Lujan Pass, Marshall Pass, Monarch Pass, Oasis, Outdoor Research, Ponche Springs, REI, Saguache, Sargents Mesa, Trail Angel, Viewpoint
You’re now hiking the second half of the Colorado Trail so the trail heads are further away. It takes you 3 hours to drive to Poncha Springs – which is fast – but this is simply to meet up with Tumbleweed. It takes another couple of hours to drop off a car at Sargents Mesa and return to Monarch Pass to camp at the Fooses Creek Trail Head. You pitch your tent in the dark, thinking of your brother-in-law for gifting you a headlamp for Christmas.
The rolling Cochetopa Hills are as remote a location as any you’ve ever visited in Colorado. There are more cows than people. You actually expected the CT to route through the Sangre de Cristos. You’ve heard of those. But now you understand the Sangres range lies east of the trail as you drive by them for several hundred miles while shuffling cars to the extremely remote trail heads in the Cochetopas.
Tumbleweed launches Saturday with coffee by 5am and you gear up. You have some new gear today. The most important is the REI Trekker 1.75 Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad you bought hoping it would contribute to a better night’s sleep. It does. Highly recommended. Of course you still used your old sleeping pad under the new one. Why not? The other gear is a pair of Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain Low Gaiters. These look as thick as your high gaiters but only cover your shoes and a bit of your ankle, leaving your legs cool. These work out well also. By 6am you begin hiking the second half of the Colorado Trail, planning a twofer by combining segments 15 and 16 for a 28 mile day.
The trail is nice with some patches of good dirt and pine needles. It’s an uphill climb for the first 7 miles so you don’t run, but you do maintain a decent 3 mile per hour pace. The elevation tops out just under 12K and you find you’re now well conditioned to hike strong even uphill at this altitude. You barely rise above treeline, but you do cross through some beautiful mountain meadows littered with wildflowers. You’ve been waiting for such meadows; this is the time of year to get up in the mountains.
The climb up provides some decent views of the Collegiates to the north. You run some dips but mostly maintain your hiking pace. It’s a nice day but rain is expected and you can see the clouds begin to form. You don’t expect to be vulnerable though and even look forward to a light rain.
You encounter well over a dozen mountain bikers on segment 15. They like to start from Monarch Pass and ride the Monarch Crest Trail to Marshall Pass – which is where segment 15 ends. This is maybe one of the best trail rides in Colorado in terms of trail condition and views. The trail runs around a rim much like a bowl and allows the riders to view the terrain for miles. You envy them and consider getting a bike yourself. Maybe next summer.
The Monarch Crest Trail is quite nice for running as well and you take advantage. There are a good 3 miles or so mostly downhill. You start off slowly though as you miss an initial switchback. It might have been under snow or not well defined in the rocks, hard to say since you didn’t see it. You end up bushwhacking down the hill until you’re back on the trail. No biggie.
Segment 15 ends around 13 miles at Marshall Pass where Tumbleweed stashed a cooler of drinks the day before. You have many more drinks than required because you also expected a third hiker with you today. Thomas from Texas couldn’t make it. He got stuck in Amarillo with family obligations.
But you meet a thru hiker at the pass named Viewpoint. And he seems thirsty, so you share some drinks with him while he relates trail stories. Viewpoint seems like a great guy and he takes some of your garbage off your hands as he is hitchhiking into town. This enables Tumbleweed to carry the cooler for segment 16. This will keep you from having to drive back to this trail head later in the day and subsequently save you a good 90 minutes. Considering the long car shuffle you have for tomorrow’s hike, this could mean the difference between pitching your tent tonight in daylight or darkness.
You start off again on segment 16 after a good rest and two or three bottles of water and energy drinks. Marshall Pass is less than halfway and you have another 16 miles to hike. Despite starting from a pass, the trail winds uphill. The trail is a series of rolling hills cresting after 6 miles a little under treeline in a mountain cow pasture. The hills are never too steep to thwart your 3 mile an hour pace, and each meadow affords nice views of Mt. Ouray to the north. Otherwise this segment is fairly unremarkable and is much more rocky than segment 15. You can appreciate why you don’t see any mountain bikers on this segment.
After 18 miles the trail drops sharply in elevation down to about 10.6K feet. There’s enough flat segments from 20 to 24 miles to run a bit but that doesn’t work for Tumbleweed carrying the cooler, so you hike it for the remainder of this segment. You maintain your 3 mile an hour pace up a 1000 foot climb from mile 24 to mile 27. This brings you to the high mountain meadow you’ll be camping at. You reach Tumbleweed’s truck to rescue it from cows who are licking it for some odd reason. This is Sargents Mesa – the most remote trail head so far in 16 segments of the CT.
Exhausted, you drive to Monarch Pass to pick up your car. You hope again to meet up with Thomas, but he can’t make it. You witness some freakish lightening over the Cochetopa Hills around Marshall Pass and recognize you got off the trail just in time. Before dropping off Tumbleweed’s car at the last trail head on Hwy 114 near North Pass, you stop for dinner at The Oasis in Sagauche. It’s not bad for Mexican food. You’ll likely regret this choice tomorrow, but you’re damned hungry and you both order the El Grande Combination. This plate comes with every known Mexican entree from tacos to enchiladas to a chili relleno. You leave stuffed, drop off Tumbleweed’s car and make it to your camp site at Sargents Mesa just as night falls. You have your best night’s sleep ever on the CT.
The stars are still amazingly bright as you wake before 4:30am Sunday. You see a couple of shooting stars while drinking the morning coffee. The slow wake up viewing the solar system is nearly the highlight of today’s hike. This trail isn’t exciting enough to take many pictures of. It rides on top of the hill crests, actually the Continental Divide, but trees block most views. You are able to run much of this but at a pace driven hard by Tumbleweed that you find brutal.
You complete the 21 miles at a pace 2 minutes faster per mile than yesterday, both for the moving pace at 14 minutes per mile and the overall pace at 18 minutes per mile. It doesn’t hurt that this hike loses 2000 feet in overall elevation, although it nearly all comes in the final 4 miles. Mile 17 to 18 begins the downhill ride through another gorgeous old growth aspen grove, but the most remarkable thing about it is finally this exceedingly rocky trail yields to soft dirt. Your feet are grateful. But wait, there’s more. At the Lujan Pass Trail head at mile 18 is the most amazing Trail Angel ever. A tent is pitched with scores of cold drinks, food, batteries, first aid, bug spray – you need it it’s here. You drown in orange crush and pink lemonade. It’s unfortunate you drink so much because you can’t keep up with Tumbleweed as he sprints the final few miles to Hwy 114. You join him after a couple of minutes to complete another 50 weekend miles of the CT. You’re deep into a summer surge. Next weekend has 4 segments on the menu that look to be equally remote. Can’t wait.