Six weeks on the Colorado CDT above ten-thousand feet had left me a bit light on oxygen, delirious from the elevation, and weary from the post-holing.
After a full three days off that included plenty of food, beer and a fantastic tour of the SmartWool Headquarters (located in what used to be the terminal building at Steamboat Springs Airport!) I was ready to hike north and find some dry, flat trail. Hiking out from Rabbit Ears Pass, however, I learned what “160% of average snowfall” meant: Northern Colorado had received a lot of snow this winter and lower than normal spring temperatures guaranteed that it would stick around much later into the summer. I wasn’t out of it yet!
Crossing Into Wyoming
On July 1st, a mere fifty or so miles from the Wyoming border, I find myself climbing over, around or through ten foot snow drifts, much of it hiding in the shadows of dense forest. The trail here is over-grown and often difficult to follow. Large blow-downs and the aforementioned snow force me on many lengthy detours through boggy swamps and ponds that have consolidated from the melting snowpack.
This fifteen mile section, ironically, is some of the most frustrating and slowest hiking I have encountered in all of Colorado. The heavy winter snow combined with the recent warm temperatures have turned the forest into a soup of soft and wet snow drifts surrounded by flowing creeks, streams and ponds, all crisscrossed with fallen trees. It was obvious this trail had not been maintained in some years. But by the end of the day I make it out of the trees, a mere fifteen miles from where I started, and am happy to camp in an open meadow free of snow a couple of miles north of Buffalo Pass.
The next day, above tree-line, I crawl along the divide toward Lost Ranger Peak, the last 11,000 foot peak on the CDT in Colorado, and then descend down two thousand feet toward Three Island Lake Campground.
I am so exalted to trade snow for dirt tread that I literally run down the switchbacks toward Three Island Lake, putting in thirty miles by the end of the day. During the following two days I put in twenty-five miles and then ten more respectively before making it to Battle Pass in the morning. Along the way I pass into Wyoming, completing my traverse of the Continental Divide through the Colorado Rockies. I am just a little bit ecstatic!
There is so much still to look forward to on this trail, but the Colorado CDT will forever be the experience that pushed personal boundaries, expanded possibilities, and will serve as a stepping off point for bigger challenges in my future.
Fourth of July in Riverside, WY with trail friends Stryder, Onna and Neon gave me renewed excitement for the journey ahead. I have missed the camaraderie of the trail I had on the PCT; trading trail stories and convincing each other that we are not collectively crazy is important to our sanity, and sometimes you just need another voice to listen to besides the one that lives inside your head.
That night we hop between the two bars in this small town of 450 people, one right next door to the other. After a couple of shots of whiskey and a few beers I amble across the street and settle into my tent at the roadside RV Park and fall asleep listening to fireworks popping and fizzing around me until the wee hours of the morning.
The Great Basin
The following morning Stryder and I hitch back up to Battle Pass and make quick work of the six miles of trail to Badger Pass, which, at ten-thousand feet, is the last high pass of the trail before we descend toward The Great Basin of Wyoming. As I climb down from this pass I give the last snow-drift a metaphoric middle finger and then dance down the trail. It is time to make up some miles.
After a scenic ramble through the foothills surrounding the basin, Stryder and I elect to road walk a thirty-mile stretch towards the industrial town of Rawlins, avoiding some less than desirable cross-country hiking through the same parched country. We hike 27 miles along graded dirt roads, stopping to hide behind parked construction equipment for an afternoon lunch and siesta.
Water is scarce and I am forced to dry camp along the side of the road with less than half a liter of water with still eight miles remaining to Rawlins. I start walking before sunrise to beat the heat, and before ten o’clock I am gulping down two tall cups of ice-cold water in the first cafe I pass in town.
After a break in Rawlins I enter some more interesting country. Sightings of Pronghorn Antelope and Wild Horses are a regular occurrence as my feet leave meandering tracks along the road through the rolling hills in this high desert.
Along this same route, Louis and Clark made their famous expedition, begun in 1804 to find a trading route across the continent.
They ultimately mapped the eastern and western river valleys that bookend the route of the Oregon Trail across the Continental Divide, leaving the discovery of the South Pass, a low point on the divide near Lander, to future mountain-men and fur-trappers to discover, and thus connecting the route east to west to complete the Oregon Trail. (source: Wikipedia-Lewis and Clark Expedition)
The next several days are filled long stretches of road walking accompanied by the first thunder-storms of the year in the basin. At one point the trail leads me directly into an oncoming storm and I am caught in the maelstrom, thunder crackling around me as the down-poor pummels me relentlessly with a downpour of hail and rain, which streams into tiny rivulets that flow down the center of the trail and soak the earth, turning every step into a quickly abandoned dance to keep my feet dry. As the center of the storm passes overhead, lightning strikes the hillside less than a mile from my position followed by the shotgun explosion of a thunder-clap seconds later. I have no choice but to crouch down on a small bush, hide under my umbrella, and wait for the storm to pass.
The Wind River Range
Nothing could have prepared me for this version of Wyoming. I had thought that the scenic highlights on the trail were behind me, in Colorado. But Colorado is a beast of a landscape; brutal and remote, while The Wind River Range is both more dramatic and more accessible than the Rockies.
Every day of our hike through this scenic wonderland I cross at least one large group of National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) hikers out on long multi-week treks, hiking in groups of four, all walking in lock-step with each of their partners. I also run across many solo hikers enjoying multi-day backpacking trips. The trails are generally well-traveled and easy to follow.
On July 14th I cross over Jackass Pass at 11,600 feet and descend into the a spectacular display of granite called The Cirque of the Towers.
The Cirque of The Towers is a circular basin carved by glaciers over 8,000 years ago, surrounded by spiring granite peaks, and this makes the area extremely popular with rock climbers. These towers surround Lonesome Lake and three other lakes in the basin.
The northern winds offer even more impressive views of dramatic peaks and lakes. On an alternate route that deviates from the official CDT, I hike and explore impressive Island Lake and The Titcomb Lakes and make camp just before crossing over Knapsack Col.
Knapsack is a pass that connects the divide with the Green River Valley to the west. Crossing over the Col meant a snow traverse to reach the base of the valley wall and a climb up the glaciated east wall to the pass. I manage to avoid the most treacherous of the snow and ice by scrambling up the boulders to the right of the glacier which gave me access to the pass with only some minor exposure near the top. This was easily the most impressive section of my hike in the Winds.
After exiting the divide from Knapsack Col, I stretched my legs alongside the Green River where nice wide trails gave me an opportunity to listen to music and podcasts and push miles to get to Dubois for a day or two of R&R!
Going north from Dubois, we will sneak in a glimpse of the mighty Teton’s before crossing into Yellowstone National Park, take a soak in some hot springs, re-supply at Old Faithful Village, and then three days later, cross over into Idaho and Montana to begin a lengthy traverse of the divide along the mountains bordering these two states.
When it comes to Montana, I have no experience and no expectations. I am excited to discover and explore a new part of the country, the last best place, as it is often referred. I am far from done with this trail: the CDT from the Wyoming border to the Canadian border runs over 900 miles, and some of the best scenery on the planet is still to come.
Unconventional Life. Live It. Own It. Quit Worrying About It.