Finishing the Colorado Trail


10 Sep
10Sep

I like a nice yard. But just mowing isn’t enough for me. The trim work needs to be done as well. And any noticeable grass clippings need to be raked up. To be done right, a task needs to be completely done.

Cleaning the car isn’t just taking it through the automatic car wash. It needs to be cleaned on the inside too. Cleaning the car means washing the outside, vacuuming the inside, washing the windows, and wiping down the vinyl surfaces with the proper kinds of cleaners. Let’s do it right. Let’s do the whole job.

My hike of the Colorado Trail in 2018 was nothing short of life changing. Sure, I announced to the world that I finished hiking the trail. I started at the northern terminus at Waterton Canyon near Denver, maintained a continuous foot path on an official route, and 485 miles later I finished at the southern terminus in Durango. Having done that, every person I know accepts that I hiked the entire Colorado Trail.


On some level I probably accepted that fact too. But I also felt that there was something missing; I didn’t feel completely accomplished. In 2018 I took the Western Collegiate Alternate Route, which means I didn’t take the original Eastern Collegiate Route. Either route is fine. They are both equally official routes. Pick one and do it. There’s no need to do both, unless you’re me.

The route I didn’t hike made it seem like I missed something. It felt unfinished. Something inside me for the past two years was nagging me to finish hiking that trail. Like mowing my yard or cleaning my car, I needed to do this right. I needed to go back to hike the Eastern Collegiate Route. And so this year, I did that. I finished hiking the Colorado Trail, completely.

On Saturday, July 11th, my wife dropped me off at the eastern end of Twin Lakes near the dam. I wouldn’t see her again until seven days later at Monarch Pass.

The eastern and western routes start at a trail junction about half-way along the southern shore of the reservoir. It was from here that I officially began my hike.

Along this first small segment before I arrived at the trail intersection, I saw a familiar Colorado Trail / Continental Divide Trail marker. I paused to take a picture and gaze at it. A rush of warm nostalgic memories from two years prior washed through me. These two trails share the same path for 200 miles along some of the most scenic in Colorado. My energy was instantly boosted. My life of just a mile ago was shedding fast. I was back on the trail again!

Some CT hikers muse on the difference between the eastern and western routes, suggesting that the east is a merely green tunnel to be endured, and the west is a grand alpine experience with epic views. Having hiked portions of the eastern route on many of my treks to summit these Collegiate Peaks in past years, I knew these unfair generalizations would be grossly insufficient to describe what I was about to experience in full.

The first day was a good warm-up exercise to what would come over the coming week. The terrain was easy, in Colorado terms, ten and a half miles of rolling foothills, stepping across small streams, shuffling through occasional sage fields, and dipping in and out of aspen groves dispersed among fragrant pine forest. Although it was the weekend, the COVID scare has kept the trail population lower than what I was expecting. I camped on the banks of Clear Creek in my newly acquired hammock and tarp setup. The night was calm.


Day two was my biggest day of the trip. I covered nearly 15 miles and 5000 feet in elevation gain. I passed the first two of the Collegiates: Mounts Belford and Oxford. My camp near Three Elks Creek brought me in alignment with Mounts Columbia and Harvard. There are plenty of camping spots in this area. Harvard Lakes are near here too. I arrived at camp and set up my hammock just as a storm moved through. The stormy weather continued until about 1am. I love sleeping in the rain.


The next day would be one of the most scenic of the trip, as the trail brought me from an old mining cabin in a gorgeous mountain valley to a climb over the eastern ridge of Mount Yale. It would also be the most memorable weather day of the trip. A heavy hailstorm hit just prior to reaching the crest of the ridge. I was happy to have brought my umbrella along. The hail can be hurtful.

I reached my camp for the night along South Cottonwood Creek after a 12.5-mile and 3200 ft elevation day. A young couple camped near me. We talked for a little while, as strangers on trail often do. People who spend time in wild places don’t take long making friends. We have an instant kinship. We take care of each other out here; we’re bonded through our love of nature.


Day four was a low impact day with 13.5 miles and only 2000 ft elevation gain, past Mount Princeton and the Princeton Hot Springs Resort to my camp at Chalk Creek. This was another day of great views. The Arkansas River Valley was on my left and Mount Princeton on my right.

Today marked my exit from the foothills of the Collegiates, but not to my end of the trail. I had no rain today and the 5.5-mile road-walk from the Mount Princeton Road to camp was hot. Again, I’m glad I brought my umbrella to walk in the shade!

My hammock hung just a few feet from the creek that night. One good thing about sleeping in a hammock is that I don’t get condensation like I do in my tent when camping near creeks. It’s just open space under my tarp with the therapeutic sound of the creek lulling me into a deep sleep.


The fifth day brought me past XXX meadow and the familiar trailhead for Mount Shavano and Tabeguache Peak. It wasn’t the most scenic day, although I did have some great vistas. The trail varied with some parts smooth and easy, and others ankle-twisting rocky. I crossed densely forested areas and some wide-open spaces. I saw cattle, but the wildlife was scarce. There were several streams and a good amount of elevation.

The day finished at the North Fork South Arkansas River after 15.2 miles and 3600 feet elevation gain.

One thing I noticed today is that I have had very little cell service this whole trip. Of course, I don’t check my phone very often because it’s in Airplane mode. So, I can’t give any well-informed report on how cell phones are served out here. Having no electronic pests is one of the pleasures of being out here.


With only 19 miles to go, the next two days could be somewhat leisurely, but not on the sixth day.

The last obstacle of this trip is the hike up Foose Creek. After the first few miles, I crossed CO-50, hiked a road for three miles, and began following the creek up the gulch to where I would officially end the Colorado Collegiate East route (but not until tomorrow). All along Foose Creek it is incredibly lush. The undergrowth was as a garden in full bloom. Wildflowers surrounded me the entire way. All this overpowered the thousands of dead trees left standing due to the pine beetle kill. I very much enjoyed the trail today.

The morning was clear, but as we were still in monsoonal patterns, the afternoon was cloudy and cooler as I began to climb the 3300 feet of elevation for the day. I put in only 12 miles before setting up camp. It was difficult finding a place to hang among all the dead trees. But, even for tent camping, there were not many places to camp along this trail for most of the way. It’s steep on both sides of the creek from before the last footbridge to the top, less than halfway up.


The final day was one word: incredible. The clouds moved out in the early morning. I summited the top of Foose Creek with a celebration! No more nagging. I finally completed the Colorado Trail!

From the trail intersection on top of Foose Creek, where the east and west route meet, it’s a 5-mile hike to the crest of Monarch Pass were Bobbi picked me up.

 I can easily say that the Colorado Trail has been an incredible experience for me. It’s not easy. It’s not always enjoyable. But it has brought me joy, a sense of accomplishment, and a renewed purpose. That purpose is to encourage others to get outside, enjoy God’s awesome creation, dissolve into the pureness of nature, and allow yourself to let go. The world can be harsh. Take time to be good to yourself. And when your day comes, I hope you finish completely.


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