Sunday, July 26, 2009

Colorado Trail 6 - Highway 50 to Highway 114

As we crossed Poncha Pass into the San Luis Valley, I thought about our history with this area. We first came to Alamosa over the pass in 2000, and bought a 100-year-old house in Monte Vista - our modern homestead. It even came with an unregistered water well - it doesn't get much more Colorado than that. Later, I worked in Crested Butte, and sped over North Pass/Hwy 114 to get home every weekend. As we drove up the road, I realized I hadn't driven that way since 2003, but still remembered the road quite well: "Here is the spot where you don't have to slow down in the curve; here is where the black ice is in winter, etc."

It's simply huge country. The land of "The Last Ranch," by Sam Bingham. There are no lights in the hills - rolling high hills of alternating mixed conifer, rocky outcrops, open parks that stretch off seemingly forever. I did some long runs up there, and always wanted to spend some more time in the broad low stretch of the Continental Divide. This weekend I drifted through at three mph.

The Colorado Trail changes dramatically after Highway 50. Since Denver, it travels up long drainages, then across a high ridge, and then back down. Saturday morning on Fooses Creek was no exception:



Then, suddenly, the trail spits you out here:



(View of Chipeta and Ouray Mountains). Welcome to the Divide - you'll be here for the next 130 miles or so.

The stretch to Marshall Pass is an example of loving the west to death. It's a beautiful open stretch, and I was passed by at least a few dozen mountain bikes. Marshall Pass itself was a zoo of activity - mountain bikes, dirt bikes, ATV's, campers, hikers, etc. Interestingly, immediately after Marshall Pass, it was quiet. It's as if all those people had the same guidebook that said, "Marshall Pass is awesome!" but the book didn't mention anything to the southwest.

The next thirty-odd mile of trail is essentially a trail/ATV-route right on top of the divide. Most of the time it looks like this:



But sometimes it looks like this:



The trail passed through long stretches of forest and would then emerge into a park with eye-popping views of the Sangre de Christo, the Gunnison basin, and the Cochetopa Hills. These immense landscapes are the opposite of the Sawatch. In the Sawatch, you see a big mountain, and it's rolling shape hides the fact it's only a few miles away. Here, you look off at the Crestone peaks and Blanca Peak and realize they're oh maybe forty miles away. But through the clear air, you can see the sunlight playing off the Great Sand Dunes and maybe a few rainbows.

These sort of views don't translate well into snapshots, so I ended up taking pictures of an angry llama:



Cows:



And interesting cairns:



Of course, it rained most of the afternoon and Sunday morning, so much of the time it looked like this:



In the last thirty miles, I only saw one couple. They were hiking the whole CT, and like the other end-to-enders didn't really seem to know what to make of the weekend-warrior approach. I wanted to remind them that there's no rule that you have to go straight through, but not sure what good that would have done.

Then back to the car and into Sagauche. Stopped at the "1st Stop" and got coffee - where I used to get coffee in 2000 before going climbing and in 2003 before going back to CB over North Pass. Now it's 2009 and I'm going back home to Denver - lots has changed, but the coffee tastes the same.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Colorado Trail 5 - Clear Creek to Highway 50.

There are wooden signs on the roadside borders of Chaffee County announcing: "Now THIS is Colorado." If this is Colorado, then I'm staying. Perfect weather, good trail, beautiful views. At the start of the hike, a nice plaque for a new bridge annouced 18 miles of excellent trail:



Apparently the trail through the Collegate Peaks Wilderness from Clear Creek to Harvard Lakes is an old WPA project from the 30's. It shows -- the trail is carefully worked into slopes with extensive rock work. The route shows careful consideration for grade and elevation. The old WPA trails are a national treasure, literally irreplacable. There is a book waiting to be written, if it hasn't been already, about trail crews and their efforts. I would love to read more about the difficult sections of the Muir Trail, for example. Typical section:



Ahh. I cruised along 15 miles or so before lunch. Then, back to reality -- a climb up 3,500 feet onto the shoulder of Mt. Yale and back in 7 miles:



The trail after that was a mix of mountain-bike banked whoop-de-doos, good trail, and rocky junk:



Pretty much all longish-distance hikers will tell you the quality of the trail makes a huge impact on the hike. And on this hike, I had five miles or so of road walking:



I knew when I wanted to do all 60-odd miles in two days that it would leave me near the Chalk Cliffs/Mt. Princeton Hot Springs area for the night. This is an area where people really enjoy their vacation homes, and also really enjoy not having a trail in their back yards. Hence the road walk. Unfortunately for the community, it becomes a variant of externality -- rather than have a few people dealing with stinky hikers going through back yards, the entire community has to deal with stinky hikers going up the road. And from what I could tell from the trail registers, there are a significant number of stinky hikers all heading for Durango right about now.

I managed to find a legal place to camp immediately before the road section:



It may have a communication tower in the front yard, but the views were great:



I actually enjoyed the blinking blue LED light at night. Speaking of views, I didn't take many photos during this stretch because they seemed to just flatten out the light and distance. The Sawatch are big hills. No, you have to say it right: biiiiiiiiiig hills. With biiiiiiiig valleys between them. I've been intermittently hiking around the Sawatch for ten years now, and they have a unique feel. It's a bit like the high Sierra, looking down on Owens Valley, but not so extreme. And the mountains are simply enormous, but since they look like big rounded hills, the distances can be deceiving. A big mountain ridge might be much closer than appears, or it might be way out on the horizon. It makes for edifying travel:



Did I mention California? With the hot and sunny weather, huge views, and reasonably graded trail, thoughts naturally gravitate to the Pacific Crest Trail and other California hikes. The natural comparison between PCT/CDT/CT/etc. demands its own post, whereby I will settle the entire issue. This will give me an opportunity to explain my theory of Intermountain Malaise, whereby drifting 20 and 30-somethings can never really be happy in Denver because it can never be the polar opposite of the East Coast that California represents. Make sense? Well, at least the Forest Service is here to warn you about limbs:



Finally, I've come to terms with the weird CT guidebook. Yes, there are no topos, the elevation profiles are wrong, and it's written only for southbounders, but it inspired me to get out hiking and it tells you where to find water. Such is life.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Colorado Trail 4 - Copper to Clear Creek

Another great hike on the Colorado Trail. This one featured some pretty great alpine scenery:



Wildlife:



And even an easily-accessible coffee shop:



But could have done without "the Diggler":



The hike started somewhat inauspiciously at Copper Mountain. The trail contoured up above the resort as if to avoid it, but then plopped down right in the main center. Copper Mountain is perhaps the most confused Colorado ski resort, never having decided what it wants to be when it grows up. Consequently it still looks temporary, like an Olympic village.

Right after Copper, I saw two CDT northbound hikers. I didn't hang them up with questions, but talk about a rough few weeks of weather and conditions traveling through the San Juans. They looked tan and tough.

The weather held off for the pretty Elk Ridge section:



But then rained pretty hard in Camp Hale. I know the story of Camp Hale fairly well, but I don't know the story of how Camp Hale came to its present condition -- sort of remediated area of free RV camping featuring occasional live ammunition. The 10th Mountain boys shipped out for Europe in 1944, but certainly some left behind to maintain the operation. After V-E Day, the base probably prepared for the soldiers to return and start training for action in the mountains of Japan. What happened after August? It looks like the Army just took down some of the buildings and took off. When did they turn over the land to the Forest Service? Did they pay the Forest Service for some of additional cleanup? Can the Army take the land back in the future if necessary?

Many of my past hikes have crossed ex-military areas -- gun emplacements in Maine and Alaska, abandoned airstrips in the Sierra, old missile sites in southern California, etc. -- these are always interesting intersections of old concerns and ambitions with present quietness.

--

The climb to Tennessee Pass took a long time, but there was a "trail magic" box at the top:



--

And then a very pretty area of Porcupine Lakes and Galena Mountain. I had this area to myself for the morning of the 4th. Actually, I had most of the trail to myself on the weekend of the 4th. As always, the trails are generally quiet no matter how busy the roads are. I saw maybe 10 backpackers total over the weekend. The contrast between car-camping crowdedness and backpacking tranquility was most striking on the south side of Twin Lakes. This is a very pretty area of Ponderosa forest, direct access to the lakes, good mountain biking trails, etc. Consequently, the car camping area at the southeast edge of the lake was quite busy. After leaving the road and continuing up the shoreline, however, I found a number of empty sites right off the lake.