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!

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.