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Map from the Colorado Trail Foundation's poster.






Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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Today's miles: 16.8          Cumulative miles: 16.8
Approx. elevation gain: 2,160'       Bonus miles:  0
"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
- Chinese proverb 


Last year I began my Appalachian Trail journal with that same quote. It's just as true for the Colorado Trail, even though the CT is "only" 483 miles. It still looks like a long way on a map, especially considering the terrain it covers.

Every journey has to start somewhere. Today I set foot on the first segment of the CT, and I'd like to share my journey here with you as best I can in words and pictures.


Waterton Canyon on the southwest side of metro Denver, Colorado is the northern (sometimes referred to as "eastern") terminus of the Colorado Trail. It is also the lowest elevation along the entire trail at 5,520 feet. Even that "low" elevation can take the breath away from a hiker or bike/horse rider who isn't used to it. It wasn't too much of a problem for me today since I've been living at 4,000 feet and training up to 9,000 feet for the past four weeks.

Segment 1 is the busiest of all 28 CT trail sections because of its proximity to a large, outdoors-oriented population and because the first six miles of trail (actually, a smooth dirt road) go uphill a whopping 40 feet! It's even busier on a pretty Sunday morning, as I discovered today. Most of the trail users were cyclists, some of them traveling quite fast. There were a few runners and day hikers. I saw no horses on this section, only evidence they'd been there.

Jim dropped me off at the trail head near our campground at Chatfield State Park and we took the mandatory "start of the new long trail" photos:


Just a wee bit different from the start of the AT in Georgia, eh??

Popular Waterton Canyon is a mecca not only for runners, day hikers, and cyclists, but also fishermen and birders. The Colorado Trail follows a smooth dirt road the first 6.4 miles to the Strontia Springs Dam. Only Denver Water Board service vehicles are allowed on the road. I didn't encounter any vehicles other than mountain bikes on this weekend day.

The road was originally graded for a rail line built in 1897 for the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railroad. That was before diversion dams were built to harness the Platte River to deliver water to a growing metropolitan Denver population. Now it's a pleasant run, walk, or ride along the river all the way to the largest dam (I passed one or two smaller ones enroute).

The CT guidebook and signs along the trail indicate the rocky cliffs along this road are a good place to observe bighorn sheep, but unfortunately I didn't spot any. The Waterton band of sheep is unique at living this low and so close to a big city. I hope I'll see some in a later segment. (We never saw any in the appropriately-named Bighorn Mountains, either!)

It would have been more pleasant if I'd started earlier - it was in the low 80s as I began my run at 9:45 AM. I ran the first six miles in under a 14-minute pace, which was faster than I'd intended to go. This was my first real run since over-stressing my calf, hamstring, and adductor muscles in the Bighorn race, and I didn't want to further damage them. I employed a comfortable run-walk strategy for this section.

Each mile is marked along the road and there are nice restrooms and shaded picnic shelters for visitors to use every couple miles:

How civilized! I had to laugh when I saw the name on the shelter:

Can't escape those critters in Colorado! This hot, rocky canyon is prime rattler territory, but I didn't see any today along the road or trail.

Most of the crowd turns around before or at the Strontia Springs Dam, shown here:


After the dam, the road became rougher and steeper the next half mile until I reached the lovely, mostly-smooth single-track trail that led me ten more miles to today's finish.

I was pleasantly surprised by all the switchbacks going up the first mountain:

I could get really spoiled with those! It was the same way the next ten miles, up and down - lots of gentle grades on mostly-smooth switchbacks. What a pleasant difference from most of the Appalachian Trail! Many AT designers seem to relish trails that go straight up and over mountains and have a disdain for switchbacks.

From my experience, western trails are generally smoother and more runnable than eastern ones. I've always heard the Colorado Trail and Pacific Crest Trail surfaces are easier to run than the AT; that's one big reason I wanted to do the CT this year. I was constantly frustrated by all the rocks on the AT. Despite the altitude, I'm hoping I can run more like 40% of the CT, not the 20-25% I estimate I ran of the AT.


It didn't take me long to realize why most of the grades are gentler and the trails smoother on the Colorado Trail - it's because of the cyclists and equestrians!! Even though the kamikaze cyclists scared me a bit screaming around some of the downhill curves on the first climb, I have to give them credit for the "easier" trail. No way bikes and horses could maneuver the gnarliest, steepest sections of the Appalachian Trail. Hopefully I won't have the rock scrambles and verticals on the CT that surprised me on the AT.

However, there may be sections in the six federally-mandated wilderness areas that are more strenuous. Cyclists have mandated detours around these areas to protect them. There are several other optional detours designed to protect fragile alpine areas that could be damaged by knobby tires. Horses are allowed on the entire 483 miles of the course. Since they can't go up or down really steep trails, either, I'm thinking YES!! this trail will be more run-friendly in that regard.

So despite the occasional inconveniences bikes and horses pose to runners and hikers, I am grateful for their existence on the Colorado Trail.

It wasn't all smooth trail, however. Some spots reminded me of the AT:


Segment 1 reaches its high point on Russell Ridge at 7,495 feet about eleven miles into the section. This was about the only place for any views, since I was in trees (mostly pines) on most of the last ten miles. 

If the colorful photos in our guidebook and other materials are any indication of the exquisite territory I'll be covering in later segments, you can expect my pictures to become more dramatic as I reach higher elevations in the coming days and weeks.

I could see thunderheads building up in the distance the last three or four miles as I began my descent to the S. Platte River trail head, but we didn't get rained on.

Jim met me about two miles up the mountain and was also impressed with all the smooth trail and switchbacks. I told him this part was rockier than the rest, but I don't think he could believe me! He refused to run much of the AT because of the rocks.

Even though I was running downhill, I was going slower than Jim to save my knees. I was also distracted with photos of flowers. I sent him on back down ahead of me so he could run faster.

There weren't nearly as many flowers along the trail today as there were in the Bighorn Mountains. It's been very dry and hotter than normal in this area, just like near Sheridan, Wyoming, and it shows in the dusty trails, brown grass, and scarcity of flowers. I expect more flowers as I get into higher elevations. I did enjoy seeing several clumps of Prickly Pear Cactus in bloom as I neared the river:

It took me 4:40 hours to do this 16.8 miles, not bad considering the heat, conversations with other trail users, and the 60 photos I took!

Some other observations along the trail today:

  • I missed the ubiquitous white blazes that spoiled me on the Appalachian Trail. The markers are few and far between on the Colorado Trail, but I had no doubt which way to go today by following my written directions.

  • There were no trail registers today, and I don't believe there are ever any hiker shelters on the CT. That's a major difference between the AT and CT. Even though I didn't use the AT shelters, I visited about 40% of them (the ones closest to the Trail). It was great fun last summer to sign the registers and read what previous hikers had written.

  • There were few hikers today, especially for a beautiful summer Sunday. On the 10-mile section of single-track trail, I saw perhaps fifteen cyclists and a grand total of TWO hikers - and no other runners except Jim.

  • The hikers are a friendly young couple from Gunnison, CO named Maddy and Clint. They are thru-hiking north to south, so hopefully I'll see them again as I'm working my way back north. Those are their real first names. When I asked their trail names, I got a quizzical look! That's one of those tradition things that separates the AT and CT. Nearly everyone on the AT, even section hikers, has a trail name. Not so on the CT, although I'm sure I'll run into some hikers who've done other long trails where monikers are more common.

A treat awaited me at the S. Platte River trail head - a wonderful bridge over the boisterous river! This sturdy steel bridge was erected by the Colorado Trail Foundation in 1999 in honor of Gudy Gaskill, the woman I told you about who has championed the trail for over forty years.

One less river to ford!

On our way through the scenic South Platte River canyon back to our current "home" at Chatfield State Park, we passed the old South Platte Hotel, whose only visitors nowadays appears to be a band of horses that wanders up and down the dirt Jefferson County Road 96 (they were in the roadway the next morning after Jim dropped me off at the trail head to begin Segment 2):

The sign erected by the Denver Water Board indicates the building is empty and is being preserved "for study and possible restoration." It didn't indicate when the hotel was built or vacated, and the horse wouldn't tell us either.

We got back to our camper in about an hour. This was one of the easier trail heads to reach, considering we couldn't find any suitable campgrounds closer to the early sections of trail. If you have a tent, small camper, or van, there are several national forest campgrounds you can use in the area that are a little closer to the first six CT segments.

Next up: Segment 2 of the Colorado Trail.

Lovin' this trail,

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

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2006 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil