CT Day 1: Waterton Canyon

With only three weeks vacation and having never carried a backpack more than ten miles in a day, I figured the only way I could complete the Colorado Trail this summer was to section hike the first 185 miles to Twin Lakes on my weekends beginning early spring. Then I would attempt to hike the final 300 miles in three weeks beginning in July. I used an ever-changing spreadsheet to plan out the logistics of these early section hikes, which turned out to be way more complicated and costly than the final long push from Twin Lakes to Durango.

I had been closely following the weather for May 9 and was well aware of some forecasted rain and possible snow. I’d never intentionally backpacked in this weather but had enough experience to expect this first weekend to be kind of miserable but survivable. I had worked all night at my graveyard job the night before then drove three hours to Little Scraggy, but was way to excited to feel tired. I still had a bit of trouble finding the trailhead even though I had scouted it a couple weeks earlier. There was only one other vehicle in the muddy parking lot when I arrived to meet my shuttler Leslie, which was not a great sign as I had heard this is a super popular trail for mountain bikers. It turned out to be Leslie’s car as she had arrived early for a day hike with her husband and their dog. We had a fun chat on the way to Waterton Canyon, Leslie just wanted to help hikers live their Colorado Trail dreams. They dropped me at the parking area and pointed me to the trailhead; it looked nothing like I remembered from my last time there as kid in the early 1970’s.

Just a couple weeks earlier I had taken a gear shake-down trip to Irish Canyon in Brown’s Park with my go-to camping buddy Chris. The unexpected bad weather that weekend had given me the chance to test out both my Xmid and Big Agnes Tiger Wall tents in high winds and wet spring snow. Based on that experience I opted to carry my Xmid for this trip. I also intentionally overpacked extra rain gear and layers to help me stay dry and warm for my first outing on the Colorado Trail. I felt kind of silly as I walked up to the partly sunny trailhead with all my rain gear on.

A couple saw me walking up to the sign with my backpack and offered to take a picture, this must have been a common scene for the locals and maybe a sign that summer and hiking season has arrived. A teenage girl out for a run in the canyon saw me at the sign and excitingly came up to tell me how she had hiked the trail last summer, that the trail and the people had changed her life, and that I was going to love it. This all happened in just a few moments, then there I was alone on the trail and not really feeling all the emotion I had expected. I simply started to walk. That emotion soon caught up to me as I walked up the 6-mile dirt road. It took me a few miles to clear my head of what was left undone in my off-trail life, then then the tears of joy and gratitude rushed over me. I think this happened at least once every single day on-trail.

Out of nowhere little rocks started falling down towards me on the trail, and for a minute I thought maybe some ornery kids we throwing rocks at me. When I looked up the hillside right above me I could see it was the big horn sheep, reminding me to stay in the moment and realize how special this hike is. I had totally forgotten to look for the big horn sheep that these hills were known for.

There was a modest a climb when the single track diverged from the road, then I came to Lenny’s rest, a bench memorial to a young hiker who passed too soon. I remembered on one if the countless CT Youtube videos I had seen that Hurlgoat Hiker said to be sure to take a left here. Some mild switchbacks continued up hill, then it started to rain a bit. It felt good to be hiking through the woods at a nice pace, and I realized I was all alone on the trail. I made it up and over the hill to Bear Creek to set up camp just before the rain began to poor. I attempted my first bear hang on the trail in the rain, and could see from cut guy lines of various colors hanging from the trees that I wasn’t the first to struggle here.

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