Monday, October 5, 2009

Colorado Trail - trail comments

The Colorado Trail (CT) is a series of well-marked and well-maintained trails and dirt-roads from Denver to Durango. It isn’t a unified trail, but an amalgam of new trail and existing trails and roads. The CT is a world-class long-distance trekking path. Additional observations:

Markings: Did I mention the CT is well marked? Currently, at every conceivable intersection, crossing, or possible confusing point, there is a CT badge – or three. If you’re in to a well-marked trail, this is your trail. If you like finding your own way, look elsewhere. One thing I particularly liked is that the trail is well marked above treeline. During the whiteout on my hike between San Luis Pass and Spring Creek Pass, one thing I didn’t have to worry about was getting lost.

Tread: The tread varies greatly depending on a lot of factors, notably the amount of mountain bike/OHV traffic. Also in wilderness areas, there often hasn’t been much maintenance in recent years. Generally, the trail is extremely well maintained. You realize this when you see the condition of the other trails on USFS land. It can be frustrating at times, however – notably the 35 miles from Marshall Pass to North Pass is essentially an ATV track with numerous rocky and blown out sections. Also the trail close to Denver is literally overrun with mountain bikes on the weekend. Not only can this get old, mountain bikes have created a lot of banking, whoop-de-doos, and other fatiguing and ankle-bending conditions.

Location: The trail hits a lot of high points in the central Colorado mountains, including a lot of places I wouldn’t have thought to go, such as the La Platas and the La Garitas. This said, I would be interested to learn the history/justification of some of the routing. The loooooooong traverse of the Sawatch Range seems oriented only to bring hikers past Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, and includes numerous unnecessary/huge climbs. Why not just use the better CDT section on the other side of the range? Also, if it’s really the Colorado Trail, why no canyon country of the Four Corners region and/or other characteristic areas? From Cochetopa Creek (middle of Section 18) to the end is beautiful Colorado goodness. You must hike it.

Mountain bikes: MTB-ers love the CT, and really, hiking the CT seems passé. I didn’t see any backpackers for the last 80 miles or so, but only MTB-ers. Of course, MTB-ers can’t REALLY do the CT because of the wilderness areas, except for the MTB-ers who just ride through said wilderness areas, of which there are many. If you don’t like MTB’s on your trail, go elsewhere. Seeing all the bikes, especially the whole MTB subculture-thing near Durango, generally motivated me to do more biking. I did have one bad experience. I was standing by a spring near Marshall Pass, and a MTB-er saw me, judged the situation, and decided it would be a good idea to splash through the spring, covering me with mud. So funny.

Llamas: I saw a few groups hiking with llamas. It looks like one of those things that looks fun but isn’t. I like the idea of having a llama carry all my stuff. I don’t like the idea of relying on surly-looking slow llamas to carry my stuff.

Resupply: I didn’t have to resupply on the CT because I section-hiked it. But it looks generally hard to resupply. What do you do? You hike to Breckenridge, and then resupply, and maybe again a day later in Copper. Then you could probably make it to the store near Princeton Hot Springs, or take a short hitch to Leadville. After that…huh? A long hike/hitch to Creede? Hard hitches to Lake City and Silverton, neither of which are very hiker-oriented? Maybe that store near Molas Pass? None of it looks fun to me.

The United States Forest Service: It’s hard to hike the CT without seeing the USFS’s abdication of trail maintenance, and more generally the high country (i.e., any place unavailable for timber sales). The CT is almost wholly maintained by the CT Foundation and other groups, and the comparison with the numerous unmaintained trails which the CT intersects is striking. Helpful hint: if you suddenly find yourself on a brushy, unmaintained trail with numerous downed trees, etc., you have made a wrong turn. Equally striking are the large number of well-maintained USFS roads in the vicinity of the CT, all of which are maintained by state/county agreements with the USFS or by the USFS itself. Okay, it’s a budget thing. But it’s still sad to see the public trails system – by any measure a national treasure – crumbling into oblivion.

Solitude: From Molas Pass to the outskirts of Durango – about 70 miles – I saw two mountain bikers and one shepherd – in August! I saw no one from North Pass to Spring Creek Pass – 53 miles. On July 4th weekend, in the heavily traveled area around Leadville, I saw maybe 10 backpackers. Tell me a popular trekking path in Europe or Asia with comparable solitude – no way. The CT reinforces my theory that despite the crowds at REI, backpacking is a rarely practiced activity.

Trail Culture/Trail Magic: Some people are into this. I gave up on “trail culture” when the culture recommended I hike alone into the Muir Trail in early June after a big snow year – I think they were trying to get rid of me. Anyway, I only saw a few thru-hikers, and without exception they didn’t seem to be having a good time. I saw three “hiker magic” boxes along the way, and I thought this was very considerate – especially in the long waterless Section 27.

Altitude and Difficulty: I read a blog introducing the motto for the CDT as “embrace the brutality.” This seems a bit extreme for the CT, but it really is a difficult trail. The grades are steep, trail often rough, distances between resupply high, and the whole thing comes with extremely high altitude. The trail is pretty much over 12,000 feet for a good 50-mile section – that’s high. And long sections of the trail are highly exposed. It does make me think the CDT would be very, very hard.

No comments: