The Continental Divide Trail

The High Lonesome
Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico – October 1999
Creede, CO to Chama, NM

Friday, October 8 - 17 miles to Roaring Fork


We had a very pleasant stay at the Blessings Inn, a B&B in Creede. It was cheaper than the motel, and the food and owners were terrific. We didn’t sleep much, as usual in town, but it was still restful. We never did catch up with our maildrop. It is supposed to be “in transit.” The main problem is that it has travelers checks and all our maps and guidebooks for the next 400 miles. We asked that it be forwarded to Chama, but that means hiking without a guidebook for the next 10 days. Should be interesting. We bought a map for the South San Juans, and used credit cards for room and board, but the loss of that box could be a problem.

It was cold and wet all Wednesday and Thursday: sleet, hail, rain and snow. It was a good time to be in town. We ate a lot, as usual, did laundry and groceries, checked our e-mail, and read. Very peaceful. Many of the businesses in town are closed for the season, including most of the restaurants.

The area is full of hunters since rifle season starts tomorrow. It is a different side of Colorado, very unlike the rich yuppie towns up north or the youthful ski resorts we passed through. I sometimes felt like no one over 40 was allowed to live in Colorado, or, at least, they can’t appear in public. We talked to several hunters who have been coming here for years. One group was here from Maryland. There were a lot of older folks, very friendly. They were a bit astonished at what we were doing. Why? they asked. Only one man really understood. I could tell by the look in his eye that he was someone who dreamed dreams, and had the courage to try to attain them.

Dressed for hunting season

Today is a beautiful warm sunny day, such a relief after the cold and wet yesterday. We can see snow in the mountains, but won’t reach the Divide until tomorrow. We heard that there was 4-12 inches of new snow, but with luck it will melt down before we reach the high country. We are taking our own version of the Creede Cut-off. There are many ways to get back to the Divide. The man at the outdoor store recommended the Ivy Creek trail, but it includes 6-7 miles along the highway, followed by 8-9 miles on busy gravel roads, before reaching the trailhead, so we opted for the Deep Creek Trail, which starts only 2 ½ miles outside town. From there we’ll take the Roaring Fork Trail, then Goose Creek, and finally the very steep Sawtooth Trail back up to the CDT. Although we had a little trouble finding the trailhead, this looks like good trail. Looking at the map, we saw so many possible options, but we don’t know if all the trails are open, or which ones traverse talus slopes, or what. This area gets a lot of use, summer and fall, so we have to assume the trails are passable, but we could be wrong.

LATER: So far so good, though the map was wrong and we ended up hiking farther than expected. We had a gentle climb along Deep Creek, which got steeper as we got higher. The trail ended at a jeep road in a big meadow, one of the Seven Parks on the map, I assume. The map showed the trailhead there in the wrong place. We followed the road down and around for three or four miles to another trailhead, passing several hunters’ campsites along the way. Then we headed into the Weminuche Wilderness. We’re camped in a big meadow beside a very small stream. A couple of moose, Boris and Natasha, are grazing nearby. They ran away, then came charging back when we started to set up the tent. They watched us for about ten minutes, then headed back to the woods. A pack of coyotes is howling nearby. There is snow on the ridge beside us (Fisher Mountain?) but we only had an inch or so on the trail, and that was patchy. Today we only climbed to 11,400'; tomorrow we’ll be back at 12,000'. We hiked until 6:00 p.m., later than expected, because the upper meadow was dry and we needed water for dinner. I was really happy to be back on the trail, despite a nice stay in Creede. When the sun is shining, it is so good to be hiking.

Jim: The only problem with this route is that it’s 3000' up then 2500' down then another 3000' up again. But we knew that when we started, so I guess we can’t complain about it.

We had a minor problem with Boris and Natasha (the meese) – while we were coming down the trail they were grazing about 50’ off the trail. When we passed them they ran into the woods on the other side of the meadow. Then they must have followed us because when we stopped to camp ½ mile later they came out of the woods above us. They watched us for a couple minutes, then while I was setting up the tent Boris decided he didn’t like something and started to charge. He got within about 50 ft and stopped – we spent a couple minutes eyeball to eyeball trying to stare each other down. Finally I got bored and told him to get off it or get on with it and went back to setting up the tent. At that point, he declared victory and took his lady moose and casually drifted back into the woods. Both Boris and Natasha are very young – probably yearlings – but big enough to be a problem if they’d gotten nasty. They showed no fear at all – moose are protected in Colorado.

Saturday, October 9 - 16 miles to Archuleta Lake

Along the Creede Cut-off

It’s another beautiful sunny day, though it was cold and frosty to start. We went to sleep to the sound of an elk bugling far down the meadow; we woke to the sound of gunfire off in the other direction. So far, we’ve seen no hunters or wildlife, though there are fresh tracks of both on the trail. We were following horses, but their tracks stopped about a mile back. We have no idea where they went. That’s when we began seeing elk and deer tracks again. We did see a small pack of coyotes this morning, probably one of the packs that was howling last night.

The hike this morning has been very nice, first descending the broad meadows of Roaring Fork, then heading up the narrower valley of Goose Creek in intermittent forest and meadow. The map was wrong again regarding the junction. There was a sort of short-cut not shown on the map. We never did see the Fisher Trail, so I’m a bit worried about finding the junction for the Sawtooth Trail which leads up to the Divide. There is snow on Sawtooth Mountain. At the same time, I can still see yellow aspens and occasional flowers in bloom. We dropped down to 9,000', so have had only forest and frozen ground to contend with. The climb up the valley is very gradual. It would be really easy walking if it weren’t for the wet boggy spots. We saw evidence of a beaver, including a big aspen tree, chewed into five foot lengths. Of course, we’ll pay for this easy trail with the climb to the CDT. That one looks steep.

LATER: The Sawtooth Trail turned out not to be unbearably steep. The problem was the multitude of blowdowns along the way. We met a couple of hunters camped at the junction who tried to go up on muleback but were turned back by all the downed trees. I don’t blame them. It is hard enough on foot. Although the climb was only two or three miles, I was exhausted by the time we reached the Divide at about 4:00 p.m., and from there we climbed some more; over 6000' total climb for the day. There was snow on the trail, about 2-4 inches in spots, and lots of mud and slush where it was melting. The views were stupendous. We stopped at a bench above Archuleta Lake with views of the rugged South San Juans, lightly dusted with snow. We can see most of tomorrow’s route too. It is very beautiful, and very cold. We’re camped at 12,000'. The only other wildlife we saw today were a flock of grouse and an eagle. Lots of good meadows and cirques, but the elk were hiding. Smart elk.

Near Archuleta Lake

Jim: Last night was a night for wildlife. With hunting camps a mile or so up the hill, we heard a herd of elk bugling on the east side of the meadow far into the night --- and the answering howls of the coyotes from the west side of the meadow.

Gotta disagree with Ginny - and with the trail description - the Sawtooth Trail is more than two or three miles. It took too long - and it’s a 3000' climb - and that wasn’t a 1000'/mile grade. The campsite is unreal - beautiful, with a wonderful sunset and stupendous views. But it was clear and we’re well above treeline, so it was also very cold. I fell on a wet log today and hit the same ribs that I hurt in the Cochetopa. They’ve been bothering me anyway, so now they really have reason to hurt. Makes it hard to breathe – especially on the steep uphills at this altitude.

Sunday, October 10 - 10 miles to Pagosa Springs

Autumn in the San Juans

It is another beautiful day. We didn’t see any hunters, only two day hikers all in white. Don’t they know a deer’s tail is white, and a hunter could shoot reflexively at a glimpse of white through the trees? They weren’t wearing any orange at all. We bought lots of orange in Creede: fleece hats, a bandana and a vest that goes over the pack, and still it really isn’t enough. Though even a little orange can really stand out in the woods. Fortunately, in the high country there aren’t that many hunters; it’s too hard to get the game out. We saw no human tracks in the snow until we were only about four miles from the road. We heard an elk bugle this morning, but mostly saw deer and coyote tracks. I enjoy the other ones too, the mice and squirrels and bird tracks in the snow. Most of the trail is clear, but on the north side of the ridge there is still about two inches of snow and ice from the storm last week.

I’m sorry to see how much the horses have destroyed the trail here since we last walked it. It was massively rebuilt in 1997 and 1998, and already the wet spots are a mess. However, mostly the walk today has been a pleasure, past three lakes and a small pond, through grassy meadows and spruce forest. The sun is warm and bright.

In the Weminuche Wilderness

We got a late start since we only have ten miles to Wolf Creek Pass and the highway into Pagosa Springs. If we’d been thinking, we would have skipped the stop at Pagosa Springs since the Creede Cut-off shortened this stretch by 100 miles. We aren’t in desperate need of R&R, but we have a mail-drop there, we hope, and we have to wait until Tuesday to pick it up because of Columbus Day, so we will be forced to rest tomorrow. Actually, this is good because Jim fell and hurt a rib, badly. He thinks it may be broken. A day or two off should help that. I’m sorry to miss out on this good weather though. Who knows how long it will last? I love the sunshine and blue skies! The views aren’t bad either. It’s the kind of weather that always makes me want to be hiking, and makes me very happy to be here right now, despite cold evenings and hunting season.

Wolf Creek Pass

We ended up getting a ride from the dayhikers we had met earlier. Turns out they are very nice people from Arizona. At Wolf Creek Pass, we were treated like celebrities by a local woman who was utterly astonished at the thought that we had walked 2000 miles to get there. She was funny. She was so impressed. Most people aren’t impressed by us; they just think we’re crazy to be out here now. But then, we are.

Monday, October 11 - Columbus Day Holiday

Tuesday, October 12 - 12 miles

We had a nice stay, eating well, sleeping little. We met Todd at the outdoor store (AT 1996) - a trail angel and generally a nice man. He offered to drive us back to the trail and even bought us breakfast. We have a new winner of the Best CDT Cinnamon Roll: Pagosa Springs Rolling Pin Bakery and Cafe. Wisdom is reluctantly dropped to second place. (Best Chili is still Mark’s in East Glacier. Best hamburger is a hard one - generally whichever one we’re eating at the time, though Steamboat Springs was a memorable one - we asked the rangers where to get the biggest baddest fattest juiciest burger in town, and they were right!) We didn’t get on the trail until 11:30, then were immediately faced with a puzzle: the trail starts out crossing a meadow on beautiful turnpiked pathway. It enters the woods, and immediately splits in three directions. Because of our missing maildrop, we have no guidebook for the next 80 miles. We headed right - wrong answer. The trail vanished in a tangle of blowdowns. We laughed. What a start to our guideless adventure. So we tried left, and sure enough it led us back to the Divide. Trouble was, both directions showed signs of trail-work.

South of Wolf Creek Pass

We passed three men at the top of the ski area, eating lunch at a rocky overlook, watching orange-clad hunters far below. Later we saw a construction crew, building a new ski lift up to the Divide. Late in the afternoon, we met two hunters from Ohio. They had heard about us from the group we met in Creede and were quite excited to actually meet us on the trail. They had given up on the hunt and were just waiting for their buddies so they could go back home. Evidently, the season is split into three five-day sessions and tomorrow is the last day of the first session. There are two days between the sessions, so we aren’t likely to meet any hunters then. I wonder whether we’ll see more wildlife?

Anyhow, the hiking was beautiful, with lots of up and down along the Divide. There were interesting lichen covered rocks and rock formations. We took lots of pictures. Lunch consisted of some wonderful ginger cookies Rich sent us. We ate too much in town and weren’t hungry, but they were good. Water was scarce; it was 10 miles to the first small stream. That’s the trouble with hiking so high along the ridge, the water is usually far below. The recent warmth and sunshine has allowed the wildflowers one last chance. I saw six different flowers in bloom: gentians, harebells, a dandelion, groundsel, etc.

Jim: We made a stop at the Post Office before leaving town this morning and found a package from Rich Scanlon there as well as our drift box. So we had to repack and re-mail everything before leaving.

The scenery is unbelievable up here on the ridge. The trail runs for miles on sidehill along a knife-edge ridge. We’re using the film that Rich Scanlon sent us - I think he’ll be happy with the investment. He and Candy sent us a care package at Pagosa - really good stuff. We sent a lot of it ahead, but kept the cookies and film and a couple other things. REALLY enjoyed the cookies – in fact, we ate some of them before leaving town, and then more of them for lunch and dinner.

Wednesday, October 13 — 16 miles to Adams Creek

The South San Juans

We didn’t go as far as we would have liked yesterday due to our late start, plus the early wandering around over hill and ditch looking for the trail. Today got even worse. We followed the wrong trail-- a heavily used game trail-- down the wrong side of the ridge. It took a mile or two of roadwalking along a jeep road to find Elwood Pass, where we were able to pick up the CDT again. We ran into several hunters, plus a Forest Service crew repairing a washout on the road. One man had worked on the trail in this area and was really friendly.

The trail was beautiful, passing though woods and meadows. There are still a lot of snow patches and frozen ponds. The sun is shining, but it is cooler than it was. No animals today, just tracks and the ubiquitous grey jays. They are everywhere. As soon as we stop for more than a minute, one or two will come to check us out.

Snow in the South San Juans

LATER: It was a long day, though we stopped early. The trail was off and on very bad: narrow, rough, rocky, etc. We had some long snow stretches over loose rocks. Not fun. We stopped at the “very obscure” (read invisible) trail junction. The trail markers changed number, from 813 to 713, otherwise there was no indication that the CDT turned off the main trail. No tread, no cairns, no blazes. Fortunately, the guidebooks warned us about it. I went over the guidebooks at the outdoor store in Creede, since ours was missing and I wasn’t willing to buy a new one just for this short stretch. I’m really glad I noted the obscure junction. You really have to pay attention out here.

The country was beautiful, all above treeline. We went around several 13,000' peaks, though our high point was only 12,800'. There were interesting rock formations, hoodoos, black columns, red and yellow mountains, etc. Lookout Mountain was especially beautiful. We met three fishing dayhikers who had attempted, but not reached, Crater Lake, which is off on a side trail. They were unexpected. It was a beautiful, but exhausting day.

One funny moment: as I was walking, the orange vest tied to my pack suddenly flipped over, covering my face. I couldn’t get it off, so I let out a plaintive cry, “Help!” and started laughing. Jim rescued me from my orange blindness.

Jim: It was a tough day, but it ended better than it might have. I walked right past the trail junction. I saw the 813 marker, then saw the -13 on the second marker and ‘assumed’ that it was 813 - but it wasn’t. Ginny spotted the difference, otherwise we’d have been lost again. But that’s nothing new either. Before setting up camp I checked out the trail on the other side of the creek – I know it’s the CDT, but there’s very little sign of trail and NO trail markers of any kind.

Thursday, October 14 - 17 miles

Another cool, windy, sunny day. The wind tried to tear our tent to pieces last night. Almost succeeded too. The ground was too hard, so it wasn’t pegged as securely as usual. We used rocks as anchors, and it still rustled and moaned all night.

There were beautiful views this morning. The trail is better than expected, but still pretty rugged. We finally saw a deer this morning. Does it know it has this respite before the second hunting season begins? There is still snow and ice on the trail, including one semi-frozen waterfall. It made for slow and careful walking. A lot of the trail hugs the side of the mountain, almost at contour. When the trail is good, it makes for easy walking, but often it is very narrow and rocky so we have to be careful. I’m just plain slow. It’s frustrating, but I’ve been stumbling a lot ever since I switched boots (the new ones are heavier), and I don’t want to fall, not when the drop is several hundred feet. Then there’s the altitude, which I blame for my breathlessness on the uphills. It’s as good an excuse as any. But after four months of hiking and six weeks at altitude, you’d think I’d be in better shape!

High country tarn

It’s cold up this high, but beautiful. We passed by Blue Lake, a big one with some lovely campsites, but it was too early to stop. Up here we have a nice view of nearby Conejos Peak and the pond below us. The afternoon was easy up and down except the climb out of the Middle Fork, which was endless. No people or animals today. This morning we startled a flock of ptarmigan, starting to show their winter coloration. That was interesting.

Jim: We camped in the lee of a patch of krumholz near a glacial tarn at something over 12000'. It’s cold but clear - and we’re hopeful that we’ll actually make it out of Colorado without serious snowfall.

Friday, October 15 - 16 miles to Trujillo Meadows

A blustery day, all in all. We’re sheltering in a sunny spot behind a row of stunted trees. The wind steals our breath and makes us stagger. Thank heavens, I have my walking stick, or I’d have fallen a dozen times. We’re walking on a huge open plateau on top of the world. In places, it’s pretty grassy meadow, in others, huge rock fields. We passed two good-sized lakes this morning: Trail Lake and the Dipping Lakes where they used to dip sheep. I wonder if the water is poison? Probably not, but I bet it used to be. Plus there were dozens of small ponds. Supposedly the next 12 miles are dry. We’re trying to decide whether to take a side-trail which will get us below treeline sooner, and thus out of the wind and down to water, or stay up here on the open ridge. My heart says high; my head says go down.

The old stock driveway

LATER: The choice was made by default. Right after lunch we lost the trail. We wandered through pond-filled meadows, chasing illusory cairns. Finally we stumbled on the trail junction. Trouble was, we could only see one set of cairns, and they weren’t the CDT. We followed the cairns, bushwhacking through the grass on what used to be stock driveway. Evidently it isn’t used any more as there was no treadway, and many of the cairns were missing. It wasn’t easy following the route as it wandered along the wide plateau. Suddenly we ran into good, heavily used pack trail, heading south. We thought it might be the side trail we were looking for, so we followed it. Then it turned east, and we weren’t supposed to, so we started bushwhacking down what we thought was the Rio do los Pinos. I saw two elk about a mile down the creek. Suddenly the valley got very very steep. We kept going down, grabbing hold of trees, bushes, rocks and grass tufts. We followed the creek, crossed a couple of side creeks, occasionally found foot trail, found a hand-made picnic table in the middle of nowhere and the remains of a cabin, cussed the map which showed a jeep road that didn’t exist, and finally found a jeep road that had been bulldozed closed, and plowed shut. With some difficulty, we followed it to the Trujillo Reservoir. We found a flat area just off the road and set up as darkness was setting in. We were tired and sore, but no longer lost. What a day!

Jim: We camped about four miles from Cumbres Pass. Probably could have made it to the Pass tonight, but we found a spot on the edge of a FS campground, complete with water, just as it was getting dark. We were tired. Today was a good day, but also sometimes frustrating.

Saturday, October 16 - 3 to Chama and 4 in town

Trestle at Cumbres Pass

We made it to Cumbres Pass, where we had a nice surprise. As we were waiting for a ride into town, up walked two CDT thruhikers: Jason and Julian, whom we’ve been following ever since Glacier. They took five days off and then hiked the loop around Creede, which is how we managed to catch up. They are just out of college, and hiking on the economy plan - $25 a week. That’s a low budget hike. In town, they’ve been able to stay with locals or friends for much of the hike, and if they can’t find a free room, they just camp, so the money goes for beer, food and the occasional cigarette. Julian had hiked the PCT, but this was Jason’s first long hike. They are nice guys. We all got a ride in the first truck that passed, then had a good breakfast at a Mexican restaurant after we discovered we’d been dropped off a mile and a half from the Post Office.

Chama is another trail town that is spread out along a highway. We dropped our packs at a motel whose managers were out (the maids let us leave them in the laundry room) and rushed to sort and repack our boxes before the Post Office closed at noon. We then ate lunch at Fosters, then got a motel room, but not where we left our packs. The other was cheaper, with breakfast included, and had non-smoking rooms, which the first motel lacked. Then we bought groceries, took a long overdue shower, went to the campground to do laundry and made phone calls. Chama is more expensive than we expected. They have a narrow gauge railroad which winds through the mountains that attracts a lot of tourists. Today is the last day of the season, so the town is full, busy, and high-priced. Tomorrow only the hunters will remain and prices will go down again. It seems to be a rather poor town otherwise, with more trailers than houses. But people are really nice. Since we are now in New Mexico, it is time for Mexican food for dinner.

Sunday, October 17 -- Rest day in Chama

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Created: Fri, 16 Jan 2004
Revised: 30 Sept 2016
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