2010 RUNNING & TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
Runtrails' Web Journal
 
Previous          Journal Topics by Date            Next
 

DIVIDE & CONQUER  

COLORADO TRAIL SEGMENT 24, Page 1:
Introduction to This Segment, Today's Grand Plan, and  
Our New Approach to the Continental Divide
 

MONDAY, JULY 5

 
". . . This is where a re-route of the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail
has been proposed, avoiding a lengthy section ahead of motorized trails and jeep roads.
At the time of this writing, the exact alignment of the new trail is still under study
with environmental issues under consideration . . . "
 
~ from the description of Segments 23 and 24 in the 2006 edition
of the Colorado Trail Guidebook, p. 200
 
 

It's a toss-up as to whether Segment 24 or Segment 25 is my very favorite of the twenty-eight sections of the Colorado Trail (CT). They certainly rank as my Top Two. Segment 23, which now connects to Segment 24 at Stony Pass since the major re-route described above, comes in third or fourth on my list (part of the Hardrock course follows the CT in that section).

Each segment has its virtues:

Segment 25, which I recently featured in the June 30 and July 2 entries,

  • has less elevation gain and loss over the eleven miles Jim and I usually run or hike it between Molas Pass and Rolling Mountain Pass;
  • the entire segment is 21 miles from Molas to Bolam Pass but access to Bolam requires a 4WD vehicle so we went there only in 2006 when I was doing the entire Colorado Trail.
  • Although it stays above 10,000 feet the entire way, the trail undulates and has no steep grades.
  • Much of it is smooth.
  • There are always numerous flowers in the summer, there are several creeks and waterfalls, and the views of the surrounding valleys and mountains are excellent.


Scenic little pond on the Continental Divide in Seg 24, with the Grenadier Range for a backdrop

Segment 24, which is about 22 miles long,

  • has numerous alpine flowers and ponds in the tundra, an old mine, lots of cascades and waterfalls, a dramatic creek that disappears and reappears among the rocks, a bridge across the Animas River, and the possibility of a steam train ride to Durango or Silverton.
  • It is more difficult to access than Seg. 25 . . .
  • . . . but the views along and from the Continental Divide are superlative. I liked the original course when I first ran/hiked it in 2006At that time it followed a dirt road for several miles before climbing up on single track to the Continental Divide; it was on the Divide for less than a mile. I like it much better since it was rerouted in 2007 to follow about seven miles of the Divide from Stony Pass to Elk Creek. Awesome!


This beautiful alpine lake is one of several that are visible from the re-routed trail.

  • As long as you're acclimated to the elevation, this part of the trail is fairly easy to run or hike. It undulates gradually at or above 12,000 feet and tops out at 12,690 feet before its dramatic plunge into the Elk Creek Canyon/Gorge.
  • The footing is more challenging along Elk Creek but as long as you're going down the canyon you've got momentum on your side. For most people it's tougher going up 3,800 feet to the Divide than going down 3,800 feet to the river.

MY FAVORITE CT VIEW

The view from the Divide at the Elk Creek trail intersection gets my vote for The Very Best View along the entire 486-mile Colorado Trail. I haven't stitched together a panoramic shot but here's enough to whet your imagination:

You've got the rugged quartzite (not granite) Grenadier Range on the left, beautiful alpine lakes in a bright green basin on the right, and other colorful mountains in every direction as far as the eye can see.

I don't know how it can get much better than this! I guarantee you it's more impressive in person than any photo can convey, especially a little one like this.

If you have any clue about how much I love to be in the mountains above tree line with unobstructed views in every direction you can just imagine how happy I was to spend several hours hiking along the Continental Divide for more than ten miles today! I felt like I was literally on top of the world. It was exhilarating, a real . . .

. . . ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

Every summer we've been back to the San Juan Mountains I've wanted to recreate that feeling by running or hiking the relocated section of Segment 24 along the Divide. Now that my knees are compromised and I can neither run nor do steep, rocky descents, it's not practical for me to go either direction on the Elk Creek-Molas Pass section any more; it drops from 12,690 feet on the Divide to 8,920 feet at the Animas River through sometimes-rough canyon and forest terrain, then ascends to almost 11,000 feet at Molas Pass.

So how do I get up to the Divide?


CT Segment 24, looking north along the Divide; you can see the trail meandering in the distance.

Well, at the other end there's the Stony Pass trailhead.

In 2007 Jim and I still had a 4WD truck that could carry us up steep, rocky FSR 737 from Howardsville to Stony Pass, location of the new trailhead between Segments 23 and 24 (the CT was also rerouted along the Divide in the southwestern part of Seg 23). Crews were still working on the trail that summer and hadn't finished putting up all the signage. I wrote in the '07 journal how we managed to follow the new trail to Elk Creek Canyon, where we turned around, but lost it partway back and had to do some orienteering over hill and dale.

In 2008 we didn't go out West for the summer because of high gas prices (we still regret that decision -- just should'a gone).

In 2009 we replaced our 4WD F-250 truck with a 2WD Ram 2500. No way will we take it up to Stony Pass! (There's good reason for that name.)

That meant finding another way for me to reach the CT along the Continental Divide.


The access trail we found is scenic, too.

We researched our trail maps and found a viable solution -- a 2+-mile trail from the end of Cunningham Gulch that intersects with the Seg 24 reroute a couple miles south of Stony Pass. It looked steep on the contour maps but seemed to be the best option. Unfortunately, we put that run/hike off until our second trip to Silverton at the end of last July and had it scheduled for later in the week that I had my serious bike crash. My injuries pretty much ended any thoughts of such a challenging hike as this in the time we had left in the Silverton area.

So . . . it's been three long years since I've had my Segment 24 fix. I was determined to do it this trip. Today was the day, and it was a mah-velous one!!!

THE PLAN

We could not have picked a more perfect weather day for this run/hike. Even at the end of the afternoon when I picked up Jim at Molas Pass there were only a few fluffy white clouds on the horizon in any direction. We had clear blue skies, a slight breeze, and moderate temperatures -- remember, much of the time we were above 12,000 feet and almost all of the time above 10,000 feet.


Alpine ponds reflecting the azure blue sky on the Divide

Our basic plan was to hike up the trail from Cunningham Gulch, intersect with the CT, and follow it to the head of Elk Creek Canyon. At that intersection Cody and I would turn around and retrace our steps to the truck, for a total distance of about 14 miles out-and-back.

Jim planned to continue forward on Seg 24 -- down Elk Creek to the Animas River and back up to Molas Pass, for a total of about 21 miles point-to-point. When I got done, I'd drive the truck 12-13 miles to Molas Pass and pick Jim up.

There was one hitch that altered our plan just a bit but Jim and I got in the miles and routes we'd planned. Cody's the one who came up a bit short! We also deliberately did a little re-route along the Divide and reached our highest elevation of the day on that slope (12,745 feet).

I'll explain both changes to the plan later.


Pretty pond near our deliberate re-route

PHOTO PHREAK

This is a fabulously scenic route on a beautiful day like today. I took a gazillion photos in the 14+ miles I hiked and at Molas Pass while I waited for Jim. When you see some of these views, I think you'll understand why I went a little nuts taking pictures!

I also talked Jim into carrying our old camera so he could take some pictures along the fourteen miles of trail I didn't hike today. I can't show all of our photos here but I'm going to include enough to divide them into four journal pages to make loading faster.

  • This rest of this page will describe the new trail we found up to the Continental Divide from Cunningham Gulch.
  • The second part will cover the five miles of the CT that we traveled on the Divide from that trailhead to the top of Elk Creek Canyon.
  • Part 3 will show photos of those seven miles in the other direction (yes, it looks different!).
  • The last part will be about Jim's additional 14-mile run/hike down the canyon and up to Molas Pass, mostly featuring his pictures.

Enjoy the views!

OUR NEW ROUTE TO THE DIVIDE

We've got four detailed maps that include Cunningham Gulch, the old CT route, and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) -- the official guides to both trails and a Colorado DeLorme atlas, all from the mid-2000s, and a Drake Mountain Map of the San Juans that was revised in 2000.

The best I can do as far as a name or number for the trail we used to get up to the Divide is possibly Trail #502. We never saw that on any signposts, however, either at the beginning or end of the trail.

Until I find out what its real name is, I'm going to call it the Cunningham Gulch Access Trail.

We drove about three miles back Cunningham Gulch Road (FSR 589, marked #1 in picture above) to the Cunningham Creek crossing (#2) and waterfall at the far end of the lower gulch. There are several places to park (#3) near an old slag heap and other remains of an old mine (#4). To this point the road is fine for 2WD vehicles.

After the mine the road becomes more narrow, steep, and rocky (#5). We could probably get our truck up another mile to the next parking area in a higher part of the gulch below Spencer Basin but we'd still have to walk the same distance on the road to reach the trailhead we wanted.

The next photo shows the second parking area (red arrow) and the road as it continues switch-backing up toward the basin:


Another trailhead (at arrow) and continuation of FSR 589 toward Spencer Basin

After parking near the mine we walked up the rocky road about half a mile until we found the unmarked trailhead through some willow bushes and across Cunningham Creek:

We spotted the trail on the other side before we noticed the inconspicuous path right next to us that goes down to the creek through the dense shrubbery.

This time of year the water is shallow and not a problem to cross, although you'll probably get your feet wet:

It's more flat and spread out here than it is just downstream where it descends rapidly through rock chutes all the way down to the mine:

Within about 200 feet we reached the boundary of the huge (almost 500,000 acres) Weminuche Wilderness and signed the register for backcountry hiking. The wilderness is named for a band of Ute Indians who used to inhabit the area.

Dogs, horses, and pack animals are permitted in the wilderness but not bicycles. Ditto for the trail up on the Continental Divide where we hiked. Cyclists must detour around all or most of CT Segment 24.

Because we were heading east into the sun early this morning my photos going up this trail are perfectly lousy except when I aimed the camera south toward Spencer Basin or west behind me (north was the mountainside we were on). For that reason I'll show only a couple photos of the terrain through the woods on the way up to the high meadows:

 

In Part 3 of this series I'll show you better pictures of the trail when I came back down this afternoon. By then the sun was directly overhead and my photos came out much better. (Despite all the collective wisdom to take photos in the early morning or late afternoon light so they look better, I haven't figured out how to do that with this camera. I'm too lazy to do it manually.)

The views toward Spencer Basin were great going up and coming down this trail. As I got higher and higher I could see more of the basin:


Spencer Basin and falls along Mountaineer Creek

The more I saw of it, the more determined I am to go up there on another day! I met a group of young folks doing a loop hike today, incorporating this trail, the CT/CDT, and one or more trails to Highland Mary Lakes and Spencer Basin. I've added that circuit to my list of future hikes . . .

My photos started coming out better once we got near and above tree line; there wasn't so much contrast between sun and shade:

Most of the photos in this entry will be facing in the direction we're going or off to the sides but this one looks back at the basin once we're near the timberline:

Through the woods this trail is relatively steep and has some loose rocks and grit. With bad knees and old trail shoes with minimal grip on the soles, that was more of a problem to me going down than going up.

We climbed from about 10,400 feet to 12,400 feet in just over two miles to reach the CT. The pitch was steeper in the first mile through the forest than the second mile in the alpine zone. Since we're not totally acclimated to these altitudes yet, and this was a challenging trail, it took us over an hour to make the climb to the intersection on the Divide. Alone, Jim would have climbed it faster than I did.


Looking south from the access trail before reaching the Divide

Once above tree line we started making better time because the trail was less steep and rocky. We crossed a stream not far below its headwaters and continued our climb up the braided trails on the other side:

From that angle you can't see much of the snow bank over the creek to the right but that was Cody's first of several opportunities to play in the snow today.

This is the scenic view west down that creek drainage toward Spencer Basin and Cunningham Gulch:

Although there were some pretty flowers along the trail through the woods, we started seeing more as we climbed higher and higher. By the time we reached the tundra it was common to see the entire ground carpeted with sturdy little alpine flowers like mountain avens, bluebells, sunflowers, and Indian paintbrush. Up this high they don't grow much higher than five or six inches tall but they sure are colorful.

We were quite happy when we saw the CT/CDT sign on the Divide:

Made it!

We were happy to discover that the access trail really did take us where we wanted it to go; you can't always trust older maps.

Continued on Page 2:  cruising along the Continental Divide to My Most Favorite CT View

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

Previous       Next

2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

-