Goodbye PCT, Hello Colorado Trail!
A lot has changed since I last posted, including the trail I’m hiking! I restarted at Sonora Pass as planned the day after my last post. Between the elevation change and the week off of the trail, I was moving at a glacial pace. Regardless, it was nice to be beyond all the smoke and fires and just have 1,000 clear miles ahead of me to focus on. I even made a couple friends that first day back on trail and by all accounts it should have been smooth sailing through the Sierra.
This feeling lasted exactly one day. By the second morning back on trail we were hearing rumor from section hikers that effective immediately, ALL California National Forests were closed, i.e. our hike was over.
We went through all the stages of grief that day. First we denied it was possible, no way it was true. If it is we’ll hike through it anyway, let them catch us! Then there was anger – how could they close all of California?! It’s all clear here! Bargaining then ensued; maybe we could get off here, hitch down to the desert and hike the parts that are open there and come back for the Sierra? Of course there was some good ol’ depression mixed in as the day wore on. And finally, acceptance.
We hiked out the last few days of the section appreciating the few miles we could do in Yosemite and acknowledging this was the end of our PCT thru-hike attempts. We took our time and exited the trail at Tuolumne Meadows, 74 miles after getting back on at Sonora Pass. When we arrived there were about a dozen other PCT and John Muir Trail hikers sitting at the convenience store. Everyone was trying to figure out how to get out to town and what to do next. Wait out the closure? Arizona Trail? Long Trail? Colorado Trail? Hike around other parts of Yosemite? (National Parks are excluded from the closure).
We made it to Mammoth Lakes and spent a few nights there recouping, planning, and drowning our sorrows with the margaritas we had hoped to enjoy at the Mexican border. At first I had absolutely no interest in doing any more hiking. I was done. I just spent a week skipping around Northern California and psyching myself up to get back on trail. For me, the draw of thru-hiking is accomplishing this one huge continuous goal. Skipping so much had already chipped away at the satisfaction of thru-hiking. The thought of hiking somewhere else just for the sake of it felt more like stalling than anything.
One of the other hikers arranged a shuttle to Reno, where the closest airport was, and a bunch of us headed there. I still didn’t really have much of a plan for myself. On my second day in Reno, I had a change of heart and really considered continuing to hike on a different trail. Dabbles was about to start the Colorado Trail, flights to Durango weren’t outrageously expensive, and it would be nice to end this chapter on a higher note than being unexpectedly forced off trail. I booked a flight.
I have a friend who lives in South Lake Tahoe. Her evacuation order was lifted and she was able to pick me up from Reno on her way home. We spent Labor Day hanging out and playing with her puppy and getting me ready to re-hit the trail. I made it to Durango the next evening, and wow, instantly felt good about my choice to pivot to Colorado. Everyone I met was so kind. In the morning I met some locals at breakfast, and not only did they buy my meal but they also drove me to the trailhead. While I would start 2 days behind Dabbles I was pretty sure I’d be able to catch up eventually.
Right off the bat the trail was slow going. I definitely have trail-legs but I do not have trail-lungs. Once over 9000 feet I had to stop to just breathe every other switchback. Even with the slower pace, it felt good to be hiking again. The first day had some good views, but by the morning of the second day they started coming rapid-fire and haven’t stopped yet.
It’s way more popular to do this trail in the opposite direction, starting in Denver rather than Durango. However, since it’s a bit late in the season, it made sense to start in Durango to get through the San Juan Mountains before it gets too cold and snowy. I didn’t meet many people going my direction in my first 5 days, but I knew I’d find company eventually. I crossed paths with dozens of people going the opposite direction about to finish up their trail. Almost every one of them asked me “are you a PCT refugee? There’s about 50 more of you ahead!” It still makes me chuckle to know that there is now a solidified term for all of us out here. One person was even giving Oreos out to all the “refugees” he met to try to comfort us for our loss.
Since I was trying to catch up to the pack, I hustled as much as I could. It was definitely humbling to go from flat Oregon 30-mile days to trying to do 30’s with this terrain and elevation. I was able to do semi-high mile days, but they really took it out of me. I was thoroughly exhausted coming into camp each night.
There was one climb I specifically remember that was a 2,000 foot elevation gain in something like 1.5 miles. That stretch alone took over 1.5 hours. I was listening to music and would try to tell myself to walk on the choruses and stop to breathe during the verses. I would check Guthook after what seemed like a Herculean effort just to see I had gone .1 miles from the last time I checked. The payoff for that climb, however, was spectacular. From then on I’ve been in “the tundra” as one person called it, not sure if that’s the actual term, with high elevation and high exposure.
I reached the highest point of the Colorado Trail yesterday. As I approached, I heard thunder rumbling in the distance and saw some threatening clouds. It was tough to tell if they were coming my direction, or how long any storm might last. I did essentially no research before getting on this trail (example: I only learned last night why I was going this direction after asking Dabbles), but one thing I did know was that afternoon storms are common.
When I started the trail, a hiker who was coming off insisted rain pants were essential to survive the storms. She gave me hers when she found out I didn’t have any. As I got to the high point I braced myself for what I thought would be a miserable afternoon. Fortunately, it was mostly just talk from the thunder clouds. I got about 15 minutes of light rain and hail and then it was gone. I’m sure I won’t get off so easy in the future!
Once on the downhill from the high point, and with the assurance from Dabbles via text that the 15 miles into town were easy, I put it in overdrive and basically ran down to the highway where I could hitch to Lake City. I made it to the highway at 7:15, so I had about 15 minutes of daylight left to try to hitch. One car passed in that time, and they did not stop for me. Just as I was about to resign myself to camping in the woods close to the road, a group of three hikers coming the opposite direction got to the road and yelled to me “need a ride??” My heroes!
One of the three was a section hiker whose car was parked at the trailhead. We piled into the car and made it to the only open restaurant in Lake City with about 45 minutes to spare before they closed. I enjoyed every bite of that bison burger! Dabbles met us at the restaurant and he and I excitedly tried to catch up on everything that had happened in the 2.5 or so weeks since we parted ways.
After dinner we went to the hostel and hung out around the fire (my first campfire this whole trip!) with five other PCT refugees. I have met more PCT southbound hikers here than I met the whole time on the actual PCT!
I’m really excited for this next stretch, or really the whole rest of the trail! I didn’t mind the 5 days alone, but now that I’ve caught up to other hikers it’ll be fun to share the beauty and struggle that each day brings.
Day 44: 18 miles out of Sonora Pass
Day 45: 19 miles
Day 46: 22 miles
Day 47: 15 miles in to Tuolumne Meadows
Total PCT miles hiked: 815
Colorado Trail Mileage:
Day 1: 18 miles out of Durango
Day 2: 24 miles
Day 3: 31 miles
Day 4: 25 miles
Day 5: 30 miles into Lake City
Day : 0 miles
Total Colorado Trail miles so far 128
Total trip miles hiked: 943
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