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