Life has been pretty stressful lately- I’ve been searching and searching for a new apartment, and the place where I work was bought out by a corporation, which means the transition has been less than smooth- etc, etc, life, blah blah blah. Anyway, it seemed like the perfect time for an escape into the wilderness.
If you are a hiker or a backpacker you have probably heard of some of the national scenic trails like the Pacific Crest Trail (or PCT) or the Appalachian Trail (AT), or even the Continental Divide Trail. Colorado is home to another long distance trail (although it is not a national scenic trail) called- you guessed it- the Colorado Trail, or CT. This long path leads from Denver west to Durango and leads hikers over some impressive country. It usually takes about a month to complete the 486 miles. This is a baby nubbin of a trail milewise, compared to the PCT’s 2,659 miles, but you will pass through mountains, canyons, prairies, and national forests. It is the best of Colorado. I decided to take my first backpacking trip along section 3 of the CT, which according to the guidebook, was lovely and shaded and had great camping. Sold! Thanks to overtime pay and REI’s anniversary sale I had purchased myself an Osprey Aura 50 AG pack, so I loaded this [complicated] pack with tent, sleeping bag, a spare set of cold weather clothes, guidebook, and food for myself and Dog. My roommate helped me pack, which was incredibly helpful since looking at my pile of items and looking at my pack, it seemed impossible that it would all fit. But fit it did! Then I remembered that I needed to pack water…If you have seen the movie ‘Wild’ think of the part in which Cheryl attempts to put her monster backpack on for the first time in the hotel room. Yeah, it was a little like that.
The trailhead was about an hour southwest of where I live. That means an hour of driving through rainy, misty mountains. It was stunning. My GPS was basically worthless when it came to finding the exact parking lot out there that I needed, but luckily the guidebook had directions. It was chilly as I left the trailhead, and the sky was threatening rain, but I stayed dry and worked up plenty of body heat as I walked to stay warm. The sun did come out intermittently, but the distant hills and mountain remained pleasantly misty looking. As we walked, Dog and I passed clumps of huge boulders that formed mini-mountainscapes. Some of them offered stunning views of distant peaks. The landscape switched between forests, to hills covered in felled trees, to rocky outcropping, and back again. The trail cross crossed a small stream which gave Dog opportunities to hydrate. There were plenty of mountain bikers and we passed several other backpackers. Each time I saw a campsite set up I was tempted to stop and chat with the people there, but shyness won out and we kept on. It was comforting to see them there, though. There were several other trails, and even an abandoned Jeep road that crossed the CT, so every time I saw a little triangular CT trailmarker I felt a huge sense of relief. Plus, finding those little buggers was something of a game.
According to the guidebook there would be good camping about five or so miles out near a water source. That was my goal. I walked for what felt like miles, and as the sunlight became more golden and the shadows grew longer I decided that if I didn’t find the campground by 6 pm then I would look for the closest available place to set up camp. The idea that I got to pick my own site for the night was intoxicating. Did I want to sleep at the base of a huge rock formation? How about at the crest of a forested hill? Or at the base of some trees near the stream? Along the trail you can pretty much camp wherever, but there are definitely places that other hikers have used time and time again. Why carve out something new when there were already established spots? Just after six pm I heard water and I came around a bend in the trail to find my old friend the stream gurgling merrily away around some huge fir trees. A piece of flat land at the base of these, well covered in leaves and needles, looked like a well-used sit. There was even a campfire ring made out of rocks and some logs pulled together for seating. It was just off trail and would provide water for Dog, leaving my two water bottles for me to drink from. Perfect. What I didn’t know at the time was that if I had kept going maybe five minutes more I would have reached the camping spot that my guidebook had described. Instead I shrugged off my pack and in the evening light I made camp. It was absolutely beautiful- Pike National Forest knows how to deliver- and I was glad to finally rest. Dog of course was ready to play fetch with all the available sticks and logs. Two backpackers passed the way I had come and I waved to them cheerfully. Then I was alone.
It hailed. Dog and I huddled inside the tent. When it stopped we peaked back outside for a bit. I was pretty tired by then, so we made an early night of it. Or tried to. I read a book by the light from my headlamp and huddled inside my sleeping bag. It was inaugural trip of my Marmot Trestles 15 bag which I had bought a few months back. That bag kept me warm and toasty all night long, so shout out to Marmot! If you read an earlier post of mine about camping back in March you might remember my difficulties in keeping warm at night. This particular night, way out in the forest, it was cold and damp. My tent kept me dry, and the sleeping bag was wonderful, but the air was the kind of cold that gets down into your bones and starts a slow shiver that you just can’t stop. Dog was immune to the cold, but she did snuggle with me, which definitely helped to keep me warm. I would link to a site where you can get one of her too…but you can’t, so instead just adopt a dog of your own from a shelter! *That’s my official plug for this post.
In the cold and the dark my fear of bears began to grow. I had asked my roommates what to do about the food in my pack since I obviously had no car to stow it in. They told me that they usually just risked it. They also mentioned tying the food in a bag up in a tree, which I was aware of but had never tried. In my impatience to be gone I did not borrow any rope from them to do this, which was extremely foolish on my part, and now I was torturing myself with imagined scenarios of a bear nosing it’s way into my tent, being spooked by dog, and killing us on the spot. It was spring, the bears were out, and they were hungry. I had seen a “Warning! Bear country!” Sign at the trailhead. I was going to become a cautionary backcountry tale, I just knew it. The fear was so great that I was basically lost it and froze, too afraid to hear something like shuffling paws, but too afraid to try and block out the sounds for fear I would miss my only opportunity to escape. I could only hear the sound of the stream nearby and the wind in the branches. At one point I even took Dog with me out into the dark night to try and tie up a stuff sack with my food. I tramped awkwardly into the thick trees in an absolute panic, but as I gazed around I reasoned that if I didn’t do the thing properly I would probably just end up leading bears and who know what else right into my camp. I ran back to my tent with a very confused Dog and decided that if a bear should find us the best course of action would be to throw the food bag out the backside of my tent and take Dog and run out the front, which was facing the trail. Not a very good plan, but a plan nonetheless. Let me just say that I have rarely been as terrified in my life as I was when I was in that tent worrying about bears (not to mention mountain lions).
With the aid of Harry Potter being read by Jim Dale on my phone I did eventually fall asleep. I woke up to birdsong and early morning sun shining through the branches above me. The stream continued it’s merry journey past the trail, but it sounded a lot better in daylight and accompanied by bird song. Dog and I had breakfast and played for a bit. A backpacker we had passed the day before stopped by camp on his way back up the trail. He told us that the campsite I had looked for was close by. He also told me that this had been a trial run for his thru-hike of the entire trail that he was planning on doing it in August. I wished him a safe trip. I felt a lot better by then and I relaxed, enjoying the beauty of the morning and experience of being out in the wilderness.
I packed up camp- it took my several tries to roll up tent and sleeping bag so that they would fit in my pack- and we began the trek out. The sun was out this time, but it wasn’t actually that hot. Since I had layered up in a long sleeved SmartWool shirt and thick flannel, however, I was soon too warm. When Dog and I stopped for a mid morning snack I casually changed into a short sleeved t-shirt. That’s the beauty of the trail- there’s not really anyone around.
We made good time back to the trailhead. My body was unused to hauling heavy pack, so my shoulders and thighs were aching, but I felt basically sound. It was with great relief that I stepped out of the pack when we (finally!) reached my car however. We took some time to hydrate and then it was time to say goodbye to the Colorado Trail. The trailhead was bustling with activity, compared to the ghost town it had been when we arrived the day before. We hadn’t driven far before we saw a middle-aged man in biking gear by the side of the road with his thumb up. I have never picked up a hitchhiker before. In fact, it is fairly taboo to stop for one, especially if you are a female. But I had Dog in the car (an excellent judge of character, by the way) and the man was clearly trying to get to the trailhead for some mountain biking. So I stopped and learned that his name was Dan, his wife wad given birth to his son Wilder just 10 days ago, and then he had walked down the hill to his house, only to learn that he had left his keys in his truck, which was parked not far from the trailhead, just inside the boundaries of Pike National Forest. I dropped him off at his vehicle and we waved goodbye. I hadn’t even fully turned my car around to head away when he called out. “Wait! Do you want a cold beer for your trouble?”
Of course I did. The whole drive home that beer sat in the backseat cup holder like a Medal of Honor. I had completed my first backpacking trip, all on my own. I had hauled all my gear out into the wilderness, set up camp, and then packed it up to haul it back without incident. I had seen sights of immeasurable beauty on the way. I had tested my own endurance and come out on top. And I had chosen to be kind to a total stranger and been rewarded with good conversation and a free beer. I have many things to learn (like how to hide food from bears) but I had made it. So that’s the story of my first backpacking trip along the Colorado Trail through Pike National Forest.
If you want to learn more about the Colorado Trail follow This link.