Grand Lake, CO to Rabbit Ears Pass (Steamboat Springs, Co), June 21-23

In the morning Natural and I woke, packed our bags and headed from Shadowcliff hostel down to the Fat Cat Cafe for breakfast. At the bottom of the driveway we saw Situpchuck who’d stealth camped, albeit not too stealthily, just of the side of the road. We laughed at him and teased him that he wasn’t fooling anyone and he came down and joined us for breakfast. Afterwards we walked back up and grabbed our packs and hit the Tonahuto Trail, a four-mile alternate cutting off a 20 mile loop that the CDT does through Rocky Mountain National Park. Within the first four miles we spotted four moose grazing in broad, open marshes along the creek and past plenty of day and weekend hikers.

Tonahutu Creek Trail is the start of the 4-mile alternate.
Three moose graze along Tonahutu Creek.

We rejoined the CDT and hiked another 24 miles which included a climb up and alpine basin and over a short snowfield at Bowen Pass and a traverse around a beautiful, quiet six mile creek. The problem I had with this last six mile section was that it was a popular motorcycle trail and the entire area was badly rutted out from their use. We made it to Willow Creek pass, crossed the road and made camp off of an old, flat, and closed road.

Natural at Bowen Pass.

The next day was an immediate climb up a large, steep drainage and across small patchy snow towards Parkview Mountain. As we got higher, the winds increased dramatically until walking along the ridge toward the top we had our heads down and were getting hammered by the wind. Step after step over talus we approached a tiny building at the top which was an old weather or transmitter site. Natural reached the top before I did and when I got to the top I didn’t see him. It took me a few seconds to realize the structure had a small door and I opened it up to find Natural inside, along with XC and Philly who’d both made it up there a few minutes before we did.

(L-R) Natural, XC, Philly warm up in the shelter atop Parkview mountain.

We took a 30 minute break and all four of us left the shelter and I led us down a ridge line following rock cairns for about 1/4 mile before I realized it was the wrong one, so I turned us around and found the correct trail. We then traversed on high alpine tundra – still getting blasted by wind – before dropping down a drainage and circling around Haystack Mountain, lots of dead tree blowdown and climbing back up Troublesome Pass – which was no trouble at all. We traversed Poison Ridge and then climbed a saddle on Sheep Mountain. We dropped to Arapaho Creek and below Hyannic Peak in the Rabbit Ears range. The trail then joined a quiet forrest service road (104), and we followed that for 5 miles before making our camp for the night.

Descending Parkview and along the correct ridge line.

Day three followed more dirt roads and when we took a mid-morning break under some aspen trees we ran into England who I hadn’t seen since Chama, New Mexico! We chatted with him and a local hiker who met us, then continued. We cut off about two miles of a sharp turn in trail by following a fence line towards highway 14. We had to ford Grizzly Creek right by Frenchman’s Ranch, then readied ourselves for a full afternoon of walking pavement. Along the way we passed a semi that had gone off the road and was on it’s side being rescued by a large tow truck with a winch. I passed the recovery workers who were flagging down cars so they could pass by the partially obstructed road from the wreckage. I noticed a few Mountain Dews scattered along the road from the wreck, picked one up and took it with me!

Trail magic comes in surprising locations 🙂

After three hours on this road we hit Hwy 40 and headed north, hiking a few more miles past Muddy Pass lake and up toward Rabbit Ears pass. The CDT turns to trail again at a random dirt road off the highway and we stopped here as this would be our reentry point after resupplying in Steamboat. We hitched a ride rather quickly from a young 20-something woman who chatted us up. She abruptly pulled over and dropped us off about seven miles before Steamboat as she was headed towards Lake Catamount for a birthday party. We tried hitching this last seven miles for over an hour. Car after car after car passed us by. It was a Saturday and there was plenty of traffic, but not a single van, truck or car stopped. Dozens of outdoorsy young people with nice vehicles racked with boats, mountain bikes, and other toys simply looked at us and drove on. I checked my Lyft app (like Uber), and there was ONE driver in Steamboat so I ordered up a car and we were finally picked up and driven into town.

Wildflowers were beginning to bloom everywhere!

I got a text from Nimbles who was with Baskets and Nope at the McDonalds – of course… it’s their favorite, and default shitty, cheap hiker food stop. Natural and I ate a few burgers and had ice cream which all sucked. My tummy hurt, and this was the very last time I was going to patronize the Golden Arches! Those three got picked up a hour later and headed back to the pass. Natural and I took the free bus to the north end of town where we resupplied first at a lousy WalMart, then at a City Market,  where we gave a few Asian bikers doing the Great Divide bike route a few tips. We hopped on the bus again and stopped for a few beers at Storm Peak Brewing and on a recommendation from a local, Golden Leaf cannabis dispensary. Afterwards, we walked through a slight rain and lightening storm, grabbed the bus again (we were getting this thing down), south to Trafalgar Drive and walked into Emerald Park, which had three baseball fields and an absolutely perfect covered shelter with benches outside where we stealth camped for the night. This was a wise choice (and I highly recommend this as it saved us $$$ on a hotel), as it rained over night.

Stellar location for stealth camping near Emerald Park fields.
These bikers needed our help.

In the morning (day 4), we walked to Freshies, a great breakfast joint. As we were eating a woman approached our table, asked if we were hiking the CDT, and gave us a $30 gift card and said “Safe travels. Here’s some trail magic.” With that she turned and walked out the door. We shouted thank you but were so surprised we couldn’t say much more. As we paid at the counter the owner gave us four giant raspberry oat bars and asked us about the trail. Satiated, we headed south to the Exxon station where we hitched another ride, this time another 20-something young woman picked us up after about an hour and drove us back to the pass.

More trail magic… off of the trail.

Day one: 28 miles

Day two: 28 miles

Day three: 24 miles then a hitch to Steamboat

 

Silverthorne to Grand Lake (June 17-20)

In the morning after lousy sleep on the motel floor and now with a back strain flaring back up, I shot up quickly walked to the bus stop and went to Target. I shopped for some new headphones, charger cable, and some snacks then returned to the motel and dropped off my bags and walked over to REI, then to City Market to shop for food then back to the room again. Nimbles went to McDonalds and I planned to meet him there. There was a big storm front moving in and we expected heavy rain at some point but everything looked good in our general area so we planned to hike. Twisted had decided to stay in Silverthorne another two days since he had a knee hurting him, the German National football team was in the World Cup and he wanted to watch their game the next day, and he wanted to wait for a female hiker named Skeeter who’d Id not yet met and he was planning to hike with her. At the room, Larry Boy was there hanging with Twisted and repeatedly claimed that Nimbles and I wouldn’t actually leave that day, which frankly, annoyed the hell out of me to no end, and only served to solidify my departure. After sorting my food and packing up I said a bit of an awkward goodbye to Twisted and completely ignored Larry Boy as they left to go see a movie. I left the room and met Nimbles five minutes later and after a quick bite we were on our way back on the trail.

View down from CDT towards Silverthorne with storm front looming all around.

The trail… was mostly road for five miles, all uphill before turning to single track. We hiked ten miles and over Ptarmigan Pass and dropped to South Williams Fork Creek. Constantly looking back and checking on the storm front over the area behind us, we climbed back up to 12,000 feet then dropped to Bobtail Creek and stopped for the night after seven more miles where we saw Natural and his tent on the other side of the water. We crossed and camped by him for the night.
Nimbles and I woke and we’re back hiking at 6am, joined now by Natural.

Nimbles atop Ptarmigan Pass

After crossing Bobtail Creek again we climbed steep switchbacks up to 12,798 feet and rejoined the CDT regular route just before the Vasquez wilderness boundary. Today we wouldn’t be so fortunate with the weather, as we watched clouds swirl and build above and behind us we had a view down to McQuery Lakes before reaching Vasquez Peak where we knew we were about to get hammered by weather. Flying right by the peak at an increasingly fast pace we lost elevation but not fast enough as wind picked up and lightening cracked the sky nearby. We ran. Down the trail we flew before we all looked at each other as we simultaneously spotted trees about 500 more feet below and headed for them. Despite what your intuition might tell you, trees are not the best place to be during lightening. Down was our first instinct and trees were our second due to the shelter and sense of security they can offer. Rain fell and wind howled and we reached the stand of dense trees as one more lightening strike clapped down a little further away this time. We made coffee and gathered our soaking wet wits. After 25 minutes with the storm apex moving past us we hiked back to the ridge and towards Stanley Peak, but chose to drop off the CDT down a spur trail through Butler Gulch and to Woods Creek Road all the way past Urad mine to a rest area that was next to state route 40. We ate lunch and then saw Baskets and Nope coming down the dirt road to the rest area where they joined us. The five of us hiked the highway six more miles towards Berthoud Pass and as we climbed back up we saw the cloud level where we knew rain awaited us.

Nimbles and Natural dry out after we bailed off ridge and out of storm.

As it started to rain again Baskets spotted a can of Coke across the road, then another on our side of the road, and a third in a six pack holder that was cracked open and leaking. We figured someone must have driven by and tossed some drinks at us thinking we’d be thirsty and Baskets scooped up and opened the food can much to Nope’s disappointment since he claimed he “saw it” first!
The rain became heavy and we quickly got soaked. From traveling Berthoud Pass I knew there was a bathroom and warming hut at the top of the pass used by backcountry skiers and maintained by the Colorado Mountain Club and after mentioning this we hiked even faster! Being a sunday, hundreds of cars and trucks passed by us going down the pass as we ascended further, soaking us with spray as they went by at excessive speed – just like every Colorado driver. We reached the pass, crossed the road and headed for the warming hut at the end of the parking area. Once inside everyone was relieved to find it was actually a heated building with lots of bench space. We all hung out wet gear and after a short discussion we decided we were, despite the signage, going to sleep in the hut overnight. We all laid out sleeping bags and easily went to sleep. The fact a few drivers came into use the bathroom barely affected my ability to pass out and get a decent night’s rest, happy and thankful for our good fortune.

Drying out -again – this time at Berthoud Pass warning hut.

The following day we were handed an immediate long climb up and around Mt Flora which provided an amazing view of lake Ethel to the east and Winter Park below to the west.
Next came James Peak involving several thousand more feet of strenuous climbing and epic view that felt as if we were in the Pacific Northwest.

Natural on trail on the edge of cloud ceiling after descending part way down James Peak.

The rest of the day we passed through Indian Peaks Wilderness a beautiful and scenic area with abrupt peaks and still frozen alpine lakes.

Overall, we had a great day compared with the previous wet effort and the five of us hiked together before late afternoon thunderheads threatened us again.
Our fifth and final day involved traversing Granby Lake the. Grand Lake itself. The first was a long, beautiful area with lots of campgrounds and lots of people out for the weekend. I watched a young boy fly fish for a few minutes and thought about what I might be doing right now if I weren’t making my way through Colorado on the CDT.

Granby Lake

Grand Lake involves some unexpected climbing up some steep hillsides and around burn areas. So much beetle kill scarred the landscape in this area, a reminder of the past 15-20 years of devastation. This lake borders, in fact, is in Rocky Mountain National Park and it was a bit of a sad site to see all the damage. I’d estimate 60-70% of the forrest was dead.
Tired and a bit grumpy in that what we thought our final day would be easy but turned out exhausting, we made it into Grand Lake and I headed right for the burger and ice cream joint where I was met by everyone else. Nimbles, Natural and I walked through town up to Stonecliff Hostel which was a fantastic old lodge overlooking town and the lake. We did laundry, bought beer and settled in for the night.

Burgers and ice cream… it’s what they hikers do best!

I didn’t expect or plan on taking a rest day but at this point I’d hiked nearly three weeks straight without taking a day off. Waking in the morning Nimbles looked at me and asked what my plan was and I admitted – I had to take a rest. I got up with him and he, Natural and I went out to breakfast before Nimbles headed out to the trail. I spent the day fixing gear and gene metal doing nothing as that was all I was in the mood to do. I windows shipped with Natural and we grabbed dinner before turning in again and getting ready for the next day which would take us on a short alternate past Rocky Mountain National Park.

Day 1: 10.5 miles
Day 2: 22 miles
Day 3: 28 miles
Day 4: 24 miles

Twin Lakes to Silverthorn

After Baskets and I humped 3000 feet over Hope Pass and down, down, down, nearly the full way to Twin Lakes, we did a commando camp (quickly find whatever flat spot works and go to sleep). In the morning, we woke and walked two miles along the road and river – electing NOT to do the crossing which was swollen with spring runoff and quite dangerous looking. We reached the Twin Lakes Inn and sitting in front of the old building was Nope. Nope and Baskets hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016, and Nope was now infamous for starting the CDT in March, reaching Colorado by April and then working his way through the snow – going incommunicado for two weeks and then his family started posing “have you seen Nope?” on Facebook. He was fine. Just out of cell service. And here he was in the flesh and I was meeting him for the first time. Baskets had called the Inn the night before when we were atop Hope Pass and although we weren’t staying there, the manager was cool enough to let us join the continental breakfast for paying guests and only charged us $8 apiece. You can bet your bottom dollar we got our money’s worth 😉 I resupplied at the general store which had JUST enough to get me to Silverthorn in three days, with a good supply of snacks, Knorr sides, ramen, and had some Mountain House freeze dried food selections, albeit absurdly expensive.

After doing what we do: eat, buy more food, charge electronics… we did what we do again as thru hikers: eat more. This time at a small BBQ trailer nearby. Other than what I’m describing, Twin Lakes offers nothing. Nothing other than easy access to Mt Elbert – the highest peak in Colorado – and to the Mount Massive Wilderness area, another Colorado 14’ers paradise.
Padding my belly with more food and after a phone call to check on my dad’s recovery progress, I walked two miles up road and rejoined the CDT. Very nice, maintained trail led the way through about 13 miles past several launching points for climbing 14,000 foot Mt Elbert and I passed several large groups and tents along the way. I caught up to a female solo hiker and chatted and hiked along with her for several miles before parting. Eventually I found a flat shelf above a small creek and pitched my tent. Within an hour of nightfall a rogue wind and short rainstorm hit, lasting maybe 30 minutes. After that I slept like a baby.
On day two I rose, did my coffee and granola routine and made my way down more superb trail. I had a text message from Twisted who mentioned how nice the trail conditions were here, and he was right. All this good 14’er access meant lots of trail use but fortunately, lots of great trail maintenance. I came to a creek after three miles and saw Baskets and Nope packing up their camp. Baskets shouted out to me to wait for them and in jest, I flipped them the bird and kept walking by them. Within a few miles and some morning duties… we converged and continued to hike along as a threesome.

The day would push us past one and to the edge of two more passes that would lead us close to Copper Mountain and the western “edge”’of Summit County: Copper, Frisco, Dillion, Silverthorn, Breckinridge. By 3pm and after about 20 miles we reached Tennessee Pass which some hikers used to hitch hike to Leadville, CO for resupply. We had cell service and got a few text messages here from other hikers about their plans around an incoming storm and this pushed a button for Baskets. He heard this news and immediately proclaimed that we needed to hike over all the passes to Copper, TODAY. And, that’s what we did. I was a bit annoyed at his pace as we hiked away from Tennessee Pass, but eventually softened and realized that Baskets had wanted to hike 40 mile day. He’d never done one. I’d done one last year on the AZT, and nearly killed myself, and I could tell Baskets had it in his sights that this might be his first. We descended to a valley and I saw a red head that I hadn’t seen since we left the Mexican border in April: Larry Boy. I startled the hell out of him when I shouted out his name and he jumped at the sound of my voice and he spilled water down the front of his shirt!
The four of us hiked together for a while, passing an old military explosives bunker and testing site as well as a training facility for the 10th Mountain Division of WWI.

Old WWI bomb bunker

We took a dinner break at 6pm, then flew up another 3000 feet past North Sheep Mountain to Kokymo Pass. I turned around, having left everyone behind on the climb but Baskets was approaching and I waited until he joined me. We gained Elk Ridge at 12300 feet as the sun was setting. Rounding a large alpine tundra, we dropped a bit and slogged through wet trail, snow and mud as it got dark and we got closer to Searle Pass. Hiking now by headlamp, and close to the pass Baskets turned and thought he saw another headlamp behind us in the distance and thought it might be Nope a mile or so behind us. We kept slogging and made it to the pass where we encountered numerous snowfields. Luckily, they were low angle and we slowly picked our way over the other side and eventually to more clear trail. At this point we’d done over 35 miles and the next two hours were a haze to me. Baskets and I kept each other awake with chat and after an hour of descending towards the Copper Mountain resort we both were checking for that 40 mile mark with the plan being to immediately find a flat spot to camp. We knew it would be very close to the actual ski area and passed by a few tents near a stream just a mile before the resort. Finally, we hit 40 miles, over 42 for me since I’d started the day slightly behind these two. Unfortunately, the terrain was still steep – it’s a ski area after all – but we found a flatish spot within view of the resort lights. It was good enough for us and we each sloppily pitched our shelters, climbed in and fell immediately to sleep a bit after midnight.

In the morning I texted Twisted and Nimbles who we found out we’d passed (that was the plan 😉 the night before, and decided to need at Toast and Co., a breakfast joint on the mountain. Baskets and I broke camp and heard Twisted and Nimbles pass us and we made our way down the last mile, cut through the summer construction of the ski area and walked into Toast where we joined the others for a spirited conversation and an enormous breakfast.

Breakfast Club: (L-R) Nimbles, McGyver, Twisted, Steel, Nope, Baskets

Afterwards, we walked towards Frisco and the I-70 bike path and walked the six miles where we found a barbecue and beer festival taking place in the town center. Not one to pass up good food, we all separated a bit here, Nimbles and I heading for meal #2 with brisket and a local beer. I’m not sure how it fit in my stomach after the big breakfast but I managed to lug myself through the crowd and devour the foods.

 

After relaxing a bit we walked through the crowd where we saw an ice cream shop and, you guessed it, ate some more! Once again we hit the I-70 bike path where a weekend bike race was taking place and we walked another six miles or so around a massive reservoir and to Silverthorn where Twisted, Nimbles, McGyver and I got a room at the Super 8. Baskets and Nope showed up later.
I still had an errand to do: go to Brekenridge to pick up a new backpack that I’d sent to Bivvy, an awesome hostel located in a beautiful new lodge type building. I took two busses and a trolley – Summit County having an excellent, free bus system funded by the ski areas that can get you between Breck, Copper, Frisco, Dillon, and Silverthorn. Returning to Silverthorn around 8 pm, I walked over to a little brewpub and hid dinner the back to the motel room to get some sleep which, unfortunately, was on the damn floor. The room Twisted rented only had two twin beds, and he and McGyver had staked claim on each with Nimbles and I doing the floor. In the morning, after horrible sleep in a cramped room with no ventilation I decided that’s the last time I’m sleeping on a motel floor during this CDT trip. The backstrain I had at the beginning of the trail that faded during our New Mexico hiking, was back in full force and I was in considerable pain and discomfort all night long.

Day 1: mile 1162-1175
Day 2: 1175-1217
Day 3: 1217 to 1229, Walking I-70/US 6 to Silverthorn

Monarch Pass to Twin Lakes, CO

Day 1: Nero… (8 miles to Monarch in the morning + 16.5 past Monarch after resupply)

After Tom dropped us back at the Lodge, I dumped out all my food in the parking it and made quick work of sorting and packing and gave Baskets any overflow of snacks he wanted. Between that, what was leftover from Twisted’s resupply box he left over at the Lodge and the snacks purchased at the Gift shop, Baskets would be fine for the next three day stretch to Twin Lakes. We charged our phones ate some snack bar food and headed off back to the trail which took us directly over the ski area and over several large and exposed ridge lines. Then we dropped down to several beautiful alpine lakes, one after another until crossing a fork of the Arkansas river where I waited for baskets.

When he caught up we decided to hike over Chalk Creek Pass which took us up a steep road past some abandoned cabins and under an enormous southern rock face. We made it over the pass as the sun set and with headlamps, hiked down a boggy basin to another lake with actively feeding fish at the inlet. This lead us down a road where we saw Situpchuck and Burkhardt, two German hikers, who offered to us to pick our tent nearby but there was no flat spot leftover. We walked another mile and a half and camped – now late and growing weary at 10pm – at a sufficient spot nearby a creek which was the outflow of the earlier lake above.

 

On day two (26 miles), we got a bit of a later start than usual, and hiked back up the road and up Tunnel Gulch, a historic railroad grade where conductors would haul full cars of coal around some of the steepest and curviest terrain ever. As fate would have it on occasion a train would go too fast around a corner…

This day called for climbs of 1,300 and 1,800 feet and four additional climbs totaling over 6000 feet of climbing and the day was beautiful and full of huge vistas including views of Mirror Lake but full of hard work. Approaching Cottonwood pass might have the hardest as we’d gone over and around about five large basins at that point. Windy and a bit of snow to navigate at the end it was late and I was hoping for camping but we were greeted with a featureless, concrete parking lot and lots of wind. We kept going, officially entering the West Collegiate Peaks and hiking another three miles past several people camping already. I eyes a spot above a small steam and Baskets called it 5-star… it was two great flat spots tucked into the trees and we made quick work and set up camp for the night.

Day three (31+ miles), was a beautiful walk downhill toward Texas Creek, our first big water crossing. We hiked for several hours across a large valley and passed the junction to Mirror Lakes. Next was a seven mile traverse to the South Illinois trail then headed up towards Lake Ann pass. We stopped for a short break before the climb and Situpchuck passed me, hauling ass with his headphones on and making good time. I spun  and took off toward him, attacking the 1800 feet or so we had left to climb. I passed another through hiker then a young local couple with a dog. With two switchbacks left I caught Situpchuck’s tail and surprised him when we reached the top. We then faced a very steep 100 foot section of snow that, had I kept my ice axe and not sent it to Salida, would have come in handy for a glissade. But I didn’t have it so I descended a set of steep, nerve racking steps left in the snow by previous hikers. I then watched Baskets descend while the couple who had the dog let the pooch run up and practically stand on his hind legs until finally corralling the mutt to give Baskets some room to concentrate.

Baskets descends steep snowfield at Lake Ann pass.

At the bottom we met and chatted with Situpchuck who had stopped for a snack. We hiked down mile after mile into a steep valley behind 14’ers, Huron Peak and Browns Peak and made a turn past an old mining town. Several miles later we turned up some of the steepest climbing I’d ever done and headed towards Hope Pass. 3000 feet and a lot of internal coaxing later, we reached the top and looked down towards Twin Lakes. Pushing on with the sun going down we descended from the pass nine miles down Willis Gulch towards the lake and Lake Creek. Exhausted, a few miles short of town we found a big oak tree – you heard that right, and plopped down a quick and dirty camp for the night.
Day four (17.3 miles nero), was a short walk over the bridge and Lake Creek, down the road two miles and two more to twin. We met Baskets friend Nope, reunited for the dirt time since hiking some of the Appalachian Trail a year before. We’d sweet talked the owner of Twin Lakes Lodge into selling us a continental breakfast – normally for guests only – and gorged ourselves accordingly. I resupplied for three days out of the selections at the local general store, then hit the BBQ cart in front of a small art gallery. After calling home, mom and dad, I hit the trail again about 2pm and hiked past 14’er Mt. Elbert about 16 miles more and stopped at a nice creek with a flat spot 100 yards above.

8 Miles over windy and windy ridgeine Drop under gondola Egg sandwich ad coffee Tom picks up heet, us, and shuttles to Lodge and back More food, charging 16.4 more miles starting w big climb from pass to 12550. Drop to lakes Wait for Baskets at fork of Arkansas Six miles over chalk creek pass to windy lake and down road by headlamp to find camp
Day 2 Late start Railroad grade and tunnel 1300, 1800, plus four more climbs 6000 feet North side snow 25.7 mileswalkimg to dusk again collegiate wilderness boundary five star camp, near catawampus and iceman
Day 3: 31+miles Start at mi 1122 Descend to Texas Creek hike five miles to junction with Mirror Lakes alt break, see swede Up Prospector gulch then 7 miles traverse until int with Illinois Trail and Lake Ann trail break, meet Ben couple passes, Situpchuck passes, I take off Pass Ben and catch up to Situpchuck at top Snow descent on steps Descend to lake and down S Fork of Clear creek. Passing Huron Trail we stayed on dirt road past old townsite. Continue on road past Ervin Peak and Mt Hope rejoin cdt via bushwhacked Up next pass -1100 feet in .7 mile past camp Up another 1500 to Hope pass down pass Baskets wants 30+ Descend all the way down willis gulch 3.5 left at bermuda triangle tril and camp
Day 4: 17.3 mile Nero mile down trail and two down road to town. Breakfast at Twin Lakes Inn and Saloon Resupply and relax BBQ joint Hike out one mile on road to CDT junction Chat with day hiker for a mile until Lily Pond Pass lots of Mt Albert summiteers Beautiful trail down to Halfmoon Rd to enter Mt Massive Wilderness More beautiful trail to camp by small stream.

Spring Creek Pass to Monarch Pass

Day one: 10.5 miles

After a hitch into Lake City I grabbed a bite to eat at Chillin and a bunk at the Raven’s Rest Hostel next door for the evening. While doing laundry I made a reservation at Climb, the best restaurant in the little town where I had a hiker budget meal of alfredo linguine with chicken and grilled vegetables and a glass of pino grigio.

The staff at Climb. Owner Jerry on right.

That night I met Man In Black, a retired schoolteacher from San Diego and his hiking partner Fly Fish, a very nice and funny writer from Munich, Germany. In the morning after resupply and errands I left town about noon and got a ride out of town by a local who dropped me off at an ideal intersection. After about 30 minutes an old couple picked me up and had other passengers: Black and Fly! We got dropped off at Spring Creek Pass and immediately hiked by a small fire that was ignited by lightening a few days before but extinguished quickly by local crews after only about 70 acres. We climbed 1,300 feet on the east shoulder of an ancient volcano and across a few miles of Snow Mesa when I ran into the same couple who I’d seen the day before getting dropped off at the pass, Scud and Esteh who were hiking the Colorado Trail. They were walking back to the pass as Esteh said she had elevation sickness.

Black and Fly eventually caught up and after a steep now crossing we decided to camp after 10.5 miles at a site marked on the map with good tent sites. During vamp time I learned from Black that Esteh had actually been overwhelmed by the hiking: the vastness of the peaks, steep trails, snow crossings… it had made her uncomfortable and she confided this in Black as she passed him earlier. This is understandable. The trail is high altitude and way up in the middle of nowhere. It’s quite daunting at times if you really stop to think about it. That night I didn’t sleep too well with a good bit of smoke settling in from the Santa Fe national forest fires and Durango fire combining into a thick blanket of respiratory discomfort. I’m looking forward to getting further north.

Day two: 23 miles

The day started with a hazy morning and a long steady climb before dropping to the highlight of the day, San Luis Pass, the confluence of four trails including the Creede Cutoff for those who decided to skip the San Juan’s and Wemnuche Wilderness.
Fly Fish related new terminology: the Bavarian Switchback. Essentially, a trail with no switchback a Bavarian Switchback is a long, steadily graded trail.

Strange pinnacles above the trail of Bavarian switchbacks.

They don’t build switchbacks in Bavaria apparently, and neither did those who lad out this section of the CDT as we scaled saddles of peaks of over 12,000 feet. We entered the La Garita wilderness and proceeded to descend elevation down Cochetopa Creek about 12 miles. Black and I approached our 1000th mile of hiking and as we passed several hydro-engineering masterpieces completed by the local beavers, we looked for a marker or piles of stones that might signify the moment. By 1000.9 miles Black stopped, disappointed, and began gathering sticks to construct our own monument.
Later on at a crossing of Cochetopa we met Too Much and Alex, a young couple from St. Louis. After a few more miles of flats walking we choose a spot to camp by the river. It was early and I enjoyed the company of Fly Fish and Man In Black that evening as we chatted and made dinner.

Fly Fish, another German hiker, has quite the sense of style!

Day three: 31 miles

On day three I packed camp and headed out earlier than Fly or Black and hiked up to a dry and muddy reservoir and around a small hill leaving Cochetopa Canyon for good. The trail climbed through several nice stands of aspen trees then out into broad rolling foothills. After stopping to dry my bag and have a snack I saw an antelope dart across the road then look back at another antelope in what seems to have been a communication of approval or confirmation. Black passed me and a few minutes later Fly came by and he and I hiked onward.
We stopped for water at Ant Creek which was a trickle. While resting, XC, Gusher, and Philly came along and we met them. XC hiked a few hundred miles of the PCT in 2016 with my pal in Seattle, Jeff (Mountainman) Brownscheidle, so I’d been expecting to meet him at some point. I hiked on for a steady pace a few more hours until 1pm and took a 40 minute lunch while Fly joined me. Another hour or so later we came up on Black who was resting at a creek right before the trail crossed over state highway 114. It was barely 3pm so I elected to make a big day out of this nicer walking and parted ways with Fly and Black at that creek while they would hike on just a few more miles and camp.
I gained the highway, hiked a quarter mile and then turned onto the trail which shared a road and climbed to the Lujan Creek trailhead. After a few more miles I reached a sign stating a summit trail and proceeded to walk along one, then a second and finally a third ridge line. While checking for cell service, Too Much and Alex passed by and while descending I caught up to and talked with them.

Too Much and Alex pass by new CDT signs.

We made it to a creek with camp sites but it was swarmed by bugs. XC, Gusher, and Philly arrived and we all had the same idea to hike another half mile to a flat meadow where they set up for the night on one side and I set up far away on the other.

Day four: 29 miles

I woke to another morning of light smoke , made coffee and ate granola then got hiking by 7am. After about an hour and a half of hiking I ran into Baskets who I hadn’t seen in a few weeks since Chama, NM. He was taking a break on a fallen log and we caught up for a few minutes and started hiking together.
Overall, the day was surprisingly easy with only two climbs over 1000 feet including Marshall Pass.

The smoke cleared and talking all day with Baskets made easy work of 29 miles. We camped in a saddle near Monarch Ridge and what would be the last good camping for eight miles – what we left to hike for the morning to get to Monarch Pass.

Day Five: 8 miles to Monarch (+17 later)

The morning and hiking went quickly, with just under eight miles to Monarch Pass we arrived before 10am hiking along a series of easy ridges and then down under the gondola that took people 800 feet up to the Continental Divide for a hefty fee.

 

We pulled into the Monarch Gift and General Store and ordered food from the snack bar. The gentleman at the register gave me a business card for Tom Syzek, a semi retired medical professional who kindly gives rides to CDT and CT hikers. Tom picked us up at the pass, drove me down to Monarch Lodge seven miles away so I could pick up my resupply box, and then drove back up to the pass. and dropped us off with a Snickers bar as a gift. Tom was also kind enough to pick up a can of HEET for me so i had fuel. We thanked him and headed off about 2pm to continue our “nero,” or near zero miles as the hiker term suggests… which turned out to be 17 more miles for a total of 25 on the day. Hardly a rest day, don’t you think?

Wolf Creek Pass to Spring Creek Pass (CO 149/Lake City)

After landing in Denver, sleeping in the airport, and then an hour and a half delay of my afternoon flight I finally made it to Alamosa where Peru was waiting for me after doing her weekly errands. We drove back to South Fork and after a stop at the Rainbow grocery I saw Radar (Peru’s partner), for the first time since leaving Lordsburg, NM back in mid April! She drove me to Wolf Creek Pass and dropped me off about 7:30pm. Twisted got dropped off about a half hour later after hitching up from Pagosa Springs. We decided to walk 10 minutes into a meadow and just camp for the night which allowed me to at least re-acclimate again since I spent a week at 1200 feet and now was back at 11,000.
In the morning we woke, crosses hwy 550 and headed onto the CDT. With views of Alberta Peak and the ski area my mind was reminiscing of great ski days in the 90’s, and after some climbing we entered the Weminuche wilderness, a moment I’d been anticipating for months, and something I’d been talking about with everyone since the beginning of the CDT. For me this was a feeling of homecoming. Spending 13 years and all of my 20’s in Durango, CO the San Juan mountains and the Weminuche wilderness we’re areas I’d explored, hiked, climbed and learned a lot of lessons. Little did I realize at that moment while standing next to that wilderness sign, now decades later, that I was about to learn some more.

We climbed through more dead forest damaged from beetle kill and passed Archuletta lake before ascending the west shoulder of Mount Hope at about 12,500 feet that afternoon. We climbed a broad and steep ridge and passed the rugged Sawtooth mountain and the Highline Trail spur before following a long ridge then climbing up around a massive rock walled valley above Beaver Creek for the next two miles.

The entire time a big , nameless peak loomed to the west and we started climbing the long lower shoulder which lured us into the shadowy and steep traverse. From a distance it looked like we would be crossing high and treacherous snow. I was concerned and charged upwards to examine more closely. When the sun dropped and I entered the dark reaches I was relieved to see the trail instead zig zagged up away from the snow. At the first of five switchbacks I stopped to wait for Twisted as he was about 15 minutes behind and watched him climb up the shoulder I’d just come from.

Though vaguely, I remembered this climb from hiking this section more than 20 years ago and when Twisted reached me we proceeded up an extremely narrow, wet and steep footpath. No trail maintenance here. No horse or even the most seasoned rider would ever attempt this. It would be one of many high-wire and skinny trails we’d experience in the Weminuche. At the third switchback we encountered ice and instead scaled the stone and mud as carefully as possible to reach the fourth switchback. This was even thinner tread and led to one more over crumbling rock and sloping trail. Twisted was in front and with full concentration reached the top of a magnificent ridge at over 12,800 feet and we towered above looking down at the West Fork of the San Juan River.

After walking a few hundred feet along the thin ridge the trail thankfully descended slowly across a west face and after a few more miles we reached Piedra Pass and made our night’s camp on a primitive and abandoned dirt road at about 11,400 feet. This first day back found us doing 21.5 miles.
In the morning we hiked below Piedra peak then along another ridge near 12,000 feet and east of Palomono Mountain. In our minds we knew that The Knife Edge, about 15 miles away from us to start the day, was the gateway to our continued journey through the San Juan’s and Weminuche Wilderness.
Before that came a majestic morning, and after passing Palomino we traversed below a long north facing ridge overlooking East Trout Creek, passing over more snow fields and then making our way up to and staying on a 12,000 foot ridge line for nearly six beautiful miles. The trail climbed right on top and we felt on top of the world, wind blasting us as we rounded northwest then north across the rocky talus edge, Middle Trout Creek basin below us.
Along the way we ran into and met Lately, a hiker in his 20’s from Edwards, CO. We would see him a few times here and there and when we wound up in a small basin at Cherokee lake about a mile before The Knife Edge we saw him filtering water and all chatted as we took a short break. Lately joined us as we climbed from the lake up a steep incline then around another basin as we saw the back of The Knife Edge approaching. We climbed a steep switchback and through a small keyhole and then we saw it. I think I could have thought to myself, “ I really don’t like what I see,” but said to everyone that we ought to all put our crampons in now. What I saw scared the hell out of me: a dozen snowfields crossings on a slope of at least 55-60 degrees of not a bit steeper.

After I converted to micro spikes and ice axe I quickly decided to dive right in, so to speak. The first foot placements were ok, parallel to the direction of the mountain. I sunk my axe in to the head and made another step. Each step that already existed in the snow from previous hikers made me nervous. I took my good, sweet, nervous time and reached the center of the 30 foot traverse when the risk that I was taking started to play out in my head. I refused to look at anything but the snow in front of me but that didn’t change the fact that if I were to slip I was going to fall to my death, and I was well aware of this. One failed foot placement or worse, something I couldn’t control, like the snow giving way to the beating sun and warm air, and there would be no way to self arrest a fall in time. In either of these two scenarios I would tumble off the cliff and with certainty, fall and die.
I turned to face the snow and began to softly kick steps a bit deeper into the snow as if I were Ice climbing. Lately, unwisely maneuvering behind me just a few steps, was being patient as I slowly talked through each axe placement, match of my feet, and reshaping each step. I neared the last five feet when my foot suddenly broke through the snow and I dropped two and a half feet, my right foot hitting rock below the broken snow and my ice axe now above my head, my fingers frozen from pressure against the snow and griping the axe for all I was worth. I quickly stepped on my left foot to raise my body up, took a long, reaching, and risky step far to my right to reach an existing step, then matched and lifted my axe out of the snow. Two more steps and I reached the end of the snow and found solid land. After another step I was completely on trail again.
Lately followed behind and during all this Twisted did he was instead going to try the lower route as he saw a sign suggesting their was one. I hollered back, “OK.”
After only a 50 foot stretch of trail we reached the next snow field, same steep angle and some lousy conditions. I looked at Lately and said, “How about you lead this one?” He said ok and passing by me and took his first then second step onto the snow. With both feet on snow he took his third step and with it, broke through the snow just as I had done, his axe now over his head. He backed off the snow and clinging to rock, climbed back onto the trail he’d just stepped off of moments ago. We both decided to stop crossing the snow fields and instead down climb the rock below which was equally as dangerous and carried the same consequence: slip, and a fall would kill us. It was our only way out.
Lately went first and on his hands and butt, wiggled his way through the crux, an eight to ten foot chute of steep rock and dirt. Once through he used his trekking poles to carefully pick his way down another 100 meters of very steep, loose terrain until the grade of the slope finally gave way a bit allowing him some relief from the stress. After he was clear I followed, taking twice the time to defend the chute, being exceptionally cautious, and twice as nervous as the younger hiker who’d I just watched descend this treacherous pile of rock and dirt.
As I worked my way down the chute I saw Twisted about 100 meters down and right, sitting on top of the lower route he had chosen to try instead of the insanity Lately and I had chosen. “I’m going to Creede!” he shouted at me. “I can’t cross this. There’s an ice chute.” I saw what was in front of him, the lower option with its own barrier, a short, 10 meter chute of snow that vaulted steeply over a clif. Slip on the crossing and there was nothing but air before hitting rock below. “Twisted, I can’t turn around,” I shouted back. “I know!” he replied. “I’m sorry,” were my last words to Twisted, and he shouted back, “It’s ok.”
With that I descended to the valley below and Twisted turned around and eventually hiked 22 miles back to the Creede cutoff which bypassed the entire San Juan mountains and Weminuche wilderness which I was about to hike alone for the next four days to Lake City. The lesson learned was that, for the last month and a half, I’d made decisions with a hiking partner. My decision to dive into tackling the extreme snow on The Knife Edge was based solely on my own desire to retrace my steps through the Weminuche wilderness from over twenty years ago disregarding the safety or risk tolerance off my hiking partner. As a result, I lost that hiking partner and would carry on solo.
The rest of that day however, Lately and I cross country hiked over to Trout Lake, and sitting above Williams Lake, decided to hike up the next mountain and down a ridge where we encountered a massive snow wall at high angle. Examining the situation, we chose to hike straight up a dry spot on this rock face about 800 feet and onto the mountain ridge to get around. Having used all my energy reserves and full of adrenaline from the The Knife Edge, I struggled to make this ridge climb and once at the top was completely exhausted. We spent the next 45 minutes picking our way down to a small saddle above Williams lake and after short debate on whether to keep hiking, decided to stop and camp.
In the morning I chatted with Lately who said he needed about 15 minutes before hiking. I took off towards the next mountain pass which looked like it might be holding difficult snow to cross but turned out to be manageable. I passed Chief Mountai, over Squaw Pass and through Little Squaw Creek then wound through a series of beautiful alpine lakes before climbing up to 12,200 feet, when I saw the fire.

I was headed right for this wild fire but since I was pretty familiar with the general area I figured it was south of Silverton and likely caused by the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. A bit nervous, I hiked on but the fire was looming in my mind. I hiked on over a 6 mile section of high alpine tundra past several pothole lakes before descending down Snowslide Canyon down to a massive meadow where the Lis Pinos River flows south and the Weminuche river flows north to Rio Grande Reservoir. I would find out later that Shadow, Mouse, Bear and Tuff Broad would hike down to the reservoir and cut off about 40 miles before getting to Silverton.

I hiked on and up Rincon La Vaca towards Rio Grand Pyramid, a mountain I would continue to see for days on end.

I climbed on and on as the sun started to go down behind the Pyramid and the Window, a 300 foot notch in the side of the mountain. I made it over the shoulder and down to Ute creek then hiked until dark and camped below Ute mountain after a 28 mile day.

On day four I woke to some rain with big, ominous clouds everywhere. I would chase the rain and snow all day, tempting my fate through the unpredictable San Juan weather.

I climbed past Twin Lakes, Ute Lake then West Ute Lake and up a soggy cliff side south of Mt. Nebo.

From Mt Nebo I climbed Hunchback Pass and passed an ultra runner at the op before I dropped to Beartown site. I crossed a big creek and started a climb towards a broad open section of about four miles that presented a big challenge to me 23 years ago when hiking the Colorado Trail. Gaining the top near 13,000 feet I looked to the west Needles Range and saw black sky’s and clouds filled with snow charging forward. I though about turning around and retreating to shelter as on top there is no where to go… four miles of open alpine shoulder, exposed with no trees, rocks, nothing. Like 23 years ago I went for it and the weather came in fast. Winds increased to 60-70 mph gusts and I hiked as fast as I ever have, literally running in some spots. Hail started blowing horizontally, forcing me to balance and rebalance with each step. The entire left side of my pack – facing the Needles range and where this hell-storm was blasting in from – was quickly covered in a shell of frozen hail. Pellets cracked against my rain hood, hands, and legs and I prayed no lightening would join in with the storm. It would be the second time in three days I was thinking how easily I could die, as the situation I found myself in was classic conditions for a freak lightening strike. I hauled my sorry ass up and over mile after mile. I was probably doing 15 minute/mike pace and finally, thankfully I began to drop toward Highland Mark Lakes. After another mile I made it to The Cunningham Gulch trailhead and decided to drop down 1200 feet and while I did the storm subsided. 45 minutes later at the bottom of the gulch it was sunny and calm.

In the morning I climbed 1200 feet back up to the CDT and headed towards Stony Pass. I made good time and it was a beautiful day. I went down the pass and onto the trail again taking the new route south around Canby Mountain and hammered my way over 13,000 feet towards Cuba Gulch. A few more miles took me along the shared CT/CDT route and Cataract Lake.

I took photos as I gained elevation and enjoyed a beautiful day. At 6pm I climbed to the highest point on the CT, at 13,271 feet and kept on going another 8 miles. The next day I hiked over Jarisa mesa over an ancient volcanic lava field. By bypassing Silverton my goal was to make it to Lake City and I hiked until 9:30pm after a 31 mile day in the San Juans to set myself up for an 8 mile day into Lake City. That made it a six day trip to Lake City and I made it to Spring Creek Pass by 10 am. I saw Bear Sweatz and Tuff Broad get dropped off, chatted then hitched to Lake City and stayed at the Ravens Rest Hostel.

Cumbres Pass, CO (Chama, NM) to Wolf Creek Pass (Pagosa Springs/South Fork)

This entry was written and posted live nearly a week after completing this section and is based off my daily notes. It’s dated for the actual days spent on the passage to keep consistent with the rest of the entries for the trail.

Leaving Chama proved difficult. Two rest days were spent to organize gear, resupply, and plan for alternate routes. Twisted had his ice axe delivered Thursday. I had real 12-point crampons delivered as well (Camp XLC 490), but found I’d have needed the high top version of the Altra Lone Peak shoe in order to accommodate the crampon’s high rear ankle bail which wound up pressing into my exposed heel. I sent them back that day. Twisted had new socks coming as well and he needed them – his feet nursing several blisters and hot spots. Surprisingly, we use the exact same shoe and I’ve had zero blisters the entire time.

Twisted’s FedEx didn’t come until 2pm. Tuff Broad and Bear Sweatz had already hitched to the pass early morning, and Shadow and Country Mouse left at 10am. I had a local friendly – Ralph – scheduled to pick us all up at 2:30pm, as Dirtbag, Constantine and Nimbles (minus Fifty), headed our with us.
Dropped off at the pass we walked to the trail head where we encountered England who had left town two days ago but was sitting at the trailhead looking a bit exhausted. He explained that he hiked up over 11,000 feet twice in the past two days only to get bad altitude sickness and come back down to 10,300 at the pass. We’d find out later that he’d go back to town and restart Saturday walking the entire Great Divide road alternate instead.
The younger guys stopped for a smoke break at the trailhead and this was the last time we’d see them on this section. We aimed to hike 12 miles to the other side of a moderate-looking mountain and call it a night. Twisted and I headed up several miles of gradual climbing over a few creeks and through high ponderosa pines as the trail took us west with continuous views of the ominous and snow-filled Banded Peak and Chama Peak in the distance.

Twisted was sure we were heading right over Banded but the trail turned north and took us past it where we encountered our first snow, a short and steep 20’ long section that I flew right over without using any snow tools. There were several more spots like this with far less risk but with a bit of post holing. It was nearly 7pm and the going was slow. When we stopped briefly at a creek for water we decided to be less ambitious with the night’s destination and after reaching a steep cliff side with snow to traverse we instead dropped below it to camp on a flat spot that had some snowmelt for water filtering and called it a night just short of 10 miles in.


In the morning we hiked up and past the snow traverse and passed a small lake 400’ below in a steep drainage. Walking along a ridge line we ascended the small mountain we’d been targeting the day before which took us along the top and along the edge of a steep drop off where lots of marmots squeaked away at us. Now in the San Juan Wilderness, for the better part of the morning we hiked along this moderate alpine tundra with tons of unofficial little lakes avoiding snow piles when the trail ran into them, stepping around, over and often into large puddles of snowmelt. Water was everywhere
Every.
Where.

Our feet were soaked and trying to keep them dry was futile. We scampered over rock, trail, and plenty of snow as the afternoon temperatures warmed the upper layers to a vanilla slush. We post-holed pretty much over every snow crossing, wishing out our to mother nature to let the snow hold our weight with each step…until…DAMN it…sinking a leg in up to our knee, or thigh, and in some cases hip deep! Luckily the terrain remained moderate and the views of the distant peaks we’re outstanding. After lunch and nearing the end of a long day we were following foot prints and debated who had made them. Focused on reaching Blue lake for the evening we wove our way through some trees and then did a short glissade down a steep slope and saw Rabbit and Leopard, the owner of those foot prints. Together, we trudged onward two more miles down a long valley then climbed up and then down to the frozen over Blue lake where the couple made a camp at the outlet and we found a good dryish high spot at a trail intersection nearby. Feet and legs soaked again, we camped and ate and decided to start the next day’s hiking at 6am to take advantage of the snow in a frozen state and hopefully make better time for a while.


I woke early; about 4:30am, and slowly made two coffees and had my granola. We left camp a few minutes after 6 and with our microspikes on made quick time around the west end of the lake. With everything frozen still we climbed a few switchbacks up and then made good time down a shallow valley only losing a bit of elevation as we crossed underneath a snowmelt lake that is the headwater for the Navajo River. We traversed west and climbed a skinny, wooded ridge line where we spotted an actual CDT marker! We hopped off the ridge and up some skinny switchbacks to gain another high treeless ridge line with lots of snow.

We came to our first real need for ice axes where we carefully crossed a 45 degree slope of snow that dropped off into a void some 200 feet below. We were able to get on some dry ground and descend a few hundred feet before getting in the snow again on less of an angle where we glissaded down another 200 feet of elevation. We stayed as high as we could and rounded over the Middle Fork of the Conejos River, then climbed straight up 500 feet to rejoin dry trail. 500 more feet later – on dry trail, then post holing through steep trees, then dry trail, then snow…we rounded the top in snow. This was the first of three major basins we would traverse this day and we were feeling good. The next snow traverse was long but a more moderate 35-40 degrees and I did this with just hiking poles. We made another high saddle where the North Fork Cutoff trail joined the CDT and it started to hail with some lightening off in the distance.

We quickly came to another really short but 55-60 degree steep crossing. I went first and made it 25 feet and I couldn’t sink the shaft of my axe down more than an inch or two. The snow was very solid and icy and this was a very dangerous crossing with only micro spikes. We dropped down below the ice about 60 feet and were able to cross, climbing back up to rejoin the trail and reached another saddle as it continued to hail and lightening. Another few long snow traverses on more moderate terrain (35-45 degrees) led closer to the Adams Fork of the Conejos River.

We picked up what we knew were Bear and Tuff’s foot prints as we descended to a skinny, steep ridge at 12,000’ to an impending 180 degree turn across a north face. When I reached a cairn marking the turn I saw no foot prints. I checked my GPS and was standing spot on where the turn should be. I peered over the edge and saw nothing below. I took a few steps and looked again, then again. What I saw was zero tracks and a 65 degree drop into no man’s land. “We’re not doing this! I see zero footprints. It’s deathly steep.” I shouted to Twisted. I retreated off the edge and looked around seeing no prints going in the direction of trail. Back the way we came I looked up the ridge we descended and saw no tracks going directly up the spine which would have been equally as insane to try as we confirmed on the topo map. Twisted looked west thinking people might have dropped down a bit further up the area we we’re standing. He didn’t see anything and I said I wouldn’t drop this ridge anyway. I was looking at bailing down the nose of the ridge we were on which looked less steep and we could get to the river, hike up a mile a rejoin the CDT from Adams Fork.
Twisted was all for this made-up alternate and we headed down cross country. This prooved to be a tiring and physical slog down steep snow, through dense trees and more postholing through what turned into a small chute. After about 40 minutes we made it out of the crud and to mellow ground. We took a break and I made us coffee. We debated our options and the bottom line was that I had a flight out of Denver in two and a half days and needed a day to get there from South Fork. Not knowing if we could make it up the base of Summit Peak and if we had to retreat again, how much time that might take I reluctantly suggested we hike down the Adams Fork trail to Platoro Lake and take the road alternate to South Fork. We did.

A three mike walk along the Adams Fork less us slowly down to the north end of Platoro Lake as it was nearing dark. We camped in a quiet meadow near the lake after chasing away some grazing deer and making dinner, a bit disappointed but safely resigned to our decision.

It rained hard a few hours later and I woke several times with the loud rumble of thunder cracking through the valley we’d descended earlier. Waking to a tent filled with frozen condensation, I rolled everything up with frozen fingers. We started hiking on day four at 6:30am heading down the road to the bottom of the lake and were treated to a beautiful sunrise. We caught glimpses of the town of Platoro as we rounded the bottom of the lake and passed smaller Mix Lake. We climbed up a rough dirt road to a pass then down a long stretch of road past Lookout, Sheephead, Iron, Prospect and Big Red Mountains – all with old and active mining activity and the heavy metals made the headwaters of the Alamosa River bright red with ore.

We saw Elwood pass in the distance and 13 miles from the bottom of the lake later we made it to the top of Elwood at about 3pm as bad weather set in.

Taking a photo, we noticed two hikers coming towards us from the direction of the CDT. We chatted with them and they had bailed at exactly the same place we did and went up Adams Fork to Summit Peak as we had planned. They took a break and we decided to get back on the main CDT and do the remaining 17 miles to Wolf Creek Pass – trying to get three or four in before we camped tonight. We made it a half mile over snow and down the trail as the sky broke into heavy hail and then lightening stuck nearby. We retreated near a group of short trees and got in the lightening position to wait out the charges. After a few close calls of lightening the hail turned to a snowstorm and after 45 minutes of waiting we decided that this second try wasn’t in the cards for us either. We hiked back to Elwood Pass and hiked down the road alternate as snow continued to come down for another hour and a half. Nearing 6pm and below 11,000’ the snow eased off and eventually stopped. With about 12 miles remaining to South Fork we ducked into the soggy woods to a small, flatish land island surrounded by trees and made camp.
The next day we started at our usual time and after a short rain the clouds cleared as we passed by idyllic parks – open, flat areas next to the Rio Grande River – where we wandered by campers in cars, trucks and trucks pulling fifth wheels.

As the sun dried us off we delayered and reached Hwy 17 before 11am where we hitched a ride into South Fork with a couple who was headed to their property east of Santa Fe, NM. We stopped by the liquor store and met the owner Joel who also owns a rafting and fishing guide company and learned how dire the snow and water situation was this season. He’d already laid off eleven employees and expected the river to drop precipitously in two weeks leaving a fragment of business for May but worse, creating major fire danger that everyone was bracing for…

We ate at Feelin Good Cafe – very nice folks but the food is very average – and wound up staying at the Four Seasons before I headed off to Denver then Pittsburgh to see my father. Twisted got together with Mouse, Shadow, Tuff Broad and Bear Sweatz and rented an AirBNB for six days in Pagosa. Everyone had had enough post holing and death chutes to last a while and decided to let the incoming warm weather to melt off more snow. Those four actually managed to stay on the CDT, taking several risks they would later admit they probably shouldn’t have. But they made it, and we were proud and a little bit envious of them.

We all get back on the trail on May 30 or 31st on our way from Wolf Creek Pass through the Weninuche Wilderness to Silverton, CO. As luck would have it we’ll probably all wind up close by one another soon.

Ghost Ranch to Chama, NM

After a restless nights sleep on the floor in the crowded  Ghost Ranch room, I woke and took my gear quietly out the door so as not to wake anyone. Twisted heard me and joined me outside where we walked to the visitor center, got water made coffee and ate some food. A few other hikers joined us to use the wi-fi . We said our goodbyes and were hiking by 7 am.

The cliffs hiking out of Ghost Ranch reminded me (once again), of Moab, Utah, and my rock climbing and big-wall days.
Sweat lodges above Ghost Ranch.

We walked the road north out of the ranch through some established trails past a few more buildings and up a hill where we saw some old sweat lodges (probably from the O’Keefe property), preserved for posterity. We hiked through and over a small steam and ascended a beautiful canyon with steep rock walls surrounding us. If I didn’t know any better I’d have again thought we were in Utah. After four miles we began to top out on the mesa and follow dirt roads. At six miles we stopped for a short break at Yeso Tank, another earthen cattle tank.

Twisted navigates through aspen deadfall on our long day one out of Ghost Ranch.

After Yeso Tank another two miles of uphill grade followed. To our left appeared a cairn marking a short and steep x-country section that led to a broad ridge and a view of the Sangre De Cristos. Following this we ate lunch then continued for miles to Harris Bear Spring and took another break at 15 miles down.

The trail and terrain were beautiful at this point: massive stands of aspen among high, rolling terrain. Perfect elk habitat and we saw several small groups of elk over the corse of the day. The trail followed primaries road and single track over the next few miles and we slowly made it way toward Canjilon lakes which turned out to be a long abandoned lake with a lone concrete picnic table. Before reaching the lake however, the trail woke up and down through more alpine plains and aspen the climbed up and through a long section of trees dead from beetle kill and dozens of downed trees. Our pace was slower and the hiking was beer physical. Nearing the lake we saw England a hike from… England. Reach the lake we set up camp and watched two migrating waterfowl doing aerial fly bus. England joined is at the lake for dinner and we all cooked while watching small trout feed on the lake surface. Another spectacular sunset followed and I made hot chocolate mixed with Crown Royal (thanks Julie!) and we all headed off to sleep.

England and Twisted at upper Canijilo Lake.

After a 22 degree temperature overnight we lazily woke ad look our time with our morning routine. Still, we managed to start hiking by 7:30 am. The trail went behind upper Canjilon lake, through a dense wooded area and past many small spring runoff streams. We followed Canjilon creek for a several miles through the cool morning with a constant cool breeze. I can tell already the Colorado weather is upon us and was very pleased that I added a Patagonia Nano Air Light vest to my clothing system (and subtracted the Patagonia R1 pullover now that I also have my Feathered Friends down hooded jacket). Hiking gets you sweating but the constant wind keeps your core chilled so tactful layering is a must.

After hiking over a small ridge we had a brief view of the Sangre De Cristos to the east and a hazy view of the San Juans to the north, then dropped into thick forrest again: Douglas Fir and Western Hemlocks primarily. This would continue through most of the day. After 10 miles we took a break at Canjada Jarosita and grabbed water. After a few more trail miles and primitive road connections through some nice small valleys we dropped to Rio Vallecitos where we had to cross over a large downed tree and then took lunch.
I was feeling rather sluggish up to this point but was energized when we hit the trail again at 2pm. Channeling my inner Righteous/Kirby/Per – the three hikers I spent a week or so with on the Arizona Trail last fall, I set off on a fairly strong pace and hiked straight through for the next three hours with no breaks. Climbing a hillside after Rock Creek, I passed Twisted at a cattle pond and continued up a long winding hill for a mile which then turned into steep switchbacks up and past Burned Mountain. Through intimate meadows I hiked and I was looking for Elk in this ideal ground, purposefully without music or and distraction so I could spot some but I never did. After two hours of ridge walking I came upon a something that sounded like music and approached an enormous group of 5-6 big trucks, 5th wheels and ATV trailers. I waved and walked right passed. At 5 Instopped at a junction to wait for Twisted but after 15 minutes it began to shower and I picked up and moved on. One and a half miles later I made it to Hopewell Lake and waited for Twisted at a camp spot but he never showed. I tried several water spigots but they were all still off for the season and decided to defend to the lake where I got water and wires out another shower while watching locals manhandle the stocked trout they fished for in the lake. I climbed back to the campground and still no Twisted. I approach some car campers who said he’d been looking for me so I tried another direction. Finally, a good hour and a half after each of us arrived, we ran into each other, laughed at ourselves for looking for each other walking in circles then made our dinners and camped.

We finally located each other after being in the same area by Hopewell Lake and were treated to another great sunset.

In the morning the rising sun in the east touched our camp spot early and we were up and hiking at 6:30 am. Twisted needed water so he headed to the lake. I exited the campground onto NM highway 64 for a half a mile then rejoined the CDT headed northwest and waited for him to catch up. I watched a coyote walking across the headwaters of the lake, cross under a fence, cross the highway and head up in the direction of the trail. I watched two fisherman in a canoe glide across the lake with the early morning sun.

The first part of the trail ascended up to a nice open valley and we could see small rock outcroppings near the top of where we were heading. Walking a 4×4 road the trail skirted past these high points of Jawbone Mountain but climbed higher to join a higher valley via another toad closed to motorized use. We walked over muddy sections and chatted as a few snow patches began to show and we jiggled closer to 10,000 feet. After a few miles the trail descend to a small earthen cattle tank filled with snowmelt but it also drained out the bottom end and the water was. good for filtering. We took a lunch break and headed on down another small drainage and another cattle tank and past an intermittent creek just below 10,000 feet.

A bear paw track preserved in the frozen mud.

We the. dropped elevation down toward Rio San Antonio with Olguin Mesa above us. We missed a turn gazing at this gorgeous terrain but quickly found trail again and started a long climb with a breathtaking view of all the uppermost headwaters of Rio San Antionio. We walked two miles on the edge of cliffs with a hard cold wind blasting us all the way but the view was worth the price!

Not even this panorama does the view justice from the windy ridge down to the Rio San Antonio head waters.

Gaining the top the trail headed north and the wind died as we entered thick wooded area. I stopped to look at an old shoe insert someone had discarded on the trail. When I looked up again a mid sized elk started right back, then bounded away into the woods. We dropped to another small drainage and took a water and snack break then started climbing again.

Every mile in the Carson National Forest looked more like Colorado.

After a while we reached a road and walked this to lower Lagunitas then upper Lagunitas campground surrounded by several small lakes. The campground toad was closed so it was just Twisted and I the. suddenly at the uppermost lake we ran into Isabella, a young student from Bavaria who we’d originally met in Pie Town and tried to talk with several times when encountering her on the trail. We all sort of just sat in silence while filtering water and when I was finished I said, “Isabella, you’re a very good hiker.” At this she smiled and nodded. Twisted then asked he a few questions and she responded this time as they had a short chat.

After this we ascended above the campground and climbed over four more miles up over 10,000’feet and through a dense forest with lots of dead downed trees to navigate. We crossed an old dirt road and took it instead for a mile into a high alpine flat near 11,000 feet where we had our dirt clear views of the south San Juan mountains we were heading toward in the next stretch. Opting to duck into a small stand of pines to get out of the wind we made camp, cooked while sitting in the remaining sun and then hit the sack.

The morning of day four started at our usual time: up at 5-ish and on the trail by 6:30 am. The overnight temperature had not been nearly as bad as we’d expected at only 38 degrees and this was due to taking cover in the dense tree stand that we encountered. I took a few beautiful shots of the sunrise as we finally had our first clear view towards the South San Juan’s and Colorado!

Looking east at sunrise near Brazos Ridge. The Sangre De Cristos in the background.
Panorama of same area. The South San Juan’s appearing at far left (hard to see).

The trail took us over Brazos Ridge right at 11,000 feet and a view east into the Brazos Wilderness area. With only about 14 miles to go at this point, we dropped down into another gorgeous valley where we crossed a stream and gathered water. We passed another earthen cattle tank  and then a long, slow climb up a broad basin and past Yonderland ranch and through a gate past the top. We stopped at another small stream where England passed us by, then proceeded down to the headwaters of the Brazos river and (you guessed it), back up again.

We entered another large wooded area over 10,000 feet heavily damaged by beetle kill with a lot of downed trees and patches of snow. We carefully, and slowly wound up and down this section as we’d lose the trail, find it again, follow the wrong footsteps and find our own way all in the course of the late morning. Finally, we reached a logging road and walked that for two miles to avoid another dense wooded section. We reached a rusted, fallen barbed wire gate and saw the sign to Rio Grande National Forest. This was the border between Colorado where the Carson National Forest ended in New Mexico and the Rio Grand began in Colorado! We took a photo and signed the “register:” a Kraft Parmesean Cheese can with notebook paper stuffed inside. It was sweet to reach Colorado on my 47th birthday!

Steel made it to Colorado. Now age 47.

This energized us and with three miles to highway 17 we picked up the pace hiking over some muddy sections of trail damaged by elk, some snow patches and along a rocky ridge where the wind blew hard: 50 miles an hour hard! I leaned in and at times it blew me off step as we watched the highway get closer and the pass and station where the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad stops. Once out of the wind we dropped down switchbacks to the highway and walked up 1/8 of a mile to the pass and began to hitchhike with no luck on the first 5-6 cars passing by.

After 30 minutes England and Isabella showed up and stood directly beside us. After 50 minutes we were picked up by a couple in a big truck with a child up front and a dog in a crate in the rear. The three boys piled in the back with the packs and Isabella rode in the crew cab. We were dropped off at the Chama post office, gathered packages and went straight to Fosters for a burger.

As we walked south towards the Y Motel we ran into another bubble of hikers who’d arrived either that day or the day before and introduced ourselves. They were getting drinks and beer but we wanted showers, food, and a bed. After an entertaining conversation with the motel owner I learned it was also her husband’s birthday. We paid for two nights and headed to our room.

Patrons at the High Country Saloon, where we ate dinner after reaching Chama.

Life Happens. A Break From the CDT.

This is a public blog and Iv’e purposefully held back on some personal thoughts and opinions as I’ve been writing up to this point. However, I’m going to share a bit of the things that simply happen in life with all who may be reading…

The next day in Chama, our first of two rest days, I caught up with a family member and learned that their health had taken a turn for the worse. They’ve been recovering from cancer surgery and recently recovering from a double pneumonia. They’ve made a really encouraging recovery, but I’ve decided to hike the next section from Cumbres Pass to Wolf Creek Pass and then make my way to Denver to visit family from 5/24 and get back to Denver on 5/29. Then I’ll make my way back to Wolf Creek Pass and continue my thru hike of the CDT.

In terms of the trail and the people I’ve been hiking with and around for the past 36 days… it’s going to be hard to step away and into an airport so suddenly. It will also be hard to say goodbye. But, life happens, and while I’ve spent my entire adult life a bit nomadically – rarely going back home to visit friends and family – it’s important to do. I also credit and thank my wife Julia for she is very close with her family and extended family. I’ve learned from her and reprioritized to spend time with what little bit of family I do have. While these awesome folks I’ve met on the trail will be moving forward, the trail isn’t going anywhere and I will be back on it very soon. In fact, I’ll probably hike like hell to catch back up with them once I do return!

I’ll keep adding blog posts during this part of my trip as I feel that this travel is just as much part of my journey on my CDT thru-hike as the actual miles on the trail.

As I type this, I’m a few minutes away from a ride back up to Cumbres Pass to hike the next stretch!

We’ll talk again soon.

~Steel

 

Cuba to Ghost Ranch, NM

I rose early at the Cuba motel – 5:30 am – which has become par for the course for me so far on the trail, or any day really. I grabbed the items I needed for errands and snuck quietly out of the door at 6 am and headed back to the Cuban Cafe for a Breakfast Pig Out, Round Two. I checked in with calls to mom and had a long conversation with my wife Julie. I picked up some mother’s day cards from Mickey’s Save Way and filled them out while at the diner, then went to the Post Office and the Family Dollar after breakfast.

Back at the hotel Twisted and I packed up and then hung out one last time with Shadow and Country Mouse while they worked on some gear repair. Before leaving, we stuffed our faces again, this time at Subway, and then Twisted walked back to McDonalds to pick up some cheeseburgers (thru-hikers tend to love this, but… gross)!

We walked out of town then east four miles up a county road  to the San Pedro Parks  trail head and stopped at water at a creek. From the creek the trail was a sustained climb through dense woods of Doug Fir and higher up some aspen stands to a ridge. Reading the terrain and seeing how the snow runoff was affecting the small water runs off the mountain I took a calculated risk that there would be water at the top of the climb at the top elevation of 10,500 feet or so. After gaining the top and heading north at an intersection I stopped in one of the beautiful open “parks” or broad flat spots that elk, deer and other animals tend to gather. There I spotted four elk and watched them before they picked up my scent and thundered away into the woods. We hiked another two miles and camped over 10,000 feet after getting water at a snowmelt stream near the top of San Pedro Parks Wilderness.

After a 38 degree overnight we headed out on day two and descended quickly through a dense north facing stand of trees damaged heavily by beetle kill. Windfallen trees were everywhere and we were glad to be hiking downhill as we climbed over one after another. We made it 8+ miles down to a small seasonal creek and grabbed water and a break. After this I ascended fairly rapidly up a short climb and cruised through a long stand of lodgepole pine and douglas fir for six miles over relatively easy terrain. I crossed NM hwy 93 where a 3 mile climb began up Chaco canyon. Layers of different sandstone strata revealed itself as the climbing gained in steepness. It was mid afternoon and hot sun was burning down on me. I stopped every 20 minutes or so to drink and stand in shade for about a minute or two at a time. Near the top the climb was even steeper requiring me to pump my arms to keep in sync with my climbing legs – each step I thought, like a quad squat from some trendy new workout.

The line between survival and death is a fine one for wild life in the high desert. This elk skeleton also shows the course of nature in keeping the balance for all life.
Climbing up Chaco Canyon.

After topping out at Mesa del Camino, I headed toward Fuertes Spring and passed Isabella who seemed to be checking her water situation on the side of the trail. I waved as I passed and walked two miles to a beautiful spring trough where I ran into England, a hiker I’d met back in Pie Town who was taking a break. Sitting down for lunch I watched dozens of different birds come to drink water at the spring. As if reading my mind, England said, “If I knew anything about birds this would be a fantastic spot to watch them.” Small creatures of orange, yellow, green and blue stripes fluttered from the surrounding oak trees and dipped into or bathed their tiny heads in the trough and the puddles formed on the ground. About 25 minutes later Twisted arrived and joined our shady spot.

I started hiking again and after a short, steep climb up to Mesa Coral the trail followed some old dirt roads through an area that had fire damage. A fairly steep decent down multiple switchbacks led to a beautiful small stream in a sandy-bottomed wash. At a nice camp spot I saw Isabella once again, filtering water and I passed by her and England as I wound down hill towards the Chama river and alongside – but not actually in – the Chama Canyon Wilderness Area. This took the rest of the afternoon and I reached the river about 6pm. We’d thought there was a campground nearby but after checking further it was two miles west – the opposite direction. I gathered water and hung out at the other side of a bridge to wait for Twisted. Isabella passed and found camp, then England did the same. Once Twisted arrived we found a small flat spot near the river and after making our dinners it was getting dark. About the time we were ready to turn in, I heard Twisted say, “Nimbles,” and a bit caught off guard I saw the outline of his funny sun hat and his slender frame approach. He camped with us and said the rest of his group was likely hanging back a bit, camping earlier.

Panorama of the Chama River as I hiked the road towards Ghost Ranch.

In the morning of day three, with about 12 miles to reach Ghost Town we headed off on the dirt and gravel road. More great views of the canyon led about 4-5 miles down the road when I decided to look at my map and found I’d missed a cut off. Twisted took the cut off which led him cross-country with no trail over a small hill and through some brushy terrain. I decided to stay on the dirt road which then led to a two mile highway walk. We were both headed towards the same spot and his shortcut brought him to the same spot I stopped at the exact same time… not much of a short cut! This alternate route we were taking then led us to go over a barrier of a closed USA Conservation Service Range Management Demonstration area. I’d never seen or heard of such a facility and it looked like the funding was pulled and the area abandoned. We clumsily found trail along a fence line which led to an old cable and wood slatted bridge which we crossed – and terrified Twisted a bit. I laughed as I took a short video with my phone of him crossing.

Nimbles caught up and we walked cross country again then to a road which led us to Ghost Ranch. Settled in the late 1700’s by the Archuletta brothers who smuggled cattle through streams, they liked the isolation in the deep, remote canyon. As the story goes, the land was then won in a poker game and the wife of the winner named the area Ghost Ranch and established more structures there around 1928 and the ranch was sold to Arthur Pack in 1935. Aging, he reached out to conservation groups, education centers, etc and the land was established for that purpose. Artist Georgia Okeefe was intrigued by this outreach as well and a portion of the land was sold to her, inspiring some of her artwork. The ranch is now a retreat and educational center run by a Presbyterian group. It’s a beautiful place to visit and rich with history. I’d recommend a visit!

The conference center at Ghost Ranch with the dining hall (center) in the background of the amazing surrounding cliffs.
Nimbles, a history major, checks out the Ghost House at Ghost Ranch.
One of the guest houses at Ghost Ranch. There were dozens of different structures, bunkhouses, cottages, and rooms to stay at in Ghost Ranch.

We arrived at 10:30 am and had lunch in the cafeteria, [picked up our resupply boxes which we’d sent there, and hung out near the visitor center where we saw the rest of Nimble’s hiker group – they’d hitchhiked the dirt and highway roads to Ghost Ranch and beaten us there, obviously 😉 I worked on my blogs and planned on hiking out that day, but time ticked by. Eventually, Twisted and I wound up getting dinner in the cafeteria (beef stew with an awesome Hatch chile!), sharing a room with Nimble’s, 50, DB, and Constantine. Six hikers packed in a dorm style room… I didn’t sleep well and neither did Twisted. We would wind up skipping breakfast and hiking out the next day early…

This is what the hiking up and out of Ghost Ranch looked like the next morning as we headed towards the Colorado border. As soon as we reached the top of these cliffs, everything changed…!

 

 

Grants to Cuba, NM

Leaving the Sands motel from Grants we walked towards the next section of trail and stopped at a local coffee spot The CoCo Bean cafe, which, oddly was out of espresso beans. What kind of coffee shop runs out of espresso beans?

More fantastic signage in the old uranium mining town of Grants.

Passing a church a very kind woman on her way inside waved to me insisting that I come in. I explained that I had water and food after resupplying but she insisted I come in. So I did. We chatted for a few moments and she explained that as a “trail town” they were supposed to be friendly to hikers and offer any help. All this was very charming and I explained that while I was all set to head out of town I would tell others that the church offered help 🙂

(L-R) Bear Sweatz, Tuff Broad, Shadow, Country Mouse, and Twisted.

Twisted, Shadow, Mouse and I caught up with Bear Sweatz and Tuff Broad on the road walk out of town and the six of us ambled up the highway past the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility and then off to the right was the trail head. After a few minute break we climbed up nice trail  to the top of a broad mesa where a brass bell was attached to a trail marker.  After a long walk across the mesa we climbed gradually and all met up again a few hours later at a cattle trough that was recently turned on and filled.  We passed another water cache maintained by Carol Mumm and proceeded up the Mt Taylor summit alternate – a 3000’ climb over 3 miles to the peak. Twisted and I made it up first and were joined by Bear and Tuff about 25 minutes later.  Getting late, we hiked down the north side one more mile where we had a view of the fire tower and communications equipment used by the forest service on another peak. We’d done 21 miles so we called it good and camped under some trees nearby. We’d found out later that Shadow and Mouse camped near the water cache and would climb Mt. Taylor the next morning.

CDT marker and bell at the beginning of Gooseberry trail, heading towards Mt. Taylor.
Twisted near the top of Mt. Taylor summit looking southeast.
Our first steps over 10,000 and 11,000 feet on the CDT lead to the summit of Mt. Taylor.

The next day we hiked up near and around the fire tower and communications gear and slowly descended via a series of dirt roads and made our way to excellent water and took a short break with Bear and Tuff at American Canyon Spring. More road walking led us further down the mountain where we joined a short stretch of trail and stopped for a good hour and a half break at a giant tractor tire filled with water. Tuff and Bear joined us and as we were leaving Shadow and Mouse joined everyone at the tire. 13 more miles of hiking over mostly rough road littered with volcanic rock led us past a series of ancient volcanic cones.  After more than 26 miles on the day we did a dry camp leaving us four miles from water in the morning.

In the morning we hiked the four miles to a trail junction then hiked about a half mile off trail down a canyon and old mining road to another spring. Once again Bear joined us shortly after arriving and we chatted while filling water and eating a snack. Hiking back up we passed “the kids:” Nimbles, Dirt Bag, and 50, now joined by a forth hiker named Constantine. We all fist-bumped as we passed. They dropped down the water and Twisted and I rejoined the trail which was a nice stretch through a recently manicured section of juniper and small oaks. We hiked through an eerie stretch of fire damaged forest and took a break where a solo local hiker who was out doing her geo-cache thingy and stopped to chat with us. Missing my dog Buddy, I was less interested in her chatter than I was  getting some dog-love from her pooch as I let the very thirsty mutt lick my face for salt! Another section of nice trail led us to the edge of the giant mesa we’d been hiking, and a broad view opened up before us filled with more odd volcanic cone shapes but now, colored cliffs, arroyos and new landscape. I dropped the two miles  to the valley floor and came to (you guessed it by now, right?), another dirt road and an intersection to a concrete cattle trough filled with good water. I filled up but still didn’t see Twisted who, not fully accustomed to high desert heat and hiking,  tends to take more breaks in the heat of the day than I do. I walked back to the road and sat under a tree. After a few minutes he caught up and headed to the water. I dozed off in the 90+ degree weather, protected in just a bit of shade. Bear and Tuff Broad passed about 20 minutes later and after Twisted rejoined, he partook in the shade break as well.

Deep arroyos cut by massive water events.

We headed out on well marked trail up and down a few deep arroyos – huge “canyons” of sand, if you will, cut by dramatic water events. We saw yet another series of trail markings: wooden stakes sharpened at the top and painted white. With each passing mile of New Mexico I marvel at the diversity of the landscape and the randomness of the way the trail is marked. Or not. Dropping into a giant sandy wash, we climbed up the other side and the land changed again, this time transforming into a series of odd sandstone shapes marked by rock cairns. Getting late, we hiked along a fence line for several miles and ducked around a fence, then climbed a short, steep cliff side up to a rock shelf perched just below a higher cliff wall. This area offered up a fantastic view of where we’d just come from along with several enormous buttes of rock. We decided we had to stop here and camp for the night and we both admitted this was the first kick-ass camp spot we had. Now in territory I was more familiar with (in a broad sense), I pointed out the Sandia mountains and the glow of Albuquerque to the south east as we were treated to a beautiful sunset. Coyotes howled away in their frenzied feeding craziness as they snacked on the abundant rabbits scattered in the valley below us.

Sunset from our shelf campground. The Sandia mountains can be seen on the horizon on the far right.
Sunrise from the same shelf camp.

Camping on the cliff shelf was another dry night. What I mean by this is we didn’t camp directly next to a water source, so before we camp for the night we have to consider how much we’ll need to cook and drink for the night, but also how far the water source will be the next day and how much extra water to have for that morning stretch. With six miles to go in the morning to reach water, we set off early again. I tend to not need a whole lot of water in these situations when we’re within 5-10 miles of water as the temperatures are cool and we can hike 10 miles by 10 am if necessary. So with six miles to water I had a little less than one liter. Sounds scary to most, but water needs are personal and water management is a skill acquired with thousands of miles of trail hiking. I’m also well versed in high desert travel living in the Four Corners for nearly 15 years.

50 pauses to take a photo looking towards Cerro Cochino.

Twisted was hiking a bit in front of me and I stopped briefly and was caught by 50. I learned that he is also from Seattle and we had a nice chat over a few miles until we reached a surprise water cache from the Trujillo family who live in Cuba, NM. Nimbles, Constantine and Dirt Bag joined shortly thereafter and we enjoyed bottled water, sodas, snacks, apples and more. They also set up a solar shower, complete with a wooden palate to stand on to keep your feet off the sand! This was Twisted and I’s first true Trail Magic – unexpected help, food, water, etc. from complete strangers. The Trujillo’s had a trail journal that we all signed and we learned that they stop by and restock things every 4-5 days or so. We’d also learned that Micky, the owner of the Save-Way supermarket in Cuba and whom we’d meet later, donates considerably to the resources at this surprise cache.

(L-R) Twisted, 50 and Nimbles (in shade) and Constantine enjoy the Trujillo cache.

Moving along once more we came upon the water source we’d been expecting, which was a large metal tank completely dry. I found a spigot with a hose attached and found when turned on, water came up from the well. I reattached the hose which led to a float valve in the tank when I saw one of the cows that were standing nearby wander up to the tank. I could tell she was a nursing mother by how full her udders looked. She looked at me and I could tell what she was thinking: WATER. I jiggered with everything and turned on the water, hoping I was doing the right thing by beginning to fill this dry tank. I checked my resources about this source and found that the tank was full a week before. I guessed that someone had accidentally, or without much thought, turned off the water leaving the tank water to be drank by the cows and the remainder evaporated from the heat. Slowly filling, the mother eyed the water and Twisted and I, joined now by Nimbles, backed away to give her room. She arched her neck and reached into the tank, scooping up mouthfuls of water. We walked away as other cows joined her in quenching their thirst. A quarter mile later I noticed a water main and lifted a metal cover to see a valve below. I guessed that the rancher leaves the water off in the winter, turning it on again in the spring/summer to keep the tank full for the cattle.

Another wild landscape opened up over the next several miles with shelves of sandstone, reminding me of the slickrock of Moab, Utah. Hiking along with Constantine and Nimbles we covered a lot of ground before dropped to a spring hidden in an alcove with a small Pueblo-era ruin nearby. After another break Twisted and I set off again cross a broad flat a few miles long before a hard, physical climb 500 feet up a wild cliff line of very soft rock and hardened mud formations (can you tell I gave up on my geology major while in college!).

Blooming cactus contrasts with Deadman peak.

We topped out at 7pm, took a five minute break and walked along this high mesa with another incredible view. We stopped after a few minutes and another pristine camp spot with another fantastic view. The mileage on this day put us nine miles from the town of Cuba, and we would camp talking about the eggs, bacon, french toast and coffee we would gorge immediately upon arriving in town. That we did. Shortly after 6 am we were hiking again, hit the highway after a few miles on dirt road, put music on and earbuds in and walked like hell. Reaching the Cuban Cafe, I stopped to take photos I had passed dozens of times over 20 years ago.

View this post on Instagram

CDT resupply in Cuba, NM… Ya know, I’ve got tons of pretty photos of mountains, arroyos, mesas, buttes, sandstone oddities, etc., but the signs, places, and people I’ve met along the way tell another story of the trail. Mickey, owner of the Save-Way, folks at the USPS, the Trujillo family’s water cache… The CDT just wouldn’t be the same without all of this as well – not to mention all the hikers I’ve met as well! I hope I can do everyone justice as I post along…More to come later today here, and at… jasonrepko.com . . . . #continentaldividetrail2018 #cdt2018 #continentaldividetrail #cdtcoalition #thruhike #backpacking #backpackersbistro #featheredfriends1972 #zpacks #hyperlite_mountain_gear #patagoniaballard #patagoniaseattle #thetrek #thruhikesyndicate #optoutside #wildernessculture #ultralightbackpacking #at #appalachiantrail #pct #pacificcresttrail #cdt #embracethebrutality #ultralight #ultralightbackpacking #wanderlust #withguthook #blackdiamondequipment

A post shared by Jason “Steel” Repko (@jasonrepko) on

After filling up – and some complimentary ice cream from our waitress – we stopped at the Del Prado Motel which was another old flop, but had what we required in terms of two beds and a clean bathroom – and a good price tag! The young crew showed up an hour later, Tuff and Bear after that, and Shadow and Mouse a few hours later. We socialized, ran errands, and took some well earned rest and discussed the next stretch to Ghost Ranch, then Chama. With Colorado closer and closer, there are some nerves in the air talking about snow, the San Juan mountains, what snow gear to bring and what to expect. Many folks are looking at social media where a lot of chatter about conditions. A small handful of hikers are hitting the mountains now, and there is some feedback available – but little clarity. With everyone knowing that I’ve lived and played for years in the San Juans, I’ve been cautiously answering everyone’s questions about what to expect. I feel prepared myself, but mountains are what they are: unpredictable, always changing, filled with risk. As we all consider what’s coming soon, I remind myself of all of this and prepare to respect what lies ahead.

A bleached earless lizard perches on a rock.
Our second pristine camp spot. One night before reaching Cuba.
Morning sunrise, descending town our last stretch before Cuba.
These were the final steps on trail that would lead us to the highway and a four mile pavement walk into Cuba.