CT Day 9/CDT: Storybook Ending at Twin Lakes

This is my favorite weekend every year, our annual Fathers’ Day Campout with my son & his daughter. Erik was super supportive of my Colorado Trail thru-hike this summer and I don’t think it was accidental that he had picked Twin Lakes for this weekend. I had been section hiking my way from Denver to Twin Lakes (the actual lakes, not the village) on my weekends since early May, then beginning mid July I planned to start from there to finish the last 300 miles of the CT into Durango. It was Friday morning, and the plan was to meet Erik at their campsite, then he would drop my back at Half Moon Road so I could hike the first half of Segment 11 up to Twin Lakes. I still had to go back and hike Segments 6-9 over the next few weekends as the snowmelt allowed.

I had just finished Segment 10 on the previous Monday, and had to walk about and 1-1/2 miles extra to meet Erik on Half Moon Road to the the construction closure. I was a little frustrated at first that I would need to backtrack today over that same stretch of road to get back to the CT. Once I started hiking it didn’t take long for me to just enjoy the short extra road walk as part of the journey and a little bit more training to help me get to Durango. Plus it was hard to not be in a happy mood with our Fathers’ Day weekend underway.

Segment 11 starts out with a decent climb up the Mt Elbert trail. I remembered that climb from summitting Mt Elbert the summer before; we had seen some CT hikers going up when we were hiking down and thinking they were nuts to be backpacking that trail. Yet here I was less than a year later doing the same thing. As the CT diverges from the main Mt Elbert trail, I was surprised at how lush and green this section was. I had picked a good time to hike this here after the snowy & rainy spring we had. I crossed paths with the first NOBO CDT hikers I had seen; they were friendly enough but had an impressive hard-driving demeaner that I hoped to have someday. I began to descend towards Twin Lakes and could see some of the Collegiate mountains, a pretty spectacular site. The trail then becomes fairly unspectacular as it follows between the road and Twin Lakes Reservoir most of the way around. Miles of sagebrush-lined trail seems to go on forever. A highlight was a Loch Ness monster-looking piece of driftwood on the shoreline.

I heard later that some hikers take a semi-bushwhacking short-cut around the short end of the reservoir, but I had to follow the traditional CT route anyway to meet my family for our Father’s Day weekend. I crossed another pair of fast-moving CDT hikers and could finally see our campsite. I was dragging myself towards camp when my granddaughter Kya saw me. She sprinted towards me for probably 50 yards with open arms to greet me with probably the best end to a hike ever.

CT Day 8/CDT: Segment 10, My Sentimental Favorite (Mt Massive Wilderness)

I think Segment 10 on the Colorado Trail from Timberlinke Lake Trailhead to the Mt. Massive Trailhead will always be my favorite. This section had gifted me many special memories since I first came here just a couple years earlier.

I hadn’t gone backpacking in probably 30 years until I reconnected with my old backpacking buddy Bill a few years ago, when he invited me to join him and his son on a weekend trip. Even though I struggled with both my fitness level and garage sale gear, by the end of that weekend I had rediscovered my passion for backpacking. My friend and co-worker Kat is a backpacking enthusiast, and she offered me lots of tips and inspiration as she answered my endless questions. I upgraded my gear a bit, and later that summer I challenged myself to go on my first ever solo backpacking trip to Timberline Lake. I remember thinking it was cool to be at trailhead that also connected to the Colorado Trail, but never imagined at that time that I might hike the CT one day. The hike to Timberline Lake was only about 3 miles but it was uphill most of the way and was a hard hike for me. It was fun to reach the lake, especially when I discovered no one else was camped there. I was a bit freaked out about being there solo, but soon realized that there is so much to do in camp that the time passes quickly. On my way out the next day I was in a happy mood already when I passed a hearty woman, at least my age if not a few years older, hiking with her dog. I let her know was excited to have just done my first solo overnight backpacking trip. She proceeded to tell me I could hike to Tennessee Pass in one direction and towards Mt Massive in the other from that trailhead if I wanted to pursue some more adventures. By the end of our talk, I was on fire to explore at least of bit of the Colorado Trail. I don’t think she had any idea how much that brief conversation would change my life.

My son lives with his daughter in Leadville, and on his first Fathers’ Day he started a tradition of us all going on an annual campout. Erik loves 4-wheeling with his Jeep in the hills around Leadville and we had camped a couple times up Hagerman’s Pass not far from the Timberline Lake Trailhead. I love the view of Mt Massive from his house (or just about anywhere in Leadville), and I dreamed of someday summiting Mt Massive. In 2020, I drafted my buddy Art to join me and we made it a multiple day backpacking trip along segment 10 of the Colorado Trail.  Upon summitting Mt Massive I realized I needed a new goal, and after picking up on this seemingly magical trail vibe from the CT thru-hikers we encountered along segment 10, I knew this goal was to someday hike the entire Colorado Trail.  So that’s a lot of the “why” I wanted to hike the Colorado Trail in 2021 and Segment 10 is such a special trail to me.

I had hiked the first 71ish miles through Segment 5 of the CT on my weekends earlier this spring, and the higher elevation snowpack was still too much for me. Along with many others, I was following the Colorado Trail 2021 Thru-hike Facebook page to see how a few hearty soles were faring getting over Georgia Pass in early June and cheering them on. These very experienced backpackers were struggling to get through, so I skipped ahead to Segment 10 and would hike Segments 6-9 a few weeks later. I arrived at the Timberline Lake Trailhead around 10:00 am on a Monday and thankfully found a parking spot for my truck. I carried a full backpack to get in some more training and planned to finish the 13-mile segment, plus another mile or two to get past the Half Moon Road closure to meet my son that afternoon.

Segment 10 is almost entirely through the woods. It starts out crossing over a creek and then begins with a pretty good climb up to Hagerman’s Pass Road. There’s a nice campground just above the road where Art & I had waited for my son to pick us up after Mt Massive last year, and I remembered being impressed watching last year’s thru-hikers make that climb. Now I had done the same, and fairly easily. I had started training for the Colorado Trail in January by skinning up to Thunderhead at the Steamboat ski area a couple times a week with my buddy Jim. Then in late March I switched to carrying my loaded backpack from our place in downtown Steamboat up Emerald Mountain, plus a bit of trail running. Hiking the lower elevation sections of the CT on my Sunday-Tuesday weekends was turning out to be a lucky good plan as I was slowly getting into hiking shape, and was I able to take some physical therapy for one very sore ankle in between hikes.

I saw just a few other hikers that day, and once again enjoyed the solitude. The trail has some nice up & down, through-the-woods hiking and I think I wore a smile almost the whole way. I could see Leadville from the trail and remembered all the times I had looked up this way at the treeline along the base of Mt Massive. Through the trees I could see snow-capped Mt Elbert and Mt Massive. When I crossed the fish hatchery trail I remembered seeing all the thru-hikers at that intersection the summer before; they seemed to have this silly, happy, but “serious as a heart attack” disposition that I not seen before. I passed the big, odd shaped rock that marked our campsite last year, then passed the Mt Massive trail intersection. The descent down towards Half Moon Road was steeper than I remembered, and was happy to be finishing downhill.

I hiked past the Half Moon Road closure where I met my son to drop me back at my truck at the Timberline Lake TH. He had shown up with one of his off-road buddies and we finished an already pretty awesome day with fun Jeep run past some of the trail I had just hiked. The rest of the Colorado Trail would far exceed any of my expectations, but this day had solidified Segment 10 as my all-time favorite. As I drove back towards Leadville I could see a far-off thunderstorm in the sunset; I missed the foreshadowing of what was to come.

CT Days 34-35: Stormy Lessons in the San Juans

I had enjoyed hiking and camping with Kinnikinnick yesterday, but he didn’t share my penchant for being up and on trail before daylight. I was making good time this morning until I stopped to filter some water and my cell phone fell from my unzipped shoulder strap pocket to the bottom of a shallow stream. I had topo maps and a compass but my navigation skills were rusty, having relied primarily on the convenience of the Guthook app on my phone to supplement the Colorado Trail Databook to this point. As I picked up my phone in disbelief, Flame walked up from behind and saw my sad and embarrassed expression. We had met just the day before and it was apparent then that she was a very experienced hiker. She wished me luck with my phone, which must have done the trick as it somehow worked just fine for the rest of my hike. I couldn’t keep Flame’s pace but we leap frogged several times that morning as she stopped to appreciate the views and waterfalls in this section. I was impressed to see her almost skip over a narrow log creek crossing that I had to take super slow using both poles to get across.

I cleared an unnamed saddle and thought I had made it over ahead of a typical pm thunderstorm. I just had to get across this little meadow. But almost immediately a lightening & hailstorm hit and I had to duck into a small grouping of trees for at least a bit of cover. It hailed non-stop for probably 1-1/2 hours with thunder & lightning flashing overhead the entire time. I was soaked and freezing, and finally had to move just to stay warm, so I tried dashing across the meadow through the storm. I slipped and ate it hard a couple times sloshing through the mud with my backpack but made it across and another couple miles to set up camp.  

A much more athletic friend I had met earlier raced past me. Danimal let me know he was “going long” to try & warm up by hiking fast to get ahead of the storm & into the night. I was later relieved to see Flame, Waves, & Gadget, then Kinnikinnick, had all made it through safely as they hiked past my campsite, and they had been worried about me as well. Gadget complemented my campsite with the “flat stuff” it featured, namely a sawed off tree stump that made a coveted dining table.

I was out of camp by around 4am the next morning to get as far away from that area as soon as possible, expecting another similar storm.  The deep hail had frozen solid on the trail and the only way I could hike the uphill sections that early was thanks to the big footprints Danimal had left in the hail the night before.  This seemingly horrible experience ended up being one of my favorite memories from the Colorado Trail, and also taught me some valuable life lessons.

The day before I had only made around 15 miles when I set up camp early after the storm, and had to get in 20 or more today. I would also be starting a possible 22-mile stretch without water that might leave me dry-camping. Despite my early morning head start, Flame & Waves passed me later that morning, followed by Gadget that afternoon. Haze from far-off wildfires began to roll in later in the day. We got a rare break from the monsoon rain, so I decided to push on to a potential water source that would leave me at about 23 miles for the day.

I was happy to see Flame, Waves, and Gadget had stopped at the campsite. They directed me to a small, barely trickling creek just beyond the campsite where Flame had masterfully placed a leaf as a water spout. I was surprised and impressed that I could fill my 3-liter CNOC bag here. I texted that good news to Kinnikinnick who had decided to dry camp a few miles behind us. It was Friday night and I had 30 miles left to finish in Durango by Sunday. I relaxed a bit knowing I had had two modest 15-mile days ahead.