Colorado Trail

Dates: Aug 12 – Sept 4, 2018 (23 days, no zeros)
Mooses: 1, entirely unconcerned
Bears: 1, absolutely terrified
Lightning: too much
Giardia: yes

I did the Colorado Trail backwards, starting in Durango and ending in Denver. This was partly to avoid crowds and partly because I was later in the season and wanted to finish the higher, more rugged parts first. I was also coming straight off the PCT so I was in good shape and reasonably acclimatized. An unexpected bonus was that because almost all the traffic was oncoming, I rarely had bikepackers sneaking up behind me.

Route Map

The Good

The CT is a great trail with beautiful scenery. Despite what I’m about to say, I did really enjoy it and I’m very grateful I got a chance to experience Colorado and the Rockies. I was extremely impressed with the trail conditions (huge thanks to all the volunteers!). Parts of the San Juans were especially spectacular, even with the Washington PCT fresh in my mind. I loved the aspen groves, the beaver dams and lodges, and seeing my first wild moose. I loved how friendly and helpful everyone was. I loved Leadville and the Melanzana store. Give them all your money.

The Bad

I really, really hate lightning when I’m outdoors. My coping strategy was to try obsessively to make myself feel safer and more prepared: scanning the sky every few minutes to monitor clouds, checking multiple forecasts, poring over satellite maps to see if there was tree cover up ahead, poring over topo maps to see if I’d be on a ridge or if there was low ground nearby, and waiting until it seemed safe to hurry over passes and exposed stretches. I refused to hike before dawn, but sleeping in was not an option. The earliest I heard thunder was about 11am and it didn’t necessarily stop until well after dark, so early mornings were the only reliable hiking window. Weather was the only difference between a 15-mile day and a 30.

The net result of all this was that I was either in the middle of a storm and actively scared, or merely basking in constant, low-level stress. I did feel better towards the end, but the trail was mostly below treeline at that point too, so it’s hard to say how much I actually adapted.

If you’re also extremely anxious about lightning, sticking with the usual Durango-bound direction could help you ease into the more exposed sections; at least you probably won’t be traumatized right out of the gate like I was. Also, everyone says to do Collegiate West and they make good points, but I was happy with Collegiate East. The CT gave me new appreciation for walking through trees. Trees are my friends.

The Ugly

The bark beetles have been extremely busy out there and not only is it terrible to look at, but in some places, you’d be hard-pressed not to camp under a dead tree. Also, a rodent absconded with one of my Darn Toughs overnight, voiding the lifetime warranty on that pair and leaving me stranded with only three socks for the last several days of the hike. This is possibly the worst thing that’s ever happened to me on trail.

Tips

  • Buy Guthook’s CT app [link] and download the topo maps and the satellite maps. I set out on the CT very spontaneously and didn’t have time to order the guidebook or handbook, but I didn’t ever feel like I needed them. Plus, the guidebook won’t have the latest water reports. If you’re used to the PCT app (or possibly other Guthook apps), note that 1) seasonal and reliable water sources do not have different icons, and 2) there are no campsite icons, but people will often mention potential spots in the comments.
  • Purify your water. Colorado has a bizarre amount of livestock running around in places you would not necessarily expect there to be livestock. I resigned myself to bleaching all my sources, but I was careless enough about it that I came down with giardia, stopped eating almost entirely, and nearly quit the day before I got to Denver. Don’t be like me. Either drink untreated water and embrace it, or make the effort to purify it properly.
  • Try an emergency poncho. If you don’t like it, it’s only a dollar or two, but I loved mine. Yes, you will look stupid and you will sound stupid because it’s noisy, but you can put your whole pack under it! And the airflow makes it less stuffy than a jacket. And if you’re huddled up in the rain waiting out a storm, it’ll keep you much drier/warmer than a jacket. Lightning storms will probably not kill you, but hypothermia definitely can.
  • Consider investing more weight in your shelter. I loved my tarp and bivy setup on the Hayduke and PCT, but I went back to my old Fly Creek for this. Thanks to the weather, I spent far more waking hours idling in my shelter than ever before (stock up on e-books!) and I found it worth the weight penalty to be extra comfortable. Plus, I would have wanted the tarp up nearly every night, which takes me longer than pitching a tent and would have been even slower above treeline without natural anchors.