Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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Jim to "older" couple on the rugged, remote trail: "Are you lost?"
"No," they replied.
Jim quipped, "You mean you did this on purpose?!"
They laughed and said, "Yes." 


We had seen no one on the Colorado Trail all morning from Molas Pass to Rolling Mountain Pass, a distance of over eleven miles. No hikers, no equestrians, no cyclists on this very scenic trail on a warm, sunny day.

At Rolling Pass (elev. about 12,400 feet), Jim made an impromptu decision to go down the steep drainage from the headwaters of the South Fork of Mineral Creek to Mineral Creek Road and back to our camper, a distance of about seven miles, instead of returning eleven-and-a-half miles to the truck at Molas Pass -- they way we'd come. He'd gone down that trail one day last summer and, although it has a fairly steep pitch (a drop of at least 2,000 feet in two miles), it was easy to follow and the creek crossings weren't any problem then.

I took this photo today down into the Mineral Creek drainage (snow behind me, but not much looking north):

I thought about taking Cody down that way myself, but hadn't mentioned it to Jim until we got near the trail head below the summit of Rolling Moutain. We got a relatively late start from Molas Pass this morning (8:45 AM) and didn't reach Rolling Mountain until a little after 1 PM because of all the snow on the plateau below the pass and our general lack of speed at these altitudes.

We stopped about 300 feet shy of the pass and debated the merits of climbing to the saddle and which of us was going back in which direction.

Our first decision was not to go all the way up to the saddle because of the time it would take to ge through the snowfields. I was disappointed I couldn't see over the into the beautiful valley on the other side, but there just wasn't time. I needed to either turn around and return to Molas Pass or go down the Mineral Creek trail. One or both of us had to go back the way we came to get the truck -- we couldn't both take the "shortcut."

I made my decision fairly quickly not to go down the Mineral Creek Trail when I remembered I'd have to run and walk five miles on rocky, dusty Mineral Creek Road after I got down to the "bottom." That didn't bother Jim. He saw it as an opportunity to get done faster.

As it turned out, it's probably best that I didn't go down that way because the multiple creek crossings were difficult this year with all the snowmelt from higher up. Jim had to use his hands on boulders in the water to get across the creek once, and said he thought I'd have had trouble with that crossing because of the fast current. It was only mid-calf deep but he couldn't see the bottom and had to work his way across it very slowly to avoid falling in.

He saw the couple mentioned above after they had crossed that part of the creek and before he got to it. He was even more surprised at their tenacity when he realized the "older woman" had already gotten through it. We're 58. He estimated these folks to be in their mid-60s. I had to laugh at him for his perspective of what "old" means -- that's only five or six years older than us! We in NO way consider ourselves "old!" <grin>

I vividly remember the panoramic view from Rolling Mountain Pass last year when I did all of Segment 25 on the CT (2006 journal, July 2) and I want to see it again:

Since I missed all the creek-fording fun and peeking over the saddle today, I want to hike UP that drainage from the end of Mineral Creek Road one day next week, go through the snowfield to peer over the pass, and run back down. That's only about five miles if I don't have to deal with any road mileage. It's the shortest route to that pass from any of three possible directions (the other two are on the Colorado Trail). If I wait a few days for more snow to mile AND go up and back in the morning, the snowmelt from the chilly night-time hours will be less than in the afternoon after the sun has melted more snow. Down at our campground, it's obvious that "high tide" is late afternoon/evening, and the creek is lower in the morning.

BTW, it took Jim only two hours to get back to the camper from Rolling Mountain Pass going down the drainage. It took me almost four hours to retrace my steps to Molas Pass to get the truck. I was fried from the direct sun and couldn't run as much as I thought I could even though it was a net downhill. There was also the snow, mud, rocks, and marsh to navigate:

Taking as many photos on the way down as on the way up didn't help either (a total of 138 today). But how could I NOT stop dead in my tracks every time I saw an awesome view like this??

I also discovered this evening that I have a serious sunburn on my shoulders despite a good tan on them already -- first sunburn I've had in many years. I put sunscreen on my lower arms but forgot to put some on my shoulders when I stripped down to a singlet a few miles into the run. Lesson re-learned: you get sunburned faster at high altitudes. I'll be blistering and peeling in a few days. Tonight it just hurts like the dickens.


The trail we ran and hiked today is the northeastern half of Colorado Trail Segment 25. In retrospect, I think this is my second-favorite segment of the whole CT. (My very favorite is Seg 24 from Stony Pass to Molas Pass.) There are grand vistas all along the route, a fascinating marshy area called an alpine "hanging valley," numerous wildflowers, interesting rock formations, alpine lakes, cold creeks with waterfalls, lovely trees here and there, nice camping places for backpackers, some good surfaces to run -- Segment 25 has it all, and it was on my "to do again" list for 2007.

But not ALL of it -- the southwestern trail head at Bolam Pass is one of the toughest to reach on a very rough 4WD road with the kind of switchbacks you have to maneuver very carefully (including backing up one or more times on some hairpin turns) unless you're in a vehicle with a short turning radius. Jim had to go there twice last year, and made me promise I'd never ask him to go there again! So to enjoy the beauty and challenge of this segment again, we'd have to do an out-and-back from easy-to-reach Molas Pass. I think that's the prettier half of this section anyway.

Our plan was to get as far in to Rolling Mountain Pass as the snow would allow, then come back out. We didn't know how MUCH snow was up there, but we knew the likelihood of snow between 10,900 feet and 12,500 feet was pretty certain. Could we get through it, or have to turn around earlier? It didn't really matter. We just wanted a scenic long run at high altitude. The most we'd get would be about twenty-three miles doing an out-and-back. Anything less was OK, too.

We got what we wanted, and more. The Colorado Trail is like that!


From Molas Pass, the trail (above) winds around Little Molas Lake (below) and through a nice, free national forest campground, which is currently closed for renovations, unfortunately:

There are scenic views in every direction:

You can see Rolling Mountain and its pass (upper left in photo below) as you climb higher in the first two or three miles, but I didn't realize it until I was almost done and kept looking back at it from various places along the trail:

One of the reasons I love this segment so much is the profusion of wildflowers at the sub-alpine and alpine elevations. Lower down were numerous blue columbines, mountain bluebells, flax, and penstemon; several varieties of yellow and white flowers, including very tall cow parsnip; purple clover and asters, orange and red Indian paintbrush, and a deep pinkish-purple flower, shone below (a variety of Penstemon?) that loves wet areas along creeks and in marshes:

In the higher alpine hanging valley and basin below Rolling Mountain Pass are numerous marsh marigolds, alpine sunflowers, bright pink Indian paintbrush, and other sturdy wildflowers. They weren't as prolific in some areas as last year, however, because a lot of snow is still on the ground.

When I compare this year's photos of flowers to last year's, it's readily apparent that the flowers were ahead of schedule last year. This year is more average in terms of bloom dates. For example, last year this white flower (I can't find it in my wildflower book) was in bloom, but none of it was this year.

In fact, some of it was just coming up where the snow had recently melted:

There were still plenty of wildflowers blooming today and we weren't disappointed with the display. In fact, I've accumulated so many flower photos in the past week that I'll have to do a separate entry one of these days to showcase them.


The "flower" that amazes me the most is the common dandelion. Those things are as adaptable to extreme environments as cockroaches! They were blooming almost up to 12,000 feet on this section. In my lawns and gardens where I've lived around the country -- Ohio, Georgia, Montana, and now Virginia -- dandelions were and are a nuisance, a weed to be eradicated. In a mountain setting like this, they are colorful wildflowers that add to the beauty of the scenery:

Despite the very dusty trail, everything was fairly green until we reached the basin below the pass where the snow had just melted. Here it was more brown:

But just a little ways before that, flowers and green plants asserted themselves next to this "pond" of snowmelt (which wasn't there last July 2):

There was a lot of runoff and creeks I don't remember from last year because of the late spring snows this year. All the water and snow was perfect for Cody today. He had a blast in the snowdrifts, creeks, and lakes. So did Jim, but he won't admit that!

The waterfall below is part of a triple-header you can see near one of the larger creeks you cross about halfway up to the pass:

The upper part of the course today was very wet -- much more runoff on the trail, mud, and marshy terrain than last year. We started going by snowdrifts a few miles into the run and could see obviously more snow above us than before:

The last mile up on the plateau below the pass was very interesting this year. Instead of two or three snowdrifts to cross, there was significantly more snow this time. It was beautiful, but made navigation more difficult:



Large pools of water covered the trail, too. I saw the trail going into this one and thought, "No way!"

On the way up, we tried to skirt around several large areas of snow by going through the rocks on one side, but that took more time and effort.

We discovered that it was easier to just walk over the snowfields:

Most of them were solid enough that we only sank down to our calves around the edges:

Snow was so deep in places that it partially or fully covered some of the CT posts and cairns. We  remembered the way from being up there twice last year and we could see other posts in the distance, so there was no danger of getting "lost."


It was very beautiful with all the snow. I hope some of it is left (really!) when I go back up the short way in a week or two from Mineral Creek Road.


This isn't an easy trail to run but it is well worth whatever time it takes to run or hike it. Some places are quite rocky (below), especially through the hanging valley:

Other places are quite smooth, as you can see in some of the photos in this entry.

We saw bicycle tire tracks all the way up to the basin, where a popular bike trail takes off to the left (the Engineer Creek-Engineer Mountain Trail) and the CT goes right. Last year I took a photo of bikes in the snow in the basin itself, but didn't see any this time -- nor very many footprints. Parts of the trail are also rough from horses' hooves making holes and then hardening during this dry period.

I finally wore my gaiters today and was glad because of all the dust. My shoes, gaiters, and ankle supports were filthy when I took them off, but my socks and feet looked clean!

I mentioned that we didn't see anyone on the trail the whole way up to Rolling Mountain Pass, and I saw absolutely no one on the way back either. I don't get it -- beautiful trail, beautiful day, right before a holiday when lots of people are on vacation. It did get very hot out there today with the direct sun and few clouds. We've had no rain since we got here. But that doesn't explain why I saw no one for twenty-three miles.

This single weather-beaten sentinel near the end of my run pretty well symbolizes the concept of lonely, doesn't it?

I missed Jim not being with me on the return to the truck but was glad for Cody's company. He listened patiently as I whined about the heat and fatigue. I wasn't able to run as much back "down" as I thought I could. My knees were fine, but at this altitude even running downhill is WORK. While I was out there I thought it was a heart-lung thing, but tonight my legs are dead tired, too. I was rested before the run and had plenty of gel, energy drink (Perpetuem), and water to keep me going, so my main excuse for being tired is the altitude, I guess.

Couldn't be my age. I'm only 35, you know . . .

Next entry: Hardrock Hundred course marking from Kamm Traverse to Mineral Creek.

Happy trails,

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

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2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil