Mike did the same but I wasn’t sure how far they pushed on. Quickly after seeking shelter, I heard Mike’s voice yell my name. I yelled back and he and Shannon headed towards me into the grove of trees. After about 20 minutes, it looked like the danger past and we pushed for our last mile and a half into camp.
When we arrived, I was very surprised to see how windy and exposed the camp was. Honestly I was quite hesitant to camp here with us being so wet and cold but in the end, we were all able to find places near bushes that sheltered us from the wind and rain somewhat. Almost literally soon after we set up our shelters, the sky began to clear and the sun came out. Even a rainbow appeared! I guess it was a big reward to the end of a tough day.
After setting up, and getting our camp errands finished, we took the time (individually) to get shots of the scenery around us (San Luis Peak) and got acquainted with a llama. Yes, a llama. Prior to today, we had been noticing weird hoof prints on the trail that we had been following since day 3. Then, when we met Apple (trail magic guy), he had told us about two guys; one of them using the llama to carry gear due to a recently dislocated shoulder. So for seeing these lama prints for a while now, getting to camp and seeing the llama was pretty cool. These guys were also really cool, were happy to share the camp with us while telling us stories of their experiences on the trail.
Anyways, right before we all were ready to hit the sack, we got together and talked about our plans for the next day. Now originally, the plan was to get up to the San Luis saddle and then go for the summit of San Luis Peak but at this point, with how the altitude was affecting me and how tired and stress I was from the last couple hours, I had little desire to summit this peak. But thanks to Shannon’s quick pep talk, I would re-calibrate my thoughts and would plan for the summit the next morning.
Total Mileage: 20.6 miles
[u]Day 5 Stewart Creek to Mineral Creek[/u]
Early that morning, I popped my head out of my shelter to notice a crazy phenomenon. Clear skies!!! I couldn’t believe my eyes! We quickly packed up our sopping wet gear back into our packs and headed up for the saddle. I had my doubts about making the summit the night before, but literally, we had every sign in the world pointing at us to make the summit. Once on the saddle, it was another 1400 feet to the summit. We dropped our packs, took some extra clothes, and pushed for the summit. The views going up San Luis was incredible! A couple thousand foot drop on one side and amazing valley floor views on the other! Once we hit the 13,000 foot mark, breathing and walking was super slow. For me personally, I had to control my physical exertion just so that my heart rate stayed moderate. A rapid heart rate for me meant dizzying headaches and the feeling to want to black out. It was a weird feeling to say the least. 1.3 miles later, we were at the summit. I think it took us about an hour and a half to cover the distance if you want to get a perspective as to how slow we were moving.
The summit was definitely worth the climb and just wow all of it was just amazing! Plus I now broke my record of the highest I’d ever been at 14,014 feet! We didn’t stay too long here as the air was thin, and it became pretty cold pretty quickly. We were down before we knew it and now it was to head back on the trail with our heavy packs. Onward to San Luis Pass!
The country at this point in the trail was absolutely stunning! It reminded me a lot of the High Sierras in California with its majestic peaks all surrounding the trail! Soon, the three of us were on San Luis Pass. Looking at the map, from this point forward, we had a 3 mile stretch rising 1200 feet on completely exposed terrain. Now of course considering it was in the early afternoon hours and the storms were again coming in, we had to make a decision if we were going to commit to going forward for three mile before getting into adequate cover again. Looking at the skies, I thought we had about 2-3 hrs before the storms came in. It was hard to tell though as we couldn’t see far enough before us to properly tell. Mike suggested we stay put and see what the clouds did. Well, I guess by two third’s vote it was up to Shannon. So we moved on…
Just before the crest of the major climb, the clouds started turning black all around us. I never regretted a decision so much before and I don’t think I’ve ever run that far with a backpack on either. The three of us safely got back down on the other side into the lower valleys, and in hind sight, we didn’t really get bad weather to come at us. But boy oh boy, was the little stretch the most stressful hiking I’d ever done.
Soon thereafter, we were on our way down into the Mineral Creek area where we would set up for the day. We made camp at 2pm, giving us enough time to recover our bodies, wash our gear and ourselves. I did some laundry while Mike took a dip into this small pool of freezing water, and Shannon took a nap. We also got a good fire going, and the three of us got dinner going and reflected on the trip to date. We all really just enjoyed the fact that the weather was holding up and that’s right, there was no SIGNIFICANT rain that day!!! Crazinness! At 8 pm we were all off to bed.
Later that night, I randomly woke up at around midnight. The thought popped into my head “maybe it’s a clear night and I can try to take a picture of the stars?” I stick my head out of my shelter and boom, it’s a clear night! Filled with excitement, I put on all my layers and got my camera and tripod ready. I walked over to the small meadow just under this massive ridge and set up. I was so amazed as to how bright the stars were and how apparent the Milky Way was! Well here goes nothing… I took about 30 different shots with different exposure settings and I finally got a couple images I was super happy with! It was finally worth the effort of carrying that stupid heavy tripod this entire trip!! YAY! Satisfied and proud, I laid out under the stars for a bit more and then went to bed.
Total Mileage: 12.1 miles
[u]Day 6 Mineral Creek to Random YURT![/u]
Woke up to clear skies again! It was definitely a welcoming trend. On our way again, we headed off and before we knew the trail opens up again to majestic views. Walking on the trail at that point was becoming very welcoming because the terrain around us just switched onto awesomeness. Walking in and out of the bowl canyons with the morning light was fantastic. Several miles later, we would descend down into Snow Mesa, a high plateau at 12,200 feet! Between the three of us, we must have taken a ton of pictures as it was quite impressive to see the land above the clouds! Also, this section was great because it was flat! We took the opportunity to get back to our normal backpacking pace here.
Along the way, we would pass the llama folks and played leap frog with two backpackers we had met in the Salida Hostel. This was also the first time I out my headphones on (I never do this) and hiked to music. Something about the terrain, how good I felt, and Sir Eddie Vedder, made this hike very spiritual for me. Cool.
At the end of the mesa, there was a steep decent down into the Spring Creek area. This is where we would fill up on water and stop for lunch. Shannon was on such a groove, he elected to push on and meet us at the next water source three miles ahead. Wrapping up with lunch quickly, as by looking at the skies, it had looked as if it was about to rain again. We slapped on the rain gear and we were headed towards Jarosa Mesa. Now seeing the crazy storm to the south of us and looking ahead at the darkening clouds, Mike and I yelled ahead at Shannon to stop and wait so that we could seek shelter to wait out what was coming. We found an area and setup Shannon’s tarp to hide under for the next 45 minutes. Looking at the sky afterwards, it looked ok to continue on to Jarosa Mesa.
Jarosa Mesa just like Snow Mesa, was a high exposed plateau nearing 12k feet. It rained on us and stormed all around us, and quite frankly, it was a little uncomfortable to walk under. But with some pep talk given from Shannon I continued on and ultimately the skies lightened up for a great afternoon hike.
Seeing the San Juans in the back and sheep grazing, made this another picturesque area. Moving on through the rolling valley, we approached out camp area near a supposed spring. The spring was a little bit off trail and into this marshy area. The water looked off colored, kinda like the water you would find in Dolly Sods, but it was coming directly out of the ground and smelled fined. We cached up and at this point we were trying to figure out where a campsite are was.
Near the trail at that point was this Yurt that was built by volunteers in the early 90s as a winter shelter. Now, with the approval of the local forest service, it is a permanent shelter for all hikers and bikers that travel the CT. While Shannon and I were getting water, Mike went up to check out the Yurt. He came back with the info that as long as no one reserved it for the night, you can self-register and for a 20 dollar contribution, you can stay there overnight. Shannon suggested we stay at the Yurt, so, well, we did. It was odd after being on the trail and outside for so long to be able to sit in a chair at a table “inside”. It was nice! It was nice not setting up in a cold wet area for once. Enjoying the luxuries for a bit longer, we were then off to bed.
Total Mileage: 20 miles
[u]Day 7 Yurt to Cateract Lake[/u]
After having one of the better nights of sleep in a while, we were up and back onto the trail by 7:30. After a couple hundred yards or so, right when we crossed into the trees, we passed by a group of four backpackers that were breaking camp. They were quite surprised when they heard we had stayed at the Yurt as they passed it up because they thought it was private property. They were a very friendly group and we said our hi’s as we continued on.
The trail then started to ascend quickly and soon enough we were on wide open terrain again. The trail continued to ascend, offering massive views along the way, where it finally reaches the CT high point at 13,270 feet. It’s definitely hard to miss this area as a lot of features in the section look the same. I simply noticed it because of the CT app I had on my phone I was using to locate where on the trail I was.
Anyways, after the high point the trail quickly descends down into this incredible valley. The saying I had in my head at this point and with all the highs and lows I felt so far was: “this is what hiking is all about!!!” I swear, this valley was so beautiful and majestic, I expected to see dinosaurs roaming around! At the bottom of the descent, Mike and I filled up at a tributary and took a quick lunch break. During our break, we met this woman section hiking the CT solo making her way up to Salida from Durango. She shared with us her on the trail experiences thus far and we did the same. Also, she was a park ranger from Grand Canyon National Park which really heightened my interest as I’m planning to go there this September. One of the main points she made was that the stars you see out here are nothing in comparison to what you would see out in the GC. Well then, guess I have that to look forward too!
After bidding farewells, we headed forth to Cateract Lake. From this point on, the trail stays well above 12k feet over the next 20 miles. My body did not really like this as again, and just like on the ascent of San Luis Peak, I had to carefully monitor my heart rate as I was getting a severe headache. Nothing I did really worked, but I took it slow to get to the camp site.
Once arrived at Cateract Lake, we pitched, and I took a nap to recover. Good thing too, because once I hit the sack the afternoon rains arrived. A couple hours later I awoke to the sounds of other hikers coming in hastily setting up camp as it was down pouring when they arrived. It turned out to be the group we met previously by the Yurt! I’ve never seen people pitch so fast, but that’s what rain and lightning will do to you! A bit while later the clouds were starting to lighten and the rain stopped. I took the time to make dinner and then climbed out of the tent to walk around a bit. Just looking at the terrain around us was absolutely amazing. Mike and I both agreed that this was one of the more beautiful sites we’d ever set up in. I accompanied Mike while he was cooking his dinner for a bit before retiring back in to my shelter.
Total Mileage: 14.3 miles
[u]Day 8 Cateract Lake to Stony Pass[/u]
After a long night, it was time to get up and get going. We were greeted by a pink skies and splendid views in the morning. After being on the trail for about a mile, something seemed very wrong. My migraine instantly returned, only worse and I would feel lightheaded a lot. Mike helped me out with some pain medication, but that just seemed to dull the pain a little. Regardless, I was willing to push through the pain, at least for the next 17 miles before the trail dipped back down to a reasonable altitude. This part of the trail was ridiculous in its views but very annoying, to say the least, as how it pointlessly goes up and down.
Note: At this point in my writing, I will admit, I can’t seem to remember many parts due to the way I was feeling. I’m sure Mike or Shannan can fill in this part, but all I remember is seeing lots of sheep, gulches (V-shaped valleys cause by erosion), and wildflowers.
Mid-way through the day when I went to go filter water nausea started to set in. I was in so much pain I could only filter a quart of water. This was my first major warning sign that what I was feeling was more serious than I thought. At the ten mile point for the day, I came across Stony Pass and where the trail ascends Stony Pass Road for half a mile to rejoin the trail again. This was where Mike and Shannon were waiting for me to see how I felt. After collapsing in front of them and not really acting like myself, they offered an option to get me off the trail and down to lower elevation.
Silverton was only 10 miles away and it was our end town anyways, so this was a very viable option. Plus there was a good amount of traffic flowing with dayhikers and/or backpackers visiting for the weekend. Being my stubborn self, I didn’t want to quit and the thought of quitting made me really sad. I decided to keep going but asked Mike or Shannon if they would stay close to me. Well… after a quarter mile more when the trail started to ascend again, I just simply could not walk anymore. Knowing what happens in the afternoon hours with the storms, and another 7 miles at 12k feet, I didn’t want to jeopardize Mike and Shannon’s safety along with mine. The decision to turn around and hitch to Silverton was made and Mike and Shannon decided to come with me. Mike ran off ahead and was able to flag down a group of backpackers that was willing to get me off the trail and into Silverton. They only had room for me but they said if Mike and Shannon start walking down the road that they would eventually get them after retrieving their second car. These were some great people and they were amazed after hearing what the three of us had accomplished. A couple hours later we were in Silverton at a soupy elevation of 9,300 feet!
Total Mileage: 10.1 miles
I again want to thank Shannon and Mike for making this trip really enjoyable and memorable. You guys really helped in times where I needed ya. Thanks for that.
To sum it up, my body hates altitude. I think my trip next year will be at negative elevation. Death Valley? Haha. Shannon and his hatred of Macadamia nuts was born - Maca Daddy Was Born. Mike has no flaw at high altitude and I hate him for that. j/k :-) And lastly I will forever have PTSD when it comes to lightning storms.
To the planning of the next one!!!
Jimmy, thanks for writing all this up! I'll have to add in some thoughts of my own soon (I took almost a page of notes/recollections while going over the report), but you made this trip happen, and I'm grateful for it. The altitude left me even more breathless for the wonders around us, and your photos brought a few more great memories home. Hope I can be a part of the next trip, wherever it may be!
Thanks Mike! Lets do something lower perhaps. :-)