In August of 2019, I began the Colorado Trail at Waterton Canyon. If you decide to summit a few fourteeners along the way, the Colorado Trail winds up being about 500 miles from Denver to Durango. Growing up in Bailey, the Colorado Trail was right in my backyard but I never attempted to hike it. After graduating college, I decided it was the perfect time to try the trail.
The trail winds through almost every type of ecosystem in Colorado. You start in a canyon and walk up alongside the South Platte River. Along the canyon walls, bighorn sheep munch grasses. Soaring and screaming high above are massive golden eagles. They were so big, it made me wonder if birds were something to keep an eye out for. The first half of segment one is heavily used by families, fishermen, and bikers so you get friendly waves and smiles as you start your adventure. One family had an enormous bull snake slither their way so the canyon echoed with screams from people instead of eagles for a moment. After about 12 miles, you stop seeing people as often and the solo rocky mountain adventure begins. You occasionally run into another backpacker but for the most part, it is just you and the changing Colorado landscape.
One of the most incredible aspects of the trail is rarely talked about. You walk past so much Colorado history. You will be miles from people in the deep Rocky Mountains but old prospectors cabins and spent gold/silver mines will occasionally appear. In the earlier sections of the trail, you walk through the burn area of the Hayman Fire and gleaming white crystals dot the landscape as a result of quartz mining in the late 19th century. You have to resist the urge to pick up all the quartz crystal points because you will literally be carrying a bag of rocks and in backpacking, weight is everything.
There was a point in the trail where water was very scarce. You walked about 16-20 miles without a good water source so you would "camel up" and carry as much water as you could. By the time you got to the water source which happened to be a spigot from a local firehouse, a crew of backpackers had assembled to relax. This is where I met a number of trail friends that I would occasionally see over the next 200 miles.
This is also where I learned about trail names. No one went by their real name. They were blessed by some other backpacker with a name that fit their personality, their mishaps, etc. This is where I met "Ninja" and "Zach Galifianakis"
Zach Galifianakis looked like the long lost twin of the real Zach Galifianakis and had the same comedic ability. The mix of southern accent and hilarious one liners made this guy a riot to listen to. Mountain Ninja was an awesome woman from South Korea who could crush a 20 mile segment of the trail with no problem. She was a bad ass.
The trail is surrounded by plants, animals, and fungi that I grew up with as a kid. When I took the time to crush some miles with Zach, Ninja, or my friend Trey, I would point out every useful/tasty plant or cool mushroom. August was wildflower season and due to heavy winter snow, the snowmelt caused mushrooms to pop up everywhere in the forests.
Ninja had never eaten a wild raspberry and I was positive about my identification so I told her to take a handful. She was hesitant but after I ate a few, she was ready to try it out. I got a little worried during that hour because the pace she was eating those raspberries was insane. I was stoked she found fresh fruit on the trail because fresh veggies and fruits are hard to come by. There is nothing like a currant berry, wild strawberry, or raspberry when you start your early morning hike. They are still cold from the night before and they are so sweet after drinking coffee from breakfast. You will also pass wild onions, asparagus, and edible mushrooms to add to your pasta dinner. Obviously do your research and be careful.
As the days pass, you can feel the average altitude climb drastically which means the habitats change and the types of plants and animals change as well. Sage grouse are replaced by high alpine ptarmigan, berry-eating squirrels are replaced by marmots and pika, and bighorn sheep are replaced by mountain goats. The number of backpackers you see by this point plummets as some realize they are in over their heads or their pace slows dramatically. Luckily, Zach, Ninja, and the Boston Scrambler kept about the same mileage every day and we wouldn't see each other all day but would usually end up camping together. The Boston Scrambler was a man from Alaska with a big red beard and he wore a kilt the entire length of the trail. I can't imagine the ventilation. It must have been incredible.
The scenery was dramatic. People imagine high altitude to lack vegetation and life but due to the lack of human interference, life was more abundant here than anywhere else on the trail. Wildflowers of every color surrounded the trail, the smell of wet, decaying pine needles and fragrant pine cones filled your nose, and the only sounds were of chirping squirrels, wind occasionally rushing through pine needles, and a symphony of different birds.