View north from Hope Pass in Colorado


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Map from the Colorado Trail Foundation's poster.






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            TO THE COLORADO TRAIL        
"The Colorado Trail is the premiere scenic long trail in North America. It winds its way through fields of wildflowers to high mountain passes, from wild mountain streams to quiet trails through old growth forests. The CT crosses eight mountain ranges, seven national forests, six wilderness areas, and five river systems."
- from the back cover of The Colorado Trail, Seventh Edition (2006)


As beautiful as are the Bighorn Mountains, I have even higher hopes for the magnificent Rockies in central and southwestern Colorado. This is where the Colorado Trail (CT) winds its way though some of the highest mountains in the Lower 48 States, known as "fourteeners."

The CT traverses a rich and varied landscape through five ecological zones ranging in altitude from 5,520 feet at its northeastern end in Waterton Canyon near Denver to 13,270 feet just below Coney Summit in the lofty San Juan Mountains near Lake City. The topography ranges from the harsh, dry foothills of the high plains through the lower and upper montane, subalpine, and fragile alpine tundra zones. Most of the trail is above 9,000 feet, and a substantial amount is above tree line.

With 7,814 feet of elevation difference, you can imagine the wide diversity of plants, animals, geology, and weather that thru-hikers may encounter during their treks, even more than I experienced along the Appalachian Trail. Colorado Trail hikers face even more challenges because of the elevation in these mountains.

It remains to be seen how long and/or steep some of the climbs and descents are. There is a total approximate elevation gain of 74,320 feet if all segments are done southbound. Doing each segment northbound results in 72,850 feet of climb, 1,470 feet less because the north end at Waterton Canyon is lower than the southern terminus in Durango.

Total gain and loss either direction is approximately 147,170 feet, if I did the math correctly. These figures are from the brand new 2006 guidebook and are based on GPS waypoint readings. There is actually more elevation change because not every little up and down is counted.


Because it's there??? Because Colorado's mountains are so dang spectacular?? Because I need a new challenge?

All of the above, and more.

I have been interested in running/walking the Colorado Trail since 1998, when I first saw signs for it along the Leadville 100-mile course. The race course briefly follows the CT above Turquoise Lake, on the flank of Mts. Elbert and Massive, and near Twin Lakes.

The CT formerly shared the same route up and over Hope Pass that the race continues to use, but in recent years the CT has been rerouted around the Twin Lakes area and Hope Pass. Now it takes a shorter, lower route east of Mt. Hope and the Columbine Mine area, to my disappointment. An alternate route still goes up and over Hope Pass. I might take that route so I can enjoy Hope Pass again. I've been up there at least a dozen times in the race and on training runs.

Jim and Cody are facing south from Hope Pass in this photo from a training run in 2004. In the distance are Mts. Oxford, Belford, Missouri, Huron, and LaPlata.

See the photo at the top left of each journal entry for the view north toward Twin Lakes. There is another photo heading up to the pass from the south side in the  May 21 entry and one of Twin Lakes in the introduction.


Most CT thru-hikers begin their trek at the northeastern end near Denver and walk the 483 miles southwest to Durango because the highest elevations are at the southern end of the trail where it takes a while for the snow to melt (usually sometime in July). This also gives hikers a chance to acclimate to the high altitude more gradually than going south-to-north. The southbound hiker doesn't get above tree line until about 80 miles in, whereas the northbound hiker hits it in only 20 miles.

The CT is conveniently divided up into 28 segments, starting with Segment 1 near Denver and ending at Segment 28 in Durango. This should make planning easier than the Appalachian Trail, where there were many more accessible trailheads and decisions to be made re: how many miles to do each day, where to begin and end, etc. The CT goes through much more isolated wilderness than the AT, and many of the trailheads will entail long drives and some rough 4WD jeep roads that may be too rough even though we have 4WD. I might get in some bonus miles if it isn't practical to take our pick-up truck all the way to some of the trail heads.

Many more people do day, weekend, or one-to-two week treks on the CT than thru-hike it, similar to any long trail that takes a month or more to complete. CT thru-hikers are more challenged by lack of places to resupply than are AT hikers. Getting into towns is very difficult since the CT is so deep in the wilderness most of its length.

Because of our summer itinerary, I'll be doing most of the trail in the harder direction, from Durango back to Denver (I may do the sections themselves from north to south, however).  I'm acclimated pretty well right now to about 6,000-8,000 feet, but not above that. We'll see how I do at 12,000 feet next week!

After the Bighorn race, I had to rest up a few days (injured leg muscles). In addition, we were unable to make reservations as soon as we wanted in the campground nearest the northern terminus. I'll have time to do only a couple segments at the north end before we have to head to the southern end to work the Hardrock 100 race in Silverton. Hence, the need to do the trail "backwards."

Why be normal??


There are many differences between the Colorado Trail and the Appalachian Trail. I've already mentioned the higher altitude. Use of the trail is also very different. The AT is designed solely for foot travel. Mountain bikes are allowed only on short sections the Trail shares with the Virginia Creeper Trail and C & O Towpath, horses there and on a bit of the AT in the Smokies. The CT, however, is designed for use by cyclists and equestrians. I'll talk more about the advantages and disadvantages of a multi-use trail in another entry.

Not nearly as many people use the CT as the AT, so I'll be alone much of the time. The busiest segments are near Denver, Kenosha Pass, and Molas Pass, and it's mostly cyclists who are on the trail on these convenient and/or spectacular sections.

The CT is not marked nearly as often as the AT, which could pose problems for me. The Colorado Trail Foundation tries its best to keep the trail marked with adequate signs and markers, such as the plastic one below . . .

. . . but souvenir hunters love to take those little signs off the trees and leave other trail users scratching their heads about which way to go.

The new guide book has what appears to be excellent, detailed directions at frequent intervals, but it's too big for me to carry. The older data book, designed to be carried by trail users, has out-dated mileages. I plan to use the same drill that worked for me on the AT: carry a little 25 spiral notebook with hand-written directions from the newest book and consult it along the way. I'll also make notes in the book like I did on the AT, while my thoughts and observations are fresh.

A new wrinkle this year will be the use of a GPS.

Oh, dear! I'm not the most technologically sophisticated person out there. That's a major understatement, in fact.

I'm not an "early adopter" of any new technology and I'm pretty reluctant to learn how to use most of the wonderful features found on the various gizmos in my life. I was dragged kicking and screaming into the computer age. I used a computer at work many years before getting one at home (ten years now - my, how time flies!). I didn't understand the marvelous convenience of microwaves or cell phones until most of the rest of the world was already using them. Now, of course, I "couldn't live without them."

We are all (eventually) such suckers for the newest toys, aren't we?

Fortunately, I'm married to a techno-geek. Jim loves new gadgets, the more complicated the better. He considers them a challenge to master. I consider them an annoyance until I'm forced to learn how to use them.

Guess who resets most of the clocks when the power goes out or the time changes twice a year? Guess who programs the VCR and cell phones, installs new computer software, rewires the house to use the solar panels he installed on the camper, and fixes almost everything that goes wrong with the vehicles, house, camper, and all the techno toys??

Now guess who doesn't use even the chrono feature on her cheap Timex running watch or experiment much with the settings on her favorite low-end digital camera??

Jim recently purchased a mid-level Garmin GPS unit to make sure I don't get lost in the mountains of Colorado. He's still practicing with it on his own training runs and in the truck as we travel. It's fun to watch him use it. He gets so excited each time he figures out something new as he's programming the way points from the Colorado Trail and topo software packages he bought. He's just about got the thing mastered now.

His next challenge is teaching a techno idiot how to use it. This should be interesting! I'll let you know how that works out.


If you read last year's Appalachian Trail journal, you know that trail has a long, rich history and its own thru-hiker "culture" that has developed over the last 80 years or so. As with much of the West, the Colorado Trail is younger and more spirited. It's practically in its infancy, but its focus is much the same.

As with the AT, the CT is designed to stimulate the body, mind, and soul. It offers all levels of physical challenges, depending on where and for how long a person runs, hikes, or rides. It is educational in many ways, a living history, biology, and geology lesson. It stirs the imagination and inspires dreams. It offers peace, solitude, and outstanding beauty to those who venture forth.

It took some doing to finish the Colorado Trail from one end to the other in 1987.

The first person to get the idea of a long distance trail from Denver to Durango was Bill Lucas of the U.S. Forest Service back in 1973. As with most government projects, focus groups were formed to develop a plan for building the trail. Gudy Gaskill, an active member of the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) attended the very first meeting and went to every subsequent planning session in the early years of the CT. She became the driving force behind the trail and rightly earned the title of "Mother of the Colorado Trail."

Gudy (short for "Gudron") chaired the original Colorado Mountain Trails Foundation which was formed to draw a route to link new trails with existing mining and logging roads through 13 Forest Service Districts. You can imagine what a nightmare that was! Besides negotiating with the managers, she was also busy recruiting and training volunteers, leading trail crews, and purchasing supplies. It was a formidable task, and progressed very slowly.

Then in 1984 an article in the Denver Post entitled "The Trail to Nowhere" by Ed Quillen spotlighted the plight of the trail and got the attention of the then Governor Dick Lamm and his wife, Dottie. They rekindled the dream and fostered cooperation between the state and the Forest Service.

Two years later, Gudy founded the non-profit Colorado Trail Foundation (CTF), whose focus and responsibility was the completion and maintenance of the trail, as well as continuing education of trail users. Through Gudy's vision of the value of volunteers, the trail was built at a much lower cost per mile (about $500) than the Forest Service's estimate (about $25,000 per mile with paid labor!). The Forest Service provided technical assistance, but volunteers did the manual labor. Volunteers continue to maintain the trail.

The Colorado Trail Foundation is still an all-volunteer organization and Gudy is still its guiding light. Although this strong, athletic woman now sports white hair, she is very active in the Foundation's work, especially its educational mission. The CTF offers classes in wilderness first aid, wildflowers, geology, photography, story-telling, and painting each summer.

The Foundation celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2004 and continues its mission of outdoor stewardship. It works closely with its sister organization, the Colorado Mountain Club, and shares office space in the town of Golden. Although the CTF office occupies just a tiny space compared to the Appalachian Trail Club's main office in Harper's Ferry (or even its regional offices), the Colorado club's efforts are just as impressive to me. Their guide book and trail software are outstanding, and I'm sure I'll discover their trail is every bit as wonderful as the Appalachian Trail.

Next up: let's go! Come along with me on Segment 1 of the Colorado Trail.

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

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2006 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil