Total Miles: 549.4
Yesterday evening’s late sprinkles had given over to a starry night, and when dawn came it brought with it an equally cloudless sky. That was certainly good news, since today would take us over an almost entirely exposed section of trail well above tree line through the Collegiate Peaks. The only question was how long it would remain that way.
With nearly 7,000 feet of elevation to gain over an elevation profile that resembled the teeth of a saw blade more than anything else, it was going to be a long day even without any weather challenges to further complicate things. Climbing away from our home among the trees, Cottonwood Pass served as the gateway to the epic scenery that we’d be enjoying for the rest of the day.
The early morning light cast its rays on the hulking peaks that stretched before us, the little tufts of alpine tundra grass providing only a dull, yellowish color to contrast against the blue of the sky and the gray of the rocks that occasionally shimmered with silvery veins of mica.
The long days of the trail give plenty of time for mental wandering, and today I was fascinated with the masterpiece of trail design and labor that created the ribbon we now followed. It’s easy to take for granted a humble dirt and stone path, but the stretches without one remind you of how much easier a well-built trail makes traveling through the backcountry.
Examples of the intensive planning and grueling manual labor that brought this trail to life were everywhere today. If you ever stop to wonder why the trail takes the particular path that it does, just know that it was not by accident. Just a few examples of things taken into account: the aspect of the slope, the typical rate of snowmelt, the composition of the soil, avoiding areas with sensitive plant species, understanding drainage and its effect on erosion, avoiding avalanche and rockfall pathways, all while attempting to deliver hikers along its course with a reasonable gradient. No small feat, right?
The vision is one thing—you still have to physically build the damned thing, and that takes a lot of energy, and a lot of volunteers willing to break their backs. It’s a testament to their efforts and the trail organizations that rally them to the cause that the trail exists at all. Without their cutting, digging, blasting, raking, hauling, and generally tireless efforts, we either wouldn’t be here or at best would be having a vastly more challenging hike on our hands.
Appreciation of the path beneath our feet was one thing—we still had to walk it. Up and down the stair master we went, laboring beneath an intense sun, and although it was joined by the usual cadre of clouds, not a one of them managed to blot it out. The sensation of slowly being cooked was already deep in my face by early afternoon. All that was missing was a basting brush.
Breaks were tightened in an effort to squeeze as many miles out of the favorable weather as we could, for as long as it lasted. As the usual late afternoon clouds began to take on a more sinister look, we were on our 6th climb of the day and hoping to squeeze in a dinner break before descending into the safety of the forest. Up until then, we’d managed to thread the needle between the building storm clouds, like finding the one navigable passage through a maze sheerly by dumb luck.
Sitting in a meadow finishing dinner, we watched lightning streak across the sky in a neighboring valley as the thunder began to grow closer. Minutes later, the edge of the storm cell we’d been watching started spitting at us which was the sign it was time to go. Getting nothing more than a bit of rain and partial hail, the sun would occasionally break through as if to move the storm along on its way, leaving rainbows in its wake.
The final few miles of the day were along an abandoned railroad bed, gently bringing us down to the trees after a long day without them. It was the ending we all needed.
Latitude/Longitude: 38.63954, -106.36308