Several years ago I made the decision to go on a backpacking trip in Colorado. I had been on a lot of camping trips in my life, but never anything as challenging as trekking off into the wilderness with only what I could carry on my back.
So I read several books on the subject of backpacking, an activity that is similar to camping, but with a number of unique challenges that can get the newcomer in trouble. I researched suitable routes for my first trip, using books, web sites, topo maps, etc. I started buying equipment–a piece here, a piece there–until I had everything I needed.
I originally intended to make the trip last year, but that didn’t pan out for a variety of reasons. This year, I was determined to make good on my threat. So I scheduled a full week’s vacation during the week of July 4, and narrowed the location down to a particular loop in southern Colorado. This route basically traces a loop around Mt. Hope, starting with a hike up the Archuleta Creek Trail, a short stint on the Continental Divide Trail, then returning via the Hope Creek Trail.
Our neighbors have a vacation home in South Fork, and they were gracious enough to invite me to use it as a base.
What follows is a travelogue of my three days on the trail.
Day One: Archuleta Creek Trail
I arose before dawn and drove the half-hour to the trailhead. The trailhead begins on the shores of Big Meadows Reservoir, a popular camping and fishing destination about half-way between South Fork and Wolf Creek Pass.
The trail winds around the right side of the lake to the South Fork of the Rio Grande River. From that point, it follows the river a mile or two up into the valley. It’s a beautiful mountain stream.
Of course, I was walking in the direction from which the water was flowing — meaning, I was walking uphill, often steeply uphill.
Eventually, I encountered Archuleta Creek, a tributary that feeds into the South Fork.
I crossed this creek, and followed it up its course until lunch. Then it was time for a break.
After a refreshing rest, I replenished my water bottles in the creek (using my mechanical filter), and resumed my upward climb. The trail often veered away from the creek, and into more wide open vistas.
I had encountered only one couple on this trail: a pair of day hikers who passed me before lunch, and met me on their way back down later that afternoon. They confirmed that I still had a way to go to reach Archuleta Lake. So I resigned myself to start looking for a campsite.
As evening crept closer, I finally found one — with this view looking back in the direction I had come.
So after eleven hours on the trail, I set up my tent, had supper, and briefly enjoyed the scenery around me. Before retiring, I followed the advice of veteran hikers, and suspended my food sacks between a couple of trees, to prevent bears from reaching them.
Then I went to bed, for my first night on the trail.
Total humans encountered: Two
Total animals encountered: None, other than a few ground squirrels and a lot of birds.
Day Two: Continental Divide Trail
The next morning, I awoke to a beautiful moon setting over the western mountain range.
In the morning light, I got a better view of my surroundings.
I had a quick breakfast, broke camp, then headed on up the trail. I estimated I was about two hours from the lake.
Barely twenty minutes into the day’s hike, I crossed Archuleta Creek at a particularly beautiful little waterfall.
From here the path continued to wind upward through the trees and unmelted snowbanks until finally I emerged next to Archuleta Lake, a nice little alpine lake nestled just below the Divide.
I rested here for awhile, and replenished my water supply again, while I pondered my next move. The path to the top of the Divide was long and steep, and according to my topo map, there was no reliable water source from here on until I got down into the Hope Creek watershed. That was a lot of hard walking, during the hottest part of the day, with no assurance of available water. But the sight of so much unmelted snow near the top gave me hope that, at worst, I could at least melt snow to get my water. I decided to go for it.
The trail swung around to the left of Archuleta Lake and merged with the Continental Divide Trail, which took me higher up the slope. Eventually I was on the other side of the lake, looking back down on the lake and the valley through which I had come.
I paused for awhile in the shade of some trees to eat lunch, then pushed on to the summit. I soon left the trees behind, and was exposed to the direct sun, during the hottest part of the day. And the trail got steeper and steeper. I would walk for five minutes, then sit down to rest for five. Walk five, sit five. This was the most brutal part of the whole trip. But the higher I went, the more breathtaking the view became. Despite the physical exertion, I was getting more excited.
At one point during this upward climb, my hopes were rewarded by the sight of a tiny stream of snowmelt. So I replenished my water supply again (which was rapidly being depleted). I pressed on to the summit.
Finally, I made it! It took me four-and-a-half hours from the edge of the lake, but I was standing on the Continental Divide, looking east and west from the backbone of North America. The panorama from this location was indescribably huge. Judging from the topo map, I was over 12,000 feet up, just below the summit of Mt. Hope.
From here the walking was much easier, almost pleasant. It was pretty much a level hike across the knife ridge that marked the Divide.
At one point, off in the distance on the Pacific side, I saw a large herd of elk grazing. Unfortunately, they were too far away to pick up with my camera.
After a couple of miles on the Divide, I took the turnoff to the Highline Trail, which would take me to the Hope Creek Trail. I hadn’t gone far on this trail when I was hailed by a trio of hikers who had been coming up behind me on the Continental Divide Trail. We chatted across the way for a few minutes. I learned they were hiking the CDT from Mexico to Wyoming this summer. The portion of the trail that had just been so grueling for me, they must have just walked right up without stopping. Incredible!
The Highline Trail skirted the base of Sawtooth Mountain, a rugged outcropping of rock.
Soon I was looking down into Hope Creek valley, and the trail that would lead me back to my van. It was all downhill from here! Even better, I found another little stream of snowmelt, which allowed me to top off my water supply. Water would never again be an issue.
Time, however, was an issue. The day was wearing long, and I still needed to find a good camping spot. So I pressed on down the trail, back into the trees, looking for a level spot that would be suitable for a tent. I finally found a decent campsite at the edge of a meadow. I had been on the trail for ten hours this day, including the most exhausting uphill climbing of the whole trek. I was beat. So I set up camp, had a quick supper, and went to bed.
Total humans encountered: Three, from a distance
Total animals encountered: One herd of elk, from a distance
Day Three: Hope Creek Trail
The morning of the third day dawned bright and clear. I discovered as I crawled out of the tent what a propitious decision I had made in my choice of campsite. The view was awesome, in both directions.
Looking to the west, back up the valley toward Sawtooth Mountain, the cliffs were aflame in the morning sun.
Looking down the valley toward the east, I saw a distant mountain range shrouded in the morning mist. These extraordinary vistas were becoming ordinary.
In setting up the tent the night before, I had apparently not left the flaps open wide enough, so my breath condensed all over the inside of the tent. There was no way I was going to pack it up in that condition, so I laid out the sleeping bag, mattress, and tent canopy over some small trees, and let the rising sun dry them out for about an hour.
While waiting for my equipment to dry, I studied my surroundings further. Looking back at the cliff again, I was startled to see several elk grazing at the base of the cliff.
The moon setting over the western ridge provided a beautiful image.
Eventually my stuff dried out, so I packed everything up and hit the trail again.
Along the way, I encountered several small streams coming down from the mountainside.
I also passed through several pastoral meadows that looked like something right out of The Sound of Music.
Looking back across the valley to the direction from which I had come since the day before, I saw a majestic view of Mt. Hope. Awesome!
At one point, I met a group of seven backpackers who were on their way up the trail. They were obviously more experienced at this than I was, because the uphill climb (for them) was not much of a problem.
The trail finally came directly alongside Hope Creek, and followed it pretty much the rest of the way down the valley.
I stopped for a brief lunch break at midday, then resumed walking. Finally, after less than seven hours on the trail, I reached Shaw Lake Road, which would take me back to my van, about a mile away. During this last mile, a summer thunderstorm struck, and I had to don my rain gear. I was less than 300 yards from my van.
But the important thing was, I made it! I had accomplished what I set out to do, and did it in only three days instead of four.
Total humans encountered: Nine — the seven backpackers going up, and a couple of day-hikers
Total animals encountered: A few elk, from a distance
This was my very first backpacking trip, so in looking back on this experience, there were a number of lessons I learned.
- Train. Walking uphill on a rough trail at high altitudes is hard. Doing so carrying a heavy backpack is really hard. I went into this with virtually no training, and I did okay. But I’m generally in good physical shape. Had I spent a few months doing some vigorous cardio-vascular exercises before I went, I would have done so much better.
- Water is critical. I took three liters of water with me, and a small mechanical filter to use when refilling. I lost track of the number of times I had to refill. Hiking in Colorado valleys this time of year means that water is generally not an issue. But the physical exertion takes a lot out of a body, and you have to drink a lot–and refill a lot–in order to stay hydrated.
- Pack light. Not knowing what to expect, I usually erred on the side of caution and took items that I really didn’t need. My fifty-pound pack could have easily been a forty-pound pack, had I been a little more careful in choosing my equipment.
- Know your camera. I’ll likely never pass this exact route again, so I took a small digital camera and a camcorder, and took a lot of pictures, only a few of which are displayed here. But the digital camera was new, and I really wasn’t familiar with it yet. So I was disappointed with how some of the pictures turned out. Quite a few of the ones shown here had to be color-corrected using PhotoShop. In retrospect, I should have spent some time figuring out how to take really good pictures with this camera before I got on the trail. By the way, I used the camcorder to film a little running documentary in the style of Survivor Man. It turned out pretty well. I’ll try to make it available soon.
- Cooking is overrated. I took a mess kit and a nifty little gadget called a Pocket Rocket, a miniature burner. I cooked a couple of meals during the hike (one supper, one breakfast), but both were more trouble than they were worth. The clean-up was a chore, and used up too much precious water. The only hot food I really enjoyed was hot chocolate. Now THAT was worth it, especially in the mornings. Still, next time I’ll need to do a better job of planning and preparing my menu of ready-to-eat foods.
- Mummy bags are lousy. Okay, they keep you toasty warm, and are easy to pack. But I toss and turn when I sleep, and the bag was terribly confining when I tried to turn over. I did not sleep well either night. There’s gotta be a better way.
- Synthetics are terrific. Following the advice of several professionals, I took only clothing made of synthetic materials. Unlike cotton, these clothes “wick” moisture away from the skin, and dry quickly. No matter how much I perspired, I remained fairly dry and comfortable. I did not change clothes until the third day, but did not at all feel sweaty and clammy.
- Good hiking boots are worth it. I invested in some good high-top hiking boots, and wore high-dollar woolen socks. My feet never felt sore, nor developed blisters. That’s the best testimony to a good pair of footwear.
- Use hiking sticks. Again, following the advice of others, I bought a couple of collapsible walking sticks. They saved my life on several occasions–or at least saved me from a nasty spill. Definitely a “must have” when walking trails that are strewn with large stones, tree roots, stream crossings, and tree-fall.
Will I do this again? You bet! Except next time, I’ll be a little wiser.
I hiked this little adventure alone, but there were several people who helped make it possible. My late Dad was an avid outdoorsman, and passed on that love of nature to his kids. Two colleagues at work, both of whom do a lot of camping and backpacking, deserve thanks for encouraging me to take the plunge. Thanks, Janice and Wendy! I owe a great deal to our neighbors and dear friends, Larry and Susan, for making their vacation home available as a staging base. My patient wife, Melissa, despite her lack of interest in such things, nevertheless has been fully supportive and understanding through this whole ordeal. Thank you, dear!
Finally, my gratitude goes to the One who created such a beautiful world, and gave me the health and opportunity to see a small part of it, up close and personal.