I Thought Mesas Were Supposed to Be Flat: Colorado Trail Days 12-13

Day 12 – August 24

I wake at 5 am. Today is a town day, but I have to hike 10.4 miles by 12:30 pm to make the shuttle into Lake City. This is a doable goal, but I am nervous nonetheless, especially knowing the day starts with 3 miles of climbing.

The sun doesn’t rise until 6:30, and it is pitch black in my tent. I camped alone and last night heard the most coyotes I ever have, and this time, they were quite close. Coyotes don’t go after humans, typically, but I still don’t feel comfortable leaving my tent in the dark. But boy, do I have to pee.

I decide to do my freezer gallon Ziploc bag trick (I carry two in my poop kit for this exact purpose, and they have served me well). Unfortunately, in the nerves of the morning, something doesn’t go quite right. Now there are pee droplets on my tent floor and down sleeping booties. I am truly hiker trash. Thank goodness it is a town day.

I clean up the best I can while fighting my typical high-altitude morning nausea. I emerge from my tent at first light to a deer and her fawn eating breakfast in the clearing. They make me feel safer, somehow. I pack up and as soon as it is light enough to appease the background fear in my brain, I start hiking.

Someone Is Watching

I am a little more on edge because just above the trail here is a rocky section of the mountain. Mountain lions often use rocky outcroppings such as these to hunt, and dawn is a particularly active time. I try to focus on the hike ahead to squelch the fears, but I can’t help but feeling like I am being watched. I enter an open stretch of trail with that nagging feeling continuing, so I finally summon the courage to stop and look around.

Sure enough, I am being watched. But not by mountain lions – at least, not that I can see. On the ridge directly across from me are three bighorn sheep, frozen and staring at me. And just above me are several deer, studying me with confusion to determine whether I am friend or foe.  I laugh. This is an audience of the best kind.

I had to zoom way in, but there are three bighorn sheep in this picture.

The Much-Anticipated Snow Mesa

The trail climbs four miles from my campsite to the unique Snow Mesa, supposedly the largest high-altitude plateau entirely above 12,000 feet in the country. Because it is flat and entirely above treeline, it can be a scary place during a thunderstorm. This is why I timed it for first thing in the morning.

Selfie as an excuse to take a break while climbing.

I have heard so much about the beauty of the plateau and highly anticipate getting to experience it myself. The climb to it seems to take forever. When I finally think I can see the top, I meet a Continental Divide Trail (CDT) hiker going the other way who sadly informs me I have farther to go. Toughened by the climb, I appreciate the honesty and push onwards. I round a bend and there, in front of me across the way, is Snow Mesa. It looks unreal, and it is all downhill from here.

Snow Mesa as seen from the trail approaching it. This is just a corner of the mesa, directly in the middle of the photo.

Or so it seems. It is mostly downhill, but across scree. I have come to loathe hiking on rocks of nearly all kinds on this trail. Scree is the price to pay for high altitude beauty, though, so I watch my step and push on.

Wait, I Thought Mesas Were Flat

Soon enough, I am on Snow Mesa itself. It wasn’t completely downhill to get there, but now that I am on the plateau, I hope to make up some time. It should be flat, right? I should be able to easily cruise across it to the descent.

Alas. The trail itself is rutted. It is barely wide enough for two feet and it is rounded, turning my ankles inward at an awkward and uncomfortable angle. At several points, the rut becomes so bad a new trail has been stamped out next to the official trail. From a Leave-No-Trace perspective, this is unfortunate. To my ankles, it is a welcome relief.

And surprisingly, the plateau is not as flat as expected. I knew there would be minor ups and downs but some of the climbs are straight up. As I huff up the unexpected climbs, I can’t help but think that the steepest section (over 20% grade!) would be avoidable with a small trail adjustment. I run into other hikers who make the same observation. Once past the worst hill, though, it does flatten out more.

The vast expanse of Snow Mesa. Just ahead, the dark spot on the photo is the beginning of the steep descent.

I so badly wanted to love Snow Mesa, but I feel frustrated and irritated by it. I slowly realize that I have been hiking solely off of a granola bar and the pull of town, and I feel the hanger rising. The note I wrote in my journal later was “Didn’t eat enough so was a super crank to myself the whole time.” Whoops. Calorie deficit aside, I am annoyed at having to rush through something I wanted to enjoy. I again wish I had pushed through last night to camp with Jeff and John so I could have enjoyed the morning a bit more.

The Worst Descent (Yet)

Finally, I reach the edge. After miles of the (mostly) gently sloping plateau, the trail seems to dive suddenly off a cliff. If I hated the rocks before, this is a whole new experience. The trail is incredibly steep down through a talus and scree field. Marmots have burrowed into the trail and I have to carefully step around the holes, testing the rocks for secure footholds. I immediately know this two-mile descent, losing nearly 1400 feet of elevation, is going to be quite slow.

The very beginning of the descent from Snow Mesa.

The worst of it is the first half mile, but the loose rock doesn’t let up for quite a while. Just when I think I finally have the hang of it, my foot catches and I fly forward. My knee lands with full force on a rock. There are a couple of day hikers just around the bend behind me, so I pull myself up and continue descending (can’t let them see my weakness!), but I know that wasn’t just any fall. I feel my right kneecap start to swell. My hatred for loose rock grows.

Thankfully, the descent levels out a little more and before I know it, I am at the Spring Creek Pass trailhead. I made it by noon. A growing group of hikers lays in the shade, passing stories and recommending gear. First, it is John, with BP and Breezy, who I met when they passed me earlier on trail. After a few minutes, Tortoise and the Hare-Catcher join us. Another hiker makes it with just a couple minutes to spare, and he explains that he hiked 16 miles to make it. I am simultaneously impressed and exhausted just listening to his tale.

Lake City

The shuttle pulls in and lets out a full group of hikers to start their next segment, freshly showered and laundered. I can smell the laundry detergent the instant the car doors open. I can’t help but wonder: if I can smell them so strongly, what must smell like?

Our group of hikers + dog pile in and enjoy the 30-minute journey to Lake City. We are dropped at the Lake City Hiker Center, the annex of a local church that is set up every summer for CT and CDT hikers. There is coffee, countless plugs to charge devices, friendly faces to welcome us, overflowing hiker boxes, and toiletries to use during our stay. What a welcome!

Despite growing up in Colorado, I had never heard of Lake City prior to planning this hike. It is a small town that fills up from folks from out of state who spend their whole summer here. Many people seem to hail from Texas, completely with Texas charm and food. I feel immediately welcomed.

Lake City Magic

Immediately out of the shuttle, John, Tortoise, Hare-Catcher and I head to the Bushwhack Lodge for lunch. There, we run into ZigZag and YetToBe waiting to check into their rooms. It’s a great location, and the food and drink were excellent. We each order taco salads (the greenery calls to me), and everything is fresh and delicious. The chef even comes over to chat with us and give Hare-Catcher some chicken treats.

I go to check into the Matterhorn, where I am staying for two nights. My amazing and helpful husband called and made me the reservation yesterday. Other than the RV park and the Ravens Rest hostel, Lake City can fill up during the summer. I wanted a private room and shower and got the last one. The Matterhorn is great, and I recommend it. Central location, large rooms, and a kitchenette with a large sink that make it easy to clean my dishes and water filter.

The large kitchenette made it easy to clean everything.

I take a very necessary shower and dress in my town best: rain gear. The rest of my clothes are collected and I walk the couple of blocks to the laundromat. I get all the way through the door before I realize I don’t have any cash on me. Unfortunately, there is no ATM here.

I see a woman in the corner and ask where the nearest ATM is. Turns out, it is clear across town at the bank, and that is the only one. “Are you a hiker?” She asks. When I confirm, she jumps into action. “Oh, hikers are my personal ministry!” She counts out all the coins and lets me use her laundry detergent. She explains that she is returning to Texas tomorrow and was just going to leave the detergent anyway, and prefers not to carry the quarters. This is true town magic!

A True Zero

The rest of my stay is restorative. I take a zero day (a day in which I hike zero miles), resupply, and enjoy putting my feet up. It rains all afternoon and I am so grateful not to be on trail for the storm. I eat at Southern Vittles and enjoy four sweet teas with my chicken fingers and gravy. San Juan Soda Shoppe feeds me incredible ice cream, so I buy a t-shirt to wear around town. I have a fun dinner with other hikers at the Packer Saloon & Cannibal Grill, and soak up the true camaraderie that hiker friends bring.

Food of champions. I ate all the Nutella before I even left Lake City.

My knee swells up, but I can walk on it without a problem. It seems to be most likely a patellar contusion (bruised kneecap), so I tape it well and hope it is minor.

My carefully taped knee. I could walk on it without issue, but it was quite swollen.

My husband and I plan logistics for his trip to meet me in Durango, at the end. I cannot believe I am thinking about the end already. I feel exhausted and thrilled to be where I am already, and so proud of all I have accomplished. Anxiety about the next section of trail is creeping up, though. I will be hiking entirely above treeline for about two full days, and that exposure comes with new concerns. The weather is a little iffy the next day or two, and bad weather above treeline is a whole different experience. But there is nothing I can do but go forward. I have been looking forward to the San Juans and cannot turn back now. I have come so far already.

Lake City Recommendations

I mentioned quite a few places above, but thought it might be helpful to anyone hiking the trail to have a comprehensive list of good spots in Lake City. In summary: Lake City is a MUST stop for hikers.

Lake City Trail Hiker Center – An amazing location set up just for hikers in the summer. It is staffed with volunteers and offers WiFi, hiker boxes, coffee/tea, charging stations, toiletries, and awesome camaraderie. They also offer a community dinner every Sunday. I missed it, but highly recommend. They are the location for the shuttle pick-up and drop-off, which allows you to access Lake City without hitching, if you prefer.

Matterhorn Motel – Spacious rooms, hiker-friendly staff, affordable rates. If you are looking for something more than the hostel or RV camp experience, I recommend this spot. I made my reservation here the day prior to arriving and got the last room.

Raven’s Rest Hostel – I didn’t stay here, but several folks I hiked with did and loved it. They don’t take reservations, so it is first-come, first-served.

Bushwhack Lodge – I don’t know about the lodgings, but the food was lovely! Had a taco salad and the chicken was fresh and well-seasoned. It was my first meal after leaving trail, though.

Southern Vittles – (picture below) Classic southern eats. Great for the hiker hunger. I had a million sweet teas and enjoyed the gravy, especially.

San Juan Soda Company – A MUST stop. Absolutely delicious ice cream and amazing offerings.

Packer Saloon & Cannibal Grill – A fun bar and grill with extensive (dog-friendly) outdoor seating.

Country Store – The local grocery. They try to cater to hikers and have a decent selection and a very friendly staff.

Lost Sock Laundromat – Pretty standard laundromat, decently clean and priced about what I expected for a mountain town (and much less than Leadville). There is a change machine and a machine to buy detergent, but no ATM.

My meal at Southern Vittles. This was probably my third sweet tea.

Daily Stats

Day 12

Trail miles hiked: 10.4
1840 gain/ 2330 descent
Campsite elevation: Lake City zero at 8663
End of Segment 21
133.3 miles since Day 1
357.8 trail miles from Denver

Day 13: Zero!

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Comments 4

  • Ruth Morley : Oct 19th

    Hello, fellow Ruth. On trail, I’m known as Ruthless. . I finished my thru hike on September 12, and reading your descriptive narratives brings me right back there. Love your writing and love the trail! I’m so sorry Snow Mesa was an unpleasant experience for you. I had a beautiful afternoon there, but I agree with your frustration over the unexpected steps ups and downs. And that finish! Yikes! It was magnificent to look at, if only we didn’t have to walk through it.

    I’m here on trek.co too. Check me out, as well as my FB page “Heart-Healthy Hiking.” Happy trails!

    • Ruth : Oct 19th

      Hi Ruth! I am so glad you are enjoying these posts! I am super excited to read yours, as well – I saw your last post, and made a mental note to go back and read the rest. Time to get going on that! I can’t wait to revel in your experience.

      Truthfully, I want to go back and experience Snow Mesa again because I think I was so distracted by the rush to get to town and my lack of snacking that I couldn’t enjoy it, but it was quite unique and beautiful (except for the descent!).

      • Ruth Morley : Oct 20th

        As I hear you saying maybe you will revisit Snow Mesa, I think back to when I finished in Durango and was so incredibly happy and so sure I’d never repeat this journey. I just do long trails once and then seek out a new adventure. But I can’t get the vistas and the trail community out of my mind. Maybe if I did it as a NOBO? Then it’d be a new experience. 🙂

        • Ruth : Oct 20th

          Ha, when I finished I said I would never do anything like this again! But 6 weeks later, I remember it so much more fondly, so who knows! Maybe if I did it with the East instead of West route I did this time, it would feel different? 🙂


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