A: I spent the month of August hiking the Colorado Trail southbound (SOBO), an almost 500 mile trail from Denver to Durango, Colorado.
[Note: If you are interested in knowing more about what The Colorado Trail is like from the point of view of people actually on the trail, please have a look at my new book, Voices of The Colorado Trail. It is the culmination of walking the trail three years in a row, asking people I met to share their dreams, hopes, and fears with me. Their voices whisper of adventure, challenge, and personal transformation.]
Q: Yikes! You mean you walked all that way? Why in the world would you want to do that!?
A: Every step, and through some of the most beautiful and varied country I’ve ever seen. The wildflowers this year were spectacular, the best I have ever seen in Colorado. I did it because I was looking for a professional job epiphany and because I have a high-school reunion coming up and I needed to lose some weight.
A: I was on the trail 30 days and this included two “zero days” in which I didn’t hike at all, but instead took a rest day in town.
Q: What kind of preparation did you do for the hike?
A: Sadly, I really didn’t prepare at all. The opportunity to do the hike came up suddenly and unexpectedly, so basically, I bought the Colorado Trail Databook, that tells you where to find water on the trail, and I just left. I wasn’t in particularly good shape, although I play tennis regularly and I had done a small amount of hiking earlier in the summer. I started with about five days worth of food and I just hitched rides into towns near the trail to resupply. Surprisingly, everything worked out perfectly. I ended the trail with absolutely no food in my backpack! I had six resupply stops: Fairplay, Breckenridge, Leadville, Salida, Lake City, and Silverton. I took rest days in Breckenridge and Lake City.
Q: How hard was it to hitch into town?
A: It was surprisingly easy. I had two hitches that took maybe 20 minutes. The rest were under five minutes. I usually got a ride in one of the first three or four cars that passed me. I made a sign that said “CO Trail Hiker,” but most days I had a ride before I could get the sign out of my pack! I was told by one older woman who picked me up that “dangerous people don’t carry hiking poles.”
Q: How far did you walk each day?
A: I tried to be hiking more or less at first light each day. I did this for a couple of reasons. First, the morning is the best time to see wildlife and the morning light often produced the best opportunities for dramatic pictures. Second, this was a very wet year in Colorado, with thunder and lightning storms developing in the afternoon. Walking in the morning was one way to avoid these storms and get over the high points of the trail safely. Starting early also gave me the opportunity to take longer and more frequent breaks, which my feet appreciated. I typically walked about 20 miles a day, unless I was going to town for a resupply. On those days I typically walked about 10 miles going into town on one day and another 10 miles coming out of town the next day.
A: I carried a Six Moon Designs Fusion 65 backpack (see my review of the pack here). It weighs just a little over two pounds. The base weight of my pack (meaning without food and water) was about 15 pounds. I carried a tarp instead of a tent, and I tried hard to carry only the things I thought I would need. When fully loaded with a resupply of food and a liter of water, my pack weighed about 25 pounds, more or less. I made a point of eating the heavier items in my pack first, to lower the weight. The average weight of my pack over the course of the trip was probably about 20 pounds. Fortunately, this was a wet year in Colorado, so even the intermittent water sources were still flowing for this trip, so I didn’t have to carry a lot of water. I typically carried about a half-liter of water with me, unless I knew water sources would be hard to find.
A: I had a Sawyer MINI Filter and Aqua Mira drops with me. My original plan was to use the Aqua Mira almost exclusively, with the Sawyer filter as back-up. In practice, I used the filter almost exclusively when I felt the need to filter water, which I did far less than half the time. Most of the time, the water sources seemed so pristine I just drank the water straight out of the stream. (I’m still healthy and Giardia free, knock on wood! I never got sick on the trail.)
A: I started out by myself, and I spent the first week or so walking mostly by myself. But there are quite a few people walking the trail at different speeds, and with different start times, etc. You run into a number of them. You might spend anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days hiking with them, before you go your own way again. I was extremely fortunate to run into two different solo hikers with whom I felt a strong affinity. The three of us enjoyed each other’s company so much that we ended up hiking the whole second half of the trail together. We were an unlikely triumvirate. I’m an old man at 63, Lisa is a 34-year-old accomplished hiker who has completed her Triple Crown by hiking all the long trails in the United State (the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail), and Devin is a 19-year-old runner and athlete who was using the trail as preparation for running a 50-mile road race when he got home. The fact that we got along so well together surprised all of us. Hiking in a group of three is not what any one of us would have predicted when we started the trail. In fact, it was unprecedented for all of us. Nevertheless, Lisa and Devin’s company, wilderness ethic, and good humor in the face of adversity made this hike the most fun and enjoyable hike I’ve ever taken.
A: Yes, early on every time I made it to the top of a pass above tree line I would be chased off by lightning. I was getting tired of literally running down the far side of exposed passes to avoid getting struck. I think I only went over one pass in sunny conditions. Later in the trip, the passes were cold, wet, and windy, but with no lightning, thank goodness. The only other thing that scared me nearly to death were bicycles. Bicycles are allowed on the non-wilderness parts of the Colorado Trail. When you are on a narrow, winding section of trail with poor forward and aft visibility and you are practicing the usual zoned-out Zen meditation and your mind is thousands of miles away from your physical body, it comes as a great surprise to hear screaming brakes and an “Oh, shit!” shouted from behind you. The rush of adrenaline is quite something.
A: Not as much as I thought I would. I saw lots of deer, marmots, and pikas. I didn’t see nearly as many elk as I expected. I saw one moose and I had a good look at a bear before he ran off. We saw a great deal more evidence of wild animals, but not the animals themselves. In the higher sections of the trail, we would run into ptarmigans every once in awhile. They were extremely comfortable with us being close by. In the San Juan mountains we saw literally hundreds and hundreds of domestic sheep.
Q: What were the highlights of the trip?
A: Well, the $12 breakfast at the Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort was certainly one of the highlights of the trip. I don’t know if I was just particularly hungry that morning or what, but that was one of the best breakfasts of my life!
In terms of the trail, the highlight for me was the section from Salida to Silverton, and especially the Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juan mountains. Unbelievably beautiful country with expansive views and great trails above tree line. There are lots of ups and downs in this section, but every time you reach a high point, there is another extraordinary photo opportunity waiting. This was a cold, wet part of the trip for us, with a biting, cold wind always in our faces, but even that couldn’t take away from its beauty.
A: Unfortunately, yes. The Colorado Trail is advertised as a “non-motorized trail,” but after staggering up what is called “the steepest portion of the Colorado Trail” to reach a beautiful pass, we were rewarded with five loud and obnoxious dirt bikes roaring past us. Unfortunately, signs on the trail indicated they had a right to be there. It was just wrong. I’ll be writing a letter to the Colorado Trail Foundation about it.
A: The longest stretch of trail without a water source is 22 miles on the Highline Trail between Silverton and Durango. This is a ridge walk trail (which is why there is no water). We had been told by an east-bound hiker that there was a trickle of water crossing the trail at a location about 11 miles into the stretch, which was listed as “unreliable” by the Databook. Using this information, I carried just two liters of water. I should have carried more. The “trickle” was just that, but even worse, the entire water source has been trampled by cows by the time we got there. In a word, it was filthy. It was by far the worst water I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking, and this is saying something! I treated it, then filtered it, then boiled it, before holding my nose and drinking it. Uughh! Hope I don’t have to do that again! The worst part of all, is that the “all-year spring,” which ends the 22 mile stretch, and sounds so promising, had also been overrun by cattle. We had to walk another three miles, in a mostly dehydrated condition, to find a decent water source. This was not the great finish to the hike I was expecting.
A: Generally, there are five things on your mind when you are doing a resupply: taking a shower, doing some laundry, locating the best restaurant in town (the criteria usually being cheap food in large quantities), recharging your electronic gear, and finding a decent grocery store. The easiest way to handle this is to arrive in town about mid-afternoon, check into a hotel or hostel where you can take a shower and ditch your pack for a couple of hours, then find the laundromat, restaurant, and grocery store to take care of the rest of your chores. (If you don’t care about laundry and a shower, you can just get in and out of town on the same day. Even though the pleasures of clean laundry and a shower are short lived, I usually opted for them anyway.) I stayed at wonderful, comfortable hostels in Breakenridge and Salida. There are hostels in Lake City and Silverton, too, but by then we were traveling in a group and found it more convenient and about the same cost to share a hotel room, so we did that. The following morning, you find a great breakfast place, do any last minute chores, and head back to the trail about mid-day for a half a day of hiking, which soils your clothes and makes you stink again, but you try not to think about the futility of it all.
A: Probably the most unusual thing I saw was a guy taking his pet cockatoo for a walk! But, there were also a number of unusual rock sculptures and other natural art objects to look at. For some reason, unknown to me, the area around Kenosha Pass has a number of tepee-like structures along the trail. No idea what they are for.
Q: What did you take with you that you didn’t use?
A: There wasn’t much that I had with me I didn’t use. My wife met me once after I traveled about 200 miles, and I asked her to bring a fleece vest, which I exchanged for a long-sleeve shirt and some short hiking gaiters. (I wasn’t interested in carrying more weight, just different weight.) I did have mosquito repellent and sun screen with me that I didn’t use. It was too cold most of the time for mosquitoes to be a problem. I probably should have used the sun screen, but I just never thought about it in time. I also had a very light blow-up pillow that I didn’t use at all after the first hundred miles or so. I could have left that at home.
A: Gosh, they were all great. Breckenridge is a tourist mecca, of course. Salida is fantastic, with excellent downtown restaurants. Lake City is small but I loved the library. Silverton, though, has that lovely brass band that takes over Main Street every Sunday night for the weekly band concert. You have got to love that! They all have fantastic restaurants where you can get some great Texas barbecue. That is probably the most important criteria for a mountain town when you are a hiker!
A: Most days begin around 5:00 AM or so, because I want to be on the trail by 6:15 or 6:30 at the latest. If it wasn’t terribly cold out, I would get out from under my tarp and fix some coffee and breakfast. If it was cold, I would stay in my sleeping bag and make coffee and breakfast under the tarp. I used a JetBoil stove, which was fast and efficient. An 8-ounce fuel container lasted me well over two weeks. The salient point about mountains is that they go up and down, often steeply. So, if you are going to walk in them, you are going to go up and down, a LOT. This part is basically like taking an all-day Stairmaster class at the gym, without–of course–the shower at the end of the day. Typically, I would take a “lunch” break about 10:00 or 10:30 in the morning, and another about 2:00 or 2:30 in the afternoon. There would typically be a couple of other small breaks during the day, usually to filter or gather water, and maybe to scarf down a couple of cookies or a candy bar. The day of walking would usually end about 5:00 or so, when I would set up camp and cook dinner. I had the foresight to ask the family for Mary Jane Farms dehydrated meals for Christmas and birthday presents this year, so I would either cook one of these or open a pack of Ramen noodles. I also would make a hot drink of hot chocolate or coffee. I would be under my tarp and in “bed” by about 7PM, where I would try to read for a little while on the Kindle app of my iPhone. I read four novels while I was on the trail. On most days I would be in my sleeping bag and asleep by 8:00 PM, or shortly after. It depended on how cold it was and how long I could hold the iPhone without freezing my hand off.
A: Every night before falling asleep, I would review the next day’s trail and work out some kind of a schedule. Unfortunately, this would be pretty much completely forgotten almost before I set the book down. (Hiking long distances affects your brain. For example, not only could I not remember anything I read in the Databook the night before, but I couldn’t do simple arithmetic. I could never tell, for example, if it was three miles or five miles to the next water location, because I couldn’t add 3.25 miles to my current location. Sigh…) When I was hiking alone, my method of deciding would be to reach some specific mileage, say 15 miles, and then to start looking for a “suitable” camping site. What was “suitable” varied from day to day, but generally included access to water, a flat place to camp that wouldn’t flood if it rained (I was under a tarp), and some degree of privacy. I liked to camp well off the trail, and many of the “camping sites” identified by my Databook were right on the trail itself. Occasionally, I had to lower my standards, sometimes by a lot. Some of my best camp sites were “dry” sites, away from water. I would carry water to these sites for dinner, then hike the next day to water to fix my breakfast. When we were hiking as a group, we would make a collective decision in the morning about where we would stop, and then adjust that by adding another 3-5 miles to that total when we got to the stopping point early in the afternoon. (Not only couldn’t we do simple math, we generally couldn’t figure out what to do with a couple of hours of free time.) Lisa was a taskmaster, and Devin and I followed along like two eager puppies. If possible, we liked to start our day with a big climb, rather than end it with a big climb. This wasn’t always possible, but it was one of the criteria we considered for selecting a camp site.
A: Yes, it turns out I have a neuroma on my left foot. This is a painful condition that is sometimes called a “nerve tumor.” Basically, the ball of my left foot feels like it is constantly bruised by a rock, and every time I step on my foot pain radiates out to my fourth toe in such a way that it feels like someone is sticking a pin into my toe. This got really bad half-way through the hike and I spent most of the rest of the hike treating it with a combination of Extra Strength Tylenol and Ibuprofen. One Tylenol every six hours, and two Ibuprofen every two hours. Doing this from the moment I got up in the morning and tying my shoe onto my foot in the loosest possible way, saved the day. The pain was nearly gone by the end of the hike.
A: I definitely lost some weight (14 lbs). I don’t know about the epiphany. It’s hard to say. I know I feel good about being home again. Long hikes have a way of clearing the mind and opening you up to future possibilities. We’ll see what happens next.
Q: Can I see more pictures?
A: Yes, I have selected an iconic photo for each of the 28 segments of The Colorado Trail, along with my comments, so you can get a sense of the total trail. And, you can enjoy a five minute video slideshow of the trail, as well.
Q: Do you have a list of the gear you took on the trail?
A: Yes, you can see a Colorado Trail gear list that I created with Eric the Black’s Backpacking Gear Planner. You can also see more details about individual gear items on my Lightweight Backpacking Pinterest Board. My friend Karl (see picture below) hiked The Colorado Trail this past summer with a ultralight pack. You can see his gear list, too, which is lighter than mine. You can also get some ideas for gear from my Backpacking Resources page.
Q: Have you done any writing about the trail?
A: Yes, I’ve written an article for the local paper on how three old men, all of us belonging to the same organization, hiked the Trail this summer, and I have written about hiking the trail northbound (NOBO). I am also giving a series of presentations on The Colorado Trail at stores and organization events in Fort Collins, Denver, and Boulder. See the announcements in the right-hand margin of my web page. My book, Voices of The Colorado Trail, is also available. It is a culmination of three years of interviewing hikers and riders about their experience on the trail. Their stories are funny, sad, and always inspiring.