Pagosa Springs

9/21 – 9/22 –

In the morning hours as we walked 8 miles to Wolf Creek Pass we heard loads of bugling elks and howling coyotes. Sadly none were seen, but we got a hitch into town with a professional storyteller! And he even told us a story – a wonderful story, I must say.  Pagosa Springs is a cute little town (though a bit spread out) whose main attraction is several hot springs. We stayed at the Pinewood Inn, where the owners were super friendly, and kept returning again and again for more baked delights from Pagosa Baking Company. We got all our chores done, which including resupplying at “Everyday Food Market” which was a small convenience store. The selection was pitiful – just donuts, candybars, beer and chips. If you ate that food everyday you’d end up with diabetes by age 10! But the supermarket had relocated to about 6 miles out of town. 

The next morning we awoke to rain…. and a forecast of heavy rain all day. Thankfully we were snug as a bug in the hotel and it didn’t take much to convince us to take a ZERO day and hit the trail tomorrow.  Unanticipated Zero Days are always the best because you can just relax. Boy was that the right decision. Team Food Challenge rolled in that afternoon and they were shivering even after their hot showers.  They and all their gear had gotten utterly soaked.  It could have gotten really ugly if they hadn’t been close to town. But the next day they were back on track and ready for more food challenges (read more here on RT’s journal), and DnA and Myke were ready to hit the trail once more.

 

San Juans: Northside

9/17 – 9/20 – It was thrilling to finally be in the San Juans – almost 200 miles of stunning scenery.  As we set off for 13,000+ that morning the mountains on the next ridge blushed a deep salmon and the sunlight sparkled on the water of  alpine lakes. Much of the time we were in the Wemenuche Wilderness, Colorado’s largest, which really did feel wild. Much of the other wilderness areas in Colorado seemed small, since you were still coming across roads, hydro plants and other signs of civilization a few times a day.  Here in the San Juans, though, we went days without seeing anyone and the vistas were just like looking into a shark’s mouth – row upon row of jagged peaks fading into the blue.

Highlights include:

  • Views of the Grendier and Needle mountains
  • Skinny dipping in an alpine lake
  • The Window and Rio Grande Pyramid
  • Walking the knife’s edge

The Window and Rio Grande Pyramid

We were very fortunate because we had excellent weather for all 6 days we were out.  We did have 1 insane but brief afternoon thunderstorm but thankfully we were able to take shelter in some trees… much of the trail is on exposed ridges where you would NOT want to be caught in a storm. We did wake up one morning to find the mountains beheaded by low ominous clouds but as the morning progressed the clouds lifted. I can’t imagine how the NoBos struggled through deep snow in the San Juans in June, it was tough terrain even without snow. We were regularly doing 7,000+ feet total elevation gain in a single day.  But I have to admit I was disappointed to have NO snow at all. Snow adds so much to the scenery. In autumn everything seem as if it was in “sepia” mode, or as if you were looking at a photo from the 70s. Everything had a mustard yellow tint to it, separated by a blue banner above and splashes of bottomless blue lakes below.  But I’m not complaining!  Just making excuses to return and see the San Juans in other hues!

Melanzana

9/16 – Back on the trail that evening it was nice to be hiking with Myke.  Up in the high alpine meadows we came across a huge herd of sheep (typical in England but not so common in the States) and then their shepherd, a friendly Bolivian. We chatted with him in Spanish and he encouraged us to stay at the yurt a few miles up the road.  Our maps had mentioned this yurt but when Dan had researched it online he thought it was locked. But, spurred on by the shepherd, we decided to push on past dark to make it to the yurt.

When we finally arrived it was glorious. It was quite spacious and was kitted out with a few cots, a stove, a table and some chairs.  Two mountain bikers, Fritz and Frank (?) were also spending the night there, but thankfully they were welcoming to us latecomers.  They were both from Leadville and had decided on this impromptu bike trip because of the superb fall weather.  So as we’re chatting, we come to find out that Fritz is the founder & owner of Melanzana, an outdoor clothing company where the clothes are made & sold in Leadville.  We’d heard and seen a lot of Melanzana clothing since being in Colorado so it was exciting to meet a outdoor clothing celebrity! Fritz was so down-to-earth and humble about his accomplishments.  Myke asked about the hoodie Fritz was wearing, but unfortunately that was one Fritz custom-made and isn’t available in stores. But the rest of their super fly clothes are available on-line at http://melanzana.com/.

Luis Pass & Lake City

9/15 – A gorgeous day with a mix of ridge walking, dips down into wooded valleys and then a killer view of the upcoming San Juan mountains as we ambled along on the flat Snow Mesa.  At San Luis Pass we met a couple in their 70s who were going to climb San Luis Peak.  It would be their 34th 14,000+ foot peak. Incredible!  We felt a bit ashamed that we hadn’t climbed it ourselves, but we’d been enjoying the easier terrain.

Speaking of easy terrain… I must admit I was tempted by the Creede route, which turned south at San Luis Pass. Though less scenic than the San Juans, it was over 100 miles shorter!  Most people only opt for the Creede route when snow prevents them from easy passage in the San Juans. Our whole trip we’d heard stories of the legendary beauty of the San Juans and the fall weather had been gracious, so we took scenic San Juan route.

Around noon we caught up with Mike with a Y, who had passed us in the early morn.  We walked with him for a while, then he went on ahead when we stopped for lunch. We only had 19 miles to do before Spring Creek Pass, where you can hitch into Lake City.  Our map showed a campground at the pass so we planned to have a lazy afternoon and then hitch into town the next morning so we didn’t have to spend money on a hotel.

Around 4pm we arrived at the Pass and had a snack while musing over their maps. According to the map the CDT was 2,250 miles from Canada to Spring Creek Pass. Our calculation showed us having gone only 1,816 miles.  We had strayed from the official route several times but it still didn’t seem to explain a difference of almost 500 miles…  It’s hard to get an accurate idea of how far we’d really come. The two main sources of CDT mileage – Jim Wolf and Jonathan Ley – often differ 5-10 miles for a given section.  But any way you slice it, we’d come a long way!

It turns out there’s no campground at Spring Creek Pass. And there’s not much traffic either. So Dan suggested we hitch into town now so we didn’t waste hours trying to hitch hike in the morning when there was even less traffic. I was hesitant, so we decided we’d try for about 10 minutes.  Amazingly enough the first car stopped to pick us up!

Steve, our driver, was returning from Army duty in Mississippi. He was due to retire soon, after serving in the army for 25 years.  When he wasn’t serving, he and his wife owned some rental cabins in Lake City.  He even offered to let us camp there for free – it’s amazing how things fall into place!

In town we met up with Myke and enjoyed catching up over drinks and food at Restless Spirits, a new saloon in town. I loved looking at the old photographs lining the walls. Even though back East there’s a longer history, in many of the little towns out west the history seems much more alive today, probably because these towns had their “heyday” a hundred years ago so there hasn’t been much grown and development to get rid of the old.

Lake City

9/16 – Lake City was a charming old mining town. It was nestled along a river in a valley ablaze with aspen displaying their autumnal colours.  The historic district includes some brightly painted old western storefronts and a lovely village square with grass, picnic tables and public restrooms – everything I wanted for a relaxing morning.  So after doing our chores and using the computer at the library the next day we set off again, this time with Myke.

Cochetopa

9/12 – 9/14 The next morning we awoke from our “hobo camp” groggy and wary of our neighbors. We quickly packed up and were excited to get a ride straight away. Of course, our eagerness faltered when the driver set off in the opposite direction from where we needed to go and told us he had just kicked methadone.  In the end, though, we got to Monarch Pass and got to chat more with this brave soul who was trying to live life clean for the first time since he was 18. We sincerely hope for his success.

Up on Monarch Pass we were sharing our trail with about 50 mountain bikers who were doing a 125 mile race that had started at 10pm in Salida the night before. It was a bit nerve-racking never knowing when a mountain biker would zoom up from behind, but they were friendly and we managed to not get run over.

During this section the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) also coincided with the Colorado Trail (CT), a hiking/biking trail from Denver to Durango that’s about 500 miles long. Overall it was great when the CT and the CDT were one and the same since the CT was usually better marked and better maintained.  But we constantly had conversations with Coloradans that went something like this:

Colorado local: So, what you two up to?

DnA: We’re hiking the Continental Divide Trail.

Colorado local: Oh, the Colorado Trail! Great! So are you going all the way to Durango?

DnA: Um… well, actually we’re hiking the Continental Divide Trail, not the Colorado Trail, so we’re headed to Mexico.

Colorado local: Wow, Mexico, that’s great! I’ve got a place in Baja.  So when do you think you’ll be finished?

DnA: We’re hoping to finish by Halloween.

Colorado local: Cool, well I’ll see you in Baja this Christmas!

Overall we were pleasantly surprised that for the first time in MILES the trail was easier and we were easily able to do 25+ mile days.  We were traveling through the Cochetopa Hills and La Garita Wilderness.  Sodas hidden for hikers by a local Trail Angel was another bonus. We kept being blown away by the aspens, with their golden leaves glowing like little lanterns in the sunlight.  Bursts of yellow and orange poked out of the rich evergreen backdrop. And the weather continued to be divine… if anything just too hot!

Salida II

9/11 – That morning we got all packed up, said goodbye to our little green cottage and met up with “Team Food Challenge” outside the post office.  We spent the day catching up with RT, Kombucha, Hawkeye, Heaps and Joker and swapping stories of our adventures since Grand Lake.  Apparently they’d been quite cold during the last section, which surprised us as the weather had been fairly temperate for us. It’s amazing the difference just a few days can make when it comes to the weather.

We were also aghast to discover that the rumors we’d heard about Joker getting off trail were true.  Apparently Joker was running low on funds and even though he might have been able to finish the trail it would have been risky. Plus, his old job as a cook at a restaurant had opened up so it was an opportunity difficult to turn down. Still, we were sad and surprised to hear now Joker would now only be a CDT “Section Hiker”.  Tomorrow he’d catch the Greyhound back north to Bellingham, Washington.

We joined in the evening goodbye festivities at the Circle R Motel before hitching back….. not to the trail unfortunately but just to the next town, Poncha Springs. Evening fell and still no one had picked us up so we were forced to stealth camp between a closed store and a 16 wheeler up on blocks.  We restlessly “slept” to the barking of the entire town’s dogs, interspersed with a man yelling obscenities from his front porch.  Thankfully none of the dogs ever pounced on us and we made it through the night. Oh the joys of being a vagabond!

Salida

The house we stayed at

9/9 – Thankfully we got a hitch with the FIRST car who drove by. And we rented a bedroom in an adorable little green house in the heart of downtown Salida. It was awesome to have our own space – especially since it was just a few blocks away from everything. Myke and Naomi were the only hikers in town so  after getting settled went out with them to the Fritz for scrumptious tapas.   The evening was divine. Partly because of the amazing spread we feasted that was more gourmet (pears & Gorgonzola, curried mussels) than the usual hiker town fare and partly because it was just the 4 of us. Even though I hadn’t showered in about a week and was wearing my grubbing hiking clothes, I felt elegant and refined. It was more like a double date in “real life” than the surreal trail-obsessed life we often lead during thru-hikes. Ok, so I’ll admit we still talked about the trail a lot, but we also broached other subjects, like the alluring nude-in-nature photos lining the wall of Fritz.

9/10 – ZERO DAY! Yay! Our first day of zero trail miles in ages and thanks to a compact downtown we didn’t put in many town miles either.  We did our chores, buying food for the next section, using the internet and also had plenty of time for fun stuff.   A friendly local named Ray treated us to a home-baked breakfast at the Downtown Bakery and told us of his adventures hitch-hiking across Europe and Asia. We chatted with Tia, who owned the house we were renting. She’s an artist and art therapist who is moving to India to live in a community there.  And we explored many of the art galleries and little shops in Salida. I was especially taken by Fringe, which was chalk full of amazing fabric and gifts.  The colours and patterns were magnificent, many with a vintage feel.  I added “start sewing” to my To Do list when I get home.

tired

Sunshine after the Rain

9/7 – 9/9 – The next section, from Twin Lakes to Salida, was one of the hardest yet. Being with Claire & Casey had been so much fun and we missed their company. Now that we were back to carrying our full packs they seemed absurdly heavy. Our trail food lacked luster, we craved Claire’s homebaked goodies.  We also have definitive evidence that the women who runs the store at Twin Lakes SELLS things that we gave her to be part of a FREE hiker box (a box of goodies that hikers leave/take items they want/don’t want).

Dan enjoyed walking part of the Leadville 100 route – a 100 mile ultra run that leaves from the town of Leadville and then goes past Twin Lakes and up to Hope Pass. Walking only 25 miles of that trail was exhausting…. to run it + 75 more miles is insanity. But Dan’s hoping to run the Leadville Ultra in 2012.

Autumn is here

Lows included two days of rain, getting a bad cold, blah scenery up and down through the trees.  Highs included passing through the historic “town” of Winfeld, seeing the first aspen turn the hillsides buttercup yellow, seeing the first frosting of fresh snow on the highest peaks and standing above little meringue clouds at Lake Ann Pass.

First Snow

Even though we’d passed through quite a few towns, our last Zero Day (where we did zero trail miles) had been back in Lander, Wyoming. That was a looooooong time ago. In short, we were utterly physically and emotionally spent when we finally arrived at Monarch Pass on 9/9 to hitch into Salida.

Elbert

9/6After a breakfast of peach pie, we set off to the Elbert trailhead in Claire’s car. We had decided to slackpack Elbert, the highest mountain in Colorado and the highest mountain on the Continential Divide in the lower 48.  The trail started off as a nice climb through pine trees. We even saw Don’t Panic & Wing It, who slowed down to hike and chat with us for a while before powering on. Everything was great until we got above treeline.

Dan did eventually have to put his wind pants on!

At that point we entered the windtunnel of death. The wind was exhasting and freezing. The water in my camelback got icy and my nose was in danger of being blown off my face. The trail was steep, rocky, washed out and awful. Since it was Labor Day Monday hordes of people were out, death marching towards the top. When we found a shelterd spot for a break we did enjoy the view of distant Leadville and Twin Lakes below, but when I arrived at the top of the 14,440 foot peak, I took only a cursory look around before cuddling up next to half a dozen strangers who were jammed into the slight refuge a rock wall provided from the wind. We didn’t even have the energy to stand up against the wind for photos.

When at last we had slipped and scrambled back into the trees we were astonished at the powerful warmth the sun’s rays granted. At the bottom we picniced on more peach pie and some other snacks, then scoped out a campsite where we set up our tent and left our stuff. Then we drove back to Turquoise Lake, where we’d left off hiking yesterday, to hike the 12 miles back to our tent. (Yes, it may sound absurd but it’s all about doing a continuous hike from Canada to Mexico).  That was also the sad hour where we bid farwell to Claire and Casey.  That night we felt forlorn and dejected without C&C… it had been a phenominal two days.

Top of the Continental Divide!

C&C Magic Factory

9/5 – We awoke in a celebratory mood. First, it was our year anniversary for having completed our first thru-hike from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail.  The overwhelming emotions of that day will not soon be forgotten. Second, we were to meet our good friend Claire in a few miles at Tennessee Pass. Dan met Claire while working at Georgetown University Outdoor Education Program in 2005. Claire was one of the student leaders (GOATS) who Dan worked closely with to plan lead rock climbing, kayaking and backpacking trips. Together Claire & Dan discovered ultra-running, first setting up a home-grown 50k and later competing together in their first race – the Laurel Highlands 70 miler.  Fast-forward 5 years… Claire had moved to Colorado and we’d done some hopping around ourselves so it had been 3 years since we’d met up. Now we were eager to reconnect and also meet her boyfriend Casey.

Casey & Claire arrived at the pass at 8:30am and after a dose of shrieks and hugs, set to work cooking us a gourmet breakfast on their MSR whisperlight stove. They prepared us a feast of french toast, bacon, soysage and fruit salad. They’d even brought a bottle of champagne and orange juice for mimosas!  Wow!  As it turned out Casey had hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2006 (his trail name was Casey Jones) and so he knew just what a thru-hiker needs!  In addition to the deluxe breakfast they had devised an elaborate plan to have Casey take our heavy loads in the car while Claire, Dan & I set off with day packs and hiked the 13 miles to Turquoise Lake, where we’d reconvene that afternoon. It was the perfect opportunity to slackpack (hike with just day packs) and catch up with Claire.

The miles on the trail flew by, in part because of conversation to catch up on the past 3 years and in part because Claire set the pace at just under a jog. Claire had brought homemade brownies and fresh fruit to supplement our picnic lunch and we enjoyed easy hiking under an endless banner of blue skies.

We reconvened with Casey at Turquoise Lake and then C&C brought another trick out of their bag – ingredients to make fresh guacamole on the shores of the cobalt waters. Then we drove into Leadville, where they’d booked us into the hostel for the night.

Leadville, Colorado is the highest incorporated city in the US at 10,152 feet. It was much more reminiscent of the old mining towns we’d gone through in Montana than the sleek and shiny cities we’d passed through in Colorado. It was a old boom mining town that now survives mainly on tourism and the perseverance of its rugged and working-class townsfolk.  We walked around the town admiring the old architecture and the view of 14,000 foot peaks Elbert and Massive on the horizon. We then devoured a quality carmelized onion, spinach, Portobello mushroom, and roasted red pepper pizza from Mountain High Pies. The Leadville hostel was great – clean, cozy and kitschy with a family atmosphere and years worth of collecting contributing to its eclectic decor. We finished off the night with a game of spades where we discovered Casey’s quick wit and Claire’s club prowess. It had been a magical day but now we needed to rest: tomorrow we would climb the highest mountain in Colorado!