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In Good Company: The Colorado Trail

In a socially distanced year, the distance itself felt more social than ever.

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It’s our first night on the Colorado Trail, and our campsite is perfect—a grassy spot tucked out of sight, with a talkative creek and good logs for sitting. We even arranged to have field mint surround the door, so everything smells fresh and green. My partner Brandon and I snuggle into our sleeping bags, congratulating each other on a solid first day. For how epic bikepacking is supposed to be, this feels pretty dang luxurious so far.

That’s when the techno starts.

It sounds like it’s right next to us but after the first hour I swear it’s literally inside our tent. You can feel each beat like a slap in the chest. We make up stories: Maybe it’s a couple getting high in a truck next door; maybe it’s some kids out having a COVID party. I fixate on the idea that whoever it is has passed out on the button that controls the volume, which seems to get a little louder every few minutes.

Brandon gets up to pee and is gone a long time. When he comes back, he says flatly, “We have to go.” There’s no truck; no kids. There’s nobody anywhere near us—but when I peek my head out of the tent I can see the lights flashing over the next ridge. It’s a full-on desert rave. Brandon’s right: If we expect to get any sleep, we’ve got to find a new site.

We put on our damp shoes, collapse the tent and re-pack the bikes haphazardly in the dark. As we’re riding down the dirt road like fugitives in long johns, I think that this is probably a more fitting start anyway.

From Boulder to Bikepack

Despite being born here, I never planned to ride the Colorado Trail. I grew up racing cross country, and even that sort of short-format suffering threw me into a death spiral of stress and self-doubt. Bikepacking, with all its gear, logistics and extreme physicality, always seemed on the far end of impossible.

Then came the spring of 2020. As the world got crazier, our rides got longer. Avoiding trailheads meant starting every route from our front door, but I didn’t mind the extra miles or news-free hours. We started filtering water and packing our food to avoid spreading germs in gas stations and cafes, stuffing our pockets with everything we’d need to get through the day. Sometimes we’d bring lights for our after-work jaunts.

We were filling up at a river one evening when the concept of bikepacking hit me all at once: bring the right stuff and you can ride forever. And if I were to bikepack, I thought to myself, I’d want to bikepack the Colorado Trail. I had ridden bits and pieces over the years, and we could access the Denver terminus easily from our backyard in Boulder. This would also be the year to do it, I reasoned. After all, getting way out in the woods is a good way to avoid close human contact.

The first time we looked at the whole route online, it terrified me. Even if you zoom out so you can see the whole state, it still looks big. The trail meanders from Denver to Durango, crossing five major river systems and eight mountain ranges over its 486 miles (around 530 on the bike with Wilderness detours). I wondered about all the different microclimates, and how it would feel to link the bits of the trail I’d already ridden. I started Googling things like, “what to do in an electrical storm above treeline,” and “best bike shoes for hiking.” We started extending our long rides even farther.

Three months later, we’re two days into the route, and I’m feeling totally, ruthlessly, dwarfed by the mountains I’ve grown up in. We’re riding super-light, full-suspension XC rigs, but they still weigh around 50 pounds with all our gear and food—my bike feels like a small tractor. Progress is slow, and the miles ahead weigh heavy on our minds.

As we’re riding down the dirt road like fugitives in long johns, I think that this is probably a more fitting start anyway.

Day two is the Tarryall detour, which takes us on a long, hot road jaunt before diving back into pasturelands and eventually back to the singletrack over Kenosha Pass. Revived by Pringles and canned tuna from the Stagestop Store, we pedal into the last of the daylight, enough to get us halfway up Georgia Pass. A trail angel at the last campsite we pass through gifts us a beer, which we split in the tent, becoming instantly tipsy.

The Trail To Nowhere (Almost)

It’s hard to imagine now, but in the ’70s Colorado was actually hurting for pleasant, recreational trails. Responding to demand, forester Bill Lucas proposed an ambitious project, with insight from the Roundup Riders of the Rockies and the Colorado Mountain Club: A huge trail that would travel continuously through Colorado’s most picturesque landscapes, providing educational opportunities along the way.

About 70 percent of the route already existed when it was conceived back in 1973. Plenty of indigenous hunting paths, defunct railroads, fire roads and mining routes crisscrossed the state; they just needed signage, plotting and maintenance.

Mountaineer Gudrun ‘Gudy’ Gaskill rose to the challenge, leading teams of college and high school students into the hills around Denver to inventory everything, from elk trails to doubletrack, as well as any sensitive habitats to avoid. This was before modern computers and mapping technologies, so everything had to be done manually.

Gunnison-based Western State College began to offer classes in the field doing more inventories, analyzing impact, and monitoring winter conditions along proposed routes. Regis College in Denver offered a six-week course, with most of it spent on the Colorado Trail. The Volunteer Conservation Corps also got involved, as well as the Boy Scouts and Kiwanis. Some 32,000 labor hours of work were put in on the trail just between 1977 and 1978.

By the mid ’80s, with just 28 miles left to build, the project ran into administrative challenges. A few segments in the middle of the route, near Copper Mountain, Mount Princeton, and Windy Peak remained dead ends. I imagine Windy Peak in particular sapping the volunteers’ remaining spirit with its relentless babyhead terrain and haunted trees.

An article from 1984 entitled “The Trail to Nowhere” detailed the challenges, but remained hopeful, saying that, “If there ever is a Colorado Trail, it will likely be because Gudy Gaskill hasn’t given up.” Gudy herself estimated that the current volunteer force could complete about 2-4 miles per year.

Fortunately, the article helped rekindle interest in the project, resulting in the materialization of more than 1,400 volunteers to complete the trail. Today, the Colorado Trail Foundation estimates that around 150 people travel the entire route (on foot or bike) every year—with thousands visiting portions. Continuing maintenance—a monumental task on its own—is mostly handled by volunteers.

Friends in Low, and High, Places

Some parts of the route, like the gently rising, aspen-cloaked Kenosha Pass, have a clear practical and historical importance: it’s a low point between the Front Range and South Park, making it an obvious route for hunters—and later, trains and highways. Others, like the four-hour hike over the Tenmile Range outside Breckenridge, feel more contrived—like why on earth would anyone need to go to the top of this mountain, other than to see the view?

Sometimes that’s exactly it, though. The Colorado Trail, while rugged, still has a distinctly human feel to it. Not only do you see other people out there constantly—day trippers, thru-hikers, motos and other riders all share the space—but the Trail itself feels like a human path. The way it wanders communicates something of our common curiosity, our wonder in the landscape, and our desire to connect communities. It’s like something precious, shared between everyone we meet.

That sense helps me keep moving. Whenever the next step feels impossible, or I feel crazy for doing this, I imagine my friends who have traveled the trail over the years. I know that whatever I’m feeling, they’ve felt it too, maybe on heavier bikes than mine, maybe in the rain, maybe as hungry as I am. Each day I wonder if I’ll join the ones who finished or the ones who had to bail—though it seems to matter less the farther we go.

A Resourceful Route

Colorado, for better or worse, is a very mineral-rich state—and the marks of heavy extraction are everywhere. We skirt around countless tailings piles, and in many places, abandoned mining equipment waits, rusting for eternity. It’s hard to see these scars on the land, but we also have mining to thank for many of the routes we’re traveling. Whether it was a cart-road to a claim, or the footpaths linking boom towns like Breckenridge and Leadville, these routes took settlers farther into the hills than they’d ever gone before.

 

The Colorado Trail, while rugged, still has a distinctly human feel to it. Not only do you see other people out there constantly—day trippers, thru-hikers, motos and other riders all share the space—but the Trail itself feels like a human path.

Other segments of the Colorado Trail are reminders of the mid-19th century competition between railroads attempting to link the Front Range and the mineral-rich western communities. As newer, more efficient routes were developed, older ones would be deconstructed, leaving behind leveled bench cuts that, as most Colorado riders will attest, also tend to be perfectly graded climbs for mountain bikes.

Tennessee Pass, outside Leadville, is a relic of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, while the tunnels outside Buena Vista were built for the Colorado Midland—we fly through both of these railroad grades on our fourth day, thinking only of the burgers and showers waiting in town. I tend to lose focus and get bored on the road sections but Brandon devours them, so I enjoy a nice fast draft on the final few miles into Buena Vista. The friends at home watching our progress via GPS tracker text that they’re relieved to see us finally moving faster than 4 miles-per-hour.

Buena Vista is our last town and therefore, last resupply before Silverton—a stretch of 204 miles. We’ve been averaging 45-75 miles a day depending on the terrain, so we estimate that this push will take us between four and five days. We lay out all our food on the sidewalk outside the grocery store, and the reality of what we’re about to do begins to sink in: I’ll need to bring, and presumably eat, 20 Clif bars.

This is where the trail gets real. The hikes get longer; the terrain gets more technical; and we stay consistently higher—topping out at 13,271 feet above sea level and rarely dropping below 9,000 feet. The thin air and accumulating fatigue make for slow progress and dramatic energy swings. Brandon and I learn to navigate each others’ moods, which actually turns out to be pretty simple: Whoever feels better is in charge of morale.

That means that I make sure Brandon appreciates the beauty of Monarch Crest, and he gives me a restorative hug when I cry with frustration, grovelling over Sargents Mesa in the dark. That night, we both think our campsite is haunted but we’re both so spent that neither of us bothers to mention it until the next day.

On day seven we’re detouring around the La Garita Wilderness, plodding along a gradual dirt road climb en route to Slumgullion Pass. We’ve been in surreal open-skyed pastureland all day. Earlier, I napped in a culvert while Brandon filtered water, but right now I’m the one who feels a little better. It begins to rain and we both stop without a word to put on our jackets.

That night, we both think our campsite is haunted but we’re both so spent that neither of us bothers to mention it until the next day.

It’s cold but bearable. There’s thunder but it’s far away. We round a turn and see a pond with raindrops spiking the surface. Close to us, we see a male moose, drinking. He stops, raises his huge head, and looks at us solemnly through the rain. I think about the weight of that head. We stare. Moments pass, and he turns and moves slowly on his way, poking through the weeds along the shore of the lake. I notice that he’s limping and find myself thinking, what could make an animal that size limp?

As we’re watching him, we hear a buzzing, like bees. It grows to a roar, and a pack of dirt bike riders, probably 20 of them, rounds the bend. They give us friendly waves, but we’re watching the moose, who is panicking. He’s trying to scramble up the hillside back to the trees, but his leg is slowing him down, and he keeps stumbling. I feel sad watching him. I wonder how long he’ll make it out here.

An Erased Culture

As we make our way farther south, the names start changing: San Luis peak, Baldy Cinco, Mesa Seco, Los Pinos—and also Cochetopa and Ouray and Uncompahgre.

The Núuchi-u (the people) or Ute people, thrived here in the 17th century, spending their summers hunting in the high mountains, and gathering in the more temperate river valleys during winter. Various other nomadic Ute tribes inhabited Colorado, New Mexico and Utah—but most of the Colorado Trail lies on what other tribes recognized to be the territory of  the Tabeguache (Taveewach/Tavakiev/Tavi’wachi Núuchi) or “People of Sun Mountain,” the largest band of Ute people.

In the mid 1700s, Spanish explorers began to visit what would become Southwest Colorado, but until the mid-1800s the local tribes were minimally affected. Then the Mexican-American war (1846-48) and the Colorado Gold Rush (1858-59) kicked off a series of increasingly restrictive treaties and betrayals, gradually forcing the Ute deeper into the San Juans, and eventually away from those mineral-rich territories as well. Today, the Ute people live on various reservations in Colorado and Utah—though largely far from their ancestral homes.

Los Pinos, the name of the river we follow during this portion of the trail, was also the name of the government agency that issued the Ute people rations and compelled them to give up their centuries-old nomadic lifestyle. Cochetopa—a pass along the Continental Divide that bridges San Luis and Gunnison valleys—is the Ute word for Buffalo gate. Long before even the Ute people arrived, massive herds of Buffalo used this very same route. Ouray was a chief and advocate for the Ute people; the Uncompahgre Ute people were among the very first humans on earth.

Seeing Ute words on the map alongside Spanish and American ones makes it seem like all the layers of history are still there—but we’ll ride an old mining road into Silverton, not a nomad’s footpath. The erased culture is prominent in its absence.

Without indigenous knowledge, navigating the Colorado Rockies would have proved much more difficult, if not impossible for early settlers. I don’t doubt that almost every mile of trail we touch was originally traveled by indigenous people. To travel these routes today, to me, requires acknowledgement of those who went before. Here, more than ever, I try to ride with appreciation.

Water is Life

I’m pushing my bike over the tundra of Jarosa Mesa, my feet searching for the grassy spaces between the rocks. It’s my favorite time of day: The light is fading, blurring corners and turning everything a soft purple. The afternoon’s storms rumble over a neighboring peak, and one of my brake rotors is a little bent. It sounds like a lonely bird, peeping in the dusk.

I don’t doubt that almost every mile of trail we touch was originally traveled by indigenous people. To travel these routes today, to me, requires acknowledgement of those who went before. Here, more than ever, I try to ride with appreciation.

The first blue line on our map (indicating that there should be a stream) proves bone-dry. “It doesn’t even look like there was ever water here … .” I mutter to Brandon. He just raises an eyebrow.

I was the one who made us push past our last water source, fueled by a late-afternoon burst of enthusiasm. Now we’re facing Cataract Ridge, a 30-mile push mostly above 12,000 feet, with our water near empty. A thread of guilt begins to creep up my spine.

“We’ll find some!” I say too loudly, faking optimism. We move on. It gets darker. We trudge across another drainage full of dry, dusty rocks. My shoulders tighten uncomfortably as I realize the snow is long gone.

Then, right as the day’s mileage ticks over to a lucky 77, I see the last of the light reflecting off a flat spot in the grass—the smelly August remnant of last season’s snowmelt. I ditch my bike and limp over to investigate, finding a narrow trickle so deeply carved into the turf that it swallows my entire arm when I reach down to find it with my filter. Laying on my belly, shoulder-deep in the cold, damp earth, I breathe a happy sigh of relief. For the first time, I believe that we might actually make it to Durango.

Alone, Together

I started each day on the trail wondering if it would be the day that we’d be forced to abandon, but in the end, none of the days ended up being that day. We surfed a nearly perfect weather window all the way to Durango, and celebrated by splitting our last dry tortilla in the dark, giggling feebly as we waited by the trailhead outhouse for friends to pick us up.

We thought we’d avoid people by spending a week on the trail—but traveling a route that humans have traveled for centuries turned out to be the perfect antidote to a year when human connection felt hard to come by. Everyone we met out there felt connected by common curiosity, and the trail itself linked us to people of the past. I’ve never felt my vulnerability or strength so acutely, or been so grateful for Colorado’s rich alpine history.

Photos: Brandon Camarda