Just go ride!
The Colorado Trail - No Detours, No Shortcuts!
July 28 - August 5, 2006
July 28 - August 5, 2006
Thank you Mom & Tom; without your incredible support, this adventure would have been impossible!
In 2005, I tried to ride the Colorado Trail from Denver to my wedding in Durango. I was literally stopped in my tracks by snow in the high country. This year, I upped the ante by sticking to the trail the whole way and hiking through the wilderness areas. This was way, way bigger than I ever imagined - there are just no flat sections on the Colorado Trail! Pick any 30 miles along the trail, and odds are good that you will find over 5000' of elevation gain and loss in those 30 miles. And although there are many wonderfully smooth climbs with screaming fast descents, there are equally as many climbs that require some pushing of your bike, followed by slow, rocky, technical descents. The trail varies in elevation from 5500' to 13,200' and I would estimate that 85% of it is between 10,000' and 12,000'. Over 300 of the 362 miles open to bikes are on singletrack, and probably 100 of the 106 Wilderness miles are singletrack. This thing is freaking huge! Here are the "official" trip stats:
I started the trip with my good buddy, Malte Winkler. He rode with me well over halfway until he decided that he had "had enough of this f*ck!ng trail!" The ceaseless day-in, day-out, 4 hours of sleep, ride, push, hike, ride, hike, push was wearing us down and he was just done. I summoned all the mental stamina I had left to not bail with him, and I completed the trail in 3 more days.
Hiked: 106 miles & 22,470'
Biked: 362 miles & 52,030'
Total: 468 miles & 74,500'
Hiked: 106 miles & 22,470'
Biked: 362 miles & 52,030'
Total: 468 miles & 74,500'
My Mom and stepdad, Tom, were an invaluable support crew for the whole week. They met us each night to camp, and also at several spots along the way to haul the bikes around the wilderness areas while we hiked. Not only that, but they also cooked us hot meals, kept us stocked with trail food and drinks, and put over 1000 miles on their truck during the whole ordeal! Even for an adventure as tough as this, by many standards, we were ridiculously pampered - and we absolutely loved it!
A day-by-day trip report would take ages, so instead, here's the adventure from A to Z. Enjoy!
A.) Funnest biking
Segment 6 - Kenosha Pass to Gold Hill Trailhead. This is one of the few 100% rideable segments. The last 8 miles are fast, smooth, twisty, downhill singletrack through the forest. The trees zip by in a blur, and you have to clean the bugs out of your teeth from smiling so broadly.
B.) Not-so-funnest biking
Segment 23 - Carson Saddle to Rio Grande Reservoir Rd. I was so excited once I finally got to this section; 12 miles, only 1020' of elevation gain followed by a 2500', 8 mile downhill section. Looks great on paper! The 1020', 2-mile long climb was 75% pushing, and then the downhill all along Pole Creek was one giant, muddy, mucky, marshy mess. Yippy-frickin'-skippy.
Portions of Segments 16 & 17 on Sargents Mesa. The unrelenting rockiness punctuated by steep up-and-downs definitely started to feel not-so-fun during portions of these 2 segments.
C.) Most beautiful
Segments 20 & 21 - The La Garita Wilderness. The green, grassy, high-altitude, alpine tundra for mile after mile after mile is just breathtaking. In fact, it was so beautiful that once it got dark, and I became lost on Snow Mesa, I decided to bivy so I could see it again in the morning...
Segment 7 - Goldhill Trailhead to Copper Mountain. This segment is ridiculously steep on both sides. 3600' up and 3100' down in 12.5 miles make for a bit of bike pushing on the way up and a crazy, white-knuckle descent on the way down.
Segment 13, mile 0.0 to 6.6 - N. Cottonwood Creek Rd. to Avalanche TH. This is the last of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, and involves hiking up the shoulder of Mt. Yale for 2500', and then 2500' straight down the other side, all in only 6.6 miles. Very glad to be hiking here.
E.) Least Steep, smoothest/fastest biking
Segment 3 - FS-550 to FS-560. With only 1520' of gain in 12.1 miles, this segment is a blast. The only other potential candidate is Segment 18 from Hwy-114 to Saguache Park Rd. And, although Segment 18 has less climbing (only 1220' in 12.9 miles), a 1/2 mile climb in that segment is pretty darn steep!
Honorable mentions go to Segments 1 and 2 from Waterton Canyon to FS-550. These two sections have a fair amount of climbing, but are almost entirely smooth and non-technical.
F.) Rockiest/bumpiest biking
Ooooh, this is a tough one! So many sections are vying for this award that I'll just have to choose a few and call it a tie! The rockiest riding seems to be most prevalent just at or above treeline.
Segment 7 - Goldhill to Copper, miles 6.6-9.6. Cresting the tenmile range and the first downhill has its fair share of rocks poking out. Most are solid and embedded in the tundra though.
Segment 9 - Tennessee Pass to Hagerman Rd., miles 3.4-14.9. All of this, except for the last 2 miles, is hiking through the Holy Cross Wilderness, so the rockiness is no big deal. It just stuck in my memory as, "Gee, I'm glad I don't have my bike with me here..."
Segment 16 - Marshall Pass to Sargents Mesa, miles 4.5-12.3. If I had to choose a 1st place award for the rocky category, this would probably be it. There are some bone-jarring descents on this section. Not to mention that many of the talus-sized rocks on the trail are loose and move around as you ride over/through them.
Segment 17 - Sargents Mesa to Colorado Hwy-114, miles 0.0 to 10.0. More of the same type of riding as in the previous segment, but the rocks aren't as loose. Frequently, there are enough of them to slow you down that you don't even need your brakes!
Segment 22 - Spring Creek Pass to Carson Saddle, miles 2.5 to 14.5. There is 1 mandatory hike-a-bike section up a cliff face, but otherwise, the rocky alpine meadows of this section are actually quite fun to ride!
G.) Best and Worst nights sleep
Best: Night 4 on Sargents Mesa. I slept from 22:30 to 03:15. It may not sound like much, but I think the McEwans Scottish Ale with dinner was the key ingredient for that superbly solid slumber.
Worst: Night 5 on Snow Mesa. It was a good thing I got some solid sleep the night before, because around 22:30 the next day, I lost the trail hiking along Snow Mesa in the La Garita Wilderness. With less than 6 miles to go until my next support point at Spring Creek Pass, I arrived on the giant, rolling, alpine tundra of Snow Mesa at 12,300'. The trail became too faint to make out in the darkness, and my LED lights weren't bright enough to see the next Colorado Trail marker a couple hundred yards away. In my sleep-deprived state, I chose to just go cross-country for 3.5 miles to the west and find the edge of the mesa where I would pick up the trail again when it dropped down to Spring Creek Pass. Shaaa, right...
Around 00:00, I had found all sorts of edges to the alpine mesa, but no trail or trail markers. I wandered around frustrated, frazzled, and disappointed until 01:30 when I finally conceded that I was hopelessly lost in the dark and would have to bivy until dawn. I put on all my layers (long underwear, fleece shirt, rain pants & rain jacket), and rolled up inside of my poncho behind a rock sheltered from the wind.
I was able to sleep for an hour and a half before getting too cold and forcing myself to get up and wander east, back across the mesa to where I had initially lost the trail. With cloudy skies and no moon, I could barely make out the horizon, and after another hour and a half, I thought I was close to where I first became lost. It was about 04:30 at this point, and the hiking had warmed me up enough to sleep for 45 more minutes behind another rock.
Once the predawn light illuminated Snow Mesa, I could see that I was less than 300 yards from the last trail marker I had seen the night before. Not only that, but I could see around 5 more trail markers, previously invisible in the darkness, heading off into the distance along the rolling mesa. I could also see how vast Snow Mesa really was, and how truly hopeless my attempt at going cross country had been. At least I was alive, healthy, and back on track. A bit more sleepy and fatigued than I cared to be, but watching the incredible alpine sunrise that morning almost made it worth it. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my camera on this section, and all that beauty exists only as a confined memory in my head that I am unable to share. Live and learn.
H.) Number of times I fell asleep beside the trail
4 times, ~10-15 minutes each. These don't include the bivy on Snow Mesa, but 3 of them are probably related...
I.) Worst riding conditions
The rain on the last day started at noon, and didn't really let up. I spent over 12 hours soaking wet in the saddle that day. The trail was constantly a sopping mess of muddy puddles. Many of the narrow singletrack sections were overgrown, and riding through the tall, sodden weeds and lush vegetation was like going through a car wash over and over and over again. Thankfully, it was the last day on the trail, because by the time I reached the Junction Creek TH, my body and my bike had been so thoroughly destroyed by the muddy, wet grime, that there was no way I could have continued the next day. In fact, my bike was so caked with mud and dirt that my front shock completely seized up, and I had to squeeze my brake levers as hard as possible to even come to a rolling stop. And the drivetrain, well, read part Y.) MacGyveriest moment, for more about that...
J.) Best riding conditions
For the most part, we were incredibly lucky with the weather and had perfect temps and conditions for the first 3 days. A fair amount of afternoon/evening rain on days 4 and 6, but then nice, moderate conditions for days 5 and 7.
K.) Temperature Extremes
82F on Segment 3 near Buffalo Creek
40F on Segment 21 at night on Snow Mesa
L.) Earliest and latest daily start/finish times (not counting Snow Mesa bivy)
03:40 - Start Segment 17 on Sargents Mesa on day 6
06:30 - Start Segment 25 at Molas Pass on the last day
17:00 - Finish Segment 7 at Copper Mountain on day 2 and call it a day
01:00 - Finish Segment 24 at Molas Pass completely zonked
M.) Shortest and longest days
Shortest: 40 miles and 7500'
Longest: 81 miles and 12,740' (31 miles of hiking)
N.) Shortest and longest distances between support
Shortest: 1.8 miles of biking between the Holy Cross and Mt. Massive Wilderness Areas
Longest: 72.8 miles of biking from Molas Pass to Junction Creek TH
O.) Worst crash
Tired, wet, depleted, and sleepy, I was pushing the pace on the very last segment to finish before the battery of my HID light died. I was somewhere in the Junction Creek drainage near the final climb, and in this section, the trail is quite narrow with steep drop-offs in spots. It was around midnight, and the drop-offs were cloaked in inky blackness. They may have been 10' or 1000' for all I know. I came around a corner to an overgrown section of trail where weeds and trees were slapping me in the face with their dripping wet leaves. Once I opened my eyes again, a rock had jumped out in front of me and my fatigued hands couldn't squeeze hard enough on my grimed up brakes to manuever around the rock. I clipped the rock on one side and got tossed off the trail into a bush, ramming my thigh into my handlebars and getting all dorked up in the cord of my HID lamp. I was lucky as it could have been much worse. Fortunately, this was the worst crash of the trip, and I felt stupid and silly more than physically hurt.
P.) Most people passed in a day
~30 to 35 on day 2. About 20 of these people were Brits on a self-supported, 12-day mountain bike trip of the Colorado Trail. Wow!!! This was just before the Gold Hill TH, and they were on day 4. No idea how far they made it, but I think they would've had to pick their pace up a bit to finish in 12 days.
Q.) Fewest people seen in a day
1 lonely backpacker on the last day. Actually, I did see 3 other people on the trail since my dad, step-mom and step-sister had driven up to Hotel Draw to say hi and feed me some Mountain Dews as I rode by. Based on the weather that day, I'd guess any other backpackers were hiding in their tents, and any other mountain bikers were at home drinking beer and wishing it was nice out.
R.) Calories consumed per day
Between 7000 and 9000.
S.) Best meal
Another tough one since everything my Mom touches is delicious. I think it's a tie between the breakfast (lunch & dinner) burritos, and the spaghetti with italian sausage that was even good cold for the next 2 days.
T.) Favorite trail food
An Almond Joy washed down with a Banana Cream Ensure
U.) Why the "official" guidebook sucks
The Official Guidebook was written for hikers, not mountain bikers. So, it doesn't really suck, it just kinda sucks for mountain bikers! It is very vague about which sections are good for biking, and the only indication that a section will be difficult on a bike is the "bumpy" mountain bike symbol followed by a suggested detour. Often times, there is only a short piece of one of these segments that is difficult on a bike, and the rest is great. Vice versa is true for other segments where biking difficulties are not mentioned at all and yet there may be loads of pushing.
For example, Segment 22 - Spring Creek Pass to Carson Saddle is listed as "bumpy" and a detour is recommended. However, I found this section more enjoyable on a bike than many parts of Segments 16 and 17 near Sargents Mesa. Nothing is mentioned at all about the technical and rocky nature of the Sargents Mesa segments. It's not that I minded the surprises so much, it's just that my time estimates for various segments were constantly off by hours because of the unpredictable nature of the trail. Yes, I'm whining. Gimme the binky.
Probably the suckiest parts about The Official Guidebook are the elevation profiles shown in the book. They are waaay off and are almost worthless! You'd be better off to just ignore them. There isn't enough granularity in the profiles, and what you may expect to be a flat or rolling, cruisy section never turns out that way. Downhill on the Colorado Trail usually means, downhill then uphill then downhill then uphill, then finally downhill...
Finally, the cumulative elevation gain readings on my bike computer were consistantly 10% to 20% greater per segment than those listed in the book. I'm not completely sure which is correct, but based on the inaccuracies of the book's elevation profiles, I'm suspicious of the cumulative elevation gains listed as well. I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if someone GPS'd the entire Colorado Trail and discovered there is 90k of elevation gain instead of 74.5k!
V.) Most elated moment
Hiking over the shoulder of Mt. Yale on the 4th day.
Malte and I were feeling pretty beat after just hiking 18.2 miles through the first part of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness when we met up with my Mom and Tom. My Mom whipped up some spaghetti with butter, garlic, veggies, and chicken, and we chowed down on that and drank some Mountain Dews. The rain started, and so did the grueling hike up the side of Mt. Yale. This is probably the steepest segment of the entire trail, and we both felt like a million bucks! It was a great feeling to be so strong so late in the day, especially considering what we had done the previous 3 days. We power hiked 2500' up, and then full-on ran down the other side! It was fantastic!
W.) Most discouraging moment
Stopping at 17:00 after only 40 miles of riding on the 2nd day.
We felt like we had worked so hard all day, and to have only come 40 miles was so discouraging. We wouldn't have enough time to finish the next segment in the light, and we didn't want to deal with downhill, technical riding, and getting lost in the dark with only one decent bike light between the two of us. Not only that, but we were so far off of our original daily goals that even finishing the entire trail seemed out-of-reach.
X.) MacGyveriest moment
Discovering that Chamois Butter makes pretty decent chain lube - and when you're out of that, ChapStick works even better!
These moments came during the last day when the constant mud and grime began giving me chain suck issues and I realized that I hadn't packed any lube. Stupid, stupid! There was absolutely no way I could finish the remaining 40 miles of riding that day with my chain getting sucked into my frame on every uphill pedal stroke. The Chamois Butter got me 15 miles, and my ChapStick got me the rest of the way! Thank you, MacGyver!
Y.) The crux
Hiking a measly 5 miles and 2000' up to Molas Pass.
It was 23:00. I had been hiking and/or biking since 05:15 that day when I awoke from a 45 minute slumber beside a rock on Snow Mesa. Prior to that, I had gotten maybe an hour and a half of crappy, cold sleep rolled up and shivering inside my poncho, lost in the dark at 12,300'. And, prior to that, I had been up since 03:15 the previous morning, way up on Sargents Mesa. And also, I had been hiking and/or biking basically non-stop for nearly 7 days with only 4-5 hours of sleep per night. I was obviously wasted and moving slower than a 3-toed sloth doped up on valium.
I stumbled up the trail like a narcoleptic drunkard for 2 hours. There was constantly a swarm of mosquitos somewhere behind me. Chasing me. And even though I never saw them, I knew they were there because I could hear them buzzing in my ears. That high-pitched, annoying, whiney buzz. Gimme the binky. My vision faded in and out, and I couldn't even calculate how much longer the hike would take. It was 23:58, how long had I been hiking? 15 miles at 2 or 3 miles an hour? Am I always this dizzy? Or one mile per hour? 00:20. So, 5 + 2 is seven hours? Or did I only have 1 hour left. 00:15. Noooo... Really? Why do my legs hurt so much? That grass looks soft. Is this a switchback or did I miss my turn? A distant shipsmoke on the horizon. Wait, are there any turns? Did I eat some of those red and white spotted mushrooms? Gawd my legs ache.
I plodded onward and upward with my thoughts scattered and incoherent. It took all I had just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The mosquitos were getting closer, but then, suddenly, they receded as a glowing lantern and my Mom and Tom's truck emerged from the darkness. The hike was over, and just like Motel 6, Tom had left the light on for me.
Like I may have mentioned already - this thing is freaking huge!
This was the summer of successively larger and larger mountain bike goals, each making the one before seem small by comparison. First, the Kokopelli Trail Race; at 142 miles in one day, this thing was a monster! Next, the Grand Loop Race; with 360 miles of solo, unsupported mountain biking, this thing made the Kokopelli trail by itself seem tiny! Finally, biking and hiking the entire Colorado Trail; at 470 miles, and, perhaps, more than twice the elevation gain, this thing made the Grand Loop seem smooth and flat! Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but for me - even fully supported - the Colorado Trail was far, far harder than the Grand Loop. Even more than a week later, I still found myself taking naps in the middle of the afternoon, and just having no legs for biking more than an hour.
So, what's next? Who knows. Certainly a lot of Junk Burgers and Stouts at the Mountain Sun! And, well, I miss climbing...
Colorado Trail Records I am aware of:
(please email me if you know more!!! climbingdreams at hotmail dot com)
1999 - Buzz Burrell runs/hikes the CT in 11d16h13m
After writing this trip report, I read that his altimeter watch measured a cumulative elevation gain of 89,040'!!!
2003 - Betsy Kalmeyer runs/hikes the CT in 9d10h52m
2003 - Hal Koerner runs/hikes the CT in 9d10h19m
2006 - Jonathan Basham runs/hikes the CT in 8d13h28m
2006 - Fully supported MTB-only tour. 21 days. Great pictures!
2006 - Stefan Griebel hikes/bikes the CT in 7d20h
(Waterton Canyon TH, 04:40 July 28, 2006 - Junction Creek TH, 00:40 August 5, 2006)
Unsupported Colorado Trail Records
2004 - Demetri Coupounas hikes the CT unsupported (no resupply of any kind) in 20 days
2006 - Paul Pomeroy hikes the CT unsupported (no resupply of any kind) in 14d9h30m
2006 - Paul Hooge bikes the CT (with Wilderness Detours) self-supported (resupply/sleep in towns) in 9d7h
1 - Stefan and Malte between Kenosha Pass and Goldhill TH
2 - Malte Rides through the woods close to Goldhill TH
3 - Dawn in the elongated meadow above Keystone
4 - Aspen Grove in the Chalk Creek to US-50 segment
5 - Foggy morning on Sargents Mesa
100.2 KB Views: 2,406
163.2 KB Views: 2,375
75.5 KB Views: 2,403
151.7 KB Views: 2,424
56.2 KB Views: 2,500