In the Heart of the Colorado Trail’s Grad School: the San Juan Mountain Range
I’ve read somewhere that all that southbound (SOBO) hikers have done on the trail up to San Luis pass approaching Creede has simply prepared them for what would be demanded of them in the following San Juan Mountain range. As for the NOBO beginning from the flats of Durango, after their relentless multi-day ascent up into this towering mountain range, they might be questioning all the other decisions as well that they have made in their lives.
I have found that these sections are certainly demanding with lots of steep ascents and descents, but as others say glowingly, the views and the atmosphere of the high country make it worth it. In a way, it’s kind of like parenthood. It can be really tough and sometimes you’re not so crazy about the individual involved, but as soon as you reach a good point, all is forgiven and you’re ready for more.
I last left you as I was being as I was leaving my childhood town of Creede, bound for Lake City. Many thanks to Paula, who gave me a lift back up the steep gravel road to where I could connect with Colorado Trail. I was intentionally carrying just two days’ worth of food to keep my pack weight low, knowing I had several very long, steep uphills to get going towards Lake City.
In the afternoon, I came to where I could see a wide space called the Snow Mesa, which I would be walking across for a couple of hours.
It really was a beautiful place and I kept thinking of this song “Wide Open Spaces” by the Dixie Chicks. Another backpacker advised that I get as much distance as possible covered on areas above the timberline in good weather in order to not be caught by typical afternoon thunderstorms, so I put the pedal to the metal and decided instead of camping by a lake there that night, I would push on a few more miles to get down to Lake City.
It was a good decision. After several hours on the mesa, I scooted down an extremely rocky gravel path in a boulder field, being very careful to not twist anything.
Arriving successfully at a relatively busy two-lane highway, I stuck out my thumb for a ride down to Lake City. It took 15 minutes before I was able to catch a ride, after thinking very unkind thoughts about all the drivers who had passed me by with empty backseats. Of course, I certainly understand their hesitancy, but if only they knew that I’m a harmless gramma! This driver was a nice fellow, but he admitted he was a bad driver and he was right. He didn’t quite understand that it’s a good practice to slow down on steep curves, and the yellow line is put in the middle of the road for a reason, especially on curves.
However, I arrived alive in Raven’s Rest Hostel, a casual, funky little place, where lots of hikers were gathered in the patio. It was great fun, already knowing three or four of them from previous encounters on the trail or at hostels.
The two bunk rooms were nearly full, and I was going to have to sleep on a top bunk, made difficult by no ladder, only climbers’ toe holds on one upright post. But the hiking community is a good one. A young male offered to sleep on the upper bunk and give me his lower bunk, and I made no pretense of refusing. Happily, the gang at the hostel was fun and lively, but not big partiers. It quieted down at a very decent hour. I slept superbly that night after working so hard, not just today but all the previous weeks.
The next day I took a full zero in Lake City, unlike the nero I had thought it might have been if I had camped back on the Snow Mesa. I’ll admit I felt a bit like a slacker, having had a zero just two days before back in Creede. Oh well, I earned it. HYOH (Hike Your Own Hike). I started the day with my own private session of yoga in the park right behind the hostel, where later that day we could enjoy the music at the Labor Day festivities.
Because the hostel didn’t accept the shipment of food boxes, I went to the Sportsman’s Fly Outfitters which accepted packages for no fee whatsoever. There, I was able to also arrange a 6:00 a.m. pick up for a shuttle back to the trail the next day, for which I was grateful.
Lake City is a very cute little town, green with cottonwood trees everywhere, which often grow near a water source. There’s a great mix of former miners’ cottages, log cabins and lovely restored Victorian homes from the heyday of the silver boom in the late 1800’s.
At the hostel, as I was packing up my bear canister with my new shipment of food, several hikers were very interested in my way of eating, asking many questions and enjoying samples. There have never been any crass jokes from hikers which others occasionally make, referring to my eating of twigs and bark. It was a great day and I was very glad I had taken the time for a full zero day in lake City.
My third day in the San Juans was a big one, 20 miles. I had a nice early start because of kind Ben, our shuttle driver.
I was hiking by 6:45 after being dropped off by the shuttle driver seven miles up from Lake City.
Rain was forecast, but only a few drops fell. I took this as proof that, in rain and in life, one should certainly take the appropriate precautions (I had all my rain gear, of course), but then go ahead and live life to the fullest.
It was uphill the majority of these 20 miles, most of them easy, some steep and very rocky, basically the norm.
As I got higher, I was able to look back at the Snow Mesa where I had hiked two days before. Again, I love these big expansive areas.
I only passed a few NOBOS, but one of them said that I was the 40th SOBO he had passed that day. So many more thru-hikers go in this direction, saving the most challenging range till the end. I’m also sure many were day hikers because this area was relatively easily accessed, but I’m just not seeing people in the distance.
There were only two water options all day, so I carried an extra liter of water, resenting the extra 2.2 pounds but appreciating the water.
Finally I came to a good water source where I had planned on camping and met the very friendly Anji and Jodi. Being in a valley, it was very windy and difficult to set up the tents, but it was so nice to have the company.
In the distance, Anji pointed out a moose which was rewarding.
The temperature got into the low 40s and with the wind that night, it felt even colder. But I was very proud of my 20 tough miles I had hiked and feel like I’m still getting stronger. We all settled down in our tents, which glowed with the light of our electronic devices, when we heard a female voice, coming from up on the trail, saying, “Do you have room for one more tent down there?” In the dark! Jenny joined us after hiking for awhile by headlamp, collecting water and looking for a flat space. I would be scared to death to hike at night and she was too. We welcomed her and we all eventually settled down again in our tents, ready for sleep. However, the winds greatly increased during the night, disturbing everyone’s sleep. In the morning, we found out that all of us were concerned that the sound of our own tents flapping had disturbed the others’ sleep. Such is the way of women.
Day 40 of this adventure had me doing 16.2 miles, after awakening at 5:00 a.m. in the dark as usual, for my 6:30 a.m. departure, as did the other ladies as well. As close friends, Anji and Jodee hiked together,
but the rest of us hiked alone, as is our norm. This was definitely the toughest day for me in the San Juans, with incline after incline after incline, some of the hardest I’ve done, but also with lots of amazing views of the high country.
It was an extremely windy day, knocking me back-and-forth at times, in which I was afraid I might be blown off my feet. Many of the trails had steep drop offs to one side, which was not a pleasant experience with that wind.
There was a very long stretch known for the multiple cairns that volunteers had constructed to help guide the hikers. It was fun seeing how they varied.
Tired of all these challenges the past six weeks, I was now very tired of sleeping cold, hiking cold at these elevations, and all the stupid hills going up for what seemed all the time. I was ready for home, but couldn’t figure out a way I could quit and still save face. But I knew I wouldn’t. Only seven more hiking days and a lot of wonderful views ahead of me. Just do it and be proud. So I continued.
I camped alone that night, nestled in some bushes as tightly as I could manage, to avoid all the flapping of the tent. That more or less achieved its purpose that night.
Day 41 had me doing 16 1/2 miles. When I awoke, my little thermometer on my backpack said it was 32°, with some wind. Stuffing my frozen fingers into my gloves, they finally warmed up once the sun hit them. After some time, it turned into a calm, sunny A+ day, and the trail was not nearly as cruel as it had been to the hikers the previous day.
However, the declines continue to be steep, and pebbly, which causes a lot of slippage, as if you’re walking on ball bearings. You just get through it.
There were gorgeous peaks as I descended out of the high country down towards Silverton all afternoon.
It took me down countless switchbacks (much safer than straight down on those blasted pebbles),
through a narrow canyon,
walking across boulder and scree fields.
But I found these contrast quite interesting. At one point I came across a pack of goats that were being led by their two owners up to my camp mates, Anji and Jodi, who had said they were going to be assisted by the pack goats up the next day’s steep ascent to the pass that leads to Silverton .
Eventually, reaching the end to THIS descent (trust me, there’ll be plenty more), I crossed the railroad tracks of the Silverton- Durango historic steam engines
and camped with a nice couple near there by a creek. It was so great to have company again, and to be sleeping lower and protected by trees, and therefore much warmer night on the trail.
I looked forward to my next day, which was much shorter, resulting in both a nero and a zero in Silverton, my final rest day on this trail. I was relieved to be back lower in the trees, feeling somewhat safer from winds and storms there. As well, thunderstorm season does seem to be past now, so the high country doesn’t have that threat hanging over its head. This was a good day.
My last day in these sections, Day 42 on the trail, was only five miles uphill almost the whole time to the highway that would take me to Silverton, a famous little village known obviously for its previous silver mining history. However, the night before, in my last camp, when looking in the forest for a secure place to wedge my bear canister, I accidentally stepped in a lopsided hole that was hidden under leaves, twisting my knee that has a history of being problematic at times. By the time I went to bed, it was aching, and the next morning I could see it was swollen and was painful to walk on, especially going downhill. What a huge disappointment! The body has been cooperating with me superbly for this entire trip and the knee has never been a problem, thanks to previous knee exercises, KT tape and a modest knee wrap. Would I be able to finish today’s big hike uphill to the highway, would I have to stop this whole trek with only five days remaining? If that ended up being the case, I knew that I would eventually come back to Silverton and do my five days to complete my trek. Meanwhile, I just took it very easy, knowing I had only five miles to go and going uphill did not hurt the knee much at all. Hooray also for Advil, which I usually avoid.
One nice highlight that morning was walking through a place called Elk Park and actually seen two big elk running in the distance. Sure wish I’d see more moose too.
Once gratefully to the highway, I joined a male backpacker I had met in Lake City and we stuck out our thumbs. Within 10 minutes, a young woman stopped to pick us up. It looks like my technique of wearing my pink raincoat when hitching, because she said she wasn’t going to stop when she saw just Hugh, but then saw me and pulled over.
On my first visit to Silverton, I found the sweet little town nicely nestled between several mountain ranges. The downtown is extremely cute and well-maintained with its historic buildings holding multiple gift shops and restaurants.
The town seems to be very dependent on the arrival three times a day of the historic Silverton-Durango steam engine ride.
In the summer it’s packed and there were still many visitors at this time shopping and dining . I’m staying in a modest strip motel that is nicer inside than outside, so I guess that’s best. I’ve run into a couple of other hikers I know, including the women with whom I had shared the very windy tent-flapping night, and, yes, they had been assisted by the gear-carrying goats to get up to that highway. Today, my zero day, I spent my lunch having a lovely gathering with four other women.
The woman who arranged this had heard me speak twice in Chef AJ‘s Live YouTube podcast and had then followed my blog. Leah had messaged me so that we could meet each other, since she and her husband are spending the summer at a nearby RV park. What a fun, talkative lunch together! This really boosted my spirits after concern over my knee.
And so now here I sit in my motel room with my knee elevated, icing it every few hours and taking my Advil three times a day. Only five days of hiking remain, 75 miles. The time has both flown by and seemed endless. My knee is doing much better and I am now certain that I can complete this odyssey.
I’m doing my usual zero day habit in a motel of enjoying HGTV, an indication that I’m missing living in a house again. That will come soon, and I will miss living on the trail again… at some point. Just let me be back with Bill, get a change of clothes, be back in my kitchen and enjoy the comforts of modern day living for a while. Then I’ll be planning the next outing, a complete opposite to this one: my second of three long sections of the flat, warm, palm-filled Florida Trail in January. All in good time.
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