This is the west and the Rockies are the great barrier that defines what’s beyond as the Far West: the Colorado Trail traverses the Front Ranges of the Rockies and then travels along the main divide of North America.
The big mountain ranges usually make a difference as to the climate that can be found on either side. Not so much with the Colorado Rockies: big mountains but too far from the oceans, the Rockies don’t trap the weather; rather, they create their own weather.
Topographically though there’s a big difference: to the east, the mountains stop abruptly giving way to the vast, endless plains of the Mississippi basin. To the west, a much more complicated arrangement of lesser mountains and flat highlands with the occasional big range thrown in. That’s what we see in the relevant atlas page for North America where the Rockies seem to extend all the way to the Pacific.
The Colorado big peaks are high but not as prominent as their height might suggest: their base is usually near the 10 K’ mark. Among so many mountains, there’s a bit of everything: smooth relief and rocky, vertical walls; endless forests and the alpine tundra; river valleys and some glacial carved remains. Impressing peaks, mountains as far as the eye can see and the feeling of knowing there’s always more. The Rockies are a big range.
North to south and east to west along and across the Colorado Rockies, that’s what the CT does.
There’s always this mixed feeling about a trail: on the CT, I’d kind of miss the uncertainty of not knowing what to expect at the next stream crossing, pass or trail junction… as much as I’d appreciate knowing there’d be a bridge over the stream, a good trail over the pass and a sign at the junction. It makes everything so much more predictable which is good when you’re pushing the daily mileage but it also takes something from the experience.
Whatever, I could appreciate the effort involved in keeping the CT to such high standards. The CT however is not a walk in the park. Apart from the relative remoteness in some areas, there’s the exposure which, above 12K’ is something to consider.
The one big miss in my opinion is the route along the Sawatch Range. Here, the CT basically skirts the slopes along the Arkansas River Valley and doesn’t go into the range proper. I took a well known alternate here (Hope and Elkhead passes) and can’t even imagine having missed the amazing scenery in the heart of this mountains.
In the San Juan Mountains, however, there’s been a recent move in the opposite direction with a new section over very high and extremely exposed terrain that made for some of the most spectacular times in my trip. This section named the Cataract Ridge takes the place of the former valley route which I still consider useful in case bad weather hits. I actually missed a bad weather spell for just hours in the Cataract Ridge.
The CT is a very good trail: well designed, marked and, as I found it in 2008, well maintained. The people behind the CT do care and it shows and my thanks go for them for their efforts and dedication. The trace itself makes for comfortable hiking, particularly if it rains just enough to keep the dust down. I didn’t find any significant dusty areas during my hike.
The trail climbs often above tree line and travels spectacular and exposed terrain. A great place to be when the weather is good. It also crosses long forest sections. It’s hardly ever any other than the woods or the alpine.
I went to Colorado in search (among other things) of weather predictability like that of my summer on the PCT and away from the constant uncertainty of that other summer in the arctic. It’s nice to be able to relax weather wise even though it doesn’t make for such good stories.
I only partially found it. The Rockies are big mountains and their influence on the weather is notorious. They literally invent their own dark weather.
The afternoon storms are a defining factor of trail life in Colorado. They would happen almost daily for me but in varying intensity levels. Some days it’d hardly rain but the instability was enough to advise keeping clear of exposed ridge areas. Most of the days, there was some light rainfall and only occasionally I got a big dump.
Bad weather spells happened a couple of times and clearly showed how big the mountains are and how small I was. It rained and was cold for about 2 days each time and made for some tough times. Other than those, the weather was predictable, very regular in its own irregularity.
Temperatures were mostly nice and as expected with mildly cold mornings and nicely warm middays. It could get uncomfortably hot sometimes in lower areas.
Problems with wildlife
My closest wildlife encounters in the Colorado Trail were not really glamorous and it feels almost funny now to remember that main character of my nights on the trail: the field mouse.
Mice seem particularly curious and inquisitive in the Colorado Rockies but only at night. I wouldn’t even see one during the day but the nightly mouse seemed more a when than an if. One would expect they’re there after the food but they never touched my food! Which was mostly inside a rodent proof bag anyway but there seems to be something more than the food of interest for these little ones.
Sleeping under an open tarp has probably something to do with the mice prowling around me and it’s actually nothing new or unexpected but it really raised to new levels on this trip. Early on the hike, I thought I felt something going over me during the night but I thought I just dreamed it or something and went back to sleep. Next morning, upon waking up I reached my drinking tube for some water and felt some odd tact in the valve:
Colorado mice had some odd affinity to a couple items. One of them was the valve on the drinking tube. I had the chance to replace the first one in my first town stop. The second one lasted only a few days:
After this, I considered it a lost battle and went on with my scratched bite valves. It felt kind of nice to share my tools with the local wildlife.
The other item they seem to like is something they must have talked about with their North Cascades cousins who were mounching on my loose tarp lines back in a previous trip. Again in Colorado:
They definitely prefer dyneema lines. Both times I had some other nylon lines they never touched. At least, they only seem to go for the loose lines, not those under tension. That wouldn’t be fun.
The unidentified thief
Only once did I find signs of attack in my food. It was in the woods and I had a clear suspect as per the comments above but on second thought I remembered a couple of those beautiful white and grey birds flying around camp while I was taking pics a few meters off.
I liked these birds. They would come down and rest in some lower branch near the trail, watch and follow me for a while. They were a comforting presence. Some other hiker told me later they’re specialized in food thievery. How unromantic. So I had a second suspect for these hole in my cereal bag:
I hope whoever did it didn’t take much. No big deal from my side: I finished my cereal anyway.
I like pika. They’re beautiful animals and a kind of welcoming presence everytime the trail is near a rocky area high in the mountains. It seems human presence is one the reasons that triggers their calls, those high-pitch sounds that I eventually identified as exactly like those coming from the typical bathtub rubber duckey. From that moment on, I couldn’t help but hear lots of rubber duckies around everytime I’d be near the rocks. So funny.
Pikas are funny anyway. They like to scour the horizon from the top of a rock near their den entrance to go quickly inside if the trail would take the hiker any close, pretty much like marmots do. Actually, marmots and pika share environment, behaviour and call pitch. It took a while to learn discriminate both.
I camped near pika central a couple times. First of those I was concerned about them visiting during the night as per previous experiences in the forest but pika proved disciplined: near dark, the calls stopped. I’d wake up next morning to a new set of callings after a perfect night’s sleep for me and, I hope, for them too.
Plenty of those places marmots like in the Colorado Rockies. A bit more shy than pika, they also like presiding the scene from some prominent rock and dissapear in their den when the hiker gets close. Marmot-size dens were all over the place.
Nice to see them but particularly great to hear them. It wouldn’t seem like that kind of high pitch cry would come from such a hefty beast but so it seemed when I spotted the big forest dwellers in the same direction the calls would come from.
Similarly to elk, they’d discretely retire upon human presence. It was beautiful to see them moving so elegantly. Pack notwithstanding, I’d feel such a clumsy walker in front of their display.
I wasn’t lucky enough to spot one on this trip but it’s great feeling knowing they’re around. I wouldn’t even see their prints but unlike in previous trips there wasn’t much snow or mud to leave prints on.
This is one of those animals I would remember from the textbooks and never imagined it was so common happening until I visited North America. Beavers are abundant in Colorado or at least their dams are. It was always nice to see their pools and thinking they must have been over there and even nicer to meet a big pool with a den sticking out.
I don’t know how easy it is to actually see the animals but it must not be as I’d always keep my eyes open but only once was awarded a view of one. This was such a treat, there are no beavers or similar animals were I live.
Some fox, the red chest birds, the goats… only a couple snakes and oddly enough both on the same day… and so many others that crossed my path or whose path I crossed. To all my apologies for disturbing and my thanks for welcoming me in your place.