Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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Today's miles: 13.7                                Cumulative miles: 383.6
Approx. elevation gain: 1,520 feet           Bonus Miles: 0
"This whole area is extremely popular with bicyclists and day-hikers due to
its proximity to Denver, its pleasant pine and fir forest, and many small streams."
- The Colorado Trail Official Guidebook, Seventh Edition, p. 61


On top of that, it's a great section to run!

I cannot begin to tell you how happy I am to be back on the Colorado Trail. It was the highlight of my summer last year, and I've been anxious to return to finish the seven segments I didn't have time to do then. I left the area with about 370 miles completed and another 113 to go. If you haven't read about the segments I did last year, I encourage you to check out the relevant entries in the 2006 journal (link at left for the topics page). There are numerous photos in each CT entry, many showcasing the drop-dead beautiful panoramas along this trail. This segment doesn't have expansive vistas above tree line, but it is quite pleasant nonetheless.

A couple weeks ago, I came up with what I considered a brilliant alternative to our original summer plans. Instead of going directly from our home in Virginia to Wyoming for the Bighorn races, why not head first to Colorado to run two segments of the CT near Denver? We could still arrive at the Foothills Campground in Dayton, WY on June 5 as we'd planned, although it would mean leaving home a few days earlier and increasing the mileage a bit by going to Colorado first. But it would  enhance my chances of finishing the CT this summer and having more time to run sections of the Continental Divide Trail.

I figured my two "missing links" (Segments 3 and 4) west of Denver aren't at such high elevations as the five (Segments 15-19) farther south that I'll do after Bighorn, so altitude shouldn't be as much of a problem there. We'd be coming from only about 1,000 feet in elevation at home, but perhaps I could sneak in quickly and run the segments before my body realized it was 6,500 to 9,500 feet higher than it was used to -- a strategy runners often use when they're traveling to a high altitude race.

Well, that seemed to work pretty well today until I hit the four-mile climb at the end!


More about today's run in a moment. First, go look at the large CT map (link at left) to refresh your memory of the trail's layout. Note that the first seven or eight segments go mostly east-west, then the trail heads due south. The last half of the CT runs in a NE-SW direction. It's kind of a convoluted "S" curve, as you can see in the mini version below:

Because of increasing altitude and  severe weather, most thru-hikers go southbound from Denver to Durango. (See more about this in my introductory remarks from June 24, 2006.) Last year I did most of the twenty-one segments I ran in that direction, but for various reasons I sometimes went north or east instead of south or west. I even did that occasionally during my end-to-end journey run on the Appalachian Trail in 2005. My goal with the CT is just to finish every mile in whatever order or direction works best intermingled with our races, volunteer commitments, and the training Jim needs for his hundred milers.


Today I went the more popular east-west direction on Segment 3. Jim dropped Cody and me off at the campground where I ended Segment 2 last summer off FS 550 (photo below) and drove around about thirty miles to the other end of the segment at Wellington Lake Road.. He did a ten-mile out-and-back run from that trail head.

The weather was great: warm and sunny when I started at 8:45 AM (Jim began about 10) and no rain despite thunder and menacing clouds in the distance, beginning around 11 AM. That's kind of early for the typical "afternoon" storms to begin. We did get into some rain as we drove back to the camper, and into the evening.


This is a relatively easy section -- as the CT goes -- with only 1,520 feet gain westbound and about 600 feet of loss. Elevations range from 7,420 to 8,290 feet. There is some confusion about the distance of this segment. The CT guidebook indicates it is 12.7 miles, but the official GPS waypoint software and our unit say 13.7, so that's the figure I'm using.

Segment 3 is a near-perfect course to run or ride, with many miles of smooth, gritty trail. There are roots and rocks, of course, but not too many. That's saying a lot from this rock-challenged runner who easily trips and falls down! There were lots of interesting boulders in the eastern half of the segment. Unlike the AT, hikers aren't directed over them.

And because of its proximity to Denver, hikers and cyclists flock to Segment 3, as indicated in the quote at the beginning of this entry. I expected the worst on this sunny weekend day, and I wasn't disappointed. In the first nine miles Cody and I were passed by eighteen cyclists, some going 'way too fast down hills (we almost got run over twice). Because some of them stopped along the way or did side trails, they passed me multiple times. I was real happy when two women riders coming from the opposite direction followed cycling protocol, ironically included in the guidebook chapter on this segment, of stopping to let me pass (instead of me having to jump out of the way). Below are two of the guys who were very polite and gave us lots of warning:

I didn't see any bikes the last four miles, but met about three dozen hikers out for the day or weekend. There were three groups of teenage boys (Scouts?), a couple families, and several twosomes. Because the next segment gets up to 10,500 feet, I asked everyone if they'd been up there this weekend, but no one knew the course conditions on Segment 4. I also didn't see any equestrians on this segment today, although there were the usual signs they'd been there recently.

This sturdy stile (for hikers) and gate (for cyclists and equestrians, but I used the gate!) are near the Meadows CG:

Despite the altitude, I ran a very good pace the first nine miles until I saw Jim along fast-flowing Buffalo Creek at the beginning of a four-mile climb to the end. Despite taking over fifty photos, getting out of the way of cyclists over a dozen times, stopping for Cody to drink and cool off in the numerous streams, and talking to hikers, I averaged a blistering (for me) pace of under 14 minutes/mile the first two-thirds of the course. I was much slower going uphill the last four-plus miles, but still finished in 3:42. I definitely felt the altitude on that uphill section, as did Jim. Of course, he's still got some fatigue from running fifty miles a week ago at the Old Dominion Memorial 50-miler.

This is also a great section for dogs, especially the first nine miles. There was lots of water from the spring run-off. Later in the year, some of the seasonal streams are probably dry. The last four miles were dry until near the Wellington Road trail head. Jim brought Tater in from the dry end and she was very thirsty by the time they met Cody and me. Fortunately, Tater could hop into Buffalo Creek just then. She was starting to lag, so I took her to the end with Cody and me while Jim kept going another mile before turning around. Cody had unused water in his pack that both dogs drank in the middle of the dry section.

This appears to be a very wet spring in the Colorado mountains. Jim heard on the radio that the paved road up to the top of nearby Mt. Evans (a fourteener) had just been cleared and repaired, and we've heard other reports of higher/later snow levels in CO and WY this year. Last year was an early spring and lower than normal snow levels. You know, dealing with heat in the 90s in Virginia before we left home, I just didn't even consider that snow might be a problem if for no other reason than we're hitting the trail twenty-two days earlier than I ran the first segment on the CT last year. I should have realized snow and snowmelt could be a problem.

Fortunately, it wasn't a problem on this section. I didn't have any deep creeks to cross, and the trail itself was remarkably dry. Many wildflowers are out. I saw a dozen or more different kinds today, including the cinquefoil and lupines below:


This segment is mostly wooded and full of mixed pines and aspens sporting fresh green leaves below 8,000 feet.


Tender, light green spring growth is evident on the tips of the fir and spruce trees, and new little pinecones are forming on the branches:

There aren't a lot of expansive views, although I could see distant snow-capped peaks (Mt. Evans?  Gray? the Ten-Mile Range?) several times from rock ledges.


Jim and I both enjoyed this section. I'm getting anxious about Segment 4 tomorrow, however. Most of it is over 10,000 feet. After hearing that there is more snow this year than last, I'm concerned about snow conditions. A fella at REI in Denver told me snowdrifts on the shady side of mountains could be a problem that high up this week. And what about all the water from snowmelt and recent rains? Will the sub-alpine boggy area that drives CT volunteers crazy in Segment 4 be passable? Will the creeks be too high to cross safely? What if I have to turn around and can't reach Jim to tell him where to pick me up?

<sigh> I'm not sure how much sleep I'll be getting tonight! Maybe coming out here this early wasn't such a brilliant idea after all . . .

Anxiously yours,

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

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2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil