Friday, August 21, 2009

Colorado Trail 7 - Spring Creek Pass to Durango

Flikr photos here:

I wrote the below while in Durango for the day - I'm not much of a day-by-day journal-er anymore, but at least it will help me remember the trip:

Saturday, August 15

The weatherman on 9 News looks barely 18. He beams out at us and says, "YES THERE'S A LARGE COLD AIR MASS FROM WYOMING MOVING DOWN INTO COLORADO AND DRIVING OUT THE STORMS OF THE LAST FEW DAYS. LOOKS LIKE A LINGERING HIGH PRESSURE ZONE." I look at the television in wonder. He may as well have said, "YOU, YES YOU AT THE WESTERN HOTEL IN GUNNISON - WE HAVE PREPARED YOUR HIKE WITH CACHES OF BEEF JERKY AND BEER - AND A TEAM OF HIGH-SPEED LLAMAS WILL CARRY YOUR GEAR TO THE NEXT CAMP." High pressure? Cold air? That meant no rain. All I've ever experienced in the San Juans is clear mornings and massive afternoon storms - some of the hardest rains I've ever seen were in the San Juans. And this guy told me there wouldn't be any rain - great.

We drove up to Spring Creek Pass and I saw my only CT end-to-ender of the trip. As I describe below, hiking is passe - people only mountain bike now. He was hiding out under some trees. Later I realized that the trail had been getting some serious weather in the last few days and he must have been considering whether to tackle the high stretch from Spring Creek Pass to Carson Saddle. I had seen the weather report and just marched right up into it.

Right away the views were amazing. The trail goes right up over 12,000 feet on Jarosa Mesa, with excellent views of Sunshine and Redcloud, Handies, and other high peaks. Part of my motivation for hiking the CT was to link together previous trips and understand the more general layout of the mountains. Here was the layout, indeed. The trail rolled through high country in an old stock driveway, meaning it followed a wide swath through willow where the animals ate and trampled the vegetation. It made the route yet more open and exposed, but in my case only to speeding clouds and a fierce wind.

By afternoon I crossed the high point of the CT near Coney Peak, and then dropped to Carson Saddle. I hadn't seen a drop of water in the 16 miles, and was secretly hoping to wrangle some from the endless stream of Texans in jeeps you always find on that road. Instead, I only saw a few jeeps from a distance, and no hikers.

The trail leaves Carson Saddle and heads up the Lost Creek basin. It was one of the prettiest areas I've seen in Colorado - something about the light and the high rolling peaks. I started taking pictures every which way. Stopped to eat dinner at a tributary of Lost Creek - heading north, I think that would be the only reliable water for 20-plus miles.

The pass between Lost Creek and Pole Creek is breathtakingly beautiful. It's up near 13,000 feet and the evening light played off minor summits all around. I had hoped to camp at Cataract Lake, but the high winds and freezing temps made this dubious. I nearly marched off onto the "new" CT/CDT route up on the divide before reason took over and I headed down Pole Creek.

As it was getting dark, my legs just quit and I ended up camping in a rough spot. It was cold - a hard frost. Maybe 25 degrees? Of course the cows came by to check out my tent in the morning.

Day 2

Crossed the Rio Grande and headed back up to the Divide. Here finally is the one place the CT Association guidebook helps - the wind is blasting away on the Divide and there are trails and jeep tracks heading all over the place. Rock cairns, wood cairns, etc. The book tells you to counterintuitively head UP the divide and then I see this:

I think the most incredible view in Colorado, at least that I've seen.

Almost immediately, I ran into the mob of hikers/backpackers who take the train up to the Elk Creek stop. My view of the Weminuche has always been: big, wild, and utterly unmanaged crowds of people in certain parts. My hike down Elk Creek reinforced this view - the trail was simply crumbling under the stress of so many people. The first folks I ran into were genuinely pissed-off at the herds of sheep grazing up near the divide. Hey, guys look around you - this is incredible!

Elk Creek is where you can see Vestal Peak:

I didn't look forward to the climb from the Animas to Molas Pass (2,000 feet straight up), but the trail was well constructed and graded. It was pretty much like that the rest of the trip.

Camped at Little Molas Lake and was able to get cell coverage - peaks reflecting off the Lake, cool air, great.

Day 3

I always wondered what's between Molas Pass/Highway 550 and Lizard Head Pass/Highway 145. Just great country. Big views, big peaks, great trail. I soon met Gary and Ben, two mtb-ers who I leapfrogged most of the way to Durango. Highlights include Cascade Creek and Bolam Pass, which has a fine view of the Mt. Wilson group and Lizard Head. I hadn't seen those since I climbed Mt. Wilson/Wilson Peak/El Diente in 2002 - great! After Bolam Pass again the trail was very good as it winds around Hermosa Peak and beyond.

Oh and Rolling Mountain Pass, which looks like this:

Ho, hum.

Blackhawk Pass is another highlight - the trail comes in from the north, winds through a small basin and then up and over a ridge to views of the Grenadiers, Needles, etc. Plus there is actually WATER just before the pass, which is where Gary and Ben camped. I ended up having a dry camp just over the pass.

In the evening, the same as every evening but one, I scared a herd of elk. Always the same. The elk would be looking relieved and at peace: "Ah, we have found a nice place to rest and eat." And then they would see me and all start running: "Oh no! A hiker! We thought all hikers followed the rules and set up camp by five at the latest!"

Day 4

The Hotel Draw Road to Cumberland Basin section is relatively flat and pretty much entirely waterless. It's a place I would have liked to go slower and relax, with good views mainly to the east (Needles and Animas basin), but I had to drive ahead to get to Taylor Lake. Just when things were looking bad in terms of water, I came upon this:

A cache of water/soda/beer for hikers. The journal was typical trail stuff - people had been feeding the water to their llamas/horses, and people who put the trails they've hiked as suffixes (John Doe, CDT-99, PCT-87, LT-85) blasted this practice and complained about the lack of water. The section generally reminded me of the long traverses on the PCT in Oregon, except that a high point in Oregon might be 7,000 feet and the entire ridge in this case was over 10,500 feet.

After Taylor Lake, the CT leaves the high country - the wind was still blasting away as I crossed Kennebec Pass. I was looking forward to some warmer weather, but still - not a drop of rain the whole time.

Nearly ran out of daylight getting to the excellent campsites at Walls Gulch. Gary and Ben also there - again, no CT hikers, but only bikers.

Day 5

This wasn't the best trail day for me. The wind, cold, and long stretches without water had left me dehydrated, and the CT winds all over the place in the hills outside Durango. I hoped to take a slow day, relaxing in the warmer ponderosa forest, but of course had to move it to Junction Creek to get water. At the creek I drank almost a gallon, ate the last of my food (a delicious combo of Amy's Mac and Cheese combined with an Israli couscous tangy packaged meal Catherine found - for some reason the cheese and spices worked, although wood chips probably would have worked at this point).

This area is inhabited by a tribe of highly skilled mtb-ers, who apparently don't have to work and therefore have endless time to hone their already-refined abilities. A biker would quietly approach from uphill, calmly announce his/her presence and then effortlessly/silently flow his/her bike down the hill. A biker approaching from downhill would smoothly and easily climb past me without sweating or other seeming effort. All this made my slow 2-3 mph hiking look primitive.

Again, I had hoped to linger here, especially because Frontier Airlines told me it would cost $250 or so to change my $60 flight from Thursday to Wednesday. Instead, it was ripping hot and I couldn't really relax with the hairdryer-in-the-face wind effects. I was suddenly at the end of the trail, where I took a few pictures and headed down the road into town.

From the traffic on Junction Creek Road, everyone in Durango is tan, fit, and doesn't work, and lives in an earth-sustainable house with solar panels. I pondered this high-rent area of town, and soon hit Main Street. The end of the CT happily coincides with the slightly-seedy end of the strip, so very soon I was checked into a cheap (for Durango) hotel and laying in air conditioning. Wonderful: a Kill Bill I and II marathon - even better than I remembered.

Day 6

My flight isn't until this evening, so in my world of work deadlines, a happily-busy toddler, and other clock restrictions, I have a true day off. As I haven't finished the whole trail - North Pass to Spring Creek Pass remains - it seems inappropriate to write the requisite summary post, but here are some observations anyway:

-Colorado is vast, high, and rugged. Here is Colorado:

What's that? Oh, another random 13,000-foot peak, surrounded by endless forest. In another part of the country, that mountain would warrant a National Park. Here it's just whatever, another random mountain - maybe it's good for hunting or has a mine on it, etc.

Did I mention Colorado is high? An entire 17-mile section of CT over 12,000 feet? A few passes well over 12,000 feet a day? Of course. I had hoped by hiking the CT to get a sense of the various ranges, but of course ended up not even scratching the surface.

-Mountain biking can be fun. Where I live on the Front Range is clogged with grumpy mtb-ers who mutter their way through mechanicals, fall down awkwardly, blast me with dirt/water, etc. But once you get west, there is a tribe of fun-loving mtb-ers who ride with skill and enjoyment. The Ben/Gary team were having a blast out on the CT, and convinced me it might be fun to try.

-I really enjoy hiking in the wildlands/urban interface, seeing how development affects resource values. I do NOT enjoy hiking in town, where even in a outdoor-friendly down like Durango, everyone stares at the guy with the backpack and (especially) hiking poles. Come on, people.

-I wasn't cut out for long through-hikes (PCT/CDT/etc.). I suppose that's a good thing, since I quit the PCT and never went back. It's mental - after a week or two on the trail, I'm saturated with views and place names, and I'm just hiking to get further along.

-My next outdoor goal will likely to take shorter loop trips of all the Colorado wilderness areas. There are quite a few, so this will take a few years at least. I'll get some little hiking shoes for Will-J so we can all go.

-Yesterday, I was hiking down Junction Creek Road and saw a house with a bunch of U-Hauls and other vehicles in front. Of course, it's time for the semester to start at Fort Lewis. Wrong. It was a massive raid on illegally obtained antiquities:

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