CO – THE Colorado Trail, Segments 1-5, Waterton Canyon to Kenosha Pass (06/22)

Hiking all or part of THE Colorado Trail has been on my agenda for several years and became a knee rehab goal. This 485-mile trail runs between Denver and Durango, passing through six National Forests, six Wilderness areas, traverses five major river systems and penetrates eight of the states mountain ranges. 

Much like other long trails, if you are thru hiking, you can’t pick best time for each section, but as a self-proclaimed cherry picker and section hiker, I’m happy to jump around when opportunities present. The first five segments (or sections) are lowest elevation and tend to heat up early, and with each passing week after snowmelt, water availability lessens. When the window opened and logistics came together easily, I found myself at this iconic sign.

Was I ready to traverse 70+ miles with significant elevation gain while traveling between 5,000 and 11,000 feet? hadn’t carried more than 2+ days of food since my knee surgery. I wanted to budget food based on 15-mile days but that would certainly set me up for failure. That far exceeded my training and fitness. Begrudgingly I packed 6+ days of food for 10-mile days. With thunderstorms forecast, possible frigid temperatures at higher elevation and exposure through a few burn sections, I added my rain gear and umbrella. I about cried when I saw the scale register 27 pounds. The night before I tossed and turned considering what I should remove. In the end I didn’t remove anything, and kept thinking of the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I was super excited to finally turn this concept into reality!

Segment 1 – 16.5 miles (2,380′ gain, 2,239′ loss)

The challenges of this segment include road walking on compacted surface in the heat, limiting miles to 8.7 if you don’t want to carry water for dry camping or if you aren’t able to hike 16.5 miles to the next water source.

The walk through Waterton Canyon was an easy stroll with restrooms, shaded picnic tables, and garbage bins every couple miles, plus nearby river access.

This canyon is known for Bighorn Sheep sightings. I thought it was going to be a bust but at the last rest area these youngsters came down the hill. They were headbutting and humping. It was an entertaining sight.

I was happy to be on single track with shade after the long road walk.

Another benefit of being a section hiker is that I didn’t need to share cramped campsites. I saw 5-25 hikers, runners and bikers daily, most out for the day or a section, as it was still early for the thru hiker crowd. I only shared a camping area one night out of five.

I finally earned some views and even saw some snowy mountains.

In this segment I found a few blooms including prickly poppy, grass widow, skullcaps, penstemon, larkspur, milkweed, columbine, and I believe euphorbia, plus lots of butterflies.

Prickly Poppy
Grass Widow
Penstemon
Big leaf viola
Skullcaps
Penstemon
The Colorado State flower, Blue Columbine
Iris

Segment 2 – 11.7 miles (2,482′ gain, 753′ loss)

Water is again a big challenge as there are only two sources. The first at the beginning and the second 10 miles later. There are two large burn areas devoid of shade.

The South Platte River is a bit of an oasis. I took a nice break in the shade before loading up with 4.5 liters of water for the climb and dry camping.

I used cooling strategies to get me through the exposed burn scar of wetting my shirt, head, hat and buff at the river, then adding my umbrella to keep me shaded.

I was happy to find some shade at the 2.5 mile mark. I couldn’t carry those 10 pounds of water any further in the heat. It made for an early day but better for my wellness and success.

I was left wondering if I needed a helmet but thankfully no UFO’s bonked me upon the head.

It was a relief to reach the fire station and find the spigot on with water available. Such a humanitarian gift and one worthy of a donation (NorthForkFire.org) with no natural water sources in this segment after the South Platte River. The 4.5 liters I carried was just right.

Blooms I found on this segment in additional to those I saw in the previous segment.

Wild geranium I believe
Paintbrush in yellow, orange and red

Segment 3 – 12.5 miles (1,975′ gain, 1,549′ loss)

This segment has far fewer challenges with more plentiful water, shade, views, and gentle terrain. The trade-off is bike activity especially on weekends.

The sculpted rock formations dotted the landscape through this segment.

The highlight for me was finding this Abert’s Squirrel.

“Abert’s squirrel or the tassel-eared squirrel is a tree squirrel in the genus Sciurus native to the southern Rocky Mountains from the United States to the northern Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico, with concentrations found in Arizona, New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado.”

This chipmunk in camp loved his salad. He ate so many greens.

Buffalo Creek was the best source thus far. I’d been surprised by the minimalist streams called creeks.

I heard some big ammunition fire but thankfully no stray bullets.

Segment 4 – 16.4 miles (3,271′ gain, 1,373′ loss)

The challenge in this segment is elevation as the high point is nearly 11,000 feet. I also found the 5 miles of steep, rocky old logging road at uncomfortable grade. There is also a lack of shade during the long 6-mile meadow section.

I was surprised this old road was considered trail once I entered wilderness. I was happy for shade but not for the unrelenting grade on very rocky surface. My initial impressions didn’t match my previous experience in this wilderness (blog link).

I was super happy to leave the road and find wonderful hiker grade single track trail.

I didn’t even mind when the trail got rocky as I made my way toward the pass. However I was very disappointed to find no view.

I’m guessing this 6-mile meadow is colorful with blooms if your timing is just right.

There were several side creeks sporting marsh marigolds.

Geum triflorum, prairie smoke, three-flowered avens, or old man’s whiskers
Hummingbird Moth

After exiting the meadow and climbing to another saddle, I was once again disappointed to find no views.

Segment 5 – 14.6 miles (1,858′ gain, 2,055 loss)

The altitude challenge is the primary concern; however there are also some long exposed sections without shade, as well as expected bovine companions and poo water.

This segment is considered the first of the best sections. I was thrilled to find views and long traverses.

My timing couldn’t have better as a trail crew cut 49 logs off the trail the previous day. I met them in the morning and shared my many thanks for this gift.

I was super excited to find this solo Fairy Slipper Orchid.

I suspect the meadows will be filled with blue iris soon.

Kenosha Pass marks the end of Segment 5, and for me the end of this 5 segment section. What a great reminder of my first steps back in 2017 (blog link).

This was a fab test of my fitness following my knee surgery and rehab. I’m super proud of myself for hiking this 70+ miles with about 10,000′ elevation gain.

I was thankful I finished a day earlier than planned as smoke blew in from the fires in New Mexico and Arizona. I would not have wanted to hike in those conditions (but would have had to).

Tips:

  • Consider earplugs if you are noise sensitive at night. There is a lot of plane traffic. You might also have noisy neighbors.
  • Have strategies for dealing with the heat, such as salt/electrolyte capsules and drinks, umbrella, and buff to keep wet. Sunscreen especially for lips.
  • Bring a water scoop and prefilter for minimalist streams.
  • The Guthook/Far Out App and Colorado Trail Association Data Book are helpful. I also used Gaia with the Colorado Trail Nat Geo layer.

Resources:

2020 – Blooming April, Spring Doesn’t Care

I recently read a poem about how spring goes on regardless of this pandemic. Since spring brings me joy, I’m choosing to spend as much time seeking out the treats mother nature provides in this all-too-short season.

2020 is proving to be a spring I’d rather forget. I like many others, most likely including yourself, are wishing we could fast forward into summer and be done with Stay Home orders. I’ve learned to let go of things I can’t control and instead focus on those things I can such as my personal happiness. The dark short days of winter can bring on bouts of depression, something I’m more likely to avoid in spring when I happily languish in the warm sunny days. Instead of travel and backpacking, I spent time running, biking and walking primarily from my house. My car didn’t leave my garage for three weeks.

I discovered and fell in love with these rock roses.

Since I’m missing my wilderness wildflowers, I really appreciate neighbors who share their blooms.

The Sacramento River runs through town bordered on both sides by about 20 miles in trails. It’s within walking distance of my house and gives me plentiful green space and a place to breathe.

The trail harbored these colorful jewels.

When I finally decided to drive 10 miles to a dirt trail, I found so much joy.

With flowers lining the trail, I didn’t even mind hiking through lands dominated by fire.

I’d never seen such a mass dispersion of pussy ears (aka Calochortus tolmiei). If this was all I’d seen I would have been happy.

But no, my treasure hunt continued. What a delightful way to spend a few hours.

I stopped at Black Bear Pass where I found this wreath, which I though was a lovely tribute to the aftermath of the 2018 Carr Fire. When I got home and was processing my photos I couldn’t believe what I saw at the base of the stump. It took some work to lighten enough to see the surprise. I still can’t believe I didn’t see it when I was taking the photo. My guess it was hauled up on horses.

I finally decided to drive a bit further for my next hike and was thrilled to find these beauties.


I closed out the month hiking among more of nature’s jewels. I hope you all made the most of this forced pause.

What will May bring? Maybe some waterfalls to go along with more wildflowers? The draft policy for opening my home county indicates a ban on non-essential travel out of the county. Will I continuing being just a tiny bit of a rebel? We topped 90F degrees so that’ll be my motivation if nothing else. Air conditioner vs wilderness?

MT – Glacier NP, Snyder Lake . . . another J&J Adventure!

With the trailhead conveniently located near Lake McDonald Lodge, this is one of those trails I’d personally avoid during prime season. However getting to explore park favorites, minus the crowds, is one of many off-season hiking benefits. 

Spring travel means getting to see the early season bloomers, like Fairy Slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa), Spring Beauty (Claytonia lanceolata) and Trillium (Trillium ovatum). 

Nature helps keep crowds at bay. How many want to do the trail obstacle limbo? Good thing my friend Joan is an experienced tree gymnast and dancer, she doesn’t mind the additional challenge. Also notice, the bear spray she’s wearing on her belt. This is not only grizzly country, but it’s spring which means bears are waking from their long winter slumber, they are hungry, they have babies to feed, and it’s our job to prevent bear encounters.

Spring travel means being prepared for all kinds of conditions, like hiking through trail that more closely resembles a creek. We wore tall gaiters plus plastic bags over our socks to keep our feet drier and warmer.

And trails more suitable for skis or snowshoes. We wore our microspikes on these slippery sections. 

Transitioning to and from bridges can be a little tricky. Hiking poles with snow baskets and microspikes improve success and safety.

Although the forecast called for 90% chance of rain, we also came prepared with hats and sunscreen. 

Snow travel means sketchy navigation. Although we both enjoy electronic tools, we also come prepared with map and compass. Is Joan lost? Nah, she’s either doing a little trail reconnaissance or more likely enjoying the views. 

But the rewards of these little inconveniences are views like this.

Date(s) Hiked: April 23, 2016

Road Trip Day(s) #65 out of 88

Tips:

  • The hike from Sperry Chalet Trailhead (aka Snyder Creek TH) to Snyder Lake is about 9 miles round trip with 2,000+ feet elevation gain/loss. 
  • The only campgrounds in the park open during the winter/early spring season are Apgar and St Mary
  • Come prepared with grizzly bear spray or buy at Visitor’s Center upon arrival
  • Microspikes or YakTrax are a good option for early season travel.

Resources:

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