Walking the Colorado Trail July/Aug 2014 -Lake City to Durango

2000 live sheep and 2000 dead trees

Day 27

From Spring Creek trailhead it was easy walking across the mesa. I had forgotten how high I was and wasn't worrying about storms as I usually did in such exposed places and no storm came. The path was easy to follow though it did divide at one point though the two tracks rejoined further along.
We would slowly rise to over 12000' before dropping down a bit to a marshy valley with a dubious water supply. Here were the first sheep I had seen since leaving England but it was the biggest flock of sheep I had ever seen. This made us concerned about the quality of the water. Although the valley was marshy the stream was down to a trickle and obtaining a useful quantity of water was difficult.


Sheep guard dog

Nearby was a Yurt being occupied by a number of hikers. I think about three different groups had arrived at this spot. Some stayed inside the yurt and others including myself camped outside. The Shepard guarding the sheet came over for conversation. He was Peruvian and spoke little English though some of the hikers had a little Spanish. He worked on horseback and had at least two dogs with him. He told us there were about 2000 sheep in the flock and he was employed to look after them through the summer. He kept them in a tight group rather than let them wander.

One of his dogs was a traditional collie sheepdog but another was very similar to the patou dogs I had seen in the Alps. These are not herding dogs but rather quite fierce guard dogs. Not to be messed with, these dogs can't be intimidated. The next morning this dog came charging over towards us at the first sign of life from the tents. Fortunately it didn't eat any of us. I knew not to antagonise it by trying to scare it away or offering resistance. The best strategy is to try to ignore them to reassure them you are not a threat.

Day 28

Today we started walking through dead woodland with an almost continuous incline for the first seven miles taking us above 13000' to the highest point on the Colorado Trail (13,400'). I had gone ahead of Ted though we would hook up later. I was overtaken by a section hiker who had recently returned from Ireland. He was a teacher in a college in Denver teaching 'entrepreneurialism'. Ireland apparently provided a useful field study. He explained to me that one of the difficulties his students had with Ireland was the cooperation between business and politics. Small state ideology was well embedded in America to the extent that they believed the state had no role in developing business.

The scenery above the treeline was magnificent. At one point Ted spotted an animal he thought was a coyote and we walked off the trail to get a closer look. It was a fox. But I stopped to take pictures of the amazing vista. After walking on a further half mile I realised I had left my glasses behind where we had stopped. Ted kindly agreed to come back with me to help be look for them. I was very anxious about losing them as I would be unable to read maps or gps without them.

Our search was fruitless until I had an idea. I used the back of by camera to view the pictures I had just taken and used the alignment of rocks in the pictures to position myself. I then asked Ted to walk back from me keeping my body in line with a particular rock. He found my glasses almost immediately.

This amused us mightily as Ted was a cartographer. He had in fact been involved in mapping the Pacific Northwest Trail.

We were now in the Rio Grande National forest and in a few miles would cross the source of that great river. But more wild west lore before that as we dropped down into Carson saddle where the remains of mines worked by Kit Carson were. The road down was dreadful, very heavily eroded and difficult to walk on safely. The area was crisscrossed by several tracks used by ATVs. It was now after midday and the heat was oppressive though the build up of clouds was also a worry.

Cataract Lake

We stopped to have lunch among a few thin bushes offering little shelter. We had dropped down to about 12000' but before we would get to our projected campspot at Cataract Lake we would have to climb again another 1000'. We took water from a stream, but being so high and with no sign of livestock I drank it straight without filtering or chlorine tabs. It was georgeous. Another hiker passed us at this point, he had been at the yurt, but he was very tired and we would see him again later.

The climb was slow but magnificent. We dropped down to Cataract Lake and had set up camp by early evening. We had covered about 16 miles. Other hikers we had seen at the yurt arrived and we had a very convivial evening. These were part of a group that had set off together from Denver. They hadn't know each other before the walk and some with little backpacking experience were carrying to much. They were using walkie talkies to keep in touch in the hills. The organiser of the trek was the one we had met when we stopped at the stream. He was clearly unwell and I could hear him coughing through the night.

This spot by the lake made a wonderful campsite.

Ted  into the San Juan's

Day 29

A cold night. A frosty morning. Ted and I set off together again leaving the others to a slow start. Our keenness would serve us well as we escaped storms later in the day that held the others up. The trail undulated between 12 and 13000' and crossed some wonderful places with magnificent names like Maggie Gulch, Minnie Gulch and Cuba Gulch. This was the best of high ridge walking, but our old foe Cumulo Nimbus was stalking us.
We stopped for lunch at the source of the Rio Grande. The midday heat was strong and I was able to dry out my tent again and send the salty sweat on my feet south to Mexico.

After we passed the Stony Pass trailhead the build up of clouds and the distant roles of thunder became worrying. We were far above the treeline and in no place to be caught out by a storm. At one point we stopped among some rocks and considered going no further that day. The clouds were now massive and storms seem to surround us in several directions.

We met another flock of sheep.

Ted was walking the Continental Divide which would, in a few miles, part ways with the Colorado Trail. We set off across high open ground in the Weminuche Wilderness at a punishing pace. The skyscape was dramatic the distant peaks were breathtaking but there was no stop for picture taking. If the ground had been steeper I couldn't have kept up with Ted but it was flattish.

We came to a small cluster of ponds which was a potential campspot though we had both planned to go further to get to safety. However there was a tent already there which I recognised as Debbie's and I decided to say 'Hello'.

A frosty morning in Weminuche Wilderness

It was Debbie and she invited me to stop there. Good judgement told me not to but it was now latish in the afternoon when the threat of storms is less and I was pleased to see her. Ted had no intention of stopping and we said our farewells.

I set up my tent and Deb and I had a brew (cup of tea). Soon a couple of the hikers we had met at the yurt arrived and set up camp also. I worried that they were reassured by our presence that this was a safe place to stop. The sky was still heavy and the guns of the Western Front still audible.

But we got away with it, no storm hit us and when I was able to relax I found myself in glorious setting with fine company.

There was a full moon and a deep frost that night. When I got up in the night and a large owl swooped close to me.

Before sunrise

Day 30

Once again I was scraping frost from my tent and packing quickly to get moving to get warm. The route seemed clear enough and the highlight of the day would be the long decent of 4000' along Elk Creek. We planned to reach Silverton that evening.


I only ever missed a turning when chatting away with another hiker and Debbie and I missed the well signposted turn. Instead we followed an uphill trail that took us over a small peak. We took a right turn towards Eldorado Lake on a path parallel to the one we should have been on. We soon realised the mistake but I thought with map and gps and compass and a bit of daring do we might find a short cut onto the trail. We soon realised there was no safe way through and retraced our steps back to the turn we had missed. We had wasted an hour or more.

Decent into Elk Creek

As we descended the switchbacks down to the creek we noticed another hiker coming behind us at speed. I had guessed that Macbeth might catch us and he did. He had hiked since well before dawn by the full moon and had his own tale of taking the wrong track. We asked him to reserve us beds at Silverton Hostel as he was clearly going to be there ahead of us.

It was downhill for a full eight miles. On the way there were fascinating remains of past mining and terrific views of the Arrow and Vestal peaks.

Eventually we reached the narrow gauge railway that runs between Durango and Silverton. It started to rain heavily and we wondered if we could get the train to Silverton. We would then get the train back to this spot to carry on the hike. However we were already to late.

Arrow and Vestal

We had a long climb now of about 2000' to reach Molas Pass from where we could hitch hike into Silverton. I was short of water and filled my water bag from the Animas river which proved to be a big mistake. I realised the water was foul and tipped it out. I rinsed my container at the next stream, filled it up and added a couple of chlorine tablets. But It wouldn't be safe to drink for four hours.
I suffered on that climb. Deb was generous with the little water she had but we were both pretty thirsty by the time we found more.

As we climbed higher and higher we gained fine views of the valley we had come down that morning. Eventually we got to Molas Pass and the highway. We stuck out our thumbs and were having little luck until a truck that had passed us decided to turn around and come back to offer us a lift. The driver was very friendly and drove us up and down the main street in Silverton recommending different bars and cafes.

We would stay for a couple of days and try a few of them.

We eventually got to the hostel, met up with Macbeth and found our beds. The hostel had a range of options from a room to yourself, a bed in a shared room and an external bunkhouse. As it worked out Deb and I had a room each. She paid extra for the privacy and I was just lucky to have a room with several beds in it to myself.


Dinner at the Brown Bear Cafe yummmy. Drinks with other hikers at Handlebars.

The next day we had breakfast at the Avalanche which does very fine burritos. Silverton thrives on the daily injection of tourists arriving on the Durango Narrow Guage Railway. The railway was originally built to carry mined ore out of the mountains and is reputed to be one of the finest mountain railway routes in the world. I thought I might try it until I saw the prices as I was already seeing the mountains in an even more intimate way.

Much of the town is designed around the tourists and there are some very fine shops and bars in Silverton. I was tempted by the cowboy boots but no way was I going to carry them. I bought groceries for my final resupply before Durango

Brown Bear Cafe...a fine spot.
Handlebars was the choice for dining on the second night. The food was great and the setting impressive but the obsequiousness of the waiter drove me nuts. But I do think there is a cultural difference here. Americans I met enjoyed the attentiveness of waiters where I found it rude and intrusive.

The plan was to set off the next morning but when I got up it was raining heavily and the plan was to have breakfast in the Brown Bear and wait out an improvement in the weather. About six of us went off to devour a mountain of pancakes followed by a visit to Silverton museum.

The weather cleared by midday and the hostel offered us a lift back to Molas pass.

Day 31

Four of us had set off together. Macbeth was in a hurry and soon went ahead. PJ followed him soon after when it was clear the oldies couldn't keep the pace up. We passed a group of Llamas which I was sure we would see again but didn't. We had a late start and only made eight miles before we decided to set up camp. The alternative seemed to be to carry on another four miles to the next possible campspot and as this was a good one Deb and I stopped for the night. We lit a fire and had a pleasant evening swapping rude jokes.

Sheltering from rain again

I had an invite to a barbecue in Durango if I could make it by Sunday. If the weather held I might manage it.

The train arrives in Silverton

Day 32

The day started well and we made good progress over the pass south of Rolling Mountain and followed down to Cascade Creek. The vegetation in this area was interesting with large broad leaved plants a bit like hostas in abundance. I haven't identified them yet.

We reached the lake at Bolam Pass road after about 12 miles. The land was starting to rise again and the afternoon storm clouds were building.

We stopped at the tree line to consider our options as the next eight miles or more would see us on rising open ground. We decided to backtrack a mile to a campspot in the trees. No sooner had we set up camp but the skies opened and hailstones forced us to shelter.

It was an early end to the day. We could have tried again later but took the safer option. My chances of getting to the barbecue were now gone. There were a few motor campers near the lake which had fish in it and probably a good population of leeches.

Day 33

This would be a big day of about 23 miles much of it along ridges. We met a few mountain bikers on this stretch. I fact they had a problem with one of the bikes and we managed to overtake them a couple of times. They were very friendly and complemented us on the pace we were setting. We were coming to a long stretch without water sources and stocked up. But it was a hot day and we were keen to reach a camp spot with water. There were no major climbs to face but the walking wasn't easy.

The path came close to the road at times and we met motor campers who we imagined musty be carrying their own water.

When we did eventually reach a campspot it wasn't like we had expected. Collapsed trees criss-crossed the site and we just found space for our two tents. The water was down to a trickle and we had to take care not to stir up sediment while filling up. If we hadn't have found water here we would have had a further seven miles and more than 1000' of climbing to the next reliable source. I don't think either of us were up to that.

This water spot wasn't at the point described in the data book but a bit further on. The point described in the book at 11.7 miles from the trailhead was unusable for camping.

We were now walking at our individual paces and Deb was going ahead. By the time we got to the water she was in well in front and I had to call her back.

I was a bit anxious that a dead tree could fall on us in the night and Deb thought she could see bear scratch marks on one.

Day 34

The walking was stunning. We had camped close to the treeline and would be above it all the way to Taylor lake in about eight miles. This was a situation where the height profiles in the guidebook are deceptive. On the small diagram the route looks like a fairly gentle but undulating incline. It is nothing of the sort. Each of those undulations is a steep rocky climb and they just keep coming one after the other.

There are striking views across the valley to distant ridges.

Deb was waiting for me at Taylor Lake where we had lunch. There were quite a few day walkers in this area. Dropping down towards the lake I met a group walking up who asked me if they would soon find water. They had none. In the strong sun I didn't think they would get much further.

We had a bit more climbing to do before we would reach the long seven mile downhill which would take us down to about 8500', lower than we had been for weeks. At this point we met a hiker coming the other way who was yo-yoing the trail. Having reached Durango he was heading back to Denver. He was trying to keep his weight down by carrying less water and mainly drinking where he found streams. This didn't seem like a good idea in this area where the next water could be 20 miles ahead. Anyway he knew the trail as well as we did having just completed it.

The long downhill was a good track though popular with cyclists who were a bit of a hazard. Although we were heading back into the trees the day was hot and the lower we went the hotter it got. We stopped a number of times just to cool off in the streams which were now plentiful.

The vegetation was also changing with a bigger variety of trees some of which were massive. The path mainly followed the steep valley sides. It was a bit like descending into new world of waterfalls and birds. The valley offered few places where camping would be possible.

Near Taylor Lake

The path would rise again before Durango which we expected to see the next day. We found a beautiful campspot by the river near a bridge just where the path started to rise again and stopped there. There was still plenty of daylight. I washed in the river, wrote up my notes played my whistle and thrilled at the fact that I was only 14 miles from the end of the trail.

A couple of young hikers joined us later in the evening. Their plan was to take another two days to finish which struck me as odd.

Day 35

Deb went ahead and I didn't see her again until Durango. The path was easy to follow but started with a 1000' climb to remind me I was still in the mountains. I met a couple of people coming the other way and thought they were doing a great pace if they had walked out from Durango trailhead that morning. But maybe they hadn't.

Another picture of a frozen tent

As the morning wore on the mountain bikers increased in number. The area had more and more trails so I occasionally had to check that I was following the right one. Water should have been plentiful but at one stop the source was heavily spoiled by cattle.

I got down to the bridge over Junction Creek where I met a young family dipping in the water. I was so hot I needed a dip myself but they didn't mind.

It was about two in the afternoon when I reached the trailhead. There was no brass band to greet me and I was so hot and footsore my initial feeling was one of relief.

I got a pleasant lift into Durango with an Irish Mexican couple, an Irish woman married to a Mexican man. They teased me a bit (in a friendly way) about my irishness and dropped me near a motel where I booked in. I hadn't thought about where the best place to stay might be but organised my laundry and contacted Stacy, a contact I had been given, to plan an evening out.

With Stacy at Carver's

Stacy took me to Carver's which has a micro brewery and offers a free beer to everyone completing the Colorado Trail. I was certainly going to claim mine. Stacy had done the trail herself a couple of years previously. She had some great stories. We bumped into other hikers at Carvers including Macbeth who I was very please to see. I had hoped RJ might still be around but heard he had left the day before. Macbeth was eventually defeated by the fine helpings. It is not often you see a hiker not finish a meal.

The Irish Embassy

Next day I met up with Macbeth and Deb for lunch before my next adventure.

We went to an Irish pub calling itself the Irish Embassy. The waiter had a fake Irish accent but didn't recognise that mine was real.

I had met a man in France the previous year who lived about 40 miles from Durango. He had offered me hospitality for a few day. I phoned him and he arranged to pick me up at the Strater Hotel. I would have a few days of luxury and the finest entertainment in stark contrast to waking up in a frosty tent.

He would take me for a jaunt flight in a biplane. We would
Wheeling out the bi-plane.

Yes that is me.    (Picture by Jenna Buffalo)

 (Picture by Jenna Buffalo)
visit the Mesa Verdi and return to Denver in a private jet over the route I had just walked. I wouldn't see much because of the cloud but was able to photograph Twin Lakes from the air.

From Denver I was heading to Cleveland to visit cousins I hadn't seen for more than 40 years. The next few weeks would be no less exciting. I was on a roll.

At the Mesa Verdi

Flying back over Twin Lakes.