Hitching a Train in the Wilderness: Colorado Trail Day 17
Day 17 – August 29
Almost immediately upon waking, I feel the return of my high-altitude nausea. This has become a normal morning occurrence. Despite this, I feel more hopeful than I did the last couple of mornings. Yesterday, while physically exhausting, was exactly what I was hoping to experience on this hike: finding new strength, gaining miles, amazing views, new belief in myself. And today there is a lot to look forward to.
I do have a time limit, though. The historic train from Durango to Silverton stops at the Elk Park station in the middle of the wilderness between 11 – 11:20 am, so I need to be there before then. The station is 7.5 miles away from my camp, but it should be all downhill – at least according to the map. I plan to start hiking before 6:45 am. I am excited for the train, and eager for a shorter day. My body is tired from the big miles and elevation gain of yesterday.
As I emerge from my tent, I notice two headlamps starting down the Elk Creek switchbacks on the ridge above me. I learn later they belong to Blueberry Pie and Old School, who I camped with near Cataract Lake. They even published some YouTube videos and if you look closely on their video of this segment, you can see my tent in the background as they climb down these switchbacks.
How Is There a Trail Here?
The descent to my campsite last night was a beautifully graded series of 28 switchbacks. I found myself thanking the trail builders as I hiked. From here, though, the first mile of the day is a brutally steep descent following Elk Creek. The canyon is too narrow to allow for switchbacks, unfortunately. At times, the trail is pinned between boulders and a cliff, and the trail slides down gravel and loose rock. I find myself again hating loose rock, especially with my weary legs from the big miles yesterday, but here I understand it. I am impressed that there is even a trail here.
The steep grade means I can’t go as quickly as I normally might on a descent, but I planned for this. I hope to make up time later in the descent. After a couple of miles, I check the map to see when the grade levels out a little more, and find a concerning discrepancy: my GPS tracker says I have gone over 2 miles, but FarOut (the popular map app I use on my phone) says it has only been a mile. FarOut had another similar error last year, so I cross my fingers and hope my watch is correct. Otherwise, I have taken an hour to go one mile and am running behind.
Eventually, the descent does level to a much more manageable grade, and FarOut catches up to my watch. I am still carefully watching the time. I hate having to be somewhere at a specific time during a hike like this. It adds a layer stress I simply do not need, but today I believe it will be worth it.
As the trail enters the trees and finds a more reasonable, but still steep, grade, I notice lots of downed trees next to the trail. A few years ago, there was a large avalanche in this section that completely covered portions of the trail in debris. Trail managers have cleaned it out, but the destruction is still pretty evident.
For quite a ways, the trail winds below hillsides wiped clean of trees. I even hike on a skinny trail next to tall piles of tree trunks for a stretch. It is a stark reminder of the wildness of where I am. I am just a guest here, and nature and weather are the true sovereigns of the backcountry.
Soon, I find a rhythm in the descent and start making good time. I come across a camping area and see Scout packing up camp. I camped with Scout, Sonic, and Little Red two nights ago, and knew they were aiming for 20+ miles yesterday, compared to my 18. With all the elevation gain of yesterday, plus the incredibly steep descent at the end of the day, I am very impressed. I didn’t think I would a chance to see them again, but we make plans to meet up in Silverton.
A little ways down the trail, the tread levels out, and the loose rocks and gravel are replaced by dirt and pine needles. I am elated! I have never appreciated dirt more. It is heaven to my sore feet. Mid-celebration, I round a bend and see movement next to the trail just ahead. It is a snowshoe hare. This is the third or fourth one I have seen on this journey, but this one is the closest. I slowly approach to pass it on the trail, but it seems completely uninterested in my presence. Most hares are quite skittish, but this one clearly is more accustomed to humans.
I give the hare a wide berth and slowly walk past it. Eventually, it bounds into the trees, more annoyed than concerned. I feel like I have received a great gift every time I have seen a snowshoe hare. They are large and powerful with enormous white feet. I watch it leap away and smile.
Taking the Alternate
Before I know it, I have hit the bottom of the descent on the official CT, and the turnoff for the Elk Park wilderness train station. This involves a .2 mile trail off of the CT down to the tracks to flag down the train as it passes. It also means skipping 4.3 miles of the Colorado Trail. While it is possible to take the train back from Silverton to this spot on the trail, it is harder to do. I know hikers who did it, but it isn’t officially allowed.
But I am OK with this. I stopped being a trail purist the moment my altitude illness forced me to skip several miles of Collegiate West Segment 5. This is my journey. I’ve done plenty of climbs, and the one I am skipping today is supposed to be a doozy. I am here to experience new things, and I have never caught a train in the middle of the wilderness. Skipping a couple of miles to gain that experience seems absolutely worth it.
I turn left at the trail split, and immediately fight back the small panic of leaving the official trail. I don’t have official map of this .2 spur trail, just the sign and the word of other hikers. It is clearly not as well trodden as the CT, but soon enough I arrive at the train tracks. BP and Breezy arrived just ahead of me, and there are several other backcountry hikers waiting.
We are at least 30 minutes early, so a couple of hikers head to the nearby Animas River to get water. They are quickly corrected by local hikers who tell them about a recent mining accident upstream. Here, the water looks fine, but it is better to be safe. I share my water with the other hikers, since I have plenty.
Bucket list Item, For Sure
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a historic tourist experience. In fact, I rode this train from Durango to Silverton when I was 5, though I barely remember it. The town of Silverton is even preserved to look mostly as it did in the heyday of mining operations. The railroad here was built to carry silver and gold ore, but now it carries mostly people. It has been continuously operating since 1882 with historic steam and diesel locomotives.
As we wait and the time nears, I start to hear a distant whistle. We can even hear the engine chugging away for probably 15 minutes before the train actually arrives. The canyon we are in echoes the sound, and it ramps up the excitement.
Suddenly, the whistles are louder, and we see steam and black smoke rising from the trees just around the visible bend in the tracks. When the train comes around the bend, I feel absolutely giddy. I honestly feel like a kid again, grinning widely.
There is a specific way to flag down the train. We are supposed to wave our arms back and forth in front of our knees, like a little dance. I think I am the only hiker who actually does it, but I don’t feel embarrassed. When else will I do anything like this?
The steam train slowly chugs to a stop. Tourists are hanging out of the open air cars, wide-eyed. The conductor steps down to take our payment and directs us to put our smelly backpacks in the luggage car. The ride from the Elk Park station to Silverton is $35, but the full trip from Durango is well over $100 per ticket. We are getting the best deal, by far.
An Afternoon of Rest
I select one of the cars with the windows open, out of courtesy for the freshly-showered tourists. Another hiker sits across from me. The clean-smelling guest in front of me gets up and moves as subtly as they go, but I laugh. I do not blame them.
The train winds along the Animas River, wildly-colored from the mining accident a few years ago. I see teals, oranges, and reds in the water. I am glad we didn’t drink it at the train stop. We pull into the middle of Silverton, which truly does look like an old mining town. The old storefronts are maintained, and there are even people in traditional dress.
I check into the Avon, recommended by other hikers. There are quite a few bikepackers and hikers staying here. I highly recommend it. It is not only hiker-friendly but also extremely comfortable. There are hostel and individual room options. Also – and this is the most important – the showers are incredible. Everyone agreed.
The afternoon and evening were perfect. I showered, did laundry, went to the grocery store, drank an enormous Dr. Pepper, and ate dinner at the Avalanche Brewery with Scout, Sonic, and Little Red. It was wonderful to connect with them. They decided to take the next day off, while I decided to keep hiking, so this was the last time I saw them. But I was so grateful for our brief time together. Hiking a few hours with someone is so much more intimate and connecting than months together can be for others. It is unlike any other way of connecting with people.
The act of flagging down the train in the wilderness gave me a moment of pure joy. I felt something shift in my brain when I saw that train coming around the bend. Part of my goal with this hike is be more comfortable being uncomfortable. A side effect is that I experience joy so much more strongly than I have in a long while. It is a good reminder of why I am out here.
Between today’s moment of joy and my strong showing yesterday, I feel boosted. My motivation to finish has returned, but I still feel wary. I still hate climbing, my feet still hurt, and I still am scared of storms. I have five days left to hike, by my estimate. It is too close for me to consider quitting.
When I think about hiking out of town tomorrow with a full resupply and climbing for 12 miles, I feel dread. On the other hand, thinking about surpassing those peaks, my expectations, and eventually crossing the finish fills me with elation. I am nervous, but I have to see this journey through. I know there is so much yet to experience and learn.
Trail miles hiked: 7.3 (+ .2 on the spur trail to the station, and 4.3 miles missed on the train)
282 gain / 3460 descent
Hotel elevation: 9318 (Silverton)
1.6 miles from the end of Segment 24
181.9 miles since Day 1
410.7 trail miles from Denver
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