The Colorado Trail

The First Time

In 2015 I pulled a cheap mountain bike out of the trash pile at the bike shop. After joking with one of my coworkers, I decided to bikepack the Colorado Trail on that bike. This thing cost $500 brand new, Specialized’s least expensive bike for adults, the Hardrock

I was running a nonprofit bike shop where I would refurbish donated bikes and give them to people who needed reliable transportation in Denver. Keeping bikes out of landfills was kind of my thing. I might have been in over my head, though. Most bikes considered “capable” of handling the Colorado Trail come with price tags over 2000 dollars. This bike originally cost $520 dollars.

I stripped the bike down to the frame and rebuilt it as a fully rigid bikepacking machine. I set out to ride from Denver to Durango. I was an experienced bike tourist, on pavement, but I had never been bikepacking. 

I had barely even been mountain biking. I went twice before setting off for Durango. I had never been backpacking in my life at that point, either; the furthest into the backcountry I had ever been was still within a quarter mile of a paved road. 

I was in over my head. But I was in good shape. And I hadn’t owned a car for over five years, I pedaled everywhere. I pedaled across the United States and came back to Denver to live on a whim–someone saw my hand drawn flyer and called me to offer a room in their house for $150 a month.

I had just spent seven months on a bike two years prior, meandering from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, on a route I made up as I went. So maybe pedaling across Colorado on trails that make some of the world’s most difficult mountain biking was possible?

I pedaled that trash bike from my house in Denver to the highest point on the Colorado Trail, 13,000 feet, and on to Durango. I would ride until the trail got so steep and rocky I should have been walking, until my heart was pumping so hard I could feel it in my head. I would ride until I should have been walking because the trail had rocks the size of human skulls everywhere. And then I would crash. I would get up, sometimes pushing the bike off me first, and start pushing the bike uphill. 

Bikepacking the Colorado Trail kind of sucks. But I’m pretty stubborn, or motivated, depending on how you look at it. So I did it.

Okay, bikepacking the CT doesn’t totally suck. That trip was a jumping off point into a life spent outside. I was now past road bike touring. But, bikepacking on a trail designed for walking isn’t always fun. 

On that first CT trip I came to the realization that backpacking was probably really fun. Several times, while pushing my bike up a steep hill, a backpacker would pass me. At those moments I thought, “I should do that!” They were moving faster up hills than I was, and I had the mechanical “advantage” of a geared two-wheeled machine, more like an achor pulling me down! 

I had to try backpacking. 

The Second Time

The day when I would ditch the bike came two years later. I had been on a handful of short backpacking trips and thought I had it figured out enough to hike 485 miles in one trip. I kind of had backpacking figured out. Kind of. 

Thinking back to 2017 on the CT. 

I dehydrated all my meals for that trip. I didn’t want to deal with mailing all those food boxes, so I carried over a week’s worth of food with me. I had a 70 liter pack so I could fit all that food in there and much more: a sleeping bag liner that weighs as much as some ultralight sleeping bags, the heaviest backpacking stove MSR makes (whisperlite international, designed for international travel where fuel sources can vary), an e-reader with a thick leather case, and a full sized leatherman. I did not have a puffy jacket, only a puffy vest, so I carried way too many layers to stay warm–multiple long sleeve wool shirts, heavy rain pants, wool tights, and wool socks thick enough for mid-January. To top it all off I had the cheapest pair of trail running shoes I could find on the internet two weeks before I left (Saucony Grid Escape trail runners, Sierra Trading Post, $39.99). Those shoes were totally destroyed 300 miles in. I had no camera, either, only an iPhone 5. But, I managed to hike about 15 miles per day and finish the trail in about five weeks.

I made it to the top of every mountain, my head didn’t even come close to exploding without the heavy bike to push up those climbs. But I did struggle to finish, and I think the 70 liter backpack had a lot to do with that. I just wasn’t an experienced backpacker, but I’d get there, and that Colorado Trail hike launched me in that direction. 

Over the winter I focused on getting a lighter backpacking setup. The following summer I went on eight backpacking and bikepacking trips. That summer I hiked 50 miles of the Colorado Trail in two days. The same CT segment took me over 3 days to finish the year before. And I completed a very difficult 150 mile bikepacking route through Utah, The Kokopelli Trail. I had previously bailed on The Kokopelli too, because of an unexpected snowstorm that should have been expected. I couldn’t get enough backcountry adventures now and I was getting a lot of experience. The next year I hiked the all 2650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. All this started because of the Colorado Trail. 

The Third Time

When 2020 came around I had plans to hike the Continental Divide Trail–some 3000 miles through Colorado and New Mexico, two of my favorite states, as well as Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, three states I haven’t spent much time in. 

Well we all know what happened this spring, 2020, the year of Covid-19.

I postponed my plans to hike the CDT. By the end of the summer spent as an essential worker in a bike shop, I was ready to do just about anything other than work in a very busy bike shop during a global pandemic.

I put my two weeks notice in the last days of July. I just had to get out of the place that sells the thing that everyone had determined was the safest form of exercise. I had the realization, though, that I could still squeeze in a thru-hike this summer: The Colorado Trail. What better way to escape the chaos of the world for a few weeks? Two Weeks later I was at the Waterton Canyon trailhead, the northern terminus.

It took me 22 days to hike from Denver to Durango, with two “zero days” (thru-hiker speak for a day off), and three “nero days” (near-zero, a short day into town, short can be subjective). A trail seems to get better every time you experience it, and after hiking the CT in 2020, I am positive I would do it again, and again, and again….

Between the terminuses there was smoke, snow, hail, rain, lots of wind, laughter, sunshine, smiles, and much more. 

Read On

Day One

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