CDT Part 12–Northern Colorado

I’m really trying to finish this CDT blog before I start my next adventure in March. Stay tuned. I think I can do it! Things got pretty busy with writing for other people (I’m a full-time freelance writer for money), but I’m working on getting caught with writing for myself. 

Aspens!

I crossed into Colorado at 8 in the morning on September 1st. 

I love Colorado–the views of endless mountains from the top of other mountains, the steep climbs, the well-groomed trails, everything. 

I’ve hiked the trail that goes across my home state 2 times already. And if you count that one time I biked it, I’ve done the Colorado Trail 3 times. This will be the fourth time.  

But, I’ve never hiked the section of the CDT from the Wyoming border to Gray’s Peak. This was all fresh to me while still feeling familiarly Colorado

Well, the first bit of Colorado was a fire detour around the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness. A bummer that I couldn’t hike this area. Once upon a time in the earliest days of me learning how to backpack, I hiked in this wilderness. 

My friend and I had planned to go to the Collegiate Peaks for a 5-day trip, but the day of the trip came and the weather forecast looked bad. It looked so bad we considered just canceling it altogether. Instead, we checked the forecasts for other areas in Colorado. This was going to be a rainy week. Damn. 

Finally, we checked the forecast in Northern Colorado, near Steamboat Spring and the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. Clear! So we drove the 5 hours to Steamboat and went to the ranger station. We picked up some maps and headed to the trailhead.

It was my first time using a new ultralight tent I bought. That tent was my first piece of ultralight gear. And it was the only piece of ultralight gear I brought – I even brought my Martin backpacker guitar. I wrote this song on that trip, inspired by all the dead trees from the Emerald Ash Pine Beetle I saw out there. 

After two days hiking through this wilderness, I made it to the Continental Divide Trail. That was the first time I set foot on the CDT. I didn’t really know what the CDT was at that point, but I remember sitting next to the trail one afternoon and meeting my first CDT thru-hikers. One person was from Korea, and I talked to him for a few minutes. He seemed pretty over hiking by that point. He was a southbound hiker like I am now. 

Fast forward to the present, now I’m hiking around all that beetle kill in the Zirkel Wildnerness. Those dead trees are on fire now and I’m walking a dirt road towards Steamboat Springs. The dirt road turns into a paved road. 30 miles of pavement are ahead of me. I’m starting to feel a little bit over this trail, too.

And it starts to rain, a lot. This isn’t fun. I stick my thumb out. I don’t need to hike a 30-mile section of pavement with no shoulder. I quickly get a ride with a guy who was scouting out the fire detour. He only had this section of trail left to complete before finishing the CDT for the third time. He’s already hiked the Appalacian and Pacific Crest Trails three times. I hope that’s me one day. Too bad he has to hike a 30-mile road walk to become a triple triple-crowner…

He drops me off at the grocery store. I sit outside that store and eat some chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese from the deli. I get a coffee and watch the rain pour down on the parking lot. 

I’m glad I’m not out there walking on a highway with no shoulder right now. 

This was the only part of the CDT I didn’t hike in 2021. I’ll go back to the Zirkels one day and finish it, but only when I can hike not on the highway

After a night in town, I head back to the trail. Leaving Steamboat, there’s more highway walking. I hiked this part, at least it wasn’t raining I guess. 

My best road walk face

I finally get off the paved highway late in the afternoon. At the trailhead, I find an empty bottle of whiskey, bummer. But I head down the dirt road and have a pleasant evening of easy walking on soft dirt. There are tons of hunters out here right now. It’s elk hunting season. 

Two guys drive up and roll down their window. “You seen any moose?”

“…No, not today. You’re hunting moose?”

“No, we’re just looking for them!”

“Oh, cool! Well, I hope we both get to see some!” I respond. 

“Me too! How far you hikin’?” They ask. 

“To mexico!” 

“All the way?! Where’d you start??”

“Canada!”

“Holy shit!”

“…yeah” I say. 

They wave goodbye and drive away. 

Thirty minutes later, the same truck drives back toward me. They roll down their window. 

The guy in the passenger seat reaches into the back seat and pulls out two beers! He hands them to me. 

“For when you get to camp later.”

“Whoa, thanks!” I say.

“Sure thing, be careful out there!” They drive away. 

I make it to the first water source 10 miles down the dirt road. There’s a nice, small camp tucked away from the dirt road nearby. This will be home for the night. 

I crack a beer and mix up some instant mashed potatoes with cold water from the stream. It’s getting colder out. I should get my stove when I make it to Denver. 

Cold soaking gets old when it’s cold outside!

The next stretch was the most challenging part of the CDT. Steep inclines and hard to find, lightly used trail. At one point I had to wait out an afternoon hail storm under a tree. When the storm cleared for a brief window, I very quickly scampered across an exposed ridge. There were storm clouds all around me, but I didn’t die. 

Just wait for the clear moment and run!
I should have slept here, but with the storms, I didn’t think it was the best idea…

After I get off that ridge, I have another 10 miles to make it to water. I have 1 liter left and it’s getting late. I’ll make it, I thought. 

I didn’t make it. It’s now dark and I’m walking through a burn area. It’s getting dark earlier now. It’s September, so that makes sense, but it’s still catching me off guard every day. 

September means hiking in the dark a lot.

After climbing through a couple jungle gyms of fallen trees, I decide it’s too dangerous to do this in the dark. I make camp with ¾ a liter of water. 

I make cold ramen with as little water as possible. I left myself one sip for the morning. 

In the morning, the downed trees look much less ominous. I easily climb over them, looking forward to that cold Nalgene of instant coffee I would soon be drinking. Mmmmmmmm.

See all those storms? Get off the ridge, silly!

I madke it to the stream. Wow, that water was good! 

That morning was the first morning I saw frost on the ground, too. I really need to make it to Denver and get my cold-weather gear.

Five days of equally difficult hiking later, I’m running down the hill into Copper Mountain. Everything closes early in Copper, and I’ve decided that a hot meal sounds too good to miss out on. I make it to the gas station, which I know has pizza and beer. 

Closed.

Shit. Well, there’s the expensive pub on the other end of town. It’s 7:30 and they close at 8. I guess I’m not done running, yet!

I walk in at 7:45 and go straight to the bar. I ask the bartender if I can still order food to go. 

“Sure you can, or you can eat it here.”

“Well I know you’re closing soon, I’ll just take it to go.”

“Oh, we’re staying open late tonight. This is opening day for the NFL. The game just started and I’m staying ’till halftime.”

“Oh, cool!”

This was a good meal!

I get a burger and a beer. I pay my tab before halftime. I walk into the dark, to a spot nearby that I know has good camping. I’m in familiar territory now. 

I’d live here!

The next day I’m at that gas station early. I get a coffee and a bagel. Now, it’s time to hitchhike to Denver. I make it down from the mountains by early afternoon. I do my laundry and give myself a haircut. My friends are getting married tomorrow. 

My clothes were so dirty that they apparently left a lot of dirt in our washing machine. My roommate had to wash his clothes twice to get them clean after I washed my hiking clothes. I suspect it was the socks since I was down to one pair for that last stretch….

Oh yeah, and I made a bear friend…

Doesn’t my bear friend look nice?!

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