Leadville, a roadtrip and Pagosa Springs. The beautiful South San Juan mountains. Snow detour. Snow ass-kicking. It’s really cold. Where is this damn trail? Coolest trail to town ride yet!
Getting back on Trail
I took a week off to get a cortisone shot. The doctor says I have IT band tendonitis, cortisone in some patients has helped, but not in others, I haven’t had that part of this knee injected before so we decided to give it a shot, ha, no pun intended. I could hardly bend my knee for a couple of days afterwards and was in a pretty good amount of discomfort, a pretty scary thing to go through; all the ‘what if he did something wrong’ thoughts go through your head, but what I experienced is a pretty common reaction in a lot of patients for 1-4 days so that kept me from worrying too much. I hope it helps, but it’s not a slam dunk. It may just need a good few weeks of rest. We’ll see…
While I was out I did some strategizing about where I am/want to be on the trail. Unfortunately this September has been pretty cold and wet and the window for hiking in the mountains is now intermittent and closing in parts. The forecast into October was calling for a continued cold and unsettled weather pattern and so I decided to rent a car and head south.
I stayed in Leadville a night, near where I came off the trail at Tennessee Pass. Leadville like so many others in Colorado is an old mining town. I stayed at the Delaware Hotel, an 1886 Victorian Inn and apparently the nation’s highest altitude historic hotel. I wish I could say it was cool, but it was actually really weird. The hallways were lined with vintage furniture and wedding gowns. I wouldn’t have been surprised to be woken by a ghost bride mid-way through the night crying for her lost fiancé or something.
The next day I drove a few hours south to Pagosa Springs in the San Juan Mountains stopping in Twin Lakes to pick up my next resupply package that Katie has sent there for me. I’ll be missing some truly beautiful mountains through the Collegiate Peaks and the northern San Juan Mountains, and about 300 trail miles. I’ll look forward to coming back and hiking these beauties another year. I also won’t get the chance to hang out with Lisa or Laura in Gunnison, bummer!
Pagosa Springs is a town near Wolf Creek Pass. When I head up to the pass i’ll only have another couple of hundred miles in the mountains, after which point i’ll be headed into the New Mexico mesas and desert landscapes. I hope I can get through before more snow comes. I think my knee will enjoy leaving the mountains too.
The road out of Pagosa Springs up to Wolf Creek Pass was a busy one, but it took me about 20 minutes to get a hitch. A local guy was headed up to the ski area at the pass to pick up his season pass and stopped to give me a ride.
Wolf Creek Pass had a nice information display about the Continental Divide. A stat I haven’t heard before about this trail is that the trail follows the actual divide, as opposed to within a corridor near the divide, for about 1/5th of the total mileage. Feels about right. I spent a few minutes there reading the info and talking to some car-trippers who hadn’t heard of the CDT before and were really interested to hear what it was all about. I’ve been out here hiking the CDT so long now it feels like a normal thing to be doing every day, but an encounter with someone that hasn’t heard of it before and isn’t particularly outdoorsy kind of puts this crazy little adventure in perspective for me.
I started up the trail about 1 p.m. It felt really good to be back out again. The hike for the first bunch of miles wound its way up along the boundary of the Wolf Creek Ski Area and then traversed along the summit ridge of the resort. I am really loving walking through these resorts! Storm clouds were brewing a little north of where I was and once again with the ski lifts and resort infrastructure all around I couldn’t help but feel excited about ski season drawing near. I actually stood on top of a nice looking run with my ski poles in hand looking at my feet feeling ready to put some skis on them. If you’re not ski industry, then I should probably explain the weird looking tube things in the photos below; the system is called Gazex and it’s a method of controlling avalanches where patrollers can remotely detonate a mixture of oxygen and propane gas to cause an explosion at the starting zone of slide paths.
Shortly after leaving the ridge it started raining and rained on and off the rest of the day. It struck me that I’ve barely used my rain gear this trip, how odd is it that I’ve spent 3+ months living on or near the Continental Divide and I’ve only needed to bust out my rain gear a half dozen or so times. I think that’s really weird, it should rain a lot more than that up here, but it was a really hot and dry summer in Montana and Idaho. Colorado seems to be helping me catch up on rain events; the weather pattern has been cold and unsettled (rain/snow) for most of the time I’ve been here. Kind of a bummer, I was hoping to get through with some nice sunny and dry fall weather as is often the case in September, but it wasn’t to be this year unfortunately.
When the storm moved on the views into the South San Juan Mountains, where I was heading, was really dramatic. It had snowed up on the higher peaks and the scenery before me included dramatic sunset colors, storm clouds, snow covered peaks, winding trail and fall colors on the trees in the valleys down below. Pretty spectacular!
Today was very awesome. The trail wound it’s way through pine forests and meadows in the morning and then climbed up to the divide in the afternoon. The South San Juans are a very spectacular mountain range, i’m really happy I got to hike through them before snow closed the window on hiking season. Nothing eventful happened today, just a really scenic day of hiking. I knew the weather forecast called for a storm with high winds and precipitation to move through later that night so I was careful to select a camp site that was sheltered by trees.
I woke in the middle of the night to something heavy landing on my side. In my slumber I thought at first that maybe a cat had jumped on me and sat on my side. But then I realized that was a ridiculous thought. What on earth was it? I felt around and realized it was a giant clump of snow that had collapsed the roof of my tent and landed on me. Woah! I pushed the tent roof back into place and the snow slid off and landed in a pile outside my vestibule. I was very impressed that the tent just popped straight back into place without any issues, I love this tent. I got up to have a look at what was going on outside, concerned that a foot or more of snow had fallen everywhere. However the big clump that landed on me had fallen from the trees above and happily the ground was only covered in a few inches. Whew.
I woke at first light to a very strong wind slamming into the sides of my tent, hmm. I unzipped the tent vestibule to peer out and was greeted by the kind of day that makes you want to curl up on a couch and watch a movie. It was ugly. A few inches of snow, cold and windy as hell. Hmm. I got an updated weather forecast on my Delorme which called for 40 mph wind and continued precipitation for the day, clearing overnight and then sunny but windy the next few days. Hmm. I took a look at my maps which confirmed what I already knew, the whole day today was up high on the divide, above tree-line and involved climbing up and over three 12,000+ ft peaks/passes. Hmm. I couldn’t curl up in front of a movie, so I curled back up in my sleeping bag and went back to sleep for another hour or so.
When I woke back up again at 8:30 a.m. I made myself a delicious cup of Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, it’s the first time all trail I’ve carried something warm to drink in the morning and i’m so happy I did! I’d also carried out a ham and cheese croissant from a great bakery in Pagosa Springs and ate that for breakfast instead of my usual granola with blueberries freeze dried food. Nice to have something to be excited about on a cold wet morning!
I drank my latte and looked over my maps some more at what options I had. I figured I had three choices today: go hike the trail, stay in my tent all day or find a lower elevation detour. I didn’t want to stick to the divide, not the safe call in these conditions. I didn’t want to sit in my tent all day. There was no alternate trail indicated on any of the CDT map apps so I looked at the Delorme map on my phone and at the National Geographic map I was carrying. You can never have too many maps to consult! I figured a route that would enable me to get some miles in today and get back up to the divide to continue tomorrow; it would involve backtracking a half mile into the drainage i’d just come out of, heading down that drainage for 7 or so miles, walking a road a couple miles up a different drainage and then taking a couple of trails back up to the divide. It would put me about 13 miles further down the CDT from where I was now, not a bad option.
I packed up a very wet camp and started back down the trail. I was so so so happy to have been carrying a pair of Yak Trax and Seal Skin socks. The Yak Trax are traction devices you put on your shoes that make walking in snow and ice much safer. The Seal Skin socks have a waterproof membrane in them that keep the water out and your feet dry. Looking up at the mountains I would have been up in had I stuck to the trail I saw dark clouds blowing off them, good decision not to be up there!
Unfortunately the walking was anything but easy. As I got down in elevation the snow on the trail melted to form a trail filled with ankle deep ice cold water. As I got even further down, the ice cold water absorbed into the trail and created a trail filled with ankle deep mud. Oh boy. It was a slow and frustrating walk. So happy to have my waterproof socks!!! I finally made it to the road and started up the other drainage. I’d walked a mile of the road when a car came up behind me, I hadn’t even heard it approaching under all the layers I was wearing over my ears and the wind that was ripping past me. A nice young couple from Texas were in the truck and gave me a ride the remaining mile up the road to the trailhead. They were out for a drive and had driven up a series of roads just to see where they went. Lucky me! I wasn’t counting on seeing any traffic on this remote road on an ugly day like this. They dropped me at the end of the road and checked for the third time that I really wanted to get out of their warm truck and head back up to the divide. Yep!
The Three Forks Trailhead had a privy at it. Before this trail I viewed trailhead privys as pretty disgusting things, which some of them truly are, but this trail has given me a whole new appreciation for what wonderful conveniences they can be. This privy was really clean and didn’t smell at all, so I hung out inside out of the wind and snow/rain drying out my tent, socks and shoes and eating some food. In fact, had it been the end of the day I would probably have set up my tent in it for the night. If you recall many months ago when I put in that epic 34 mile day out-walking a big storm in the Scapegoat Wilderness in Montana, I’d been hoping for a privy at the trailhead to sleep in and hadn’t gotten one. Instead I set up my tent in a ditch by a highway. I ate dinner in one when I got stuck in a snowstorm in Glacier because I was borderline hypothermic and too freaked out by the bears to eat in my tent. And finally, every privy affords the opportunity to discard your used toilet paper from your pack and re-supply your toilet paper supply and sometimes even your hand sanitizer bottle.
Happy to have a dry tent to setup tonight I continued on my way up the Three Forks trail towards Blue Lake. The afternoon was more of the same, ankle deep mud below 10,500ft, then ankle deep ice water below 11,000ft and then snow above 11,000ft. I set up camp just below 12,000ft about a mile from the CDT and the Divide. It was an extremely cold night. I kept waking up with frozen feet and so i’d sit up and rub my feet with my hands until they got blood flowing into them again, eat some cheese and then go back to sleep. I didn’t sleep well.
I woke feeling unrested and really cold. My shoes and shoe laces had frozen solid overnight. The water in my water bottle was frozen. Luckily i’d wrapped my wet Seal Skin socks in a bag and slept with them in my sleeping bag overnight so they weren’t also frozen.
I packed up camp with frozen hands and feet and started up the trail wishing the sun would peak over the ridge and warm me. It finally did as I hit Blue Lake, I checked my thermometer and even with a bit of sun it was still well below freezing. Brrr. It’s definitely time to get out of these mountains and into New Mexico where the elevation is lower.
I wasn’t sure how the day was going to go. I wasn’t worried about more snow, because it was a beautiful but cold and windy bluebird day, however the trail climbed up and over two 12,000+ ft passes which would be snow covered.
The day turned out to be a real ass kicker. While there was only about 4 inches of snow, the conditions varied from great hiking to really tricky hiking depending on whether the snow was supportable crust, breakable crust or wind blown snow drifts. The supportable crust made for great hiking because I could walk on the snow surface and not break through, it actually meant I could take a more direct line than where the trail went. As the day warmed a little and the slope aspect changed the supportable crust became breakable crust, so with every step my foot would break through the snow surface to whatever rock, root, grass tuft or occasionally flat trail was underneath it. My knee and ankle didn’t appreciate this one bit. In places where the wind had deposited lots of snow I was wading through calf to knee deep snow.
I reached the top of the first pass by 1 p.m. and had only managed to conquer 7 miles of the 20 I was hoping for today. Hmm. Interestingly today there were almost always mountain lion paw prints on the trail, occasionally there would be a gap when one lion left the trail and a new one joined. I know there’s lots of lions up here, but it’s kind of nice when it’s a dirt trail and you can’t see any evidence of them!
The afternoon went a lot more quickly as the slopes were south facing and the sun had melted a lot of the snow below 11,500ft, however I wasn’t going to get in my 20 today. I calculated that i’d probably only make 17 miles and that would have put me on top of a very windy, treeless, snow covered ridge above 12,000ft. After how cold it’s been at night I just didn’t think that was a good decision and so I took a look at my maps, in fact I looked at 4 different map sources. It appeared I had 1 or 2 choices depending on which map set I wanted to believe: camp at about the 15 mile mark before the climb up to the ridge or climb up to the start of the ridge and then drop down a different drainage and follow a series of trails and jeep roads to Cumbres Pass. I had already purchased a train ticket to get me from the pass to town and so I wasn’t keen on only getting in 15 miles as I would be unlikely to make the train the next day at 2 p.m., so I opted for the latter course of action. The only issue with this was that each of my map sets showed that route to be a little different. On one set there was no trail at all, on two of them there was trail half way and a jeep road the rest, a forth showed there was trail about half way down but then a 5 mile gap to a jeep road. I decided to give it a try.
When I got to the point on the ridge where my route left the CDT there was no trail. Hmm. This stretch of trail should follow an adjacent ridge for a couple of miles before intersecting a different trail that dropped down into a forest and into the valley I would exit through. It’s not unusual for ridge line walking to be marked with cairns and not have an actual trail and so I proceeded cross country following the waypoints on my GPS. Occasionally a cairn would appear here or there so I wasn’t too concerned. Surely the next trail would be an actual trail. Well, I got to the place my GPS showed as being the trail intersection and there was no trail. Argh, I didn’t have a good feeling about this. The sun had already set and I was on borrowed twilight time so unless I wanted to stay up here on this very cold and windy ridge I had to drop down into the valley. Worse-case scenario my plan was that i’d follow my GPS track back up to the ridge the next morning, reconnect with the CDT and resume along that route.
I started down the drainage following where my GPS said the trail was. Quarter of a mile, half a mile, no trail. Then my phone died because it does that when the thermometer drops below freezing (thanks Apple, great design), great, no more GPS. I hit the tree line and decided to find a place just inside the forest to camp for the night then i’d reassess everything in the morning when the light returned and I could use my GPS again. I dug my headlamp out and started looking around for a good place to camp and then a trail appeared! Was it a trail or an animal track though? I started following it and I was pretty positive it was a trail, yay! Thank you mountain gods! I followed it by the light of my headlamp down another quarter mile to a nice flat spot where I could camp under some trees and on a bed of pine needles. I was far enough into this forest and down from the ridge that it should have been a warmer night than what I’d experienced the rest of this stretch.
I set-up camp by headlamp and did my usual 15 minutes of stretching before jumping into my warm sleeping bag. Just like every night recently, I cooked dinner in the vestibule, ate it while sitting in my sleeping bag and slept with my food bag at the foot of my air mattress. I know in theory you shouldn’t do any of those things, but when it’s below freezing the second the sun disappears, theory goes out the window.
Today was your classic CDT day, some massive highs and some massive lows. I really loved being high up on the divide with a fresh coat of white covering the San Juans and on such a beautiful blue-bird day, but I sure didn’t enjoy rolling my ankles a hundred times when I broke through the snow, nor the stress that came with there being no trail where there should have been one. I was hoping to get a good night’s sleep because it was a pretty exhausting day.
My hope for a good sleep didn’t pan out. I still woke up every few hours to warm my feet up. I’m so glad I didn’t camp up on that ridge, I would have turned hypothermic. I’m looking forward to getting to town and catching up on some sleep!
I spent some time looking at maps and the trail i’d stumbled across last night did appear to be the trail I wanted to find. Yay. I started down the trail checking frequently that the trail was in fact my trail, and aside from some detours to avoid deadfall, it followed the waypoints my GPS suggested it should. What a relief!
After a couple of miles the trail dropped to the valley floor to where it was supposed to meet up with a jeep road. Well, there was no jeep road. I hunted around, definitely no jeep road. Oh, man. Here I was a couple thousand feet below the ridge and now faced with thick pine forest for miles and miles ahead with the prospect of no trail? There was no danger in my situation, I knew how to backtrack, I also knew the direction I needed to go should I continue on, I had plenty of food and water was everywhere since the recent snow but there was a slight feeling of dread that came over me. It can be very very slow moving to cross country through a forest without a trail.
I walked through a short stretch of forest, then a meadow and the next stretch of forest had a faint trail, but was it a hiking trail or an animal trail? There was lots of deadfall to climb over, under and around and I started to get pretty worried. I decided to give it a little bit longer to see if my luck would change, if it didn’t I was going to turn around and go back up to the CDT. Just as my dread was growing into a knot in my stomach I rounded a corner to the start of a jeep road!!!! A jeep road!!! I was so ecstatic I cried, and wooped with joy and kissed a pole on the side of the road. It was where it was supposed to be, but had just started a mile from where it was supposed to. From dread to immense relief and joy in a split second. Such is the life on the CDT. You really get to enjoy the full spectrum of your emotions!
The rest of the morning I just followed a road. I know I’ve said many times that I hate road-walking, but today… today I LOVE road-walking! As is often the case heading out of the mountains the road went from bad, to average, to good to great and eventually intersected a paved highway.
I landed up getting to Cumbres Pass at about noon and the train I was catching to get into the town of Chama didn’t depart until 2:45 p.m. The road had been much more direct than the maps showed and so it was about 4 miles shorter than I was expecting. Yay, no complaints.
Cumbres Pass is a cool place. A railroad was built in the 1880s by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and because the climb up the pass from Chama was so steep, infrastructure was built at the pass to support turn-around bays for helper locomotives, the trains that would help get ordinary trains up the steep climb, as well as for the trains to fill up with water, an essential requirement for steam trains. Back in the day it was a busy train line for both passenger transportation and the mining industry, and so a team of people actually lived on the pass to support the railroad’s activities. Now it’s a tourist site with remnants of the old buildings and infrastructure. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad still operates a daily train tour service across the pass, and this is the train I planned to meet up with at 2:30.
I’d seen the sights by about 12:30 and still had 2 hours until my train. A bitterly cold wind was blowing and even in the sun I was really cold. I found a spot of grass away from the tourist sites and pulled out my sleeping bag. I pulled off my shoes and crawled inside. I felt a bit like a homeless person sleeping in a park, but at least I was warm.
The train ride was really really cool! Best trail to town ride yet! The train is a full-on historic steam engine, it wasn’t breaking any speed records but it sure was cool! Funnily enough Drew and Christina, the Texas couple that picked me up on that remote road a couple of days ago, were in the train! They saw me jump on and came to find me to say hello.
I met another Aussie after getting off the train, Tony from Sydney. He is cycling the divide. We exchanged stories and met up for dinner and breakfast the next day. It was nice to have some company and it suddenly struck me how quiet the trail has been; aside from Mud and CheeseSnake who I saw the first day out of Steamboat, I haven’t seen a single CDT hiker in all of Colorado! A lot of people ask me if I get lonely and wouldn’t I rather hike the trail with someone else. I can honestly say that my answer to both is no. I’ve really enjoyed the solitude and frankly there’s so much stuff assaulting the brain on an hourly basis out on the trail that it doesn’t give you a chance to get bored or lonely. It would make it easier at times, that’s for sure, but i’m loving the challenge of figuring it all out on my own.
Rest in Chama, New Mexico
The trail at Cumbres Pass is still in Colorado, but this town is across the border in New Mexico. Yay, a new state! When I get back up to the pass i’ll have another few miles of Colorado trail before I cross the state-line. Exciting!
Chama is a cute town and the locals are super friendly. I’m staying at a little motel across from the railroad depot called the Chama Station Inn. The food in town sucks, I haven’t seen a piece of fruit yet, but there is a Brew Pub that makes a really delicious Apple Cider. I’m going to say that Apple Cider is fruit and get my fruit intake this town-stop by drinking it, fair enough, right? Oh, and of course there’s an ice cream shop.
Thanks for reading.