A Day in the Life on the Colorado Trail: Day 20

A few of my friends have asked questions about typical day-to-day things while long-distance hiking. These are the same questions I had a few years ago when I was a brand new baby hiker. As such, I will use this post to outline some of my typical routines in on a day on trail.

Day 20 – September 1

Somehow, I have hiked clear to September. August seems to have both flown by and taken forever, but mostly I feel that September crept up much faster than I expected. I am nearly done! As I wake and start packing up, I realize that I likely have only two nights left on trail. My husband is flying into Durango today to meet me. I can’t believe it is nearly here. It feels completely unreal.

Morning On Trail

I have settled into a comfortable morning routine. Waking around 5/5:15 on my own every morning, I start by stretching to ease into the day. I brush and braid my hair. Something about the methodical act of braiding serves as a morning meditation. It might seem silly, but I alternate whether I do 2 or 1 braid each day, mostly for a sense of variety. But, there is some logic to this. On days I know I will have lots of exposure, and thus have my hood up often, I prefer 2 braids. They stay out of the hood more easily and off of my neck.

My next step is to change into my hiking clothes, while still half inside my quilt for warmth. Underwear, toe liner socks, Darn Tough wool socks, sports bra, hiking leggings, sun hoodie, sun gloves. Last is the buff to keep my ears warm in the early hours, which I will eventually change to a hat. I keep all my hiking clothes in a lightweight bag inside my quilt at night, so they are warm in the morning.

Then the packing begins in earnest. I stuff my quilt into the bottom of my pack liner, followed by my clothing bag, deflated pillow, down booties.  Last is my deflated and rolled up sleeping pad. I then carefully roll down the pack liner to protect my dry items.

I don shoes and exit the tent to retrieve my Ursack (food bag). (This also is a good opportunity to dig a cat hole.) My food for the day was pre-selected last night, so I grab that. I stuff snacks into my fanny pack, eating two Chewy granola bars as I do. I mix a Tailwind nutrition mix with water into my small Nalgene for some extra pre-climb calories. The food bag is then shoved into the middle of my pack. My pot (with stove inside) and  repair/toiletries bag are placed on top. Everything else goes into pockets on the outside of my pack (water bottles and filter, first aid kit, poop kit, rain gear, today’s food).

The final step is the tent, which will go inside my pack on the very top, carefully rolled in its own stuff sack.

Dawn peeking through the trees.

I start hiking as soon as the light starts peeking through the trees.

Hannah heads out of camp before I do, getting an early start in the dark. Today is a long water carry of 14 miles with some exposed ridgelines. Many folks are getting started early to avoid the hot sun.

I don’t like hiking in the dark at all, but I do enjoy these early dawn steps. The light is just filtering through branches, casting warm, faint shadows. The darkness of the forest seems to come alive as the sun awakens. It is both beautiful and slightly creepy, being unable to see too far within the trees.

Within less than a mile, I come across Shawn packing up his camp. He has a truly lovely, flat ridgeline camp that even has cell phone signal (quite the commodity in the backcountry). I know what you’re thinking – “Don’t you go to the backcountry to get away from things like cell phone signal?” Yes, I do, on a weekend backpacking trip. On a long distance hike, signal is a gift that allows me to briefly reconnect with my loved ones. I don’t scroll endlessly here. Rather, the time to reconnect with my husband can help ground and reenergize me on harder days.

Shawn is also aiming to camp about 15 miles ahead, just past the next water source. One of the interesting aspects about the CT between Silverton and Durango is that because of the long dry section this year, the easiest plan is to hike 15 miles each day for 5 days. The strongest, fastest hikers will exceed this, but for most this is the most logical plan. This means that we see each other and camp together most nights, and it’s created a true sense of camaraderie that has been very comforting to me in this last stretch.

I was hiking so early this dragonfly was still asleep, hanging on the branch.

Water Cache of Love (and Risk)

Within a mile, I hit the end of Segment 26, Hotel Draw Road. Periodically, locals leave water here for hikers and bikers on this long water carry. This year, it is a 15 mile carry. In some years, it can be up to 22 miles between water sources. My amazing husband, Alex, has connected with a friend of a friend, and they brought water! There are several gallons of water and Gatorade. The sign says it is for the hikers, and has a note that “Alex loves Ruth!” I grin.

Then I notice a bag hanging in the tree, and that the sign mentions snacks left for hikers. Hm. The thought is so kind, but unattended food is never a good idea. The Gatorade is risky enough. The closer we get to Durango, the more prevalent bears are. A bag of food right next to trail sounds great in theory, but puts hikers at risk. Plus, it does not abide by Leave No Trace.

I pull down the bag. Maybe I can hike everything out. Nope. It weighs at least 20 pounds. It is full of chips, Oreos, peanut butter cups, and – the heaviest item – apples. That is too much to carry, especially considering I am already carrying 3.5 liters of water. Each liter weighs roughly 2.2 lbs.

Cache of love!

I chug some Gatorade while I consider the options. I have some cell signal and am able to text Alex before he catches his flight. This gesture is touching, but we both know unattended food is a bad plan.

Thankfully, we have flexibility. He is flying in today because I thought there was a chance I’d be able to finish tomorrow. That seems unlikely, so he has tomorrow free. He decides to rent a 4WD vehicle and drive to this trailhead to deal with the food and empty containers himself. I feel grateful to have his support and boosted by the extra hydration. This might enable me to carry less water today. I decide not to do that yet, but keep the option in the back of my mind.

Ridgeline After Ridgeline

I cross into Segment 27 after chugging more Gatorade. Segment 27! There are 28 official segments of the Colorado Trail, and I have only 2 left to complete. It is hard to even comprehend that. Segment 27 is another I am excited to experience. I have heard rumors of endless ridgeline views and I cannot wait to see Taylor Lake on the descent from Indian Trail Ridge.

The first half of the segment looks relatively flat on the map. However, once I look closely, I notice lots of tiny little ups and downs as it slowly climbs to Indian Trail Ridge. Hm. Today’s water carry might be more challenging than I thought.

These ridge views did not disappoint.

There is a small climb to start, and within 2.5 miles, I reach the first of many ridgeline views. The trail will wind across ridges until nearly the end of the segment.

The views are endless and breathtaking.

Unfortunately, the trail is also perpetually up and down, on and off dirt roads, in and out of trees. It never gets boring, but it does feel relentless, especially carrying all this water.

About 7 miles into the day, I start climbing the ridge again and groan. I can absolutely feel the extra weight of the water. I should have cameled-up  this morning and consumed more last night. Instinctively, I conserved. But now I am nearly halfway to camp with almost 3 liters left. I typically drink about 1 liter per 5 miles, sometimes more. There are 7 miles left until the next water source. Even if that one is too low, the next one is only a mile farther. Time to make a change.

I grab the extra liter, drink as much as I can, and dump the rest. Shawn hikes by during this process and approves the decision. He is surprised I didn’t do it earlier, even. It feels wasteful to dump it, but I should have consumed it this morning. I immediately feel lighter and hike more easily up the climbs.

I grab lunch at a beautiful ridge campsite that has cell signal. Alex and I chat before he heads to the airport, and I feel boosted by the food, view, call, and lighter pack.

Not too shabby, my lunch spot.

More Miles, More Views

The rest of the day is a blur of more ridges and more miles. I always seem to gain the most momentum in the second half of the day. I truly am not a morning person. After lunch, my body is warmed up and my energy replenished from the calories. I simply move faster and feel better in the afternoon.

It is clear that I am getting closer to Durango and civilization, as I pass several day hikers and section hikers making the most of this beautiful area. I feel less solitude than I did earlier on the trail, but it doesn’t bother me. The change is nice after some lonely, isolated stretches of trail.

Endless views!

I arrive at Deer Creek, the next water source, around 3 pm. Raindrop and Uncle are setting up camp. Hannah is sitting and chatting with them as she filters water. I drop my pack and head to the creek at the back of the campsite. It has a low flow, but a conveniently placed leaf helps me access the water and I’m able to easily get 2 liters. In addition to the liter I still have, I am set for the evening.

It is oh-so-tempting to stop and camp here, but it is early. The trail immediately starts climbing after this water source. If I can hike another mile, I will reach a scenic view with camping options, and make the next day easier. Future me will thank current me. I gather my pack and head up the switchbacks.

Camp Routines

The scenic view is truly, well, scenic. There are lots of campsites…and also lots of downed trees. Later that evening, Shawn observes that one dramatic wind event must have toppled all the trees at one time. I imagine there used to be many more camping spots, but it is still pretty spacious. In the end, there are about 10 tents camped throughout the side trail to overlook.

The first thing I do when I arrive is drop my pack and scope out the options. There is a tent set up already, unattended, in an area large enough for a few tents. I don’t know whose tent it is, though, so I don’t feel comfortable just setting up without asking first. There is a side trail that goes .2 from the CT to the overlook itself, and lots of potential sites. At the actual overlook, there are several open options, but it is quite windy. Closer to the CT, there is an open space large enough for one tent. It is not completely flat, but I actually prefer a slight slant to keep my head above my feet. Perfect.

I clear out pinecones and rocks by sweeping them with my feet. I set up my tent and then get my bed set up inside. This afternoon, I have lots of extra time, so I spend a little time reading in my tent. It feels like true luxury.

I hiked from over there.

Hannah, Jacob, Bobbi, and I all have a windy dinner at the overlook. I feel so buoyed by the companionship, as well as the arrival of my true trail legs. The days are easier and faster, so I have time to chat with my fellow hikers and enjoy the beautiful views.

This is exactly what I wanted this hike to be.

Before I crawl into my tent for the night, I pick out my food for the next day and seal it into a large ziploc bag. I hang my Ursack and, nearby, pre-dig my morning cathole. (Anything to save time in the morning!) Once inside my tent, I use a wet wipe to clean my face, and another to clean my armpits and body. I save these in a small ziploc to be used for the morning cathole.

I change into my sleeping clothes, and put my day clothes into a lightweight bag to go between my knees while I sleep. The body heat also helps them dry, if they are damp from sweat. I use my charging block to charge anything in need while I journal about my day. Once I am done, my phone and Garmin inReach are turned off and placed in the kangaroo pocket of the fleece I sleep in. Everything else goes into a bag that I hug while I sleep. My water filter is placed in a small ziploc in the foot of my quilt. Then I cozy up and get ready for sleep.

I sleep easily, comforted by companionship and the excitement of knowing tomorrow is my last full day on the Colorado Trail. Tomorrow, I get to see the famed Indian Trail Ridge, the beautiful Taylor Lake, and start the ultimate descent into Durango. I cannot wait.

From the scenic overlook where I camped.


Daily Stats

Day 19

Trail miles hiked: 15.1
2429 gain/1857 descent
Campsite elevation: 11,374
12.5 miles into Segment 27
228.1 trail miles since Day 1
457 trail miles from Denver

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