View north from Hope Pass in Colorado


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Map from the Colorado Trail Foundation's poster.






Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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Today's miles: 21.9                                Cumulative miles: 124.1
         Approx. elevation gain: 4,460 feet           Bonus Miles: 0                 
"All major water crossings [on the Colorado Trail] have bridges spanning
them except for Pole Creek and the Rio Grande. Both can be extremely fast during high water, so use caution. Once over the [Continental] Divide and in the
Weminuche Wilderness, the Elk Creek drainage and its dramatic geologic walls
are topped off with views of Arrow and Vestal Peaks."
- The Colorado Trail Guidebook, Seventh Edition, p. 204



I was just amazed with the dramatic scenery and terrain on this section. My favorite view is this one down the Elk Creek canyon through the Grenadier Mountains from the top of the Continental Divide.

Totally awesome. I don't think it gets any better than this. Photos don't do it justice because they don't adequately convey the grandeur and perspective. You really do have to be there.

The main themes on today's run were WATER and ROCKS.

The segment begins with five miles in the Bear Creek drainage southeast of Stony Pass and follows the Elk Creek drainage from miles nine to seventeen. Runners, hikers, and equestrians ford numerous streams from the narrow headwaters of creeks . . .

. . . to the wide Rio Grande River (shallow today, fortunately) . . .

. . . and the Animas River (with a nice bridge, thank you!).

Add to that some waterfalls . . .

. . . and puddles and mud, and let's just say that Cody was a very happy puppy today! (The twin falls above fall another couple hundred feet to Elk Creek, but I couldn't get the whole shot in one photo.)

There aren't very many rocks in the first eight miles up to the Divide, but the terrain is nothing BUT rocks from there down to the Animas River - rocks in the trail, rocks in the creeks you ford,

boulder fields in and around the trail,

and massive rock walls that stretch from the trail to the sky - all colors and shapes and sizes of rocks and I really didn't mind them at all because they added to the drama and uniqueness of this section.

I ran where I could and walked where I couldn't. It was another major photo day; I took about 200 pictures today. Our GPS measured 22.4 miles but the official distance is 21.9 miles. With all my various stops, I took 8:45 hours on this section. If I'd done it faster, I probably would have fallen and it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun.

There is a fair amount of both elevation gain (about 4,460 feet) and loss (about 4,000 feet) on this segment going southbound as I did. Because most of the rocks were in the 3,770 feet of downhill from the Divide to the Animas River, I wasn't able to run as much as I thought I could from looking at the elevation profile. And the smoother first eight miles were mostly uphill.

I'm not able to run very much up hills at altitude. If you want to run this section, I think it would be faster going northbound, or do an out-and-back from the Stony Pass/Rio Grande trailhead to the top of the Divide and back.

The segment begins at 10,550 feet, rolls up and down about five miles on a nice jeep road FSR-506),

then switchbacks on fairly smooth trails up to 12,690 feet on the Continental Divide where it tops out (8.8 miles). This photo looks back down to the Bear Creek valley and road:

This is about halfway up the climb:

Near the Divide, the CT joins the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) for 8/10ths of a mile before splitting off:

In the photo above, there is a little abandoned mine cabin barely visible on the left.

The next photo is the view looking back down the valley where I hiked (still going up, so I didn't run it):

That water runs down into Bear Creek eventually.

The running is great on top of the Divide, which is flatter here. This view looks toward Stony Pass to the north:

The trail drops suddenly into the Elk Creek drainage/canyon/gorge and down to the Silverton and Durango Railroad tracks and the Animas River at 8,920 feet (16.9 miles). The next 2.2 miles ascend 1,380 feet on what the guidebook says is 33 switchbacks, but I counted several more than that. The last three miles continued to climb another 610 feet to Molas Pass (10,910 feet) but were less strenuous.  

This segment was different in another way from previous ones I've done on the CT: there were some steep downhills going southbound off the Divide and in the Elk Creek gorge. As you begin the initial descent and look down to the trail 'way below you wonder where the elevator is located!

Then you realize the trail designers put in about thirty nice switchbacks (some are shown above) to get down there. The switchbacks are mostly a gentle grade and very runnable, at least downhill. They would probably seem endless going uphill.

Farther down the valley some of the steep descents are straighter and made me wonder how horses manage them.

Because much of this section is in the Weminuche Wilderness cyclists have to take a mandatory detour around the segment using Stony Pass Road. Equestrians are permitted on the entire segment. There are places in the Elk Creek section where I sure wouldn't want to be on a horse, though. This is one of them!

Besides being steep occasionally, the trail is so narrow, rocky, and/or unstable (loose rock scree) in some places that are high above the creek that I would be concerned about safety for both myself and my horse.

The first eight miles would be a lot of fun for equestrians, though. I saw lots of hoof prints and horse pies there, but no equestrians or pack trains.

Speaking of animals, this was a great segment for wildlife sightings. After we'd crossed Stony Pass on the way to the trail head this morning (about 6 AM) we saw two large moose along the Rio Grande where it was smaller than the trail ford several miles downstream. They didn't want to stand still for a photo:


I also saw three elk off in the distance along Bear Creek from FSR-506, as well as numerous deer and marmots:



This looks like perfect wildlife habitat with all the water, trees, and open grasslands. The CT turns off this jeep road after about four miles near the former village called Beartown. You'd think maybe there would be lots of bears near Beartown and Bear Creek, but I didn't see any (I was looking hard!). Nor did I see any elk in the Elk Creek drainage. Along the trail, it's mostly steep canyons and rocks that looks better suited to mountain goats. I talked with some hikers last week who did see some goats there.

It was fun to follow Elk Creek from before its headwaters, when it was mere drops of water, as it gained incredible volume and momentum down, down, down through the canyon until the trail veered away shortly before the Animas River. The trail follows the creek for almost eight miles, crossing it several times while it's still small. Sometimes the trail is right beside it, sometimes it is several hundred feet above in the forest.

About halfway down the Elk Creek canyon the trail passes through several huge boulder fields deposited by glaciers. Unlike many times on the Appalachian Trail, you don't have to go over, around, or through the rocks. The trail is rocky, but there is no bouldering required. (Thank the equestrians for that!)

The trail veers away from the creek for a bit through the boulders. You can still hear it, but can't see it. The guidebook says Elk Creek goes underground here in places, then re-emerges at some beaver ponds downstream. There is a great view at the ponds of Vestal and Arrow Peaks, the most famous of the Grenadier Mountains and members of Colorado's Highest Hundred (peaks):

About sixteen miles into this segment, the trail leaves both the gorge and the Weminuche Wilderness. It soon drops down to the Animas River and the tracks used by the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad that I mentioned in the Silverton entry.

Now how cool would it be if one of the trains just happened to be passing by while Cody and I were there??

About the time that thought occurred, a southbound train appeared. It was 1:41 PM. (Mind you, I had no idea what the schedule is, and still don't.) I could hear the whistle and see the steam ahead of me as I ran toward the north on the trail paralleling the river, trying to get as low as I could before we met. I was about a minute too late for a great photo, but took several from about twenty feet above it:

Folks riding in the open gondola cars waved and said hello to me, and I waved and yelled back to them. Cody probably wondered what the heck was going on! You can see him peering down at the train in the photo above.

We reached the tracks just after the train passed. I suppose it was better that we were above the train instead of right along the 300 feet of trail that are a foot off the tracks. That's a little too close.

The trail goes between the tracks and the Animas River for a few hundred yards. I saw a large sign here for the Grenadier Mountains, shown in the photo above. I think that is Mt. Garfield on the right, with other peaks in the range to the left.

There are nice tent sites along the Animas, although the location is a bit noisy with the passing trains! I was surprised to hear another one at approximately 2:26 PM. I was very high on the next climb then, and could only hear the whistle and see some steam. That tiny train also appeared to be going southbound.

I was very grateful for the nice bridge across the wide and fast Animas River, which the CT guidebook describes as class-five whitewater here:

The river was named "El Rio de Los Animas Perdidas," translated as "The River of Lost Souls." Hmmm . . . I'd like to know the rest of that story!

I saw a total of six hikers on today's segment. Three young men were resting on a steep incline above Elk Creek, one was coming down the switchbacks above the Animas River, and a young couple was camped right next to this old mine cabin about a mile down in the Elk Creek canyon from the Divide:

There was another old mine cabin on the first side of the Divide, too. They're everywhere!

I totally lucked out with the weather today. After all the rain we've had, I was concerned about the condition of Stony Pass Road with its vehicular ford of Pole Creek, then shortly after that, my own ford on foot of the Rio Grande River. Neither the streams nor the road were a problem today.

It was clear and cold when we left camp about 5:30 AM; we had to scrape frost off the windshield for the first time since we've been here. Most of the day was sunny and warm, to my delight. It's so much nicer to run and hike when the weather is nice, especially in the mountains! I could hear thunder and see some gray skies as I climbed out of the Animas River Gorge and covered the last five miles to Molas Pass, but I didn't get wet.

The last two photos are from the final section:


This is a great segment with simply incredible scenery. It has as much "sensory overload" as Segment 25, although there are fewer flowers than that one. I was really pumped when I got done with it, and want to do it again someday.

The first eight miles up to the Divide are good to run out-and-back. I wish we had time for Jim to do that before we leave the area, but we're going to be busy with the Hardrock race the rest of the week. Although the Elk Creek canyon is not very runnable, even downhill, it is so beautiful (especially near the top), challenging, and varied that I highly recommend it for a slower run or hike.

[Note: the new (7th edition) guidebook mentions a re-route of the Colorado Trail in sections 23 and 24 to keep it closer to the Continental Divide and avoid FSR-506. Apparently the road is dusty and crowded with Jeep traffic in the summer, but all I had to contend with today were mud and puddles. I noticed on the Divide where the new trail comes in. On the way to the trail head this morning we passed a large tent with CT volunteers near Stony Pass. A young fella said they are building new trail. It isn't open yet, but may be by the end of summer. So if you're running or hiking these sections soon, check the CT website to see if the new trail is open. There should be new GPS waypoints for it, too.]

Next up: pre-race activities for the Hardrock Hundred, including setting up the Cunningham aid station.

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2006 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil