Oh, So These Are Trail Legs: Colorado Trail Days 18-19
Day 18 – August 30
Pat drops me at the Molas Lake Campground right when they open at 7 am. Pat helps run the Avon hotel with his brother in Silverton. He also graciously offers affordable rides for hikers to Molas Pass or Molas Lake. He said that he doesn’t ordinarily give rides this early to just one hiker, but was willing to help out when I couldn’t find anyone else to join. I tipped extra in appreciation. (I highly recommend the Avon – an absolute gem in Silverton.)
When I started my hike this year, I did not plan to take the train into Silverton. My plan was to hike all the way to Molas Lake Campground, near the end of Segment 24, and camp near there. There are showers and a small shop. I sent a resupply box to myself at the campground. Of course, as often happens on long hikes, I changed my mind. I did decide to take the train. That means that instead of getting dropped at Molas Pass, the start of Segment 25, I need to retrieve my box a couple miles back up the trail.
I gather my box at the campground, and the folks running the little store direct me to a covered, protected area for hikers. It even has a power strip for charging! I quickly pack up my resupply and start hiking by 8 am.
Unplanned Bonus Miles
When I took the train yesterday, I knew I would need to hike a bit from the campground to return to trail. I did not realize how much more hiking there was until this morning. The campground is .7 from the CT, and then there are still 1.7 miles in Segment 24 before I even get to Molas Pass. My luck, of course; 2.4 bonus miles, all uphill. I was planning to hike 15 miles to camp, 12 of which are climbing over the first pass after Silverton. Now I have nearly 17 miles. And most of them are climbing.
These bonus miles make me a complete crank going uphill. All the gains in kindness to myself from the previous couple of hiking days seem lost. I cannot tap back into them.
Almost immediately after turning back onto the CT, I am passed by Raindrop. Raindrop! I met her the same day I met Jeff, at the green belt campsite in Segment 17. She was heading into Gunnison to meet her uncle, who was flying in to hike with her. I didn’t think I would see her again, so this is a pleasant surprise. The encounter give my cranky mood a slight boost that I try to hold onto.
It is mind-blowing to cross Highway 550 into Segment 25. Including this segment, I only have 4 left to complete. For the first time, I think I actually just might finish this trail. I feel invigorated at the thought, but as I keep climbing, the uphill crankiness takes over again.
The segment starts with an 11.3 mile climb over a pass south of Rolling Mountain. Much of the climb is gradual, but it does not start that way. Quickly, I am in an open patch out of the trees, hiking over exposed beds of sandstone, shale, and limestone. The guidebook tells me this is the Hermosa Formation, deposited in a shallow sea next to the Ancestral Rockies over 300 million years ago. It looks so different from where I was even just yesterday. It is hard to believe I am still in the San Juans. These look like completely new mountains.
The guidebook also mentions that a wildfire cleared much of this area well over a century ago. Most of the trees never returned, so there are clear views for miles. Unfortunately for me, this means I not only see the climb ahead, but also can see the highway behind for a while as I hike. I keep stopping at switchbacks and staring longingly at the highway, wondering if I should have ended my hike in Silverton. Deep down, I know only a tiny part of me wonders that. But that tiny part is awfully persuasive.
It is amazing how loud the 10% of doubt is compared the 90% of belief in myself.
Leaving town has been hard every time. The doubt and longing for comfort is so strong, but my feet keep turning back up the trail. The farther I hike from Molas Pass, the tinier the doubting voice becomes. Eventually, the grade becomes more manageable and the crowds thin out. My legs lean into the groove and find a rhythm, as I always do. I can do this. I am so close. You can’t stop now. Let’s finish this!
Several miles into the morning and the climb, I arrive at Lime Creek and am surprised to see a familiar face: Hannah. I also met her with Jeff and Raindrop at the green belt campsite in Segment 17. She did a 20+ mile day the following day, while I took a zero day, so I assumed I would never see her again. It turns out that she took a zero day in Silverton, while I decided to keep going. I saw her this morning at the hotel, but she was hitching to farther ahead on the trail. I am pleasantly surprised to catch up, especially with whining to myself about the climb all morning. We pass each other several times throughout the climb.
After lunch (a delicious strawberry shortcake smoothie from Backcountry Foodie that is filling and energizing), I start up the remaining climb. I have been climbing, gradually and sometimes steeply, all morning. On the map, this last part appeared the steepest, but it doesn’t feel as difficult as it looked. Just as I emerge from the trees, there is Hannah, taking a break.
“Just hanging with the marmots!” She says. She is taking pictures of herself from a low angle, to look as if the marmots are taking her photos. It makes me laugh.
I pass her and keep going, and find I maintain a surprising speed up the pass. Am I…am I better at climbing now? Nah, I decide. The grade must just be better than it appears on the map. I can’t suddenly be that much faster.
Thankfully, today has only one high pass to climb over. It takes nearly all day to get there, but my mood is rejuvenated at the top. It is downhill for the rest of the day, and only a couple of miles to camp. More than that, I can look behind me and see the mountains where I completed my longest hiking day ever. Ahead, I see new, fresh mountains that lead me to Durango. I have come so far.
Once I start the descent, I find a speedy rhythm and coast down the hill to camp. I pass a few decent camps on the way down, but opt to keep going. FarOut says these first camps on the descent are terrorized by “aggressive deer.” They likely have been fed by humans at some point and/or are excessively salt-seeking. I don’t need to be awakened at midnight by a deer licking my tent for the salt.
I find myself cruising into the Cascade Creek camping area by 3:30 pm. This is earlier than I usually arrive at camp, and I have already gone nearly 17 miles. That’s a fast time for me, especially considering that I started much later than usual. Once again, the thought that I feel stronger and faster appears. I concentrate on setting up camp.
I first find a campsite at the top of the hill, but when I go to get water at the creek, I see one I like better; it is protected by trees. Hannah arrives and and opts to join me. I also meet new-to-me hiker friends, Jacob and Bobbi, a sweet and friendly couple from Utah.
Cascade Creek has an amazing flow and a beautiful waterfall. As I go to gather water for the night, I see another camper in the campsites just next to the creek: Shawn! I met him way back in Segment 15 and camped with him in 16.
Hiking long distances is an experiment in meeting people, bonding with them, assuming you will never see them again, and then running into them when you least expect it.
Hannah and I eat dinner in our sheltered campsite, and I feel settled. I felt strong climbing today, and made good time despite the 2.4 bonus miles. I saw so many friendly faces, and have great camping companions. Now I have a tree-covered campsite for the first time in several nights. I feel settled and comforted by the trail, for once. My angst of the early morning is nearly forgotten.
Day 19 – August 31
I wake comforted by my tree-hugged camp. For the first morning since Segment 18, I there is no condensation inside my tent! I am immediately nauseous, as always, but it doesn’t sway the overall hopefulness I feel. Mornings on this journey have been the hardest. I always feel the most run-down and negative in the morning, with my stomach fighting me and so many miles ahead of me. But not today.
I have consistently been getting out of camp by 6:45 am, and today is no different. Hannah is still packing up and I wave goodbye, knowing she will pass me in a matter of miles. As I pass Shawn, he waves hello while eating his hot breakfast.
A New Kind of Beauty
Today has a fair amount of climbing ahead, although nothing that compares to Segments 22-24. There are also countless water sources that I cross over. The first 3 to 4 are all milky white. All the rocks touched by the water are an unnaturally pure, chalky white. FarOut comments suggest calcium carbonate or something similar. I opt not to get water from the white streams. No matter what is causing it, the streams seem full of filter-clogging minerals. I didn’t prefilter my water through a towel all through Segment 18 just to clog it now.
This segment has so many wide open views, and they are different than the pre-Silverton section of trail. There are so many flowers. In particular, corn lilies (also called false hellebore) are everywhere. The brush is so much taller and fuller here than it was just 50 miles earlier. The lilies are just starting to turn their fall colors, and the contrast between them, the evergreen trees, and the red rocks is stunning.
The last climb of Segment 25 is not too steep and contains some beautiful meadow vistas. I make good time to Celebration Lake, where Segment 26 begins.
The lake is full of unique gilled salamanders, swimming in every free spot of water they can find. I stop and grab a quick snack. This morning’s positive attitude has stayed with me. Sure, everyone has passed me – again – but now I have the trail to myself. Sure, there is a big climb this afternoon, but that will be the last difficult pass of the entire journey. You can do this. This is nothing compared to what you’ve done already. The positivity comes easy, today.
Just after the grade levels out a bit, I see Hannah stopped for lunch on a nice sitting log and join her. Shawn catches up and joins us. Most of my lunches have been alone. This is a nice change. I eat my Dill Chickpea Salad and PB Snickers as Hannah continues on. Bobbi and Jacob stop by and chat as they start the next climb.
What is hiking if not constantly passing and being passed by the same people?
After lunch, Blackhawk Pass comes into view and the real climbing begins. It is also stunning. Even on the last day of August, wildflowers persist on this side of the pass. It is lush and green. I see bikers and hikers at the very top, basking in the sunshine.
Oh, So THESE Are Trail Legs
Since I started nearly three weeks ago, climbing has made me miserable. It is has been quite frustrating. I trained for months based on what I learned from my experience last year. But starting the trail halfway through meant that altitude was not on my side. I have consistently struggled to breathe up climbs, and have had to stop frequently. It has been gradually improving, but I still often find myself gasping for air at every switchback. Ordinarily, I prefer to take slow steps, find a slow pace, and rarely stop, but that has not been possible.
Until now. Much to my surprise, I am not stopping every 50 yards. Instead, I keep hiking steadily, stopping briefly only once or twice to catch my breath on the last push to the top. I even (slowly) pass a couple of hikers on the climb, something I didn’t think would be possible on this trip. It seems my legs have finally caught up.
For the first time, I have a sense for the kind of hiker I could be on a longer hike. Never fast, but the same I was on my training hikes: consistently making my way uphill, rarely stopping. I feel acclimated, finally, and I feel the most capable I have for the past three weeks. I feel strength in a way I never have.
Once again, I discover I am so much more than I ever thought I could be.
I carry that energy all the way down the mountain with me, nearly skipping as I descend. Quickly, I arrive at my planned campsite, near the first crossing of Straight Creek. I will cross this creek one more time farther down the mountain. That will be the last reliable water source for 15 miles.
I take a break as I consider this campsite critically. The altitude is higher than I prefer to sleep. Ideally, I would like to get at least to the next crossing of Straight Creek to make tomorrow’s water carry even easier. I wait for Hannah and together we decide to continue and camp somewhere near the next creek crossing. After all, it is barely 2 pm, far too early to camp when there is energy left to expend.
We make it to the final Straight Creek crossing. I collect water and camel up nearly a full liter. This takes a while, and soon Raindrop comes by to filter for her and her uncle, who are camped nearby. She has an old-school pump filter that is nearly broken and extremely inefficient. Hannah and I let her borrow our Sawyer filters while we camel up. Shortly, Shawn shows up to collect water.
It is the second day in a row all these lovely people have ended up crossing paths with me so often, and I know Jacob and Bobbi are camping just up the trail. Hannah and I find a campsite a half mile more down the trail, and Shawn another half mile farther. All of us camp within a few miles of each other, same as last night.
I am starting to feel a sense of tramily (trail-family) for the first time.
Hannah and I have a lovely night at our campsite. Something about hiking and camping together brings down walls, and hikers are immediately vulnerable with each other. We talk about life plans, relationships, love, and how hard it is to finish our dinners. (I loved my dinner until the last four, miserable bites.)
In my tent, I get a message from Alex. He has secured a friend of a friend to leave a water cache for hikers during this long, dry stretch ahead. I feel surrounded by love and care and comfort in my little tent-home. The woes of feeling constantly fearful from a few days ago feel long gone.
Just a couple of days ago, I told Alex that I wanted to finish this hike and never hike again. It felt true when I said it, but I don’t feel it now. Instead, I feel love for the trail and for the people on it in a way I didn’t know I could. I feel open, unadulterated hope.
Trail miles hiked: 15.9 (+ .7 from campground back to CT)
3140 gain/ 2750 descent
Campsite elevation: 10,871
14.5 mi into Segment 25
197.8 trail miles since Day 1
426.6 trail miles from Denver
Trail miles hiked: 15.3
2885 gain/ 2985 descent
Campsite elevation: 10,780
9.1 miles into Segment 26
213.1 trail miles since Day 1
441.9 trail miles from Denver
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