The Last Time Over 12,000 Feet: Colorado Trail Day 21
Day 21 – September 2
I wake to headlights bobbing on the trail beside my tent. My tent is near the side trail to the overlook, and quite a few hikers either want to catch the sunrise at the overlook, or head to the famed Indian Trail Ridge above. I have no such notions, rather wanting to experience it through the trees as I hike.
As I begin packing up, a hiker nearby leaps out of their tent. They run past me towards the overlook, camera in hand, mumbling something about sleeping through their alarm. I smile, secure my pack, and hike off towards the ridge.
Following the Sun
The sunrise through the trees is unreal. It is a bit of a cloudy morning, misting on and off. The clouds give the sunrise more fuel, and the colors are astounding. I see views all the way through the trees as I climb up to the ridge. But I also begin to feel a strong sense that something else is out there, following me. I keep thinking I hear something, but when I stop I hear just the silence and normal rustling of the forest. Nevertheless, the feeling persists for about a quarter of a mile.
A mile or so later, I see a buck and a younger buck eating near the trail. They freeze as they look at me. The sense of being followed has been gone for a while now. I don’t think it was them. Months later, I actually still don’t know what it was, if anything. But I do wonder if this was my closest interaction with a cougar on the trail.
Indian Trail Ridge
Shortly after seeing the deer, the rain starts again more seriously. I look ahead to the clouds with concern. Indian Trail Ridge is one of the most beautiful small stretches of trail, but is notoriously exposed. I have been told it is difficult to bail off the ridge if the weather turns. The Databook even calls out “last place to easily exit Indian Trail Ridge” at one point. I refuse to have another close call with lightning.
Thunderstorms are rare this early in the day, though not improbable. As I climb, I consider how to make the right judgment call. Just as I step into an open field, the rain lightens. A rainbow appears straight across from me.
It seems like a sign from somewhere, telling me that today, I will be safe.
I look ahead. Other hikers are forging onward, rain jackets on. Clouds are present but not too dark. The rain is light, and I do not see thunderheads. On this journey, I wanted to learn to hone my instincts. Right now, my instincts tell me it is safe to move forward. I take a deep breath and continue up towards the ridge.
There is lots of climbing ahead, but once properly on the ridge, the views never end. In the distance, I see rain falling, with sun next to it. This weather makes for dramatic vistas. The climb is challenging at points, but absolutely worth it. And once again, the same friendly faces share the ridge with me. Raindrop and Uncle pass me up some challenging switchbacks. I run into Jacob and Bobbi on the descent, and Hannah shortly thereafter. Any lingering concerns I had for the clouds are wiped away with the companionship.
I am also relieved to learn there are actually several lower and semi-sheltered spots on the ridge. There certainly are a number of narrow, scree ridge walks that would be exposed during a storm. But between those, the trail drops and there are frequent small copses of trees and willow bushes that could provide some protection. They certainly wouldn’t be ideal, but are better than what I imagined.
The narrow ridge-walks are the most exposed spots I have hiked on this trail. They are stunning yet challenging, made mostly of scree and rock. I have a hard time picturing equestrians and bicyclists on this stretch of trail, but I know they regularly manage it. It would be an impressive feat to see.
An Anticipated View
As I researched this trail, I saw lots of photos of beautiful views. Two particular views stood out to me as ones I especially couldn’t wait to experience. The first was the Elk Creek Drainage in Segment 24, shortly after departing the CDT. The second is just appearing: Taylor Lake. Just after the high point on Indian Trail Ridge, hikers turn for a steep and rocky descent with Taylor Lake ahead. It is a stunning view, with uniquely shaped lakes just below and mountain ridges behind.
I am stopped in my tracks at the top of the descent. With the moody clouds and early fall colors, the view is more than I expected. As I pause with Jacob and Bobbi to take photos, we realize a important milestone: this is last time we will be above 12,000 feet. I can’t help but smile. I am a Colorado girl through and through, but after all my altitude issues on this journey, I am ready for lower elevation. Camp tonight will likely be around 9,000 feet. My lungs are ecstatic.
The descent to Taylor Lake is steep and full of loose rock (my favorite, ugh), but each step brings a new viewpoint on the landscape. It is all breathtaking. I take a break at the lake to filter water and eat some snacks. The break doesn’t last long. My enthusiasm at being so near the end is making my feet feel twitchy, so I get started.
Segment 28 – The Last Segment!
Within a mile, I reach the parking lot at Kennebec Trailhead. Being so near Durango on the Saturday of a holiday weekend, I start seeing lots of day hikers and overnight backpackers on trail. Hunting season just opened, and I see bow hunters hiking into Taylor Lake in their full camouflage gear. ATVs and Jeeps are making use of the back roads. The trailhead lot is full. I am definitely returning to civilization.
I cross the lot and unceremoniously enter Segment 28. Half of me expects fireworks and celebratory cannons as I start my last segment of the trail. I feel excitement and anticipation, but don’t feel as strongly as I expected. It is almost too much. I cannot fully let myself feel it quite yet.
I catch up with Bobbi and Jacob just as we crest Kennebec Pass. The climb was short and mild. Now, just one small climb remains between here and the end. At the very top of the pass, we are greeted by a sassy marmot. I am literally next to the marmot on the trail before I realize it is there. It does not care about us hikers. This is clearly the marmot’s trail, and we are merely guests.
I head down the trail toward the slide rock traverse, the last part of trail that makes me nervous. The trail here crosses a hillside made entirely of loose, red, sliding rock. The CT Databook even contains a warning for hikers to exercise caution here. Considering all the risks of the trail that don’t come with a warning, that is notable.
I catch up with Hannah and we carefully cross the slide rock as we chat. She hasn’t seemed particularly excited about wanting a trail name, but seeing the marmot at the pass gave me inspiration. Hannah frequently takes pictures as if from the perspective of a marmot, and talks often about both marmots and pikas. Thus, I propose “Marmot” as her trail name. Half of me thinks she doesn’t want a trail name, and I won’t be offended if she declines. But she accepts!
She laughs. “Yes, for the last 24 hours of this hike, I will be Marmot!”
The Beginning of the End
A day hiker approaches from the other direction with his dog, and we creatively find a way to step aside – not easy on these rocks. He stops to chat with us and mentions that he lives in Durango, pointing. I have been so focused on my footsteps on this tricky section that I haven’t looked up. There, straight from where he points, is Durango. This is my first time seeing it. I walked here with my own two feet. Suddenly the emotion that didn’t appear at the beginning of the segment wells up, and tears of pride drip down my cheeks.
Soon enough, we are through the slide rock and back into the trees. I know the big views are gone now that the elevation is decreasing, but I am still excited to be back in the trees. You can’t spend most of your hiking hours in the PNW without a deep love for tree cover.
The descent starts in earnest, climbing down from 11,300 feet to 8,500 in the span of about 6 miles. It is a lot on the knees and feet, and I stop at a crossing of Junction Creek about a mile from the bottom to take some pressure off of my feet. My Altra Olympus shoes, with nearly 300 miles, are reaching the end of their lifespan. The cushioning on the bottom has flattened considerably and the tread is nearly gone. I feel it deep in my arches today. I am grateful for trekking poles.
This descent is working its way down Junction Creek, crossing it several times. Throughout the hike down, I keep getting passed by mountain bikers. It appears there is a mountain biking race of some kind going on. Most of the bikers are extremely courteous, calling out, with plenty of time for me to step aside. One, though, nearly knocks me off the trail as they pass. I hear their tires at the last second and leap aside, heart pounding. It puts me on edge, but thankfully, they are an anomaly.
By 2:30, I make it to the last crossing on Junction Creek until tomorrow. Raindrop and Uncle have already set up camp and are filtering water. Marmot shows up shortly after I do, and starts setting up. She has friends hiking in from Durango to join her for this last night, and they show up right before she does. There is a lovely, volunteer-built bridge along with a large camping area, but it is starting to fill up. The last climb before Durango starts immediately after the bridge.
I had considered camping here, but it is early. The camping area is filling quickly. Ultimately, I want tomorrow to be as easy as possible so I can make the most of my last day on trail and not feel rushed. I filter water, have a substantial snack, and say my goodbyes before making my way up the hill.
This is the last time I see Raindrop, Uncle, and Marmot. While I only camped with Raindrop once, she was a staple in my day, passing me on trail every morning and serving as an inspiration during this last section from Silverton. Marmot was a meaningful camp companion these last few nights, and someone I learned so much from. Each person I hiked with taught me something about humanity and myself, and I can never thank them enough. Marmot, if you read this, I wish you nothing but the best in your new endeavors! Thank you for putting up with me on trail.
The Last Camp
I immediately head uphill the remaining mile to a ridgetop camp I read about in FarOut. Usually, I dread climbing at the end of the day, but this one surprises me with its ease. I quickly realize it doesn’t feel easy because the grade is less, but rather because of the altitude. Below 9,000 feet, my cardio is noticeably stronger. I feel my true strength on this climb, making great time and not stopping to catch my breath.
At the top, the trail levels out before climbing gradually to the final high point on the Colorado Trail. But I do not continue today. There are quite a few campsites on the ridge. It is a little before 3:30 pm, which is still early, but I am ready for a relaxing last afternoon on trail. I find a a nice spot, right on the ridge, and set up.
The Same Clouds
I even have a little bit of cell signal. Alex messages me, “I can see your clouds.” I grin, and look up. He is in Durango. We are, indeed, looking at the same clouds.
Alex spent today driving to the beginning of Segment 27 to clean up the empty containers and food from the water cache yesterday. He actually wasn’t able to drive all the way – the road was too rough – and ended up hiking up the back road on an injured knee to retrieve it all. He heard something growling loudly at him in the forest, and encountered people volunteering for the mountain bike race. They offered to pack everything out for us, so he didn’t have to carry it all down the road.
I was a little worried about him all day, in the back of my mind, so I am thrilled to hear from him. We are able to chat a little on the phone, and I feel an aching pang of longing to see him. I know I will see him tomorrow, but it feels so far. It is difficult to be away from a partner on journeys like these. As we hang up the phone, the ache slowly changes into excited anticipation. I am almost done. He will meet me at the end. I cannot wait.
The Final Night
Bobbi and Jacob join me at camp. After we are set up, we eat dinner and reminisce on our journeys together. It is lovely to have company and a beautiful campsite my last night on the trail. I know that tomorrow, everyone will go at their own pace, and I may not see anyone again. Hiking is about togetherness and independence all at one time. Ultimately, a long distance trip like this is an individual journey.
As dinner wraps up, my stomach announces that something I ate didn’t agree with it. I quickly make my way down the hill to handle my business. In the rush of the moment, I rip my expensive Montbell rain pants on a thorn bush and ruin my long underwear. The long underwear serves as my pajamas, so could be a huge bummer this last night on trail. Instead, I laugh. This adventure has changed how I react to small setbacks. It is warm enough at this lower altitude that I can sleep in just underwear. Good thing it is the last night on trail.
Finishing my camp chores, I realize it is not just my rain pants and long underwear that are compromised. The “odorproof” liner of my Ursack is completely ripped. The zipping seal no longer zips and is wide open. We are in bear country, but the Ursack should do the job by itself. I just make sure to hang it a little farther from my tent.
Ready for Tomorrow
I am oddly calm and ready as I crawl into my tent to sleep. Tomorrow, the journey that I have planned for two years will end. I still don’t know what could come in these last 14 miles. I just know that I am ready for it.
Trail miles hiked: 15.9
2655 gain/ 4890 descent
Campsite elevation: 9,000 feet (finally!)
8.2 miles into Segment 28
244 trail miles hiked since Day 1
472.9 trail miles from Denver
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