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:  19.1                              Cumulative miles: 102.2
         Approx. elevation gain: 1,440 feet           Bonus Miles:  0               
"This segment of the Colorado Trail is quite spectacular in many respects. It has the most vertical of any segment of the CT, more than 4,700 feet of vertical in one direction and 1,400 feet in the other . . . The views are greatly reduced, since most of this section is in dense forest and at the bottom of a narrow canyon . . . "
- Colorado Trail guidebook, Seventh Edition, p. 234  


I'm not sure I'd call this section "spectacular," compared with the others I've run, because the views are greatly reduced. I love those panoramic vistas above tree line. It is a lovely section in the canyons and forests, however, and it was a pleasure to run down most of those 4,700 feet instead of climbing up them.

I'm glad there weren't any spectacular vistas because most of the time today I was in a fog. Literally, not figuratively!

You see, this was Day Five of the monsoon season, as we call it. Another night of rain on the camper roof. Ear plugs silence the noise, but they don't silence the dread of another day on the trail in rainy weather. Fortunately, the rain didn't begin until the last four miles - it could have been worse. The rest of the run was in mist and fog.

This is a fairly easy section of the Colorado Trail if you're going southbound. Where I started, the trail dropped from 10,360 feet to 8,520 feet in the first 4.7 miles, climbed up to 9,560 feet in the next four miles, then dropped to 6,990 feet at the end. The total elevation gain today was about 1,400 feet (there were other ups and downs besides those) and loss was about 4,400 feet. Because of all the downhill running I was able to do, I averaged an 18-minute pace. (There were plenty of stops, as always.)

If you start at the Kennebec trail head 2.4 miles up the trail, the initial drop is even greater - from 11,635 feet to 8,520 feet in the first 7.1 miles. The best part is that most of it is runnable!


Since I ended 2.4 miles into this segment on Friday, I had only 19.1 miles to run today from the trail head at FSR-171N to the trail head at Junction Creek in Durango. And because it was mostly downhill, I didn't feel the need to be on the trail at 6 or 7. We slept late this morning: 5:15!

It took us two hours to reach the trail head again. We had to drive back south to Durango, then north on FSR-171 over seventeen miles to the short extension (171N) that goes to the CT trail head. These good dirt roads weren't as muddy and slick as I expected. The trip was uneventful, and Cody and I were on the trail just after 8 AM.

As Jim and Tater were leaving to go back to Durango to run errands and wait for me to finish, they spotted a big 'ole brown bear running across the road half a mile away from where I'd just gotten out! Jim saw the bear come out on the road from the left. He immediately stopped the truck and turned the engine off. The bear quickly scurried up a nearly vertical cliff into the woods on the right side of the road and turned to watch the truck. He was gone before Jim could get a photo of him.

Rats! I missed the first bear of this trip!

Meanwhile, Cody and I were making our way down a fairly smooth but very wet trail. There were puddles and mud everywhere. I was glad I had my Marmot rain pants on because wet foliage was hanging over the trail. Mist hung heavy in the air. I could see the flowers and trees around me, but not the hills in the distance.

This segment was very different from the others that I've done in the San Juans because much of it was in canyons and at lower altitudes (all below tree line). It was very green today, the colors close to me more vibrant because of the recent rains and overcast sky.

Soon after we began, Cody and I spotted this artfully placed skull next to a log just off the trail. It was about eighteen inches long. I'm guessing it was a large mule deer or maybe an elk:

The trail switch-backed nicely for the first mile, then followed two little creeks and larger Junction Creek as we got deeper and deeper into a canyon. We passed close to a nice waterfall about two miles in:

The next photo shows some of the large rock formations on either side of Junction Creek while it was still pretty small:

We crossed the creek five times in 1.5 miles. I just waded through rather than try to balance on wet logs in the first crossing:

The next three crossings were easy to ford. However, the little creek gathered enough volume and momentum by the time I crossed it the final time at 4.7 miles that I was grateful for a nice wooden bridge over it.

Just before the bridge, I had the highlight of my day - not a bear sighting, but an elk and her baby!

The mama went off into the woods when she heard us but the calf came flying by Cody and me on the trail! We both stood there in surprise as the baby sped by us on spindly legs and went into the high grass next to the creek. I ran over the bridge with Cody and stood there for a few minutes surveying the scene, hoping I'd see a reunion, but it didn't happen while I was there.

After the bridge, there was a four-mile climb of a little over 1,000 feet through woods high above Junction Creek. The trail switch-backed above the canyon walls but continued to follow the creek. I could hear the creek but couldn't see it through the fog and trees until many miles later when I switch-backed down to it again at 16.5 miles.

During the climb, the forest transitioned from Engelmann spruce to a mixture of spruce, fir, white pines, and aspens. There weren't as many flowers in this section as the previous ones - too much shade.

Just above the bridge, gray-ish moss hung from the spruce trees in a surreal setting straight out of Lord of the Rings:

It must be very moist there all the time because of the creek. Farther up, the trail looked more similar to other places on the CT where I've driven or run at this altitude (between 8,500 and 9,500 feet):


About a mile from the top of the climb I was surprised to see a trail runner coming toward me! We talked for a couple minutes, but I forgot to get his name. He runs ultras and was doing a long out-and-back run from Durango. He planned to go three more miles to the bridge and turn around. He told me he just placed a flag at the top of the climb:

I could see the little flag on the right side of the trail and knew I'd finally reached the top of the mountain at 8.8 miles into my run. You can see how foggy it is in the photo above.

It was nice to be able to run down again through the aspens, then pines. By about 12 miles it was partly sunny and I was optimistic that the run was going to end well.

Because there weren't any views to photograph, I was more aware of little unusual things around me on this run. I took these three photos of interesting rock-and-root combinations, marveling at Mother Nature's display of the will to survive against the odds of weather extremes and other challenges:



The trail continued down a rolling path to a well-marked intersection with a popular bike route at 12 miles:

I could see bike tracks in the mud on most of this segment, but didn't run into any cyclists today. I wouldn't want to ride a bike on some parts of that trail. There are very narrow trails in the canyons above some steep drop-offs. The guidebook describes the trail as "steep and technically difficult" in places. I don't think I'd feel very comfortable riding a horse on those parts of it, either. One misstep and you're gone. The guidebook offers FSR-171 as an optional alternate for cyclists.

You won't find this on the Appalachian Trail:

Cyclists or equestrians made the jump on the right, while runners and hikers use the trail on the left.

A little farther down the trail I came to a log bench called "Gudy's Rest" in honor of Gudy Gaskill, the woman who is the "Mother of the Colorado Trail." By now, it was getting cloudy again and I couldn't see the entire view from the overlook. I  heard thunder in the distance.

It started to rain four miles from the end of the segment. I was able to take only one more photo, the bridge across Junction Creek as I entered the canyon again that took me to the southern terminus of the Colorado Trail.

There were a few day hikers and a fisherman walking along the trail the last three miles. On a sunny weekend day, the trail would have been much busier here, close to town.

I'm so sorry I couldn't enjoy the creek the rest of the way. It was quite large now as it continued dropping on its way to the Animas River in Durango. The rain was very heavy and I was intent on making it to the truck so I could get warm and dry. Once again, I was very happy to see that truck at the trail head!

I'd like to do the last three miles out-and-back on a sunny day on another trip to the area. It might be more meaningful after I've done the entire trail, not just six sections of it.

It was kind of weird to realize I'd just stopped at the southern terminus of the Colorado Trail, where most CT thru-hikers finish their trek. Running the segments in a haphazard fashion is a little disorienting. I'll end my 28th segment at some remote trail head somewhere and suddenly be done with the trail, without any of the anticipation and excitement I felt when I summitted Mt. Katahdin at the end of the Appalachian Trail last summer.

But that's OK. This quest is entirely different and if I'm unable to do every segment this summer because of high water crossings or trail heads that are too difficult to reach with our truck or some other problem, I'll just try to finish another year. Finishing the CT isn't nearly as important to me as finishing the AT was.

Next up: Thirty Miles of CT Splendor - Jim's training run on Segment 25.

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

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2006 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil