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CDT: San Isabel National Forest (Breckenridge to Monarch Pass)

September 5

A 2,000 foot climb over a mountain, which seemed almost routine now, brought me to the “Disney-like ski resort” of Copper Mountain. I stopped by the gas station to buy HEET, but the store did not carry it. This lack of fuel was a big problem since I only had enough to last a few days, but not until the next reliable source of alcohol. Thankfully though, a bus ran to Frisco, and I was able to catch it, buy HEET there, and ride back to Copper Mountain. It took a couple hours, but I had enough fuel to last a while. I also discovered that 90% of the people riding this bus were teenagers who ride up to Copper Mountain, skateboard down the bike path to Frisco, and catch the bus to do it again.

Finally walking through the pedestrian mall of Copper Mountain was a little eerie. The place was basically a ghost town, too late in the season for summer tourists, but before the skiers showed up. Only a few maintenance workers wandered about. With the side trip to buy HEET, I did not hike as far as I wanted, and camped in a semi-exposed area above tree line. The weather had been perfect all day, so hopefully it would hold overnight.

I ate like a king today, having lugged pastries and half a gallon of chocolate milk the couple miles from Breckenridge for breakfast, grabbed fast food in Frisco for lunch, and hauled a wrap from Copper Mountain for dinner. In addition I consumed a few snacks, and doughnuts in between — quite the way to backpack.

The view from atop Tenmile Range
The aerial view of Copper Mountain, the horrible Disney-like ski resort
The view from Searle Pass

September 6

The weather stayed nice overnight and for most of today. The trail passed through old military training grounds and dilapidated munitions storage bunkers. After climbing to Tennessee Pass, I browsed a WWII memorial for the famous 10th Mountain Division, which trained in the area. Whenever the trail gets hard, I will have to remember that I was not doing technical mountain climbing in the snow, while getting shot at and trying to defeat the Nazis.

Down trail from the pass was my best trail surprise since meeting a trail crew in The Bob. The Leadville Hostel stocked an unexpected “Hiker Magic” box for CT and CDT hikers, which had a few treats and pop inside. I had heard great things about this hostel, and this generous gift only confirmed it. Unfortunately since Leadville was less than two days from both Breckenridge and Twin Lakes I did not visit to resupply and missed the gem.

Overall today was a nice hike, mostly below tree line and not very stressful, since I had the catch of sleeping at the base of Mt. Elbert tomorrow night.

Old military munitions bunkers
A trail magic box left by the awesome hostel in Leadville

September 7

Another relatively easy day, as the possibility of getting over Mt. Elbert today was remote, and I only needed to arrive at the approach to its apex. I cannot keep up this lackadaisical pace for long though. The days have been nice, but I saw some leaves on the ground, in addition to the color change. The trees were not bare yet, and depending on the elevation some have not even changed color, but fall was fast taking hold and the weather could swing quickly. I should be okay, but I still have almost three weeks in the mountains, and an early storm could always hit. I will just keep heading south though, and hopefully not have to bail to lower routes.

September 8 — Mt. Elbert

Another 14ner meant another early morning, and I was hiking with the sunrise to the top of Mt. Elbert. I had expected this highest peak in Colorado to be busy, but I passed only one other group on my way to the 14,433 foot peak. After a couple hours and several disappointing false peaks, I reached the real apex, and had a great view from the top of the Rockies all to myself. Not a cloud floated in the sky, nor wind blew through my hair. I relaxed and read on the ceiling of Colorado (how often are you able to read above 14,000ft except on an airplane?) enjoying the great weather and peacefulness.

I finally started the knee-crushing descent and found all the people. Apparently no one started early, as I passed literally a hundred people still climbing up the mountain. My joints survived the way down, and I was in Twin Lakes a little before noon to grab lunch and pick up my resupply box. It turned out the store had HEET in stock, so my frantic bus riding episode at Copper Mountain proved unnecessary.

I relaxed in “town” for a long while before hitting the trail again to go over Hope Pass. Although it only topped out at 12,000 ft, since the descent to Twin Lakes was so great, the afternoon ascent was about the same elevation gain as my morning climb to Mt. Elbert. I now though had several more days provisions on my back. I survived the ascent and found a campsite on the other side below tree line.

The view from atop Mt. Elbert
Looking at Mt. Hope
The view from Hope Pass
Color changing Aspen forest

September 9

In the morning I passed through Winfield, another ghost town from mining and pushed the button on the schoolhouse per Ley’s beseeching. A morning climb to the pass past Lake Ann warmed up the legs for a pounding descent to the dirt bike superhighway. No non-motorized experience for this stretch, as I had to several times step out of the way of large groups of riders and deal with the ruts, noise, and exhaust that ensued. Hikers do not own the forest though, unfortunately. The rest of the day was just a walk through the woods, where I tried to move quickly, but made slow progress advancing on the map.

Looking down Clear Creek Valley

September 10

The dirt bike superhighway merged with the ATV superhighway for even more beasts with which to share the right of way. Riding through the cool morning air was understandably not very popular, so at least late morning arrived by the time the trail started to smell like a go-cart track. Walking the ATV trails was not even any easier either. Besides having to contend with the behemoths, the trail could be even rockier and just as steep as hiker tread.

By lunchtime though, the CDT relented from the motorized mayhem and returned to tranquil hiking trails, undulating above and below tree line across several climbs. It passed an abandoned railway tunnel, whose informational kiosks described the harsh conditions under which it was built and operated. Another hiker magic box appeared along the trail, this time from a fellow hiker in Salida — unfortunately another town I skipped. I had taken a break literally five minutes before encountering the stash, but I was still motivated to stop again for a double break.

I stopped for the night next to a river, where people often camped from cars, and for the first time in a very long while I built a campfire in one of the fire rings and enjoyed the flames. I also stayed out for some star gazing — something I have not done much this hike.

Mirror Lake

September 11 — Monarch Pass

Another morning climb back above tree line led to several miles along the divide and across the top of Monarch Ski Area. I eventually descended to Monarch Crest Store for lunch, and another resupply package. After a hiatus I was leaving to hit the trail again when more magic happened. Someone in the parking lot asked about my backpacking. We talked for a while, and he eventually insisted on giving me a couple slices of pizza. Although I had just eaten well in the store, I still graciously accepted his offer for a double lunch.

While hiking south of Monarch Pass a couple short afternoon rainstorms blew threw, my first in about a week. I had planned to stop in the shelter at Marshall Pass — about the only solid, enclosed, public structure on the CDT— but found it already occupied by people who just drove to the cabin. I hiked a few more miles down the trail instead, and to add insult to injury, an overnight lightning storm came through — sure would have been a nice night for a solid roof over my head.

Monarch Crest Store, another spot which accepted hiker packages
A cloudy, rainy afternoon