THE LAST 130 MILES OF THE TRAIL!
How strange it felt to be driving to Colorado to start my final stretch of the Continental Divide Trail. The mass expanses between Salt Lake City and the Rocky Mountains in Colorado gave me plenty of time to ponder the feeling. I couldn’t help but think back to my first day on trail in April 2015 and laugh at how absolutely optimistic I was that I would hike the length of the country that summer. I still remember my words “To Canada!” as I took my first steps from the Mexican border.
The logistics of section hiking between stints at work have been tough, especially figuring out where to leave my car near the southern-end of the section and how to get to the northern-end to start my hike. This time around I drove to Bruce Spruce Ranch, a little spot with some rustic cabins about 10 miles below Wolf Creek Pass where I’d arranged to rent a cabin for the night and leave my car while I hiked.
Monarch Pass to a few miles past Marshall Pass
I woke at 6:30 a.m. ready to get to the trail and start this final CDT adventure. I’d organized for a shuttle company in Salida to come pick me up at 7:30 a.m. and drive me north to Monarch Pass where I’d left the trail a month earlier. The driver was a super great guy and was thankful to be driving somewhere other than around Salida or between there and Denver. We had a good chat about the mountains I was about to head into as he’d done some adventuring in the area. Atlas was a bit nervous about why we left our own car in the woods and what we were doing in this stranger’s car headed north again. He’s seen how this movie goes; long distance hiking time again, Atlas!
We arrived at Monarch Pass at about 10 a.m. There must have been 50 mountain bikers all getting geared up in the parking lot. I hadn’t realized that the first bunch of miles along this trail was the Monarch Crest Trail and a very popular ride for the local crowd.
I got Atlas’ pack on and fitted properly. He was sporting a brand new Ground Bird Gear pack. As you’ll probably remember, I’ve really struggled to find a backpack that works for Atlas. I’ve tried many different ways to make the Ruffwear packs fit, but they just don’t work for him. A friend recommended I try Ground Bird Gear and I’m so glad he did. The owner, Marie, works with you directly to design a pack to work for your dog. I was excited to see how the pack works for him.
After getting Atlas sorted out, I lifted my pack up onto my back, clipped my waist belt together and cinched it tight. I looked up at the trail, I usually feel excitement when I take my first steps on a new stretch of trail, excitement to be heading out on a new adventure and anticipation for what lays ahead. But today definitely felt different… this was it, this was the last time of my CDT hike that i’d be starting off on an adventure. This was the first of countless ‘last-of’s’ that my brain would marinate on over the coming week.
The miles went by quickly today. It was a perfect blue sky day and though it was warm there was definitely a crispness to the air that hinted at winter being around the corner. Ahhh, fall in the Rockies.
We found a spot to stop up on a hill and setup camp and watched the colors of the sunset give way to the night.
Near Marshall Pass to Baldy Lake (just off the CDT)
I had a hard time wanting to get out of the tent today, it was September 22nd at 11,500ft and it was COLD! By the time we’d pulled ourselves out of the tent and packed up it was 9 a.m., one of the latest starts I’ve probably ever had on trail. But like I said, it was cold!
I was really happy to see that Atlas’ new pack was working well for him and that he hadn’t developed any hot spots yet from carrying it yesterday. It’ll be so good to have solved this problem, i sure hope it keeps up this way!
Today was another stunning blue sky and sunshiney day. The trail through this stretch is more hilly than mountainous, even though the hills are up around 11,000 feet. I walked the rolling hills of Pine and Aspen groves and was excited to see the Aspens still holding on to their fall gold-colored leaves.
I decided to setup camp a little short of the 20 miles I like to cover in a day because there was a lake about a half mile off the trail and we were in the middle of a 22 mile waterless stretch. Instead of setting up camp on the trail and doing a trip down the hill to get some water, i decided it might be warmer to camp down at the lake because it was off the ridgeline and lower in elevation. I found a nice dirt campsite under some large Pine trees.
Baldy Lake (just off the CDT) to 4 miles south of Highway 114
Today felt like a bit of a slog. It started and finished with a steep climb and there were a lot of loose rocky climbs and descents in-between without any views to speak of. Like I said, a bit of a slog.
Part way through the afternoon the trail made way to road, thankfully it was dirt and devoid of cars and framed in part by groves of Aspen trees in their fall-time gold glory. Atlas took off running at one point down a bank, i figured it was a stream he’d heard or smelled, but then he emerged with a yellow Labrador by his side! Not what I was expecting.
The road dropped down the bank and there was an old farmer guy sitting on a tree stump about 25 yards off the road. He had the same quizzical look i had on my face moments before as he watched Atlas running around with his Labrador. It was probably a stranger sight for him because Atlas had his doggy backpack on. I waved hello from the road and thanked him for the doggy treat that Atlas had just negotiated from him.
I continued down the road another mile or so, half hoping that the farmer would come along in his pickup so Atlas and I could jump in the back and hitch a ride along the 1 mile road-walk ahead on Highway 114. And what do you know? Just as i was approaching the highway, along came old farmer guy and his lab!
He stopped to tie-down his load of timber so I seized the opportunity: “Are you heading west?” I asked. “Yep“. Yes… I love it when the stars align! “Do you think my dog and I could get a ride a mile down the hill so that we don’t have to walk on the highway?” I said. “Yep, but we don’t have room up-front, so… “. “No problem” I said as Atlas and I climbed up into the tray of his truck and sat between a chainsaw and a pile of logs. For the second time today his wrinkled face got more wrinkled as he looked at the two of us.
He drove very cautiously along the shoulder of the road until he heard me shout “this is it!” and pulled over to let the two of us out. Again not one for words, Old Farmer Guy waved us off with the same quizzical look. Haha, I shall miss those looks when I’m done with this trail!
Slogging up the last steep hill for the day, Atlas and I were definitely ready for some tent time. We pitched it right on sunset.
I inspected Atlas’ paws, as I do every night, and noticed that his pads had gotten pretty scuffed up from all the hiking we’d done on gravel roads and loose rocky trails today. The poor little guy! Nothing was cut or bleeding but there were some raw spots that needed to be protected, looks like Atlas will be sporting his doggy socks and booties for the next few days. He hates wearing those things!
I’d started feeling my shins just a little in the afternoon too, so as a precaution I taped them up to avoid getting shin splints, or worse, this close to the finishing line! My trail name, Elevated, was given to me in my first trail town some 2400 miles ago, where funnily enough i was having shin issues. Those shin issues turned into a stress fracture and put me off the trail the rest of the year; I wasn’t about to repeat that again so close to victory! Luckily i’ve learned a lot about my gait and how to tape various muscles since then and knew i could overcome this.
4 miles south of Highway 114 to the Cochetopa Creek Valley
I knew we had some hot treeless terrain to cross so we were up and moving at first light to try to beat the heat. Atlas was very good about letting me put his shoes and socks on; as much as he hates them, i think he knows it helps him and so doesn’t resist.
I’m really happy we got the early start because it was a hot walk this morning, it felt like were back in Wyoming walking across the Great Divide Basin. I really have loved the variety on this trail. Luckily for Atlas, we finished the treeless stretch after 11 miles and stopped for lunch by Ant Creek. We lay under the shade of some big trees and took a nap after lunch, ahhhh, happiness.
By late afternoon we’d already walked 21 miles and so it was time to find a campsite. I guess i didn’t look at the map closely enough because i just assumed there would be somewhere we could find a spot to camp up near the trail. Wrong. The trail cut through a steep bank and try as i did to find something, there just wasn’t any opportunity until 3 miles further down the trail. The trail left the steep bank and crossed onto a plain right as the last of the light left the sky.
I pitched the tent a dozen or so yards off the trail on some grass. I NEVER camp on grass, but i really didn’t have a choice tonight. Grass breathes and causes condensation in the tent, and a cold night’s sleep, so I avoid it where possible. I also try to camp under a tree, because it catches some of the cold night air and again reduces condensation. Not tonight! Brrrr, not what we needed at 10,000 ft in the late fall!
The evening chill descended on the plain rapidly and i wasted no time getting Atlas and i wrapped up in our down layers and zipped into the tent. I was really happy i’d packed a Thermacell sleeping pad for Atlas and had bought him a new 900 fill down sleep jacket; he would need it tonight.
Just as we tried to drift off to sleep an elk bugle chorus started somewhere further up the valley. If you’ve never heard an elk bugle, you should google it. At first hearing, it’s a terrifying shrieking noise that sounds like some animal is being tortured to its death. Having hiked as many miles of this trail as I have, it’s no longer akin to a night terror but rather a super cool experience. Atlas didn’t even seem too phased by it this time around. It was an incredible sound-show that ended long after I’d fallen asleep.
Somewhere near Cochetopa Creek to Creede
It was indeed a cold night. When i woke, the condensation had transformed into a thousand tiny ice crystals on my tent walls. I let Atlas out to keep watch over the field; he doesn’t like sitting inside the tent in the morning, preferring to stand-guard outside. I packed my gear up and shook out my tent, sending hundreds of the crystals flying with each shake.
I wanted to get moving as quickly as possible to warm Atlas and I, so I pushed breakfast off until later in the morning when we could sit and enjoy it in the sunshine. I was also excited to get moving because tonight i had a cabin booked in the town of Creede. Yay, town day!
We passed through a trailhead after a half hour of hiking and signed into the trail registry. The trail peeled off in two different directions, one to a 14’er, San Luis Peak, and the other followed the CDT. Ordininarly I opt for the 14’er detours, even if it is harder work, but today i was close enough to the town that I just wanted to get there, drink a Coke, eat a burger and sleep in a bed. Atlas didn’t seem to object, so we continued up the Cochetopa Creek valley along the CDT.
It was a really pretty hike as we climbed the head of the valley. The trail traversed one vibrant gold Aspen grove after the other. It was a really pretty and uncharacteristically cruisy hike; we stopped for lunch after 9 miles and had only gained about 1500 ft of altitude. Thanks for the reprieve, Colorado.
The sun was really hot, so we found a grove of willows to sit beneath while eating. I took Atlas’ shoes and socks off and took the opportunity to wash them in a nearby stream. Happily, his paws and my shins had been doing just fine the past couple of days, but i wanted him to keep wearing his shoes as a precaution given how scuffed up his pads had gotten a couple of days prior.
Colorado decided to take back its reprieve after lunch, and handed us a 1000 ft climb over a mile. As with most of Colorado though, the reward for the elevation gain was well worth it with a spectacular ridge-top vista. There was a great view of San Luis Peak. I felt no pang of guilt for having opted for the 12,000 ft not 14,000 ft high-point. It did look like an easy hike; i believe it’s one of the easiest 14’ers to summit. Oh well. I was on a mission to drink a cold can of Coke.
The trail stayed above tree-line for the next 3 miles and the views were spectacular. Ahhhhh, Colorado, i love your high elevation vistas.
I peeled off the CDT to take the Creede alternate route. The Creede route is one of 4 routes through the San Juan Mountains. It shaves off a couple hundred miles from the official trail and stays lower in elevation, so it’s a popular route when the San Juan Mountains are still snow-covered or for those looking for a faster way through. I’d originally planned to hike the long route next summer, but the allure of finishing the trail this summer was too strong. I had time for the Creede route but not the longer route, so Creede it was!
The trail dropped down from the ridge and followed along West Willow Creek through the valley. And hence started the town approach; trail made way to ATV road, ATV road made way to dirt road, dirt road made way to paved road and eventually… an actual town. I have loved walking that transition on this trail, it’s always really fun to see how remote the trail is.
This time however, with Atlas in tow, i opted to get a ride into town from where the car-road started. I had arranged to meet a local trail angel, Debbie, there. I’d texted her from my GPS the night prior and arranged to meet her there at 6:30 p.m. We arrived about an hour early and so took a nap while we waited.
Debbie arrived at 6:30, true to her word. Thanks so much Debbie! I threw my and Atlas’ packs into the back of the truck and climbed into the cab. Atlas was happy to be able to stick his head out a car window again, it makes him so happy!
Town Day in Creede
I wasn’t expecting much from Creede. From a hiker’s perspective it’s an access town that sits halfway along a road connecting the Cochetopa Hills with the San Juan Mountains. For that reason i’d made the connection in my mind that it wasn’t another of the classic Colorado mountain towns. Boy, was i wrong. Creede is about as quaint as it comes in Colorado. Like most of these mountain towns, its history is steeped in mining, rail and saloon stories. Creede was actually the last silver boom town in Colorado in the late 1890s.
Modern day Creede is a summer tourist destination with boutique galleries, coffee shops, a mining museum and access to recreation in the beautiful San Juan Mountains. Sounds like every other Colorado mountain town? But wait, there’s more, Creede’s modern-day claim-to-fame is that it’s home to the World’s Largest Folk. Yes, that’s right, folk. The 40ft folk has also won the title of Colorado’s weirdest tourist attraction.
I think the CDT can probably claim the title for the trail with the most weird utensil attractions, or at least i sure hope it would. Remember the World’s Largest Purple Spoon in East Glacier at the beginning of my walk?
Atlas and I had a really relaxing 2 nights in Creede. Atlas slept in the cabin 99.9% of the time and I went out and got acquainted with the town.
The highlight of the town for me was Kip’s Grill. Kip’s was a Mexican Restaurant, bar and laundromat all rolled into one. Yes, I actually had to squeeze in to let the bartender by with a tray of drinks as I loaded the washing machine with my stinky hiker clothes. So bizarre! Yet so very convenient. As you’re probably aware by now, when i do my trail laundry the only clothing that doesn’t go into the wash is my down jacket and my rain jacket and slightly translucent rain skirt, both of which look and sound a bit like a trash bag. It was too hot for down jacket today so rain gear it was. I’m pretty sure everyone in that restaurant/bar looked me up and down, a few times, as I went from bar booth where i ate my enchiladas and drank my margaritas, to the washing machine/dryer area to tend to my laundry. I shall miss those concerned is that a homeless person looks when i’m done with this trail.
Ivy Creek to West of Mount Hope
Debbie picked Atlas and I up at 6:30 a.m. to drive us to the trailhead. Thanks Debbie!!! I’d heard the route had miles of heinous blowdowns on it and so i opted for a slightly longer trail to the west along Ivy Creek.
The Ivy Creek trail was really really pleasant. It meandered through Pine and Aspen forests and pretty much followed Ivy Creek all the way up to Goose Lake and then eventually, 4,000ft and 13 miles later, climbed all the way above tree line and up to the Divide to meet my trail.
The last 5 miles today were some of the most scenic I’ve had on the entire CDT. Ridgeline walking, big mountains and massive views. And of course my last afternoon on the CDT wouldn’t be complete without the threat of a lightning storm now, would it?
Most of the afternoon I could see storms to my north or south but thankfully none developed on top of me. My luck eventually changed and a storm was brewing behind me. I looked at my map and could see a dip in the ridge about a mile up the trail where it looked like i’d drop below tree line briefly… that was my target. Atlas and I walked as fast as our feet could carry us.
I’m going to miss that power-walk zone the body gets into when it’s pushing to make really quick miles. I’ve utilized it often…. funnily enough most often when i wake up and know there’s a trail town at the other end of the day and the quicker i walk the sooner i’ll be drinking a Dr Pepper, Beer and eating a big juicy burger and fries. But I’ve used it a lot to outwalk storms, and thankfully less so, when escaping the Glacier Park Grizzly Bears and the Wyoming Creepy Cowboy.
I hit the dip in the ridge right as the storm closed in. There were indeed trees but definitely no flat land. The pick of the spots was in a patch of tall grass nestled between some trees at about a 4% slope-grade. Argh, my LAST NIGHT on the CDT and it was probably the worst campsite of the entire trail. I got the tent up and threw both of us in it the second it was up, right as the storm really got violent. Hail, wind, lightning, thunder… I literally laughed out loud at the irony of it, the trail’s slogan ’embrace the brutality’ held true to the very end. Thanks CDT, I’m going to miss you too. xoxo
West of Mount Hope to Wolf Creek Pass (THE END OF MY TRAIL)
I spent the whole night sliding down to the bottom of the tent. In the morning, I woke to a tent full of condensation, courtesy of last night’s storm and the grass i was camped on. Definitely the worst campsite of the whole trail.
Last morning on the CDT. Woah.
The trail spoiled us with a brisk yet beautiful morning. In parts, the trail was dusted with a trace of snow from last night’s storm, a reminder winter was nearing and hiking season coming to an end soon in the high country. The trail stayed up high for the first few miles affording great views as it wound by Sawtooth Mountain and Mount Hope before dropping down to Archuleta and Spotted Lakes where Atlas got some swim-time in.
Today was really just a whole bunch of ‘lasts’. Last CDT lake for Atlas to swim in. Last hot uphill slog. Last snack break. Last confusing trail intersection. Last time calculating estimated time to destination. I was so excited to get off the trail and eat a celebratory burger that I bypassed last lunch, but did take close to an hour for Atlas and I to fall asleep in the sun on a warm rock by a small lake.
When I saw the road below leading to Wolf Creek Pass it was an overwhelming feeling; I was less than a half mile to the end of my CDT journey. Wow. I walked my last steps more slowly than usual, savoring the last moments of this incredible adventure.
Atlas and I popped out on Highway 160 and crossed to the south-side of the pass where there was a large CDT information kiosk. I’d remembered being there 3 years earlier when I was setting off to hike the south San Juan Mountains and after that, New Mexico.
I got some obligatory photos in-front of the CDT map with Atlas then called Bruce Spruce Ranch where I’d left my car a week and a half earlier. Gina picked up, i was really happy that she remembered me and especially happy when she reiterated her willingness to send someone up to the pass to collect me. What incredible hospitality, someone would be up at the pass in 20 minutes!
While I waited for my ride I looked at the CDT map at the kiosk and ran my finger along the trail, remembering all of the spectacular wild places I’d passed through; small western towns i’d spent time in and all of the kind and interesting people i’d met.
It’s hard to describe the cocktail of emotions i felt sitting there. It probably captures it to say that I was overwhelmed by the satisfaction, and at the same time, the sadness, of having finished my journey walking the backbone of the American West along the Continental Divide Trail.
Please visit My CDT Adventure page where I give an overview of the completed hike, some of the memorable experiences and importantly take the opportunity to thank everyone who supported me in this incredible adventure.
Thanks for reading.