Day 12: Mount Yale to Mount Princeton
On Tuesday I left my campsite at the base of Mount Yale, headed down Cottonwood Pass to Buena Vista, and then headed back into the Sawatch Range farther south to make another camp near Mount Princeton. The ride into town was a breeze–12 paved miles nearly all downhill. I stopped at Bongo Billy’s cafe for some food and an internet connection so I could do a little research on my route and post some photos. The day started out with some high clouds and that seemed to suppress the mountain convection for a while, but now that it’s mid-afternoon, thunder is starting to rumble in the mountains above me.
I’m camped along the Colorado Trail, a hiking path that runs from Denver to Durango, nearly 500 miles. I’ve mountain biked a good chunk of the trail near Denver and it’s one of the greatest rides I’ve ever experienced. Out here, some of the trail is in wilderness so bikes are verboten but from where I’m camped it looks like I can ride in either direction. A few people actually mountain bike the whole Colorado Trail every summer, taking established detours around the wilderness areas, but I think it would be really tough with a BOB trailer.
I once had visions of biking the Colorado Trail rather than the Great Divide Mountain Biking Route, but that all changed after I went to hear two guys talk about their mountain biking odyssey on the Colorado Trail at an REI event. They were using on-bike panniers and still spent a ton of time walking/pushing their bikes, which doesn’t sound like any fun at all. So tomorrow I’ll unhitch BOB and do a little exploring on the Colorado Trail, maybe staying here a second night to do some more riding, or moving farther down the range toward Salida.
While I was riding from Buena Vista to my campsite, along Chalk Creek, I came upon a guy with a bicycle who was pushing it down the middle of the road–right along the yellow line of the county highway. When I got closer I saw it was a young man, maybe in his early 20s. I never got his name, but he said he was biking from Denver to Phoenix. He’d left Denver that morning at 4:30am and hitchhiked a good part of the way, and with good reason: his bike was a total beater, looking like something you’d pick up at a yard sale for $50. He was wearing a big backpack and had a spare tire slung around his torso but he didn’t seem to really know where he was going. He was just following his iPhone and headed to Gunnison. We came to a hill and I left him in the dust because he’s unable to shift into lower gears, and then our paths diverged. i wished him good luck but he just rode away without saying anything.
. . .
Well now I’m the tent because those far off rumblings of thunder got louder and it started to rain. It’s been pouring, even a little hail, over the past 20 minutes but so far I’m keeping dry. I’m using my Sierra Designs backpacking tent, which I bought in 1992, right after graduating college. Twenty years and hundreds of nights spent inside this thing and it’s still doing great. I’ve sent it back to Sierra Designs a few times over the years to have zippers replaced and fabric patched, and they’ve always done it promptly and for free. Definitely got my money’s worth out of this thing.
As expected, yesterday’s hike has left me pretty sore, mostly in the upper thighs and hip area. But when I jumped on the bike this morning, I didn’t really feel it in my legs. The same thing happened to me on my 1994 cross-country bike trip, from Seattle to Washington, DC. After 2 months of riding around 75 miles a day, a bunch of us went for a short hike around Harper’s Ferry, up to where you could see the rivers and town below. Didn’t seem like much, but the next day or two my legs were aching.
Day 13: Mount Princeton to Mount Shavano
Today was tough. I wanted to make camp near the trailhead for Mount Shavano and Mount Tabaguache, which I’m planing to climb tomorrow, but in the late morning I was all the way down at the Arkansas River, pedaling on Highway 285, about 2,500 feet below where I was heading. I knew getting up here would be difficult and entail a long climb, but this one really kicked my butt. The last 7 miles were on a dirt/gravel road that was really loose, washboarded, and virtually all uphill.
It was a dry day, with just a few fair weather clouds over the mountains, and that meant making the long haul into the Sawatch Range with the sun beating down on me at midday. At lower elevations, this is a pretty dry environment, almost a high desert, and it took me a long time to leave the stubby junipers and pinions and reach the taller pines and aspens. This would have been a challenging hill to climb if the road were paved, but the sandy, rocky nature of the route made it so much harder. I think I was getting dehydrated by the end, and also nearing 10,000 feet so I could feel the thin air. Probably didn’t eat enough either.
I finally reached the trailhead and then set about to find some water and a campsite. But the gulch I thought might have water was dry and it would be a mile or two down the Colorado Trail to Squaw Creek. I headed off down the trail, with the BOB trailer in tow, but the path quickly got steep and rocky. I thought about ditching the trailer, fetching water and bringing it back, but it looked like there might be a lot of hike-a-bike ahead of me. I was down to my last water bottle and decided to head back down the road I’d just climbed, about 2.5 miles, to where I’d seen a stream and a nice looking campsite. Maybe I’d bike to the trailhead in the morning to climb Shavano and Tabaguache. The ride down only took about 5 or 10 minutes, but I discovered a “No Camping” sign near the creek. So I drank a lot of water, filled up all my bottles and bladders, and then started climbing back to the trailhead, this time with about 15 pounds of water added to the load. Re-hydrating at the creek and eating some snacks gave me a little boost, but I was fried by the end.
In retrospect, I should have unhitched my trailer and either gone down the Colorado Trail or down the hill to get water, but in the end I’m glad I’m making camp up here, just a short walk to the trailhead.
I pitched my tent on the edge of a huge meadow, about the size of a football field, that’s flanked by aspens. To the south I have a great view of Mount Ouray and I’d like to come back to this area to car camp sometime.
I tried to take advantage of the clear skies and strong, high-altitude sun by laying out all of my clothing in the meadow and letting it bake for an hour or two in the ultraviolet radiation before the sun dipped below Shavano. That actually seems to have made them smell better! I haven’t showered since Friday, and won’t again until this Friday, so I’m feeling pretty dirty, but I have been able to bathe in some streams along the way.
I’m going to bed early, not only because I’m exhausted, but also becaus I need to wake up before dawn tomorrow to start the climb of nearly 5,000 feet to the top of Shavano, maybe also across to Tabaguache, time and weather permitting.
Days 14 and 15: Climbing Shavano/Tabaguache
Thursday began before sunrise as I woke at 5:30am to make the trek up to Shavano and Tabaguache, two 14ers at the south end of the Sawatch Range. Pulling myself out of the sleeping bag and getting out of the tent in the dark took a lot of effort, but I knew that the sooner I got started, the better the odds I would make it to both peaks.
I set off just as the sun was rising and casting the forest in a warm orange glow. It was totally cloudless, but I knew that wouldn’t last. After 5 minutes hiking along the Colorado Trail, you start up the Shavano Trail, which is straight up for the first couple miles through a pine and aspen forest where hundreds of trees had been knocked down recently (the pine needles were still green). I’m assuming it was a windstorm in the spring or winter and it must have been ferocious: there were pine trees two feet thick that had been completely uprooted or had snapped 10 or 15 feet up from the ground. Fortunately, a crew had already come in and cut the trucks laying across the trail.
Some 14er hikes are fairly mellow in the first few miles and then get progressively harder, but this one started out really hard, in part because of the steepness, but also due to the rocky, rooted nature of the trail. It was around 6:30am, in the 50s, and I was drenched in sweat after the first half hour on the trail. After reaching treeline, the trial proceeds up the side of a huge valley and you can see where you’re headed for the next mile or so. Although there were some steep sections, the grade of the trail up to the saddle wasn’t too bad. From there it’s a steep climb up a huge jumble of rocks and boulders.
Like all 14ers, this one was barren above 11 or 12 thousand feet, but it seemed especially desolate up there. I got to the peak of Shavano at about 10am and by then I could see little cumulus clouds forming over the surrounding peaks. I knew it wouldn’t be long until the thunderstorms started, so I hurried over to Tabaguache, which requires going down 600 or 700 feet, then up another 500 feet. And then you have to retrace your steps and reclimb the last part of Shavano before descending. It only adds about 2 miles to the hike, but it’s all above 13,000 feet.
The views from up there were magnificent–is there a 14er with a bad view?–and it gave me a vantage of some country I haven’t really explored. I have to say it was gratifying to look down on the Arkansas River, around 7,000 feet below me, and know that I’d made it up there all under my own power. By the time I returned to Shavano, the skies were mostly cloudy and getting darker above me. I descended quickly, wishing two guys good luck as they headed up into the burgeoning thunderstorm.
Not long after I was below treeline it started to rain, then thunder, then hail at a pretty good clip. I got fairly well soaked while it poured for about 20 minutes but felt safe in the shelter of the forest. I had to stop at a creek a few miles up from the trailhead to get all the water I would need for the rest of the day and Friday morning, so that subjected me to some more rain and I got chilled after having spent most of the day sweating bullets. But then the skies began clearing and I started drying out and warming up.
I only met 10 people on the entire hike, which is unusual for a 14er, even midweek. I was totally alone for virtually the entire 8.5 hours it took me to do the dozen or so miles. Being at the top of both peaks while alone was fairly intense and something I’ve never experienced on a 14er.
Even on a mid-summer day with relatively benign weather, that high-altitude environment is harsh and desolate, though I’m always amazed to see tiny plants, birds, and other forms of life up there. At that altitude, I find that my brain really slows down due to the hypoxia, which is actually kinda nice for someone whose mind is always running on and on.
Spending so many hours up so high up left me exhausted by the time I got back to my camp around 3pm. I wolfed down some food, guzzled some water, and dozed off for a few hours as the rain pattered on the fly of my tent. I woke up, ate some more, and then got back in my sleeping bag to read before falling asleep.
I slept about 10 hours but still felt tired when I woke up. I’d subjected myself to two tough days in a row. But today all that lay in front of me was a downhill ride to Salida, about 15 miles away, where I’m staying in a motel tonight. The 7-mile climb up the dirt road that took me about 2.5 hours on Wednesday only lasted about 25 minutes this morning and it was sheer bliss flying down that mountain without having to pedal except for two tiny climbs out of drainages. Once I got down to pavement, it was also mostly downhill to Salida, and with the wind at my back.
I arrived at my hotel at 11:30am and was hoping they might let me check-in early, but that didn’t work, so I had 3.5 hours to kill. My motel is on U.S. 50, along with the predictable parade of chain restaurants and establishments, so I pedaled 10 blocks over to the historic district, which is really cool. Lots of bars and funky stores. Seems like everyone working here in town is off-duty from their second careers as paddlers, bikers, and climbers. At the bike store, I got some advice on doing the Monarch Crest Trail tomorrow and a map. Then I went to a local pizza joint and scarfed down an individual pizza and house-made root beer. I was tempted to get a real beer, made on the premises, but decided to hold off since it was only noon.
The guy in the bike store recommended some singletrack trails just outside of town, in the Arkansas Hills, so I headed over there to give it a whirl since my trip to Salida had required almost no effort. Looks like a fun place, but I had to turn around after 20 minutes when the rain and thunder started. So now I’m in dark bar, watching a torrential downpour, and getting ready to head back the hotel. They say Salida is in the “banana belt” because it’s unusually warm and dry here, compared to the surrounding mountains that cast this valley in a rain shadow, but not this afternoon.
I really need a shower (it’s been a week) and I really need to do some laundry (ditto). I’m definitely feeling bedraggled after the past week camping out, braving the elements. Tomorrow morning I’m going to hitch a ride on a shuttle to the top of the Monarch Crest Trail and then ride back to town–about 40 miles, but generally downhill. It’s supposedly one of the greatest singletrack rides in the West and I’m looking forward to doing it without hauling all that crap behind me!
Day 16: Monarch Crest Trail
They say the Monarch Crest Trail is one of the greatest mountain biking rides in the country so I went into today with pretty high expectations, and I’m happy to report I was not disappointed! I’d put this trail right up there with Slickrock in Moab as one of the greatest rides of my life.
Most people do this ride as a one-way shuttle and I paid around $25 to have a van take me and my bike from Poncha Springs up to the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass, elevation 11,898. About 4,000 feet of elevation gain for $25 seems like a bargain to me these days. Once at the top of the pass, you set out in a southerly direction on the Continental Divide and Colorado trails, which are one in the same here. The next 10 miles or so, to Marshall Pass, definitely have some climbing and technical sections, and you’re above treeline and 11,000 feet for most of it, so this is no beginner ride. But the scenery is outrageous: you’re riding along on a narrow singletrack trail with sweeping views of the Divide and surrounding mountains, through terrain that you can usually only access by hiking.
There were about 20 people in two shuttle vans–virtually all white guys in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who looked like pretty serious riders. I made a smart move by allowing nearly all of them to pass me on the trail early on. Last thing I wanted up there was to be in a traffic jam. I’m glad I’ve spent the past 2 weeks hauling my BOB trailer at elevation because it got me in shape to tackle this ride, which has a few heart-pounding climbs in the beginning. Most of the trail is really smooth, which makes it easier on the uphills and a helluva lot of fun on the downhills, but there are enough rocks and roots to keep you on your toes.
You have lots of options for coming down off the Divide and I chose the standard route, down Silver Creek, which requires a couple more tough miles on the Colorado Trail before plunging down the drainage on a pretty rough trail that includes some wild rides over talus slopes. To save some time, I jumped on a Forest Service road that the shuttle driver recommended and I was bombing down that thing faster than a car.
After the ride, I met up with Ginette and the pups in Salida. My face and body were splattered with mud, and my beard is getting longer, so Ginette described me as “looking pretty scary.” I went over to the Salida mineral springs to take a shower and then we got some ice cream in downtown before heading out to camp for the night.
We found a great spot, up Pass Creek, with a breathtaking view of Shavano and Tabaguache. It’s amazing how dry it is around these parts: walking around we found a bunch of tiny cactus and we’re at around 9,000 feet. Tomorrow we’re planning to do a day hike up to Pass Creek Lake and then camp here again Sunday night. I need to head down to Salida on Monday to pick up a new back tire–my knobby is almost a slick–and then I’ll bid farewell to Ginette until she and her mom pick me up in 2 weeks in Northern New Mexico. From Salida to Del Norte, my next stop in civilization, it’s 4 days and 153 miles. Before leaving Salida, my guidebook advises travelers to “stock your larder” because provisions will only be available if you take a detour from the route.
Days 17 and 18: Pass Creek
I hit my first major snafu today. Ginette and I camped for two nights in the San Isabel National Forest, about 10 miles southwest of Salida, and when we got in the car this morning to drive back to town, it wouldn’t start.
It looked to be a dead battery. I keep a portable jump starter in the car for exactly this type of contingency, but it didn’t have enough juice to get the engine to turn over. Fortunately, we had cell phone service if we walked a little ways to the top of a hill, so I called Better World Club, a green alternative to AAA that also offers to rescue you on your bike. But I’m now not such a big fan of this service because the towing company eventually called us back to say Better World wouldn’t cover a repair call that required going on unimproved dirt roads, even though we were only about 4 miles up a decent dirt road from US 50, a major highway. So then we had to call all of the towing companies in the Arkansas River Valley to try to get them to come jump start the car. One wouldn’t do it. Another wanted to charge $500. But finally we found a really nice lady with Gunsmoke Towing who was willing to drive up in her Suburban and jump start us for $150. She was in Buena Vista, so we had to wait for about 90 minutes, but eventually she arrived and the engine started in a snap as soon as the jumper cables were connected.
We headed down to Salida, where I was planning to spend the night anyway, and got the battery checked at a NAPA store. They said it was time for a new one, so we had to fork over another $111. Ouch.
Up until the car troubles, the weekend was going well. This campsite where Ginette and I are now stuck is one of the best we’ve ever found. Yesterday we took a 10-mile hike up to Pass Creek Lake, which was a little more exercise than I was hoping for, but the destination was pretty scenic and the dogs seemed to enjoy themselves. I think our puppy Phoebe probably covered 30 miles during the day, running up and down the trails.
I was already planning to make this a rest day and sitting around waiting for the jump start didn’t require much physical exertion. But it was a stressful, annoying, and expensive experience I’d care not to repeat. The glass-half-empty side of me thinks it was really lousy timing for the battery to die, but the glass-half-full side thinks we got off pretty lucky, given that we weren’t too far from civilization and were able to make calls on our cell phone.
Before Ginette took off for Denver, she stocked up on a great discovery we made here in Salida: green chile ale from Amicas, a local brewery. I also stopped at the bike store to pick up a new back tire and the guy who helped me said this next stretch of the Great Divide is going to be tough. In my motel room, I installed the new tire, fixed my brakes, and trued my wheels, sort of. So far, my bike has been holding up quite well, but after today I’m a little paranoid about mechanical issues.
Yesterday, during our hike, I was thinking about how the trip has gone so far since I had just crossed the halfway point. I’ll be home in 2 weeks. Aside from this dead battery and my butt being sore for a few days in the beginning, everything has gone really smoothly: no big problems with my bike, my body, the weather, or anything else. Here’s hoping that the next 2 weeks don’t break that mold.