The Colorado Trail
Leaving from Arkansas we headed to Lake Carl Blackwell outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma. We headed out to the pink trail to see the lake and for Kathy to get a general feel for the great riding. There were deer everywhere some still bedded down. We were the only ones in camp when we rode off but a couple of trailers arrived as we rode into camp to brave the heat of the day. Our next destination was Kannapolis State Park southwest of Salina Kansas. We arrived there in time to set up pens with some nice grass. We saddled up early and rode out on the canyon trail crossing several creeks and rocky ledges. The clean crisp air denied the oppressive heat that was to drape the rest of the day. The riding was superb!
Our next stop was at a private ranch where the owner put her horses in stalls so ours could run and play in her pasture. We were in the lovely town of Elizabeth, Colorado and the elevation was 6,448’ but we never felt it as we left Kansas 4,000’ the gradual change was exactly what I had hoped for. We were up and loaded early to head to Indian Creek Campground not far from Castle Rock, Colorado outside of the town of Sedalia. The elevation there was 7,362’ and no one seemed to feel it. Indian Creek had pens and luckily we had 2 sites where there was lots of graze. We set up our pens and the horses enjoyed the lush mountain grass. No one was in camp but the day area had a couple of horse trailers. My big rig (28’) fit into the site but it was on a steep angle and Burton had to raise the nose with boards making the trailer very unstable. I worried all night that the whole thing would fall. Burton and I trucked to the next trailhead to see how access was and enjoyed the long drive down into and along the South Platte River. A word about Indian Creek Campground: the camp has nice pens, central water, vault toilets and garbage collection. Although there aren’t any hook ups the camp is a great starting place to enjoy Colorado and has several nice loop trail giving one 4 or 5 days of riding right from camp along with the Colorado Trail access. The camp host, Ken was very accommodating and helpful. Some of the sites were very level though not shaded but our camp sites were surrounded by pines although not level. We enjoyed the seclusion of the area and at over 7,000’ we were well on our way to acclimating to the higher elevations.
Segment 1 Indian Creek to South Platte Canyon
We were both excited to be heading to the Colorado Trail and we left base camp around 9. Burton was to bring our camping gear so the horses had more time to condition to the trail. Starting out on Indian Creek Trail which was a ridge trail with the footing wide but rocky, Bubba kept losing his hind boot so we had to stop several times for Kathy to put it back on. 5 miles out we had to follow an old road bed which later turned into a creek bed with large slab boulders on where Cisco scrambled over but finally went down on one. From his knees he gathered himself as he slid and struggled to gain purchase and finally lifted himself. I jumped off and gave him a quick check and struggled alongside of him as we worked our way through the creek bed. We climbed to a ridge where we could see the bridge over the South Platte River and followed along with wonderful views of the river below. Dropping in elevation to 6,100 by switch back after switch back we finally were at the river. We crossed a very nasty barrier at the beginning of the bridge but were rewarded at the river side with the horses enjoying a good bath and I got to soak some very hot swollen feet! How hot were my feet? They were so hot and swollen that they barely fit in my stirrups so I was delighted to feel the cold water rush over them. What a treat for all of us. We stood in the river until I shivered from the ice cold and then led the horses to some rich graze bankside. I left Cisco in Kathy’s care so I could scout for a camp site as there wasn’t any camping allowed at the river edge. About a quarter mile up river I found a good spot for a couple of highlines and went back to wait for Burton to arrive with our tents and heavy laden saddle bags. Stunning is the only way to describe the river area….so lucky to be taking this trip and with Burton willing to resupply us it made it much easier. We spent a wonderful evening in camp, met a nice couple with some mules who were trying to ride the Colorado trail as we were. Cricket had hiked it from end to end but this was their first time to use pack animals.
Segment 2 South Platte to Little Scraggy Trailhead
The ride today was to be 10 miles of dry burned forest. I wondered if it would be worth the effort and stress on the horses to go so long with no water but what a surprise…the lack of trees allowed us to see for miles and enough vegetation had already started to grow that it wasn’t barren…just dry. The views were spectacular and the rock formations jettisoned out from the desert like floor. We travelled the 10 plus miles in no time and arrived at the volunteer fire department where they allowed passer thrus to get water from their outside faucet. They had a donation box asking for donations and as I only had a 20 I am sure our 4 canteens and 2 horses didn’t use that up but I was so thankful for the water that I happily left it! We arrived at Little Scraggy Trailhead and Burton was there with our tents and resupply. He indented to spend the night with us so I had packed our cot and mattress for him but we found that there was no camping at the trailhead so Kathy watched the horses as Burton and I scouted out a camping place but there were so many people it seemed impossible until we headed back and there within a short distance of the trailhead was a great designated camping spot. We raced back hoping to beat the torrential down pour heading our way but found Kathy and I running with the horses through the fields to the camp site in pouring rain. We both were drenched but the rains seem to last only for a short time, just enough to soak everything and then clear off. We set up camp with Burton on the covered cot and me in my sleeping bag under a couple of shower curtains! It rained again but we both stayed dry and Kathy was safe in her tent. The horses didn’t seem to mind the rain and never picked their heads up from their hay.
Segment 3 Little Scraggy to Wellington Lake Trailhead
The next day was only 12 miles with lots of water and just down the road for Burton to bring our gear but we had a wonderful ride up to 8,280 with creek, boulder formations and lots of bikers and hikers. Even though it was only 12 miles we were worn out and the monsoon rain hit us again just as we were setting up. We both jumped into our tents and the wind almost blew down my tent since I just set it up and didn’t stake it. I raised up my foot to hold the one wall from collapsing and then it was over…just that quick. Needless to say I staked to ten as was recommended by the manufacturer and it became a fortress. A little 3 pound tent big enough for Bo and I became our sanctuary from the midnight storm…it held fast even as the wind flapped the walls and sent pine cones down the roof. Burton had left us with some water but both Kathy and I were concerned that we didn’t have enough and she promptly flagged down people to ask if they and water to spare for the horses. A few did but an exceptional couple took our canvas buckets to the creek a ½ mile down the road and delivering them back full! With morning we packed and Kathy put Bubba on a long lead which he promptly got all tangled up in breaking the high line in the process. He had a few rope burns but nothing serious so we saddled up and started to head to Long Gulch.
Segment 4 Wellington Lake Trailhead to Long Gulch
We rode out hoping for the best but both of us were soaked and I had miscalculated the weather. The temps were cold enough to see our breaths and in wet gear I knew we were not in the best condition to travel up to over 10,000. It continued to pour and with every step I was saying to myself how I knew better then to continue on in such a state. But we moved forward with me mumbling until we got to a tree down…It was like someone was telling us how much does it take for us to do the sensible thing and turn around and regroup. I didn’t have my regular rain gear nor my spare clothes in plastic bags as usual and Kathy was soaked…the tree did the trick as we would have had to saw it to pass…that was it. We turned around and I started to search for an open in the forest to try to catch Burton to tell him he had to come all the way back to pick us up because of my blunder. I finally was able to get him and he arrived 4 hours later at the road we left hours earlier.
We stayed at Indian Creek for 3 more days as Bubba had rope burns to heal and we need to repack our cold weather gear…hard to get in the habit when it’s 80’s then low 30’s at 10,000 but we did not want to repeat our errors. At camp Toni and Sharon arrived to layover a few days to get ready for their Wyoming trip the following week. They tried to ride the Colorado trail but Toni hurt her leg at least they were able to get to the South Platte River trailhead. We left without knowing how they fared but hope they were able to continue on their adventure.
We hauled to Kenosha Pass and there was some great dispersed camping behind the East Kenosha Pass campground. Lots of aspens, graze and plenty of room for large electric pens for the horses. What a great camp, we all were so comfortable.
Segment 4 Wellington Lake to Long Gulch (second attempt)
It was a perfect day to hit this section of the trail: into Lost Creek Wilderness and climbing well above 10,900’ the scenery was lovely and we came to a lush meadow where the horses were treated to green grass and clover. It was heaven! Water was plentiful and we shared the long canyon with a herd of cattle who barely noticed our intrusion into their fantasy world. Kathy saw some antelope but I wasn’t successful with a photo since they were so far away. We rode with excellent footing and ease of travel finally attaining the road where Burton was to drive us up to Kenosha Pass so we could enjoy those great pens and our base camp.
Segment 5 Long Gulch to Kenosha Pass
Long Gulch was an eden of aspens and pines with clusters of aspens tunneling our trail for miles then instantly we were in pine trees – bristle cone pines which the guide book said live up to 5,000 years! We followed the Lost Creek on the valley with it’s undulating meanders and grassy banks. The mountain views were so very much Colorado and breathless. We worked our way up to Kenosha Pass and followed a ridge where we could see the valley below and finally gained Kenosha Pass.
Segment 6 Kenosha Pass to Gold Hill Trailhead
After much research we decided to ride to Georgia Pass and not continue on to Gold Hill in Breckenridge. The cyclists were so prevalent that we were warned about the erosion and constant delay to move off the trail. Even on the way to Georgia Pass we lost 30 minutes getting off trail for groups of bikers although every one of them was courteous and as obliging. The trail rose quickly and this gave us a chance to move more freely as the bikers were no match for our horses gaining elevation. One such fellow asked to pass us and within a short time he was exhausted trying to outpace the horses. He pulled off saying it was just too steep! Once again the footing was okay with a few sections of rocks but mostly a good trail. Georgia Pass held the most spectacular views and we worked our way out to an accessible point where Burton could haul us back to Kenosha Pass. The wondrous views of Georgia Pass payed over and over in my mind…seeing for miles the tops of mountains, some with snow, others with dark shadows dropping down their expanses. I can see it even as I write.
Segment 8 Copper Mountain to Tennessee Pass – Camp Hale
Starting at Copper Mountain Resort was like trying to ride in downtown New York City. The trail crisscrossed the mountain ski runs but you had to get past all the chalets and lodges. Lucky for us Burton was able to drive thru the expanse of materialistic hyperbole and drop us off at the farthest ski slope where we could catch the trail up some 1,000 feet. We worked our way back and forth until I finally saw a biker whirling above and shouted “You on the Colorado Trail?” Of course he was and we must have looked like dumb horse people but it saved us several switchbacks to directly climb up to his tread. We climbed towards Searles Pass at 12,043’ being above tree line for over 5 miles. I was greatly concerned as riders we were the tallest thing for the afternoon thunderstorms to be attracted to so I hurried us along. Even with the worry of the lightening the trail produced some of the most impressive views yet. We rode the tundra trail passed Jaques Creek then Guller Creek and into view came Janet’s Cabin…this is one of many ski huts accessible only by foot, ski or horseback. According to a couple who had just stayed the night there it was a fantasy night with top end appointments…even a compost toilet. It had a fireplace, solar power and views of the valley that would make one never want to leave. They were hiking from remote cabin to remote cabin managed by www.summithuts.org. After gaining Searles Pass we topped Elk Ridge at 12,282’ then “down” to Kokomo Pass at 12,023 and finally the tree line again. The descent to Camp Hale http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/whiteriver/recreation/camping-cabins/recarea/?recid=41329&actid=29 “Camp Hale is historic because the 10th Mountain Division, an unit of 15,000 men, trained here in mountaineering and skiing techniques during WWII. Some saw combat in Italy during the war.” The camp is mostly dismantled but a bit of the bunkers are still standing and while we passed through the forest service was doing some searching for unexploded ordnances….very interesting to watch as the systematically walked the fields looking and marking. The trail into Camp Hale was a trail from hell and we had to walk the last 4 miles because of the fist size rocks with little or no footing. Burton was parked at the meadow waiting and we were so grateful after having to put the horses through such a grueling trail.
Segment 9 Tennessee Pass to Timberline Lake Trailhead
We camped at Tennessee Pass with Burton leaving the trailer for our resupply. This made it so easy…we had everything…even if we didn’t need it but we did need most of it. The temps dropped close to freezing, there was a light rain and it made everything wet. The horses did have their electric pens we set up in a mini field so they could get a bit of graze and we set up our tents right outside those. A gal and her dog camped along with us who was thru hiking and we enjoyed her company with Bo having a buddy for the evening. With morning we were heading west viewing the Arkansas River Valley and then the Mosquito Range. The views of the Sawatch Range were beyond description and travelling in and out of the trees allowed us to see the lakes and streams and then we were above the tree line in the Holy Cross Wilderness only too briefly and into the forest once again. We had gained elevation all the way to 11,500’ with Cisco showing no signs of it but Bubba seemed a bit off. We descended to 10,043’ at Timberline Creek Trailhead where Burton had somehow backed the trailer into a tiny parking space next to some wonderful graze. The horses ate happily while we untacked to travel back to base camp.
Segment 10 Timberline Lake Trailhead to Mount Massive Trailhead
The early morning started out cold at 39 degrees as I had been up at 3 to watch a meteor shower. It filled the clear sky with a long train unfortunately I failed to get a clear photo of it but was surprised to see such a show with the stars brilliant background. Every night was a special event on the trail as the air, sky and surrounds were crisp and pristine. With morning I saddled up Cisco and rode the Mount Massive Wilderness. The views were spectacular and we stayed above 10, 000’ but often were above 11,000 with Cisco showing no signs of stress. He was a powerhouse and felt good, moving forward eagerly. We crossed creek after creek with no worry about bikes as we were in the wilderness. The tread was very narrow in places causing me to walk several miles and we arrived in camp with me totally exhausted.
Segment 11 Mount Massive to Clear Creek Road
When I got up there was so much frost on everything I was able to write my name on the hood for the truck. Although only slightly over 21 miles, I chose to ride this section in 2 parts. We switch backed up to 10,590’ crossing creeks and over bridges. Cisco enjoyed the terrain as it levelled off in a wonderful aspen grove and the footing was perfect with few rocks. I jumped off for a quick nature call as I hadn’t seen anyone for hours and as usual once I was at a point of no return with pants around my knees when Mark (a determined, hurried hiker) crested the hill and was graced with my posterior. He took it in stride and just stopped and tried to act like he had to get a drink. It has never failed that when I drop drawers someone shows up in the wilderness…..I gathered up my jeans, buckled in and just smiled. What else can a gal do? But for the trail…it was sheer pleasure: lakes, aspens and pristine creeks.
Segment 12 Clear Creek Road to North Cottonwood Creek
I met a gal at the laundry mat who generously offered to ride a few sections with me - Sue was a great horse woman and her quarter mare was in good shape although she hadn’t seen many trails since her expertise was the arena. We loaded up at the Clear Creek Wildlife Campground but rode back to the trail only to find it circling back to the hidden creek behind the campground. We crossed the creek alongside a nice bridge with both horses never even giving a hint of concern. Then we climbed up and continued to climb leaving the basin floor at 9,365’ and finally gaining the ridge at 11,653’. Cisco just pulled forward but Sue’s mare was puffing so we stopped for a few minutes for her to get her breath and enjoy the views from Waverly Mountain. We were in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and we climbed on to Mount Harvard at 11,845’ finally descending to Morrison Creek and then several other creeks. We stopped for a quick lunch and let the horses graze for 15 minutes in a lovely, little meadow. Then mounted and rode past several trails which came in from the east heading down to various lakes but we continued on to Three Elk Creek at 10,200’. We still had 3 more miles to get to the road and then a mile or so south to meet Burton where we agreed. I was concerned that I wasn’t precise enough and was greatly relieved when we finally found him waiting to take Sue back to her trailer.
Segment 13 North Cottonwood Creek to Chalk Creek Trailhead
At Avalanche Trailhead we found the parking great with lots of room for horse trailers and vault toilets. There were thru hikers resting and a few were camped. As we saddled up Sue found a couple of girth sores on her mare so she decided not to ride and aggravate those. Too bad as I really enjoyed her company. I walked down crossing the road and finding myself in a lovely meadow just off the road with the trail passing through it meandering along side the creek which had several beaver lodges in it. We crossed a few fine bridges built with horses in mind and along a trail with great footing. The elevation stayed fairly steady from just over 9,000’ to 8,100’ There were several tracts of private property along the way with lakes in the distance and access roads to cross but basically the trail hugged the west side of Bald Mountain to Mount Princeton where Burton and Sue were to meet us and take us to base camp.
Segment 14 Chalk Creek Trailhead to US Highway 50
Segment 15 - To finish 2017!