I’d planned to hike most of the San Juan segments as a continuous hike, but the mileage was just too much for me to do as an out and back so I looked for baby 4WD accessible roads or nearby trailheads to make this hike manageable. Since I’d previously driven to the Highland Mary Lakes Trailhead (blog link) I was thrilled to make this my starting point, although in retrospect I might have made more Colorado Trail miles had a selected another option (reference elevation profile).
My plan was to hike east to The Colorado Trail high point in Segment 22 and then hike west/southwest to the ridge above Elk Creek in Segment 24. Spoiler alert: neither happened. Instead I hiked about 15 trail miles between Highland Mary Lakes and Carson Peak view ridge (and back again plus the access trail). The elevation gain proved too much along with living above 12,000 feet for multiple days. My total mileage was about 35 with over 5,000 feet elevation gain/loss.
There are warnings in the databook about being careful around sheep dogs. This signage was posted at the USFS office in Silverton.
As I came up the Cunningham Gulch/Highlands Mary Lake Trail, I heard the familiar baa baa, a cow bell or two and an occasional bark. Soon enough I saw lots of sheep near and on the trail. I took a wide birth around the sheep and kept my pepper spray at the ready.
The trail soon joined the CDT/CT trail but wrapped around the hills where the sheep were grazing. I was hopeful they’d stay on the other side. I was extremely nervous about those big white sheep dogs protecting their livestock, especially after being bitten by a large dog while hiking in the Marble Mountain Wilderness a couple years ago.
But alas I find the sheep in the valley between the ridges. They were so noisy. I don’t know if they were bleating warnings about me or something else.
Notice the trail in the lower middle of this photo. What I thought was a “patch of snow” on the mound above the trail turned out to be one of the guard dogs. It was laying down when I first saw it then it must have sensed me and sat up, barked but didn’t act aggressive. The sheep were well below the dog (and me). I quickly hike on, turning around frequently to be sure the dog wasn’t following. Whew!
I was thrilled to be away from the sheep and guard dogs and finally on my way east toward my first destination Stony Pass.
I camped near this location on my return trip. The colors of this unnamed mountain were unbelievable.
At Stony Pass, there was evidence of mining. I was wishing I had a true 4×4 so I could have parked at this road junction. It would have made my hike a bit easier.
Stony Pass marks the separation between Segments 23 and 24.
I continued east with my hopeful turnaround destination the Colorado Trail High Point at 13,271 feet, 17.5 miles away.
Marmots and pikas love these high elevation areas. These three cracked me up as they were all on alert enjoying the sun.
The pika are so busy and much more shy so capturing a good photo is so much more difficult.
I believe this is Canby Mountain.
I took so many photos of Sheep Mountain. It was very photogenic with it’s colorful reds.
The trail looks deceptively easy, but it’s constantly climbing or descending.
The dark clouds, intermittent rain and growling thunder make it challenging to know whether to attempt another pass or give up and camp or take a break. I crossed over the Continental Divide at least 6-8 times each way.
I was feeling vulnerable near the pass with lightning in the distance.
I didn’t make the miles planned my first day and decided to make camp rather than risk another pass. It was the right decision as it rained for a few hours. There are few if any recognizable campsites in this section. I found this somewhat protected area near a stream. Notice my tent off to the middle right. The stream looked like glacier silt as it was running gray with sand after the heavy rain.
Thankfully it was a night without nearby lightning but I got a taste of camping among drenched plants.
The views from the campsite didn’t disappoint.
With lots of condensation and wet from the rain, I took an early break the next morning to dry out my gear. Notice the perfect blue sky, not something to be taken for granted or expected to last for long.
The Cataract Lake area is gorgeous, and once again I took many photos.
By the time I reached this ridge with a view of Carson Peak, I was feeling extremely fatigued. It wasn’t even noon yet and I hadn’t hiked many miles but I didn’t see how I could make it to the Colorado Trail high point and back. I would feeling discouraged but always give myself permission to change plans. My priority is enjoying the journey and keeping my body healthy. I met a gal who said she too was feeling the affects of climbing up the other side and would be camping early at Cataract Lake. I took a long break to contemplate my decision. Would I regret turning back?
The high point would need to wait a future hike. It wasn’t meant to be and I decided to lollygag away my day instead of stressing about miles and destinations.
I camped at Cataract Lake and while I didn’t find the gal I met earlier, I met another gal by the same name going the opposite direction. We had a splendid afternoon and evening getting to know each other and sharing tales of our lives.
Early the next morning I was retracting my steps and feeling so much stronger than the previous day. The light was much nicer for photos.
These deer or elk (on the shadow line) were aware of me even from this distance.
Me and my shadow, plus an illustration of how sometimes the trail is not at a very friendly grade.
The flowers were prolific in some areas. You know I was smiling!
The geology colors were eye candy.
I was surprised to find Elephant Head Orchids at this elevation.
I finally got a good photo of the Kingscrown plants.
Sheep Mountain was even more photogenic on my return trip.
I was so happy to make it over another pass without threatening thunder, lightning or rain.
This is an inviting place for a break. Of course I would love to camp there but it was at 12,818 feet; much too exposed and too high for thunderstorm safety.
Seeing the white paintbrush was a special treat. I don’t think I’ve seen before and definitely not in such mass displays.
I ran into the gal I’d met at my turnaround spot and we camped together my last night. We had awesome 360 views and spent the next morning with shadows and light.
I love cheery sunflowers.
Instead of returning on the Cunningham Gulch Trail, I took the Highland Mary Lakes trail where this waterfall marked the end of my section hike.
I’ve heard so much about the San Juans and have dreamed of experiencing them myself. This hike exceeding expectations. It left me with that WOW per mile feeling but also left me exhausted. It humbled me with those climbs and descents. What’s next? I’m working on that.
Colorado Trail Segments Hiked:
As of this post, I’ve hiked 206 miles toward The Colorado Trail plus 134 bonus miles (repeats) with over 56,000 feet of elevation gain/loss.
- The Guthook/Far Out App and Colorado Trail Association Guidebook and Databook are helpful in planning section hikes. The guidebooks details parking and trailhead options along with the elevation profile. Far Out was a great way to plan my turnaround based on mileage and elevation gain/loss. I also used Gaia with the Colorado Trail Nat Geo layer.
- Silverton was a good resupply and regrouping town. I used WiFi at the Visitor Center and Library, plus at the Coffee Bear cafe. Dispersed camping options were okay but since I was there peak season it was busier than I would like.