2006 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

   
 
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COMPARISON OF THE COLORADO
AND APPALACHIAN TRAILS
            
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 28
 
 
"There are three kinds of men: The ones who learn by reading.
The few who learn by observation.
The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves."  
 
- Will Rogers
 
 

 

There are those who would put me in the latter category! As much as I love to read or hear about other folks' adventures vicariously, some of them I just have to do myself. My passion for ultra and journey running certainly qualifies me for occasionally "learning the hard way."

Perhaps reading about Jim's and my adventures and misadventures in our 2005 and 2006 journals - and learning something from them - will lessen the "shock treatment" for others who aspire to explore the great outdoors on foot.

COMPARING APPLES TO ORANGES

I have run and walked the entire 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in the eastern part of the United States. I have completed only 60 miles so far on the 483-mile Colorado Trail (CT). [Note: despite the date above, I'm actually finalizing this entry on July 3.]

From the extensive reading I've done about the CT, talking with a friend (Betsy Kalmeyer) who has run all of it, and my own experience on the CT and other trails in Colorado, I think I can make a fairly comprehensive comparison of these two trails. I'll modify it after seeing all of the CT, if needed.

Hopefully this exercise will help me remember to enjoy the CT on its own merits as I'm traveling along its paths and to NOT compare it with the AT in any negative way, and perhaps it will help readers understand what Jim and I are experiencing.

I also hope it will encourage readers to venture forth on both of these marvelous  trails and to appreciate each for its unique qualities. Every trail is special, and we're fortunate in this country to have so many from which to choose!

Here are my comparisons:

GENERAL STATS

  • The Colorado Trail (CT) is only 22% of the distance of the Appalachian Trail (AT), 483 miles vs. 2,175 miles in length.

  • Both are linear trails that run through public lands (state and national forests, national parks). About 1% of the AT still goes through some private land.

  • The AT ranges in elevation from 135 feet at the Bear Mountain Inn in New York to 6,642 feet at Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

  • The CT is all above 5,520 feet in elevation. The low point is the northern terminus in Waterton Canyon near Denver. The highest point is 13,270  feet near Coney Summit in the San Juan Mountains. Most of the trail is above 9,000 feet, requiring much more altitude acclimation than the AT.

  • Many more miles of the CT are above tree line than the AT, posing more risks for danger from the almost-daily afternoon thunderstorms, hypothermia from sudden weather changes, and problems with ice and snow (photo below on the north side of Rolling Mountain, Segment 25). On the AT, hikers usually encounter these challenges only in the Smokies and the mountains in New Hampshire and Maine.

  • Because of the snow at higher elevations even into July, the "season" for hiking the CT is much shorter than on the AT, especially on the southern half of the trail. Much of the AT can be hiked year-round.

  • Both trails are maintained primarily by volunteers. Most of the CT was also built by volunteers. Some of the AT was built by the CCC in the 1930s.

  • The Appalachian Trail Club is much larger than the Colorado Trail Foundation. The ATC has some paid staff and it oversees at least 30 maintaining clubs and has several regional offices. The CTF is all-volunteer but has a nearly-identical mission as the ATC.

  • The AT is a much older trail than the CT. The AT was completed in the 1930s, the CT in the 1980s.

TRAIL USERS

  • Both trails are popular with day, weekend, section, and thru-hikers.

  • Most of the AT is designed only for foot travel. Exceptions are a few miles in the Smokies that allow equestrian use, and a couple miles on the Virginia Creeper Trail and C & O Towpath in Maryland where both bikes and horses are allowed. The AT also shares some dirt or paved roads through some towns and other areas with motorized vehicles.

  • The CT is a multi-use trail which allows foot travel, horses, and pack animals the entire 483 miles. Cyclists may use all of the trail except through six wilderness areas where they must detour on dirt or paved roads or connecting trails. (Photo below shows two cyclists on Segment 25.) In a few places, the CT shares jeep roads that allow motorized vehicles. It does cross some paved roads.

  • Both trails can be thru-hiked in either direction. However, most thru-hikers go north on the AT and south on the CT. The weather, particularly the avoidance of deep snow, is the reason in both cases (more snow on tbe AT at higher latitudes, more snow on the CT at higher elevations).

  • The CT is already conveniently divided up into 28 segments based on road access. Some of the "roads" require serious high-clearance 4WD vehicles, however. They are steep, narrow, rocky, have tight switchbacks, and sometimes require fording of streams.

  • There is much more flexibility on the AT in determining how far to go each day if runners/hikers are using a vehicle like we are, or are being crewed. The downside is the complexity of planning the length of each trail section you want to do on the AT. More planning is required there.

  • Back-packers don't have this problem on either trail, although there are more places on the CT that are off-limits to camping because of fragile tundra. They can pretty much plop down where they want and not worry about getting to the next trail head that afternoon.

  • The AT has many more re-supply points in towns than does the CT. Although the CT starts and ends near cities, other towns and post offices are not anyway near as convenient to the trail as they are on the AT.

  • To my knowledge, there are no shelters on the CT. There are shelters an average of about every ten miles on the AT.

  • There are many fewer hikers per mile on the CT than the AT because it is not as close to major population centers and many of the trail heads are much harder to access. It's no fluke that the most heavily-used sections of the CT are near Denver and Durango. The photo below shows two back-packers on Segment 25 of the CT:

  • The CT has few trail registers. They are quite frequent on the AT and are a great way to learn about upcoming sections of the trail and to keep up with people you meet on the trail.

  • The AT has more thru-hiker tradition than the CT, things like trail names and popular hostels along the way. I'm thinking of Miss Janet and other people that hikers have heard about and arrange to meet. The CT has no traditional half-way point where hikers try to eat a half-gallon of ice cream, no cabins that you row a boat to reach, no huts to work for room and board, and some hikers don't even know what trail names are!
  • The AT also has a more rigid thru-hiker "culture" emphasizing solitude, self-reliance, and slower pace. Fast-packers, runners, and people who are crewed are anathema to some traditional back-packers. Anything goes on the CT, which doesn't have long-standing traditions. I sometimes felt apologetic about my mode of travel on the AT; I feel much more comfortable and accepted running on the CT.

TERRAIN AND TRAIL SURFACE

  • The CT goes through deeper wilderness areas than the AT. Trail users are in much closer contact with civilization along the majority of the AT. This has both positive and negative consequences - easier access to services and emergency assistance, but more visual blight and noise on the AT than the CT.

  • The CT has more views-per-mile than the AT, at least in the summer when much of the AT is a "long green tunnel, " even on ridgetops. More of the CT travels through large, high open meadows or above the trees, such as the meadow below in Segment 25 south of the pass over Rolling Mountain:

  • It's much easier to find your way on the AT than the CT. The AT usually has frequent white paint blazes on trees and excellent signage in most areas.

  • It's much easier to get lost on the CT! Trail markers and signs are few and far between. Trail users need good maps, directions, and/or a GPS to navigate it successfully. The Colorado Trail Foundation's guidebook and mapping software give waypoints to assist with navigation. Souvenir hunters sometimes take down the attractive white plastic markers (shown on each of these journal pages, upper left) and wooden signs are problematic (hauling them in to remote locations and maintaining them in the harsh mountain weather).

  • There is a lot more road access to trail heads on the AT than the CT, with the exception of Maine.

  •  Even though the CT travels through more rugged terrain (in general) than the AT, the trails on the CT are less strenuous to run or hike than the AT - if you disregard the elevation factor. This is because cyclists and equestrians also use the trail.

  • There are more steep climbs and descents up and over mountains on the AT than those on the CT. CT designers have incorporated many more switchbacks than AT designers did (photo below from Segment 26 near Blackhawk Pass). They haven't felt the need to summit every peak along the trail, which often skirts around the sides of mountains. I doubt there will be any "PUDs" on the CT (the "pointless ups and downs" that AT hikers complain about).

  • The CT has a greater proportion of smooth trail than the AT, although it has some spots with rocky, rooty terrain (see photo below from Segment 25). We should be able to run a lot more miles, proportionately, on the CT than we were able to run on the AT.

  • There is less rock scrambling and fewer vertical walls to climb on the CT because of the bikes and horses. Even strong, agile Cody couldn't have gotten up some of those rock walls in New Hampshire and Maine! He should be able to run all the segments on the CT with me except #1 (dogs aren't allowed in Waterton Canyon).

  • I think there are fewer large streams to ford on the CT than on the AT. The two largest ones to ford are in Segment 24, which I'll be doing soon. The streams are running lower now than usual for this time of year, so I don't have the fear of crossing creeks and rivers on the CT that I developed on the AT.

So far, the only things I miss on the CT are frequent markers and trail registers. Otherwise, it's a marvelous trail and I'm looking forward to doing all the other segments. Stay tuned for lots more photos of awesome scenery and gorgeous flowers!

Happy trails,

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

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2006 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil