CT Stage 4 – Monarch to Lake City

August 5

Miles hiked: 19.4
Total trip mileage: 293.5

This morning we pass the hiker we saw last night, a lovely young guy thru-hiking, taking his time, traveling solo. It’s always a pleasure to chat with other hikers on this trail and hear their stories. There aren’t that many people out here. The trail from the shelter cabin to Marshall Pass is a dream — gentle grade, lovely open views, clear skies.

In fact, I am starting to feel like that this hike is being blessed. Our weather, our bodies, our spirits —everything has been so much better than I expected. While I walk I often think of my dad, who died six years ago. He’s the person who instilled this love of the wilderness in me. Everything I know about backpacking I owe to him and the family adventures he masterminded. I know he would have been so psyched about this adventure. He would have joined us for a leg or two, or at the very least insisted we carry a Spot tracker so he could follow us online. It seems entirely reasonable to me that he’s still participating somehow — parting the clouds, holding off the lightning, easing our sore muscles as we sleep at night …

After Marshall Pass the trail joins a road that is shared by dirt bikes. We pass one friendly older biker who is trying it out, but says it’s too rough for him up ahead so he’s turned around.

Indeed the trail becomes nasty; the bikes have gouged deep ruts into the mud. We see a pack sitting next to the trail, and what looks like a person down below, most likely doing his or her business. I’d love to stop and chat, but privacy must be respected. We carry on.

In the middle of the day, we meet a young woman who’s hiking the Continental Divide, and a couple from Canada thru-hiking the CT like us: our paths all cross simultaneously. How exciting! Other people! This is the first time we’ve encountered other CT thru-hikers, and it feels like a party as the five of us compare notes. The Canadian couple inform us that the pack we passed earlier belongs to a 69-year old solo female thru-hiker.

The trail down to Tank Seven Creek, the only water source for a long time, is a real ankle-twister. The dirt bikes have churned it up to the point that it’s just a mess of loose rocks, and it’s hard to negotiate. Thank god for our poles! Many trees have been attacked by spruce bud worm, and are dead or dying. It’s kind of depressing, and tough hiking.


A not-so-pleasant section of the trail

When we reach Tank Seven Creek, we take a break and collect water, since it’s the last source for the next 11.5 miles. It’s a nice spot, with some campsites (and mosquitoes), but our plan is to carry our water up another 4 miles to Sargents Mesa to camp. The Canadians catch up to us, and we spend a long time talking about gear, hiking, and life in general. We complain about the trail we’ve just hiked down, and the lack of reliable information on campsites. The woman says this trail pales in comparison to the John Muir Trail, and I feel a little defensive. She’s been hiking solo up until Salida, where her husband is joining her for a couple of weeks. Here’s an interview (and pic) of them by Rawah Ranger. Their pace is slower than ours, mostly because they’re carrying a lot more food than we are and the husband hasn’t acclimated yet. They decide to camp at the creek.

We encounter some cattle  as we hIke up to the mesa. In this sense, hiking in Colorado is very different from the Alps. In Switzerland, it’s a rare hike that doesn’t involve sharing the terrain with cows, sheep and/or goats. You’re never far from a hut, and you hear bells and walk through poop all the time. Nobody camps — it’s not allowed. We’re not sure how tame these beasties are so we give them a wide berth.


We finally reach Sargents Mesa, an open, grassy place bordered by dead and dying spruce trees. The ghostly trees are slightly unnerving as they sway in the wind. Many have fallen. There’s a brief spot with cell coverage, and Marc stops to call the office, sitting on a fallen log with cow patties all around. We find a spot next to the trail to camp, hoping that none of the surrounding trees choose this particular night to succumb to gravity. The dead branches make perfect fire tinder, and soon we have the mosquitoes at bay. We hang the bear bag over the trunk of a tree that has fallen across some other trees. There’s no one else up here, and hopefully no bears, either.

August 6

Miles hiked: 22.8
Total trip mileage: 316.3

I haven’t broached the topic of backcountry hygiene yet, have I? How remiss of me! Doing one’s business in the wilderness can be a mixed bag. On the plus side, you can just stop whenever you’re moved, so to speak. No need for facilities. On this trail, there are so few people that we don’t even feel the need to hide behind a tree or rock most of the time. It’s also really good for your squatting technique. On the minus side, there’s nothing to sit on. There are mosquitoes. And you’re supposed to dig a six-inch deep hole and then aim your offering into it. This isn’t as obvious as it sounds. Does it even sound obvious? I didn’t think so.

Marc’s morning ablutions don’t go exactly as planned today. Oatmeal and coffee have a way of jump-starting the gastic canal, and it can be dicey to get the hole dug in time, even with our special, ultra-light cathole diggers, aka “deuce of spades” (see above).

So we get off to a slightly grumpy start. After hiking about 7 miles, we hit the turnoff to Baldy Lake, and decide to go down to the lake, partly to clean up, partly because it’s the only reliable water for the next 10 miles. Water is scarce here on the continental divide; it’s busy making its way down to one or the other of the oceans, far away.

The lake is beautiful, if a bit eerie, surrounded by dead trees. We get our water, have a bite to eat, clean up, and climb back up to the trail feeling much better.


The rest of the day goes by. It’s not my favorite day on the trail; we’re mostly hiking along a ridge, surrounded by dead and dying trees, and I feel sorry for them. They’re bleeding sap, trying to staunch the damage to their bark. It’s like a tree graveyard. The trail surface is better than it was yesterday, for the most part, but it’s not beautiful. Just long.

The one positive thing about being on a ridge like this is that we get occasional cell phone coverage; I can take care of some business, calling ahead to Lake City to bump our motel reservation forward another day.

The nice thing about hiking faster than planned is that I’ll get to see my sister Sandy in Durango. She’ll join my mom and drive up from Santa Fe to pick us up, before heading back to England. But it means that all our upstream reservations have to be changed, too. I made calls once already in Twin Lakes, and then again on Monarch Pass. This will be the third time. Crazy hikers! I don’t get a person on the other end at the Matterhorn Motel, but I leave a message and hope for the best. I also contact my brother Rob, who’s driving down from Bozeman to bike the last section with us. He agrees to call the Prospector Motel in Silverton and see what he can do to change our dates. We know we’re going to take a “zero” day, but we’re not sure at this point whether to take it in Lake City or Silverton.

Finally we reach CO highway 114, walk along it for a bit, and then find Lujan Creek, just below the road. We’re not camping here — in fact the guidebook doesn’t mention any campsites in the trail description for this section. We’re hoping that at Pine Creek, about 2 miles further up the trail and away from the highway, we’ll find a flat spot. After that, there’s no reliable water for 21 miles, until Cochetopa creek. We stop, I take my shoes off on the grassy bank, and soak my feet. It feels so good!

At tiny Pine Creek there’s a one-man tent set up already. We find a flat spot nearby and put ours up as well, but we don’t see the other person. The water is clear and fresh, and we wash ourselves. Sponge baths in freezing water are not pleasant— but it’s worth it, because I always sleep better with the salt and grit washed off. There are aspens up on the hillside above the creek, and we’re able to find a good bearbag tree.

We’re planning a long day tomorrow, hiking the 21 miles to Cochetopa Creek across flat, sagebrushy cattle country, and then further up the creek to the Eddiesville trailhead. We eat up and tuck in, reading the guidebook and hoping for good weather for our traverse of the open country.

August 7

Miles hiked: 26.2 (a marathon!)
Total trip miles: 342.5

It was a cold night! Marc woke in the middle of it freezing, and I got out my aluminum emergency blanket and put it on top of his bag. Result: a wet sleeping bag in the morning, from condensation. The outside of our tent is also dripping with condensation as we get out of it at the crack of dawn. It’s a good tent though, and none of it gets on the inside on our gear.


Buttcrack of dawn at Pine Creek

Even though we’re getting an early start, the other guy beats us to the trail. We quickly catch up to him where he’s stopped to chat with a couple of mountain bikers. His trail name is Tortuga, for tortoise, and he’s solo thru-hiking. The bikers are also heading to Durango. We power on down the trail, which is smooth and pleasant.

Soon we’re up and over into the sagebrush and cattle country. Apparently a lot of people dread this section; for us, it’s magical. Maybe because my dad’s up there making sure there’s enough cloud cover to keep it cool, but without lightning and thunder. (Thanks, Dad!) We air out the sleeping bag in a whipping wind. A bunch of bluebirds are having a blast on a nearby sign, jockeying one another for position and flitting off into the air and back around again.


We love the vastness of this place, the beauty of the sky, the lure of the distant mountains. A lone blob coming towards us turns into a CDT hiker trailnamed Race, who stops to chat with us. He’s weary, tired of the trail, ready to be done. He knows exactly how many miles he has to go. I’m glad we’re not at that point on our adventure. Every day I’m happy to get up and see what Colorado has to offer. Home is not something I’m missing, yet.


As we head up what I believe is the last climb before Cochetopa Creek, there’s a huge herd of black cattle in our path. We have to hike alongside them. There are calves, and I have no idea if there are any bulls. Will the mother cows get aggressive?  I’m nervous and so grateful that I’m not alone out here. Luckily the herd veers off to the left just as we hike by, and we only have to skirt around a few of them. We climb back up into some aspens, and then down and around a long hillside and into the Cochetopa Creek valley.

Cochetopa creek valley

Cochetopa creek valley

The creek is lovely, and the trail up it is pleasant. But I’m tired and my back is hurting. We stop and rest, I take some Advil. It’s still four miles to the trailhead, where we want to camp. We ford the creek since the bridge has washed out—this time Marc does the smart thing and uses my Crocs to get across.


When we finally reach the Eddiesville trailhead, it’s getting late and the sky is threatening. We need to set up camp before it starts to rain, and we’re both really tired. Neither of us see any of the “several good campsites” the guidebook has promised are here. There’s a fire ring next to the portapotty by the parking area, but that’s hardly a “good” campsite. Marc finds a flat spot next to the road under a huge dead tree, but I don’t like it. In frustration, we head up the trail a bit, and finally we find a somewhat flat spot near a side stream and pitch the tent. The rain continues to hold off, although we can hear thunder in the distance. We build a little fire, eat our dinner and finally relax. It’s not until we’re in the tent that the rain starts in earnest. Lucky again!

August 8

Miles hiked: 17.5
Total trip miles: 360

The rain stops during the night, but everything is wet as we pack up. The trail goes through lots of grassy, bushy stuff, and our feet and legs are quickly soaked as we hike up Cochetopa Creek. Marc’s fingers are white and numb. We meet a group of weekend backpackers coming down from above; they climbed San Luis peak yesterday and are going home early, saying the weather report is calling for storms moving in this evening. Uh oh.

That news must have lit some kind of fire under Marc, because he turns on the turbo. We climb the pass at the head of the creek, the one leading up to San Luis peak, at mach speed. I feel like I’m getting a better sense of when the sky is truly threatening, and it looks gray today, but not really scary. Even so, Marc marches on, relentless. We pass a hiker heading up to the peak, wearing a t-shirt from a Princeton running store. Even in his storm-alert state, Marc can’t resist. Princeton? Running? He’s bought running shoes there! The guy, who has switched from running to hiking, tells us he studied engineering at Princeton before switching majors. His best memory of Princeton engineering? Being invited over to his prof’s house before an exam — the prof was Maria Klawe, the dean, who Marc knows and who is now the President of Harvey Mudd College. We’re inspired, and decide we’ll have the Engineering Undergrad Society officers over to dinner when we get back to Vancouver.


What does that sky say?

We aren’t even tempted to bag the peak, but instead head on down to San Luis Pass. Marc wants to keep going, but I insist that we need to stop and dry the tent out, in case it rains again. There’s no way I want to get into a wet tent at the end of a day of turbohiking like this! We take about ten minutes, and then it’s off again, straight up another mountain. You’d think they’d put in a couple of switchbacks, but no. UP we go. Over another pass and then down into the Mineral Creek basin. East Mineral creek turns out to be dry, and there are some nice-looking campsites at the next creek, but they’re full of mosquitoes and Marc wants to keep going. There are three college-age girls lounging on some rocks here; they say hello in an uninterested sort of way.

We head up to a saddle, where the guidebook says there is a “dry campsite” but it’s already occupied. There’s supposedly a “potential campsite” down below the trail at a creek a quarter mile on, but when we get there the creek is dry, and there is no spot of land flat enough to be considered a campsite. We’re reminded of the “potential campsites” back along Mitchell Creek that were equally nonexistent, and which resulted in our first 25-mile day. We swear at the guidebook and carry on, hoping to see something before the trail heads up above timberline again.

As we round the last corner into the tundra, a marmot sqeaks at us from a rock. Marc points downhill, off the trail, where there’s a minuscule flattish spot at the base of a steep pitch, next to a tree, with another steep pitch below it. Are you kidding? If it rains, the water would pour down the slope into our tent and then we might wash on down the hillside from there! There’s a marmot here who wants to eat our food! Doesn’t he know anything? I’m not camping there, I say. We’ll have to go back and camp next to that family on the saddle.

I know Marc doesn’t want to go back, but I’m really tired. Tired of hiking fast to outrun storms, tired of trying to find nonexistent campsites, tired of worrying about where the next water is going to be. Marc unwisely tells me to calm down.  I’m completely calm! I say, somewhat uncalmly. You’re the one who’s freaking out! All we have to do is hike a quarter of a mile back.

It’s the closest we’ve come to a fight so far on this trip. I’m exhausted. Marc has a big blister on his heel, from wearing wet socks all day. He’s snapping at me to calm down and I’m snapping at him that I’m not camping in this godforsaken spot. We head back to the saddle, fuming at each other and the guidebook. The people there —a father and his two sons — say of course we can join them! We scout around and find a relatively flat spot. We set up the tent and fix our dinner. In the commotion of searching for the perfect spot, I have managed to lose my sunglasses, which is upsetting, because I’ve recently had surgery on my eyes. They need to be protected at this altitude. While I search for them, Marc heads back down to the mosquito-infested creek almost a mile below to fill up on water.

I give up the search after a while, and go over to chat with the dad, whose name is Drew, and his boys. This is one of several section backpacks on the Colorado Trail they’ve done together, and Drew’s wife (not a hiker) will be picking them up tomorrow at Spring Creek Pass. They live near Durango. He has some nasty blisters and a huge bandage on his thumb: he accidentally chopped the tip off with a knife the day before. Good thing my son has his first aid merit badge! he says cheerfully. And we thought we had a bad day! He shows me where he hung their bear bag over a fallen tree, and helps me hoist ours up in the same spot.

Marc gets back and joins the conversation. Suddenly Drew bends down and picks up my sunglasses. Are these yours? he asks. My heart lifts. Things are going to be okay. We have water. The bear bag is hung. My eyes will be protected. Tomorrow night we will sleep in a bed. In the tent, we laugh at ourselves. You’re certainly grumpy when you’re tired, Marc says. I wasn’t tired! I lie. I was just saving us from camping on a marmot-infested cliff!

Somewhere earlier in this day I made a decision: our zero day will be the day after tomorrow, in Lake City. We need to relax, sleep in, and not worry about rain, water, or campsites for 24 hours.

August 9

Miles hiked: 10
Total trip miles: 370

Everything looks better in the morning. Drew and his boys are long gone by the time we hit the trail at 7:00. A comment on the trail app indicates that there’s a shuttle that gets to Spring Creek pass around 12:30, and we’re hoping to time our arrival accordingly.

The sky is perfect for today’s hike, which involves crossing Snow Mesa, a vast high-altitude plateau that’s dangerously exposed in the event of thunderstorms. Nothing on the horizon today, as we round the corner and see the plateau below us. It’s a beautiful sight.


At this point I check my phone; a signal! Four bubbles! I have a voicemail message. It’s Luc, calling to tell us that the President of UBC has resigned. Marc! I yell. The s#*t’s hitting the fan back home! Good thing we have a zero day ahead. He’s going to have to talk to people and look at his e-mails. The news pulls us back from our hiking bubble and into the world, but we still enjoy the gorgeous walk across Snow Mesa, the San Juans in the distance. We could not have asked for better weather or a more scenic hike.



Before long, we’ve caught up to Drew and his crew, and then we’re at the pass. We’ve just positioned ourselves by the side of the road with our thumbs out when a slightly beat-up SUV pulls into the parking area and toots at us. It’s the shuttle! It disgorges a couple of hikers and we climb in.

On the 17-mile drive down to Lake City, we learn about the geology of the region (there’s an active landslide going on, called the Slumgullion earthflow), and a bit about the town (it’s an old mining town with about 500 year-round inhabitants and a couple thousand Texans in the summertime). Our friendly driver takes us on the whistle-stop tour of the town, pointing out the important landmarks like the outfitter, the grocery store, and the soda parlor, famous for its homemade ice cream.

The Matterhorn isn’t open until later in the afternoon, so we head into town and have lunch —a burger! fries! beers! on an outdoor patio. It’s so strange to see regular people, wearing regular clothing. I’m hoping we don’t stink too much. Marc is glued to his cell phone, reading e-mail messages, trying to suss out what’s gone down back in Vancouver. After lunch we go to the soda parlor and get an ice cream. This is heaven.

When the motel opens up, we learn that we’ve been assigned the only room available: a cabin that we’ll have all to ourselves. Honestly, does life get any better than this? We move into our new digs and promptly spread our tent out on the grass out front to dry.

The rest of the afternoon we spend wandering around this lovely town, reading our e-mail, and running errands. We stick our heads into the hostel and are relieved we decided to stay in the motel instead. The vibe is a bit young for us old folks; there’s someone sleeping on the couch in the middle of the afternoon and gear all over the place. We can see into a room full of bunkbeds. In my twenties I would have loved it. Now, not so much.

We buy fresh fruit and veggies at the grocery store, and I head to the large, clean laundromat while Marc goes to the outfitter. We figure out the important stuff, like where to get coffee in the morning, and decide that dinner will be fruit, carrots and another ice cream cone at the soda parlor.

It’s wonderful to go to sleep in a bed, our clean clothing hanging to dry, knowing that we don’t have to pack up and go at the crack of dawn. I love Lake City.

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