CT Day 32/CDT: Cataract Lake to Elk Creek

I hadn’t made 20 miles in a day since starting the San Juans, and hoped to reach that mark today. It was Tuesday and I had 105 miles left to complete the trail in Durango by Sunday. I was out of camp before daylight and began hiking over a series of saddles.

Not long after daylight I stopped to take in the view as the trail passed above Cuba Gulch.

A nice couple of hikers called Sunshine and Toyota leap frogged with me a bit, and I saw them stop to dry out their tent from last night’s rain. They seemed to know what they were doing and it looked like more rain was coming our way, so not long after I stopped to do the same. I was happy to reach the high point, although the morning’s scenery took the edge off the first 7 miles of climbing up and down saddles.

A saw a lone horse looking a bit out of place quite a ways below the saddle. I descended a bit, but not much, on the other side as the trail followed the mountainside above the drainage.

The trail crosses a surprisingly small creek that marks the headwaters of the Rio Grande, then bottoms out at Stony Pass Road. Toyota and Sunshine passed me for the last time as the road climbed back up a short hill, before breaking off again into single track. I had hiked around 12 miles by noon and felt strong until the next couple miles of dry terrain. I crossed paths with a group of hikers using pack mules to carry the their gear and provisions, which they cheerfully pointed out. I then had a short climb to a large rolling green mesa with some small lakes. I would have enjoyed this earlier in the morning, but I was now dragging and could see a wave of rain rolling in. There was no cover here, but the lightning was still off in the distance and thankfully most of the rain missed me. I had one final rolling hill to climb before the CDT broke away from the Colorado Trail and towards New Mexico.

I recognized the view below me from the cover of the Colorado Trail Guidebook. Another hiker had warned me about the switchbacks into the Elk Creek drainage being a challenge, and they did not disappoint. I later heard there is one switchback representing each of the 28 segments of the Colorado Trail. I made room for an uphill hiker hiker who was surprisingly friendly despite being only half way up.

After the switchbacks the trail down was rocky and steep, and I had to scoot belly down over a couple of the sketchier spots. This downhill section felt harder than all of the day’s earlier climbs. At least I’ll never have to climb this, I thought, until I realized that my plan to someday hike the rest of the Colorado sections of the CDT would mean hiking back up that hill.

Towards the bottom of the drainage, orange ribbons marked the suggested but dicey routes across large avalanche debris fields. What appeared to be the worst of these had been cleared thankfully; this must have been a huge undertaking.

I reached a large open campsite alongside Elk Creek right at the 400 mile mark from Denver. Expecting to be out of camp before daylight the next morning, I followed the trail to find where to cross the creek. I didn’t see the crossing, but thankfully some other hikers came along and were able to follow the route across. I was further humbled after a lanky, athletic hiker, who I later met as Danimal, rock-hopped over the creek in two or three long, easy strides.

I was happy to finally set up camp after a rough 20-mile day, hiking over what seemed like every possible type of terrain. I friendly hiker named Paperback came along told me she was waiting for some friends. I let her know there was plenty of room in the campsite as she sat down and of course read a paperback while she waited. Her happy bunch of friends called Puff, Lightning Rod, Trout, & Nightcrawler soon followed and set up camp. It was nice to chat a bit with some nice folks after a long day on the trail.


  1. Jaunting Jan says:

    WOW the photos this day!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Larry Haines says:

    It was a hard but spectacular day!


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