Saving the Best for Last – Colorado Trail Thru-HIke, Part 9
Moving further south along the Colorado Trail, our path during the last weeks took us higher by the day. The mountains we traversed were now well above 12,000 feet and we stayed there for days.
Increasing elevation unveiled epic views and frequently brought high winds. At times, the landscape was so otherworldly that it felt like I was immersed in a CGI set. Could this be real?
The intrepid souls who designed the Colorado Trail must have deliberately saved the best for last.
Magical San Juans
Rumor was the San Juan mountains were magical and they did not disappoint. Turn after turn, landscapes unfolded before me that defied imagination. No Instagram photos could begin to do justice to was I was seeing in person. This was the real deal.
One afternoon I struggled up a long climb when the saddle ahead suddenly revealed itself. Cresting the pass I found myself next to San Luis Peak, a fourteener that felt like it was just an arm’s length away in that crisp, clear air.
A few people were milling around on the summit, and I wondered if I should have planned to join them. I shook my head, “Not today.” The view from that height was literally dizzying. I stopped to take it in for a moment then hurried along, desperate to get to a lower elevation so I would not feel as if I was about to fall from the face of the earth.
Later, after Gunslinger and I started hiking together, we encountered peak after peak with terrain that seemed to change by the minute. Rocks that were greenish two miles back were now red, brown, gray, or even white.
One creek we approached had a ghostly white cast that puzzled me. “What is that?” I asked in disbelief as we got closer. The whole stream was lined with glowing white stones instead of the usual gray or brown. It was at once eerie and breathtaking.
By now the fatigue that plagued me for most of my hike was fading into memory. I was hiking stronger than ever. We covered more distance each day, with time to stop and savor peaks, meadows, and views.
We fell into a pleasant hiking rhythm, growing accustomed to hiking at elevations of 11,000 or even 12, 000 feet. We started our days early to beat the summer heat. Monsoon thunderstorms often made an appearance by early afternoon, and we were not always successful at evading them.
Then one morning Gunslinger started feeling the effects of altitude, and we grew concerned. We were just outside of Silverton and planned to hop on the narrow-gauge tourist train for a ride into town.
Many CT hikers take a short side trail to catch the train on its scenic route along the Animas River from Durango to Silverton. It only passes southbound once each day, and we would need to be in the meadow on schedule to flag it down with a special hand signal.
Thru-hiking is nothing if not unpredictable; plans can change in an instant. Altitude sickness is nothing to mess around with. It can escalate quickly, and we took Gunslinger’s symptoms seriously.
Our dream of an idyllic train ride was quickly discarded, although not without a good dose of disappointment. We needed to get to a lower elevation quickly so Gunslinger could rest and rebound.
Thankfully, she was able to arrange a ride into town. It was pricy but necessary. Late that afternoon, our driver picked us up on an ATV road just as another storm began to drop icy cold torrents of rain on us.
The ride down the mountain was a nail-biter. The Jeep clung perilously to the soggy edge of countless switchbacks as we snaked the 10 miles into town at a snail’s pace. Our driver told us of a recent, tragic ATV accident here, and we thanked the trail Gods for an expert at the wheel.
Back in the Old West
We rode into the historic mining town of Silverton, and I was instantly transported back in time. The town conjured visions of the Old West on every block. Side streets paved with dirt reached left and right from the asphalt of the main street. Beyond those few roads, mountains rose on every side.
Our driver took the long way into town. She shared local legends and pointed out old mining operations as we made our way to the hostel. When she dropped us off, we walked into the old Avon hotel not knowing what to expect.
This one-time brothel on the once seedy (now touristy) side of town had recently been transformed into a hotel and hostel bursting with eclectic décor. The owner welcomed us warmly and before long we were settled, showered, and ready for a good meal.
My bacon cheeseburger at Handlebars tasted like heaven, melting in my mouth. This might be a small town, but it had world-class burgers in my book! With the hearty meal tucked away, Gunslinger seemed to be feeling better already.
Bellies full, we strolled back to the Avon ready to crash for the night. Tomorrow would be our last Colorado Trail zero day, full of a flurry of town chores like laundry and resupply. It’s often a frenzy to get everything done and still find time to relax, but somehow, I managed.
The Home Stretch
Pretty soon we found ourselves back on the trail, with just a few days left to hike. It was hard to believe that this journey – which was so unexpectedly challenging for me – was almost over.
We relished our last few days of hiking, taking long breaks to enjoy the views and stopping to camp early when storms threatened.
On our second to last day, we were pushing hard, aiming for a short day into Durango on Friday. We started the morning flying down the trail but by noon, it was clear the weather had other plans.
Dark clouds began gathering around mid-day and we paused to assess. We needed to cross two summits at the end of the day to stay on schedule. The sky looked ominous, but when we reached a ridge and looked both ways, the storms seemed to be moving away.
It was time to press on.
An hour later, storms on three sides appeared to be pursuing us. We were on the cusp of the tree line, about to start a 2-mile trek to the first summit. Should we stay or should we go?
Mother Nature Is Boss
A brilliant flash of lightning accompanied by an immediate crash of thunder gave us the answer. It was only 2 p.m. when we found a little campsite and pitched our tents. We intended to wait out the storm and then continue hiking, covering four more miles to camp by a lake that night.
Gunslinger used her GPS to get a weather report. It showed a clear weather window around 3 p.m., which might be enough for us to get going. “Let’s do it,” we agreed.
Mother Nature disagreed and threw down a cascade of hail starting at about 2:45. The rain and hail were so heavy that water drops bounced up under the vestibule of my tent, creating the illusion that it was raining inside.
The downpour continued for hours, peppered by blasts of thunder and lightning. A couple of soggy hikers stopped and set their tents nearby. It didn’t look like any of us would be leaving this evening. So much for our schedule, those four miles would have to wait.
Come morning, the sky was crystal clear. It was the kind of cloudless Bluebird sky I loved, that gave me my new trail name. The angry storm clouds of the previous afternoon were long gone.
We got up with the dawn and broke camp as the sun peeked over the horizon. Walking along that high ridge with the sunrise beside me and miles of valleys below me was an experience I won’t soon forget.
In fact, every facet of that glorious morning put all the other sunrises of my hike to shame. “Thank goodness we didn’t hike out last night,” I thought, “I would have missed this!”
Miles to Go
We had to make up some distance to get back on schedule, but the first few miles that morning were so amazing, that we simply couldn’t speed through them.
I trekked up steep switchbacks that criss-crossed a huge rock fall, grateful I hadn’t tried that trick in the rain. Surely these rocks would have been slippery. I would have been cursing my luck and praying not to fall.
Instead, delicious golden light bathed the trail and illuminated the mountains as wildflowers bobbed their heads. I didn’t want this hike to end.
Soon we arrived at what I would call a rock bridge, crossing a saddle with boulders and scree cascading down for thousands of feet on each site. “How did anyone create this?” I wondered in awe.
The next traverse took us across the top of a sheer wall of rock with a turret-like formation at the top. I couldn’t see where the trail led, but I knew I’d be climbing up that castle like a princess in a fairy tale.
I made my way up and over, having a grand time. Then in an instant, I found myself at the “summit.” It certainly didn’t look like one and I would have missed it if I hadn’t checked my Far Out app wondering, “How much further?”
Expansive meadows bursting with wildflowers greeted me and I dropped my back for a break. Gunslinger soon joined me and we sat soaking our last big view. Hummingbirds danced among the flowers, and I could have stayed all day. But I didn’t.
Last Night on the Trail
We pushed as far as we could that day, and then some. Haste and fatigue led to missing the campsite we aimed for, so we tacked on a bonus mile or two. Just when I was ready to drop on the side of the trail for a dirt nap, Gunslinger strode quickly ahead.
“What’s she doing?” I puzzled, jogging ahead 10 paces to catch her. “How’s this,” she asked, pointing to a pretty near-perfect campsite right in the crook of a switchback. ‘This’ll do,” I agreed.
Wistful feelings took over as we set camp for the last time. I couldn’t get my tent to pitch just right. It took me three tries before I was satisfied. Did I really matter now? Probably not, but I wanted to remember my last evening as perfect, not a night of tent surfing as I repeatedly moved my sliding sleeping pad back into position.
Finally satisfied, I cooked my dinner, and we reflected on the hike as we ate. We were both very thankful to end with a hiking buddy and not solo, as we had each been hiking for most of the trail. Sharing the journey added so much color and dimension to the experience.
“I need to write a little book about the trials of hiking alone,” I told Gunslinger, and she agreed I should.
No More Miles to Hike
After rain in the night, I woke to the glow of dawn softly illuminating the inside of my tent. I opened the door and peeked out. My persistence in setting my tent gave me a lovely sunrise view over the next ridge. I didn’t want to pack up, so I ate breakfast where I was, moving slowly.
The sky brightened and I ruefully broke camp. What a bittersweet feeling. I worked so hard to get here, wondering every day if I would actually finish this trail. Now I had just 12 miles to hike, and I’d be done. Suddenly, I didn’t want it to end.
Thru-hiking is a strange dichotomy of “Let’s hurry up and get there,” and “I need to soak up every moment.” It’s hard to have both, but I felt like I had done a pretty good balancing act.
Feeling reflective and a little melancholy, I hiked in silence for a while. I reflected on my early health issues and the fall that sent me home for a few days. I could have quit so many times, but I didn’t. This trail was more difficult than I imagined and more rewarding. It would take a while to process all the lessons I had earned.
Every step took us lower, and the ecosystems began to change visibly, with different types of rocks, grasses, and trees. We were now on the last, slow descent into Durango. No more big climbs, and soon, no more miles to hike.
Gunslinger and I chattered like schoolgirls as we covered those final miles. A woman hiking behind us caught up and asked with a smile, “Do you always talk like that when you hike?”
We both laughed. “Never!”
The excitement of the day had taken over, we were ebullient in anticipation of the end.
At Last…This is It
Lower elevation brought an onslaught of summer heat. When we reached a rolling creek, we dropped our packs to cool off for a minute, then crossed the wide, sturdy bridge. Immediately we began seeing more day hikers, many with dogs or children in tow.
I missed Forest and was looking forward to some puppy kisses soon. Andy messaged me that he was delayed by road work along the way, so we slowed our pace and split up for a while, lost in our thoughts.
A few miles later we could sense the end of the trail was close. A thunderstorm threatened, then moved on after depositing just a few sprinkles. We crossed a few creeks where kids and couples splashed on the banks. We greeted day hikers and bikers. Cars came into view.
Happy voices echoed down the last stretch of trail. Two women we had been leap-frogging all day reached the end of the trail just before us, and they were celebrating by the sign.
We did it!
Congratulatory hugs for all. Photos taken. Rides procured. Cars Departed.
The sun shifted lower as the afternoon progressed. A weighty silence fell. The parking lot was mostly empty now. Andy and Forest were still working their way towards us, giving me time to think and process.
“I just finished the Colorado Trail!”
After nearly two years of planning, trying, and fighting to get here, I needed to let that sink in for a while.
The triptych of signs at the trailhead was not an epic summit like Mount Katahdin on the Appalachian Trail, but it felt almost sweeter to be here in this dirt lot at last. Was this journey harder than the AT for me? Maybe in a different way. I didn’t quite understand why yet.
I’d find out soon enough.
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