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.
WHY RUN THE CT?
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
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
THRU-HIKING THE CT
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
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
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??
SHARING THE TRAIL
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
We are all
(eventually) such suckers for the newest toys, aren't we?
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
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??
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.
challenge is teaching a techno idiot how to use it. This should be interesting!
I'll let you know how that works out.
"THE TRAIL TO NOWHERE"
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
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 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.