July 18 – Cochetopa Park to San Luis Peak – 27 miles, 4,701 feet up, 1,985 feet down
We're spending the night camped beneath 14,014 foot San Luis Peak. Needless to say, it was epic, royally awesome day. We were up again at 5 am, and it was good we were because we quickly entered to a potentially very hot area – the exposed, flat area known as Cochetopa Park. At 5 am though, it was 38° and simply perfect for hiking.
This is officially cattle country, as the patties are fresh and steamy in the morning air. There was incredible sunrise on this cold morning walk. I suspect this place is bitter, bitter cold in the dead of winter. There is lots of evidence of how the cattle world has impacted the land – barbed wire everywhere and lots of cow loading stalls they use before taking them from these pastures to slaughter. I don't envy a cow's life, but if one had to be a cow, it might not get much better than this…a splendid high alpine meadow to graze on all summer long, literally right on the Continental Divide.
We passed a number of people today. First, we passed a father and daughter who have been lead frogging with us since Marshall Pass. We get up earlier then they do, but it seems they hike right till dark. They are moving in style, with a nice light Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 tent, Granite Gear packs and an obviously light load. They're not particularly friendly however, and I think they may be getting slightly annoyed that we keep snagging the better campsite before they get there. I guess the early bird gets the worm, no?
We also passed two northbound CDT hikers who looked thoroughly lost. Finally, we passed a largish camp of hikers just emerging from their tents at 7:30 am. This trail is getting too crowded – morning rush hour traffic is heavy out here in the Cochetopa Hills.
We headed up a divide and then into another valley called Sagauche Park. Parks here are not like parks in the city – they are essentially massive plains ringed by hills and mountains. This valley didn't just have evidence of cows – it had the real deal, in spades. There were cows everywhere, staring at us and Stella as we passed. We had a bit of an unfortunate incident with a calf who seemed hell-bent on running right through a barbed wire fence to avoid us. They are strange animals, not built for speed or agility, but for eating. They look silly compared to the real wild animals out here. We saw a three-legged coyote moving quickly and silently through the sage brush. The leg was likely lost in a trap, more evidence that this is cattle country where predators are not wanted.
We headed through a maze of roads and were thankful to finally leave cattle country and enter into a wonderful grove of aspens. We traversed another divide to the serpentine, Montana-looking, Cochetopa Creek. Getting here was a big accomplishment: this creek flows directly from the La Garita Mountains. Instead of the cow infested pools we'd encountered since Marshall Pass, this was clear, flowing mountain water. The dry spell is over.
We sat by an oxbow in the river, drinking, eating and rinsing socks before heading up the long valley that is the gateway to the San Juan Mountains from the east. There are lots of beaver dams in this valley, and in many ways it closely resembles the Lost Creek Wilderness area we hiked through two weeks ago.
Storms were moving in rapidly, and with them deafening lightning, so we took cover under some pines. Lightning is a tricky one, and I find myself getting a little more bold as the trip progresses. There was a time when I'd duck for cover with strikes ten miles away. Not so much anymore, as I am starting to learn the nature of these clouds, but these were directly on top of us and a big valley is a poor option in such conditions.
After 15 minutes or so we decided it was safe to proceed and made our way to the Eddiesville Trailhead. At the parking area we saw a fantastic Ford E-500 – a 4-wheel drive van that would be a heck of a vehicle for our roaming ways. It's becoming clear that Elaine and I are not quite ready to settle down yet…we have some very defined, big goals we're talking about that we want to do first. They lend themselves well to a more mobile lifestyle.
We left the trailhead and headed up the San Luis Pass trail and straight into the La Garita Mountains. This is a significant moment, as it signifies the beginning of the final phase of this journey – the San Juan Mountains. The La Garitas – which means "the lookout" Spanish – are a sub-division of the bigger San Juans, sort of like the Green Mountains are to the Appalachians. We were just a few miles as the crow flies from the place where the 1848 Fremont party likely had to resort to cannabilism, and I can see why. Unlike the placid Cochetopa Pass these were real mountains – jagged, steep and snow covered, even in late July during a drought year.
As we began the gradual climb up this 3,000 foot rise it began to rain. More coat frustration – we put the coats on and it stopped raining, then took them off and it started raining again! As mentioned earlier, rain gear frustrates me. We headed higher still, into forests that have been ravaged by beetle kill. This area has the worst beetle kill I've seen in the entire state.
We headed up still until a massive blast of lightning struck the summit of San Luis Peak, no more than a couple miles from us. That was a wake up call. We set up our tarp and waited it out in the woods for 45 minutes as the rain and hail pummeled down. I find rain, tarps and lightning mesermizing, and we all ended up taking a nap as electricity snapped around us.
The rain abated, as did the lightning, so we packed up and headed up to a final crossing of Cochetopa Creek that sat right at timberline. We had hoped to camp here, but found it occupied. The curse of the 14ers hits once again…even though this is the most remote 14er in the entire state, it still has many more people than the Colorado Trail.
We filled our water bottles and decided to head up and give the pass below San Luis Peak a solid look now that the storm seemed to be breaking up. We ate dinner on the very fringe of the smallest trees before open ridgeline, watching the skies and a herd of deer on the other side of the ravine. The skies were clearing up relatively well, so we made the commiting decision to head up to the pass below the peak and set up camp. The trail was soaked from the rains, but we made quick work of the final section as the alpenglow engulfed the tundra.
After 20 minutes we reached the pass. We set-up our tarp in the low position, as the wind could be whipping up here. We're certainly pushing the limits of the tarp tonight. We ate the final pieces of the Nederland toffee and caught the last rays of sun on the high tundra. We're snuggled in tight tonight under this thin sheet of nylon. It's cozy and feels like home.
It was a bold day. Elaine was the initiator of most of the decisions and that was cool to see. She is developing some excellent mountain sense and instincts.
I wonder if it will drop below freezing tonight? I suspect it will. Tomorrow, it's up San Luis Peak and who knows where else, mountain gods willing. Tonights sunset was spectacular. Just as it reached it's orange and red zenith, the birds erupted in chatter. It's as if they were saying, "bravo!" To be a bird on the tundra seems like a good life – certainly better than that of a cow.