Hey, y’all! This summer, I finished the 488 mile Colorado Trail (over 562 on a bike). In 2015, I joined a team of dirty dozen, over twelve days to mountain bike The CT from Durango, CO to Denver, CO. This summer, I returned to the Collegiate Peaks wilderness area (CT West loop near Buena Vista) to backpack an unfinished 70-mile section where mountain bikes are not allowed.
Never heard of The Colorado Trail (CT)?
A few stats to bring you up to speed.
- Shorter than the Appalachian Trail (2,190 m) or Pacific Crest Trail (2,650 m) means that you don’t have to quit your job to engage this epic trail.
- Most of the trail is above 10,000 feet, the high point of 13,271 feet.
- The total elevation gain for a thru-bike/hike is approx 90,000 feet, equivalent to three Mount Everests.
- Lots of resupply mountain towns and places for friends to join in, e.g., Silverton, Buena Vista, Breckenridge
- The thirty-three segments enable adventurers to bite off a small section or two over a weekend or take on the entire trail over a few weeks.
- The mountain bike Fastest Known Time is held by Jakomait, finishing the 562-mile course in a record-breaking 3 Days 20 Hours 46 Minutes. OUCH! (It took us 12 days).
- Hikers take 4-5 weeks to thru-hike the CT.
Why did you do it?
Moving to Colorado in 1994, the allure of the CT pulled on me. I want to see every corner of Colorado, and I knew this was the grand tour. Secondly, our buddy Gill McCormick had cooked up this trip of the decades-each member representing a decade of life. One member of our party, Jim, was in his 60’s (fantastic guy who had a Mary Poppins like Camelback that produced anything you needed), multiple guys in their 50’s, 40’s, Alex in his 30’s Connor (20), and Grant (17). The story was the hook for me. The dirty dozen, spanning six decades, two CT veterans, and a support vehicle to shuttle our gear between camping spots (Thanks Skyler). I was in.
What was the hardest part?
“Yesterday was the only easy day” is the quote I remember replaying in my head. I don’t recall any part being easy, but I think the most significant mental challenge was the day we carried our bikes for 8+ miles through the Lost Creek Wilderness. It is illegal to ride your bike within Wilderness Areas, and we were at a fork in the road. We had two options 1) to ride 75 miles around “wilderness detour” or 2) to hike 8+ miles carrying our bikes attached with bungee cords to our Camelbacks 😜. We chose option 2.
We were 8-9 days into the epic adventure, and everyone was exhausted already. Before the hike-your-steed section, required a tough 25-mile ride to access the Wilderness Boundary. Dismount. Disassemble and jury-rigged, we began the bike carry (sufferfest). Across the trek one guy lost a linchpin bike part, which would have rendered his bike unrideable. Miraculously another guy picked it up in the forest. We remount bikes and rode 20+ more miles to find camp.
There were a lot of expletives gurgling in those woods. Still today, we refer to that carry-your-bike as the “Chernobyl Meltdown.” It wasn’t glamorous. Afterwards, forgiveness needed extending between a few of us, and like every low point, we’re either better or bitter from it. Everyone expanded their capacity to dig deeper that day.
What was your favorite memory?
Alex and I shared a tent for two weeks. Rain, snow, sunshine, snoring, and twelve-hour grueling days together deepened our friendship. Our friendships among many of us deepened from the shared transformation and joy we experienced on the CT.
What was your favorite part of the trail?
It was foggy, rocky, and steep to the summit of this 12-13,000 foot peak. The dozen of us strewn like pearls on a necklace across the spiny alpine swatch, I knew that moment was special.
What did you learn about yourself?
How to keep going at a new level. My suffer meter maximum moved forward a lot. Previously competing in endurance events like Ironman triathlon defined my one-day effort threshold. Substantial efforts no doubt, and at the end of the day, I went home and slept in a warm bed after a nice hot shower. The CT demanded that I expend a similar level of endurance effort today, and then do it again tomorrow and the next day. Holy crap! My boundary limits transformed in the cauldron of the CT. “Hard” now has many levels.
Why did you go back to backpack the Collegiate West section?
In 2015, each time we encountered a wilderness boundary, we would “ride around” via the bicycle detour and rejoin the official CT again once bikes were allowed. There are five bicycle detours in total. We rode three, bike carried one 🙂 and accepted a ride for #5.
Watching from the truck’s passenger seat, for me, that 70+ mile Collegiate pristine wilderness section always felt unfinished. In the moment, I was too tired to deny the transport. Years later, like a developing ulcer, skipping that section ate at me, and I wanted to touch every mile I could officially. My solution? I did a five-day solo hike from Tennessee Pass south to Cottonwood Pass and celebrated with ice cream from K’s Dairy Delight in BV.
What advice do you have for anyone considering the CT?
Know your Why
With a trail this long and arduous, you will need to know, “WHY am I doing this?” before you start. Decide what style you want to define your experience
-Slow, steady to fast?
-A section at a time over many years or all at once?
-Supported by friends bringing you supplies or self-supported?
I’m aware of the importance of defining your style and not attempting to repeat another person’s adventure. I met a few folks along the trail that depict the saying, “Run your own race.”
- A guy in his 50’s that said he’s 0-for-5 starting from Denver ejecting for different personal & professional reasons. We gave him a ride into town, aborting his 5th attempt.
- The previous fastest known time on a mountain bike was four+ days. I hear that he has permanent nerve damage in his hand and ankle.
- In the Collegiate Peaks sections, one guy passed me flying by. Later I learned that he was speed hiking 48 miles into his 58 for that day. Most people hike between 13-20 x day. I bet he’s one of the Avengers.
- A young woman just finished grad school and was ten days into a four to five-week hike. She was craving fresh fruit. Her East Coast mother, who doesn’t camp, texts her nightly on her Garmin InReach to confirm bears hadn’t eaten her.
- A couple seasoned in age helped each other across a creek—half-way into their 488-mile trek. I can only imagine their kid’s phone calls, “Have you heard from Mom and Dad? What are they thinking?!”
What hard lessons did you learn?
Two stand out. Saddle sores are real and check for the latest maps before you go.
Saddle sores: By far, the most significant source of pain our mountain bike crew experienced was from saddle sores. Yep precisely what you think of. Sores on your undercarriage resulting from twelve-hours of daily friction. Some guys needed to dial back their daily ride time to accommodate for their pain. It was no joke.
Latest maps: Returning five years later to hike the Collegiate West section, I assumed that my old data book was reliable. I pulled together two additional supporting maps from my library and felt a pause in my gut. “Maybe I should swing by the gear store in BV (The Trailhead-love these guys) and grab a map?” The moment of truth and reconciliation unfolded while crossing Cottonwood Pass, out of water, at 12,000 feet and chased by a thunderstorm “What? Where am I?” It turns out that sections of the CT are now rerouted to share the Continental Divide Trail (missing on my older maps). Glad I stopped for the new map.