CDT-CO: Highway 14 to RMNP (July 5-9, 2022) 58 miles

My buddy Patrick dropped me at the trailhead just off Highway 14, about 10 miles north of Muddy Pass & Rabbit Ears Pass. I had expected to be about the only southbound hiker, but was surprised as we passed four or five northbound Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers alongside the highway to the trailhead that morning. I probably crossed paths with dozen or more NOBOs on each of my 5 days through this section, and in the end I think my brief chats with so many of these folks was the best part of my hike.

I managed about 12 miles on the first day, following a quiet dirt road through rolling wooded hills. After just a few miles I met a nice pair of Czech CDT NOBOs, Kate & Day Dreamer, followed by Lemonhope and Swiss Monkey. The road passes by some private ranches and what appeared to be hunting lodges for the first five or so miles. Fairly early on I was surprised by the sweeping views looking back west towards the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness and north to the Medicine Bow Mountains. The dirt road trail eventually turned into national forest and started a gentle climb through a long, pretty aspen grove. The climb got a bit steeper, but I passed on a dry campsite featuring a nice scenic overlook. After another mile I found the small spring along the trail, as promised by my FarOut navigation app. I could see the afternoon rain was coming and was grateful for a nice established campsite nearby.

After around 5 miles the next morning, I chatted for a few minutes with a NOBO section hiker. He seemed a bit discouraged by some of the challenging climbs and blowdowns he’d hiked through. I think just about every thru-hiker I had encountered on this trip was super up-beat and seemed genuinely happy to be there. As I hiked on I could totally relate to my section hiker counterpart; we spend the first few days of our trip struggling to hike relatively low miles and by the time we begin to build some decent trail conditioning our hike is nearly over. On these shorter trips it’s hard to settle into a daily hiking routine and set aside my obsession with all the details of off-trail life. In my contemplation I of course walked right by the unmarked trail that finally left the dirt road, and was probably half a mile past that before I realized. I somewhat foolishly decided I could navigate to the trail rather than backtrack, but thankfully found the trail after a fairly steep downhill bushwhack. Finding the trail then negotiating a handful of blowdowns turned out to be a nice confidence boost.

I was a bit gun-shy of the afternoon thunderstorms after getting pummeled a few times during last year’s epic monsoon season on the Colorado Trail. I now check the weather whenever I get a cell signal, and the forecast for the day said thunderstorms after noon with an 80% chance of rain. I decided to call it an early day after just seven miles when I crossed a nice stream with nearby camping ahead of the next climb. Sure enough a hail storm hit right as a climbed into my tent. The weather cleared up in the afternoon and I met a few more NOBOs who walking by, and a nice fellow called Good Monk set up camp nearby.

I was a bit discouraged having just covered 7 miles, so I tried to get an early start the next morning. Despite all the NOBO thru-hikers I had met, the trail was still fairly faint so a kept a close watch on FarOut to make sure I stayed on-trail today. As a climbed through the woods and above treeline, I realized I had made a good judgement not pushing my pace the day before. I chatted with a super friendly NOBO named Shredder who was finishing up his triple crown this summer. There were a number of blowdowns through this section, but these weren’t nearly as bad as I had expected. Once above treeline the views were pretty amazing in every direction and I began to anticipate what it must be like atop the next day’s climb, Parkview Mountain.

I was happy to chat with a super friendly bunch of NOBOs that morning, and it was fun to meet Sauce who had been a frequent contributor to the Backpacker Radio podcast that I listen to regularly. A couple miles later I met her friend Switch. I again checked my weather forecast and thunderstorms were expected after 2:00 pm. So this time I decided to set up my tent at the next established site, wait out the storm, then hike a bit more into the early evening. I was almost disappointed that the storm barely sprinkled where I was and I finally convinced myself to pack up and keep going. As a started up I met another nice NOBO couple named Happy and Gourmet, and they seemed to appreciate me sharing I thought that a great combination.

I passed the Troublesome Campground and FarOut reported there was water about a mile ahead. I was nearly out of water so I decided worst case I could backtrack here to camp. I hiked on to the stream and I filled up my CNOC to start filtering water. I then saw a happy young boy hike up with his dad, and as some other kids followed I realized this must by “the family” hiking the CDT together. When I had first heard about them this spring, I wasn’t sure what I thought about a family with young children on the CDT. But almost immediately I could tell these kids were completely content and in their element on the trail. Without prompting one of the daughters who was about 8 even ran over to hold up the filter on the end of my CNOC bag while I changed water bottles. Dad doled out side dishes as the kids cooked up their own meals without missing a beat. Then mom walked up carrying the one-year old and the other kids took turns looking after her. I spent at least 45 minutes visiting with this lovely family, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute. They even shared the welcome news that there was plenty of camping ahead and I wouldn’t need to backtrack.

Feeling invigorated, I continued uphill for about a mile to a near perfect camping spot. There was a rock formation I could hike around that gave me a good enough signal to call my wife. I had covered nine miles today, again well short of what I had hoped but I’d had a really fun day on the trail. And I knew I was well rested for the big climb tomorrow up Parkview Mountain.

The next morning I was up and out of camp early. I knew I had a long day ahead, and along with the climb up Parkview I would need to log around 15 miles to have even a chance of reaching Grand Lake the day after. I passed through the big, eerie burn scar from the East Troublesome fire ahead of sunrise. I worked my way around Haystack Mountain, and Parkview came into view right as the sun came up. It was a decent climb just reaching the saddle below the final ascent, I and was thankful I had been conservative on my miles the day before. It was a beautiful morning, and I had the trail all to myself.

Parkview Mountain revealed itself like a miles-long par 5 golf hole. The saddle was green and lush. As I had heard from hikers the day before there were no switchbacks to the summit, just hiking from one wooden marker post to the next. The final mile gained about a thousand feet. The little summit shelter slowly got closer and closer, and I crossed paths with the first other hikers that day just before the summit.

I reached the top and unfortunately didn’t resist the urge to take a panorama video. Had I taken a look around to enjoy the view first, I would have noticed the trail following the saddle to the north. After I ducked into the shelter I had a quick snack at the summit and kept my cork-handled poles in site with an aggressive pair of squirrels nearby. Then I started down the only trail I had noticed along the ridgeline to the southeast. I had gone about 3/10 of mile when I checked FarOut and realized I was off the CDT. Fortunately I hadn’t lost much elevation, but I really hate backtracking after a wrong turn. The only thing worse is when a thru-hiker sees you having to backtrack, and I could see some other hikers reach the summit just in time to watch me sheepishly hike back. There was a super cheery British-sounding fellow named Pirate waiting for me, and I could see he was recording on his phone to memorialize my wrong turn. I then met Swiss Chris and Nature, and Pirate let me know Mr. Fabulous would be next to the summit. I’d been following Mr. Fabulous’ CDT thru-hike on Instagram while listening to his book, The Unlikely Thru-Hiker, and probably fan-boyed him a little too closely as he summited up through the scree. Still he was a very gracious fellow and was happy to chat for a bit. As I continued down the correct trail, I met their other companion Buckwild. It turns out Buckwild and Pirate are documenting their CDT thru-hike on YouTube; I’m a still bit nervous to see if my wrong turn makes it onto their Parkview summit video.

As I continued down Parkview, with plenty of switchbacks in this direction, I could see the hike from this side was much longer. I now understood why Pirate seemed so happy at the summit. I had a few more blowdowns to negotiate when I finally made it down below treeline. I took a lunch break at a creek and then passed through another long burn scar. Hiking through this seemingly unending burn area felt brutally hot in the late afternoon sun. It was still oddly beautiful through here, with seas of wildflowers growing among the devastation.

I finally got past the burn scar and entered a swampy area with some possible camping ahead. I had made it 15 miles and was worn out, and was happy to reach a small established site. It was nice to be close to water but I knew my Tiger Wall sil-nylon tent would be soaked with condensation the next day. I crawled into my tent before dark and not long after heard a quiet rustling nearby. I have a probably bad habit of growling out loud to calm my irrational fear of wild predators waiting outside my tent to devour me. I felt kind of guilty when I finally peaked outside to see another tent not far away – this poor fellow hiker must of thought I was quite a jerk to growl at him as he very quietly and politely set up his camp with barely a sound.

The next morning I was again up and out of camp before daylight. I knew I had another long climb ahead up Bowen Pass, and needed to cover 15 miles again today to reach Trail Ridge Road. Today’s hike was a grind from the start, especially after Parkview the day before. Thankfully I met a very kind NOBO named Jeemac who correctly read the look of despair on my face. He stopped to make sure I had plenty of food and water to get through the day – I must have looked pretty bad! Still his kindness without being condescending perked me up for the day’s hike. We coincidently met a few days later back in Steamboat, and I was really happy I had the chance to return his kindness with a ride back up to the CDT from town.

I had some challenging blowdowns to maneuver over, under, and around approaching Bowen Pass. A couple times I had to crawl through on my stomach and elbows. Still I thought the trail overall was in great shape and much better than what I had heard. I finally reached the saddle, and met a fun mix of thru-hikers, day hikers, fishermen, and section hikers on my way down. I wasn’t sure how my hitch to Grand Lake might go but the positive vibe a got from my fellow hikers was letting me know it would be ok. Right as I reached the trailhead near Trail Ridge a National Park Service truck drove by. I must have been wearing the same expression on my face as when I met Jeemac in the morning – the ranger pulled up thinking I might be in some distress. I said I was good but took the opportunity to ask if it was ok to hitch along Trail Ridge Road to get to town. He responded that it was not a problem and to go ahead and toss my stuff in the cab. Before I’d even had the chance to take off my backpack I had a ride to town. This very kind man turned out the be one of the more senior park rangers and he graciously gave me a ride right to my hostel.

Shadowcliff Hostel far exceeded my expectations and had a pretty awesome view of town and the lake from the lodge gathering room. I even somehow managed to get the hostel room to myself for the night. It was Saturday and my long time backpacking friend Bill was meeting me for a quick overnight trip into Rocky Mountain National Park on Monday. Shadowcliff was sold out Sunday and a CDT trail angel named Cairn was kind enough to let me camp out in her backyard. I had never spent much time in Grand Lake but ending up having a really fun couple days hanging out downtown and by the lake. Pretty much everyone I encountered was really accommodating & welcoming to hikers, and I quietly wished my home town of Steamboat was more that way. I vowed to bring my wife back here soon for a summer weekend getaway.

After a nice but quick overnight backpacking trip into RMNP with Bill, I again got lucky with an easy hitch from Granby back to Steamboat. And I’d heard a great message in the local church over the weekend, that the highest form of praise we can offer our higher power is to treat our fellow humans with kindness. I certainly felt that kindness over these few days on the CDT.

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