At the Gateway to the San Juans: Colorado Trail Days 10-11

Day 10 – August 22

Last night’s solo camp completely redeemed the previous sketchy solo camping experience from Segment 15. I periodically heard cows mooing, and heard plenty of coyotes. I have heard coyotes more nights on trail than I haven’t. They most often perform in what I have taken to calling a “coyote party,” where they yip and howl to each other in a loud cacophony of celebration. While this might put some people on edge, I have enjoyed listening to them sing.

I wake feeling rested despite my long day yesterday, but as usual, my stomach is rejecting the morning. Today is the worst yet. I actually spit up bile in my vestibule. (Better than in the tent!) I lay down for a bit to recover and thus get a late start on the day. This morning nausea is still a bit of a mystery, but I now suspect it might be related to dehydration. I didn’t drink enough the second half of the day yesterday. I never drink much at night because I do not like getting up to pee in the middle of the night. That may be leading to these morning issues. I resolve to fully camel up when I make it Cochetopa Creek in 4.5 miles.

How to Save a Filter

But before I can start hiking, I need to filter my emergency water from Ant Creek. It is my emergency water because it is absolutely full of sediment, but it is now my only water. There is a spring in a mile, but both FarOut and NOBO hikers I met indicate it is absolutely full of cow poop. I’ll take my chances with the black sediment water.

A gravity water filter set up hanging from a tree branch, with dark, dirty water filter through a towel into a water bottle.

My gravity set-up with the towel to pre-filer out the sediment. The water was surprisingly clear post-filtering.

I treated the water as a precaution with a water purifying tablet, but I also need to filter out the dirt without destroying my Sawyer filter. My pack contains a Lightload towel to wipe down at night and to clean the condensation from inside my tent. I fold it up and screw it between my Sawyer filter and CNOC Vecto, and set up a gravity filter while I finish the rest of my morning camp chores. It is amazing to see the nearly black water slowly drip into clear. I have to move the towel to a different spot several times, as it quickly saturates with the dirt. It takes a while, but soon enough I have just over a liter of clear water.

A close-up of the circle of dirt on the pre-filter towel. It was completely polka-dotted after I was done.

The Best Aspen Grove

I finally start hiking at 8 am. Within a mile, I am carefully walking the trail in the midst of a cow herd at the contaminated spring. One bull on the hill seems particularly displeased with hikers nearby, so I keep a my eye on him. Just ahead of me is Tortoise and the Hare-Catcher, the hiker and her dog from yesterday. I suspect the dog’s presence put the bull on edge. Tortoise and Hare-Catcher pull off into the shade for a break and we catch up before I trek onwards.

I look up and see trees ahead. A lovely grove of aspen trees beckon.  I long for trees in this hot, dry section. Blessedly, the trail winds into the trees. The air immediately cools and the oxygen feels fresher. I stop, close my eyes, and breathe in. Hiking so often on singletrack through trees, it is easy to take the trees for granted. I am grateful for them now.

A Jeep road goes straight through the center through a grove of green aspen trees.

The most perfect aspen grove, or at least it certainly felt that way after a full day of exposed hiking.

Cochetopa Creek

I am again hiking on a Jeep road and sharing the trail with trucks and SUVs. But I am able to make some good time and before I know it, I round the bend to a view of the beautiful, green Cochetopa Creek valley below. I drop my pack and watch the fast flow with joy, fish jumping in the current. A group of hikers and I stop to filter water, chug electrolytes, and have a snack. I feel a rush of appreciation for where I am today versus yesterday.

A green river valley between two treed slopes.

The first view of Cochetopa Creek.

The trail follows the creek for the rest of the day. It winds up and down cliffs, so the creek isn’t always within reach, but it is always there. Within a few miles of first reaching the creek, I do the first and only official ford of the Colorado Trail. The creek is wide but shallow, so it goes smoothly.

Where CT hikers ford the Cochetopa.

The rest of the day is a slow but steady climb. I am at the gateway of the San Juan Mountains, and we are slowly climbing into their majestic peaks. With the steady climb, though, I start to be concerned about miles. I started late, and even on a gradual climb, I am still slower than I’d like. I’d like to make it as far as possible to make the next day easier. I get back above the trees tomorrow, and I want to beat the afternoon storms.

Segment 20

It drizzles on and off as I carefully watch the sky. I’m hiking a ridgeline above Cochetopa Creek and it is a bit more exposed than I’d like in inclement weather. But as is typical of Colorado, suddenly the skies clear and the sun peers out and makes you miss the clouds. Before I know it, I pass through another gate to find a trailhead and vault toilet. This is Eddiesville trailhead, which means I have finished Segment 19!

Segment 20 starts with a gradually increasing climb until it reaches a saddle below San Luis Peak. I buckle in for the climb and try to find strength and stamina. While it is uphill, I keep waiting for the real climbing to start, and find I am making surprising time. I feel simultaneously strong, fast, and exhausted. It is a strange feeling and one I will become quite familiar with.

I pass the first campsite I planned on, and then the second. I surprise myself with my trail legs and stronger altitude acclimation, but the fatigue starts to win out. Rounding a bend to the next campsite, weary, I see a tent. I tentatively make my way over and call out, “Hello!”

A friendly voice responds. I ask if I can share the campsite, and am welcomed by ZigZag. As I set up my tent and filter water from the creek (still the Cochetopa!), he points out his companion YetToBe’s hammock across the way, somehow set up between two low spruce trees. The last several miles have been riddled with the standing dead: a forest full of dead trees. It makes hammock camping and hanging food much more difficult.

A forest of the standing dead: trees killed by the bark beetle.

In the surprising strength and speed of the afternoon, I have hiked a nearly 17-mile day, the second in a row. For some thru-hikers, these are small days. For me, this the most I’ve ever hiked in a day, let alone two. My body is fatigued and my energy is sapped. My husband messages me through the Garmin:

“Wow, honey. That is amazing the mileage you are covering now. Seriously I am blown away. It is so amazing to watch you do this.”

I find myself sobbing over my rehydrated beef stroganoff. The tears are complex, some of pain, but mostly of pride. I hoped I could get here as a hiker, but didn’t know if I could. I am so grateful for the opportunity and proud of what I have done to get here. When I ended my hike early last year, and then started this year with altitude struggles, I didn’t know if I would ever make it to the San Juans. Yet here I am. I feel so emotionally full I could burst.

Two tents between bushes, below a dramatic stormy sky.

My lovely creekside campsite in Segment 20, complete with a dramatic sky threatening rain.

Day 11 – August 23

I wake early, as I always do on trail, around 5:15 am. This morning, I need to get packed and started as quickly as I can. I have four passes above treeline to cross before my planned camp, and thunderstorms are predicted after 1 pm. Time is of the essence. I start hiking before 6:45 am.

Climbing into the San Juans. The notch in the middle is the saddle I will pass through below San Luis Peak, the 14,000+ ft peak on the right.

As promised, the trail starts with a gradual climb that slowly increases in grade. By the last mile, I am above the trees and weaving through tall willow bushes. I see a hiker less than a quarter mile ahead, slowly climbing. I watch him and take his lead, choosing a slow but steady pace. It feels so slow that it seems I am barely moving, but I am able to make progress up this steep climb with minimal stops. Before I know it, I am fully out of the willows and cresting the saddle. I am in the San Juans!

The view back from the first saddle of the San Juans.

The Gateway to the San Juans

I have made it to the saddle below San Luis Peak. This is where the journey through the famous and stunning San Juan Mountains begins for CT hikers. This is also the first time I have been above 12,000 feet since the altitude issues of the first few days on trail. I can feel the lessened oxygen, but my cough is nearly gone. I feel notably stronger, faster, and ready for the challenging days ahead.

Feeling relieved to be more acclimated, I look around. Just to the right is the trail to San Luis Peak. This is the closest fourteener (peak over 14,000 feet tall) to the CT, with the summit only 1.5 miles from the trail. I originally planned to climb it, but changed that plan when I started having altitude issues. I watch the peakbaggers climbing up and down for a few minutes before continuing to the left.

The welcome to the San Juans means lots of up and down. Saddles and steep climbs await. The views are incredible, and it asks a lot of you to see them. My day consists of four high points, which here means four steep ascents and four steep descents. After the first two, I descend into a valley of willows and realize I have reached Segment 21.

At the top of one of the many climbs of the day.

Segment 21

It suddenly feels as if the segments are quickly checking themselves off. Here at the beginning of the Segment, I could take a spur trail to an ATV road and hike several miles to Creede for a resupply. Instead, I plan to head in to Lake City tomorrow.

The joy of reaching another segment doesn’t last too long as I start the hardest climb of the day. Much of the CT is well-graded, but here there are no switchbacks to help lessen the brutality of this climb. With a grade of over 20%, I stop more and more the closer I get to the top, but I make it. At over 12,800 ft, this is the highest I have been yet on the trail.

Descending from the Continental Divide.

At the top is John, who introduces himself and asks me if I have seen his hiking companion, PennJ. I tell him I haven’t, but as we chat more, I realize he is speaking of Jeff. I first met Jeff at the green belt camp in Segment 17, but I passed him on a saddle earlier. John hikes ahead, expecting Jeff to catch up later.

Trail Friends, Human and Animal

Soon, Jeff joins me at the top. We end up hiking most of the rest of the day together and I realize we hike at similar speeds. This can be hard to find in a long distance hike! I do not take it for granted. We soon pass John, who stops to filter water.

We arrive at my first potential camp, a lovely beaver pond, to an amazing site: a mama and baby moose playing in the water. The baby is splashing around, but the mama is diligently feeding. She forcefully pushes her head underwater for an extended time, and emerges with her nose out to let the water drip as she chews the sustenance she finds at the bottom. She does this over and over. Jeff and I stand mesmerized by the gift of this sight.

Unfortunately, that means I do not feel comfortable camping here. Never mess with a moose, especially a mother and baby. They need space. I continue on to the last low campsite, a bland flat spot just before the trail starts the climb to Snow Mesa. Jeff continues on; he and John plan to camp on Snow Mesa at a lake. They invited me to join, but I still am trying to camp as low as I can. Plus, to get there would mean a fifth and longer climb, and an over 5000 ft gain day. Soon John passes and invites me yet again. I enjoyed hiking with them, and really want to join. I just don’t know how my body would do, and certainly wouldn’t get to camp until later than I like. My tent is set up and dinner started, so I stay put.

But I regret it. I end up camping alone, although I at least know there is another camper less than a quarter mile behind me. My goals for this adventure include for it to be both a physical and a social journey. I resolve to follow my heart with where I camp, now that I am more acclimated. I am a stronger hiker than I was when I started.


Daily Stats

Day 10

Trail miles hiked: 16.4
2740 gain/ 1490 descent
Campsite elevation: 11,088
5.5 miles into Segment 20
111.4 miles since Day 1
335.9 trail miles from Denver

Day 11

Trail miles hiked: 11.5
3560 gain/ 3220 descent
Campsite elevation: 11,407
4.3 miles into Segment 21
122.9 miles since Day 1
347.4 trail miles from Denver


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