There are few things better than falling into a deep sleep with the sound of a light rain pitter-pattering on top of the tent, the chirping of frogs echoing off the forest from a nearby lake. Before bed, while brushing teeth, our headlamps betrayed a pair of glowing eyes off in the forest, looking our way. They were white eyes, not the red color of a predator, probably a deer or an elk, and they darted away after a second or two. Elaine and I were deep in northern Colorado’s Zirkel Wilderness, and this type of experience is exactly why we decided to hike the Continental Divide Trail, far from the chaos of society, in deep wild country.
The hike from Steamboat to the tiny northern Wyoming town of Encampment is significant for a few reasons. First, it crosses into a new state, and that’s always an exciting accomplishment, especially on a trail where it only happens three times (four if you count the Idaho/Montana border). It’s also the stage that crosses the halfway mark of the 3,050 mile trail, in far northern Colorado. While we still have a long way to go, there is something mentally good about being on the downward half.
Beyond borders and miles, this is a section of trail we’ve been looking forward to. Far northern Colorado is new ground for us, and places like the Zirkel Wilderness get much less traffic than the rest of our state. And southern Wyoming – well, that’s practically frontier country, a great unknown. That’s exciting, and that sense of discovery had us ready to hike.
Our good friend Britt took us up Rabbit Ears Pass after a lazy morning start, and it wasn’t long before we entered a land of perfect Colorado wildflowers. They are starting to peak, and the impact on the smell senses is as potent and pleasant as it is visually. The forest and meadows feel alive, blooming and buzzing with insects and hummingbirds. This is a popular area for hiking and mountain biking for Steamboat residents, but everybody was in a good mood, offering a friendly hello.
We continued on, paying a visit and drinking a coca-cola courtesy of a trail angel “Crazy Joe.” Trail angels are basically folks who hang out in the woods helping hikers. A popular phenomenon on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, they have been few and far between on the CDT. Crazy Joe has lived out of his truck for the past three years and enjoys spending time in the woods and helping hikers. We chatted for 15 minutes, thanked him, and headed north.
A common complaint about Colorado is that there is no water in our state. That’s not exactly true. Consider the area between Rabbit Ears Pass and the Zirkel Mountains. Water abounds. Perfect lakes dot this heavily wooded plateau, and indeed it feels more like Minnesota than the Rocky Mountains. The Colorado lake country is serene and has that perfect feel that only deep, water clad forests have.
We encountered a Boy Scout troop out camping and fishing, and I couldn’t help but be brought back to some of my own experiences as a youth. My very first backpacking trip was in Nordmarka. We backpacked to a lake, set up camp, caught a trout that we ate for dinner and slept in a blue pup tent. It happened in country not unlike that found in Colorado’s lake country.
FUTURE TRIP IDEA: Mountain bike up Buffalo Pass. Ride CDT East to Rabbit Ears. Bring food and gear for a couple nights. Bring Tenkara rods and fire starter. Fish and have fires. Go in the deep autumn. Loop back to Steamboat. If you are lucky, it snows an inch or two and you get first tracks.
It started to rain. We hiked on, hoods up, past the lakes as the rain beat down. Thunder clapped overhead, but since we were in the trees we were not worried. That changed a bit as we crossed under some massive power lines, buzzing and crackling as the rain hit their high voltage wires, but soon we were back in the woods, and the rain slackened.
We crossed Buffalo Pass and entered the Zirkel Wilderness. You can’t help but enter Wilderness and feel a jolt of excitement…it is the purest land we have. While I disagree with some of the policies, like a complete blanket ban on bicycles, I appreciate Wilderness for its success in preserving some of our nation’s finest places from development. The Zirkel Wilderness was one of the first areas given such designation, a testament to its value even in the late-1960s.
The land rose steadily as the damp night turned crisper. Clouds hung over peaks in all directions, and deer and elk scattered about as we continued on across valleys and late lingering snow drifts, alone, not another human in site. It was getting late, so we set up camp on a rise above a perfect little lake with frogs raising a ruckus. Just as we got camp set up for the night, the rain began again, and it was one of the most soothing, contented sleeps I’ve had in years.
The next morning was cooler still. The frogs were quiet and a mist hung over the land. We shook the cobwebs out, pulled camp and gradually worked our way up something called Lost Ranger Peak. We ran into a couple other thru-hikers and hiked with them for a bit before continuing on our way. Nice folks, but I think our agendas were a little different. Not better or worse, just different.
We continued climbing, and eventually made it to the top of Lost Ranger, glad to finally be on a mountain not named “Bald,” “Baldy,” “Old Bald,” or the like. We pulled out our tent to dry, and disaster almost struck as a brisk wind suddenly picked up, nearly sending our $600 Hilleberg tent hurtling over a cliff into Wolverine Basin. A blend on quickness and sheer dumb luck ensured we caught the tent and didn’t jam our bare feet on the rocky ground. Rookie mistake that we will not make again.
Other than that episode, it was a lazy lunch, gazing at distant peaks, soaking up the sun and enjoying the moment. We enjoyed it so much that we barely noticed the building thunderheads. Finally, as a dark cloud passed overhead, we ended our laze and headed down the mountain. Not a second too soon, as lightning started crashing on the peak we’d occupied ten minutes earlier. Soon we were dashing across a high plateau, racing the thunder, getting pelted by rain, kicking ourselves for not paying better attention. Fortunately the trail started to drop, and soon we were back in the woods, hiking in the rain in a our cocoon of forest safety.
After that, the day rolled on like a dream, miles ticking off as we meandered thru forest and valleys. We crossed thru massive forest fire relics, along creek beds and valleys straight out of a western movie. We camped next to a river and an old jeep road, celebrating crossing the trail’s halfway mark and looking forward to entering Wyoming.
The next day turned into a sleeper challenge. There are days where the profile involves long climbs and high 13,000 foot passes. Those days are easier than what we ended up with – an endless series of steep ups and downs all the way to the Colorado border and beyond. The morning was the best, the trail meandering thru a valley with a heavy dew on plants and trees. After that, it was simply a 5,000 vertical up day of endless 200 to 300 foot climbs and drops. These were moto trails, and while fun on a two-stroke they are challenging to hike because they are so steep and loose. I kept telling myself it was great nordic ski training, and indeed my quad muscles burned by the end.
The day was not all suffering. After all, we crossed the Wyoming border. I couldn’t help but look back with pride on what we accomplished and enjoyed in our home state of Colorado. Elaine and I became the first people ever to ski the San Juan entire loop as part of a thru hike. We felt the love from friends and family. We experienced the stunning beauty of Colorado lake country. And of course, there is sadness too. Our partner in crime and family member Stella was alive when we entered Colorado. When we left, six weeks later, she was not. This creates a deep sadness in us that hopefully time and wilderness will help heal.
As we approached the end of the day we saw a massive elk, huge antlers and strong build. May he survive the upcoming hunting season, and if he dies, I hope he dies with dignity and is able to face east to make peace with the maker.
We entered a new Wilderness area, the Huston Wilderess, an area I didn’t even know existed. This land is full of red quartz rock, lots of deadfall and feels very, very wild. We set up camp, tired from the roller coaster day, too tired to care that we were camped on a somewhat exposed ridge and that thunder was echoing far off in the distance.
The next morning came, and we were thankful the lightning avoided us during the night. It was a 14 mile hike to the road to Encampment, and we enjoyed the magic of the Huston Wilderness, the meadows, the perfectly clear creeks, the hovering packs of butterflies, the absolute quiet and solitude. If I were a rock climber I would come here, the corse rocks looking inviting and challenging.
We intentionally slowed down, enjoyed the land, took photos, relished it. We are not on this hike to compete or have our pace dictated by others. That’s why we ski race all winter – to feed that competitive urge. That’s not why we hike. If I ever become one of those hiker just counting miles, staring at Guthooks and not having any idea where I am, kick me. We’d rather emulate John Muir instead of Scott Jurek on this hike, plain and simple.
The first car heading east from Battle Pass took us to Encampment, a small cowboy town far from the crowds of Colorado. This is the real west – the place where we ate dinner has a bear trap in the restaurant, the lady at the thrift store hates the forest service for killing the towns economy by ending logging and the gal at the post office left work to hand deliver a late arriving package to us.
If all of Wyoming is like this, we’re in good shape.