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Home » Adventures » CDT » Journal » Colorado » San Juan Mountains

CDT: San Juan Mountains (Spring Creek Pass to Cumbres Pass)

September 16

I went to church this morning, my first opportunity to do so since starting the CDT. I had not been in town on a Sunday morning to do so. The nondenominational church felt very much like InterVarsity from my college days, and the Gospel of Christ alone crucified for the redemption of sinners was clearly preached. Being among a group of believers again was refreshing. Not having access to regular Divine Service and the support of a home congregation was a major concern of mine before departing on the CDT and vagabonding. This morning’s worship helped confirm what a blessing that truly is.

Afterwards I had a great, but very slow forthcoming brunch with a few of the Raven’s Rest Hostel’s guest and their owners. The long coming meal was only frustrating because I was anxious to get back to the trail. The snow a couple days prior convinced me to cancel my zero in Lake City and wait for rest until I reached lower elevations.

After finally eating I caught a ride back to the trail by early afternoon and hiked a few hours to near the yurt marked on my map. After my disappointment at Marshal Pass, I did not get my hopes up of sleeping inside a solid structure. So when I arrived and found it occupied by hunters, I was not heartbroken. I spoke with one who said the yurt had to be rented anyways, so even if empty, the structure probably would have been locked. A good campsite was nearby though, so I settled nearby for the night.

My tent setup for the night. One of the nicer campsites I stayed at.
The sun setting behind the Colorado Mountains

September 17

I had a beautiful morning walk on the divide, looking down on all the trees in peak fall colors and valleys alive with yellow and reds. By early afternoon though, clouds blew in and I had to put on my rain gear. Unfortunately the precipitation was frozen. Just what I feared — snow in the San Juan Mountains. As it began snowing though, I happened upon a lower alternate trail mapped for thunderstorm avoidance. I had been contemplating taking this alternate anyway, since it should be faster, and the snow finalized that decision for me. The snow storm was blessedly very brief and nothing stuck to the ground. I could have stayed on the high route, but hindsight is 20/20, as the storm could have also dumped a foot of snow.

I eventually rejoined the CDT and had a very windy evening walk, but at least the sky was clear. I cooked dinner in the headwaters of the Rio Grande River and managed to find a spot relatively sheltered from the wind to camp.

The mountain sides full of color change
Snow starting to fall. Thankfully it did not last long or accumulate.

September 18

I had an absolutely gorgeous day hiking the heights of the San Juan Mountains. Not a cloud in the sky, just a gentle breeze, and the temperature was ideal. I constantly saw magnificent mountain peaks. Whenever I crested a pass, which occurred frequently, I was presented with more breathtaking peaks. Sometimes I saw the same apex from a slightly different angle, but it still seemed new. I could easily forget that I was still racing winter and snow fell yesterday. I would enjoy it while I could but had to still keep moving.

The CT and CDT split today, so for the first time in a couple hundred miles I would have to remember how to use my map and compass. So far though the tread and signage has remained good.

An old mine entrance near Stony Pass
Peak One and Two--very original, descriptive names
A small, high mountain lake
Rio Grande Pyramid and The Window

September 19

I started the morning with a climb through the Window, a giant, square notch in the cliff side which I had watched grow ever slower most of the prior day. The scramble up was not too bad, and the view, plus being in the giant cutout was neat. The rest of the day was more ups and downs through beautiful mountains. I almost became jaded, or at least accustomed, to them after a while.

Since leaving the CT much of the trail had been deep trenches, with large rocks at the bottom and bushes encroaching across the path. This has made for poor footing and frustrating hiking — especially since after a couple full, but not overly hard days I decided to put in big miles to try and reach Pagosa Springs a day early.

Several sections also had a good number of downfalls across the trail. Not as bad as Knight’s Ridge, but I still had my share of log hopping to do. The pine beetle had devastated this area as well, so the trail would be really bad in a few years once those dead trees fell. This part was entirely in the Weminuche Wilderness Area as well, so everything would need to be cleared by hand — no chainsaws allowed. That made my arms hurt just thinking about it. This segment could definitely use some trail crew’s love to prune back the plants and improve erosion control. I know resources are limited and although I tired, since I have never volunteered to build trail myself I do not have a whole lot of room to complain.

To get in my big miles I hiked much closer to nightfall than was smart, but eventually reached my camping spot on a saddle just before complete darkness set in.

The view from near Squaw Pass looking down Squaw Creek

September 20

Another amazing day hiking through the unrelenting and seemingly endless San Juan Mountains. This range has a vastness and massiveness to them, similar to how The Bob felt. Whenever I reached the top of a tall peak, all I could observe was more mountains for as far as my eye could see. The only paved road was at Spring Creek Pass, where I started this segment, and only a handful of 4WD roads since then. Almost the entire southern half of the San Juan loop was in the Weminuche Wilderness, which does not allow motorized access of any kind. Given the remoteness and being the tail end of the season, they were not very busy either. I had only seen a few groups of other hikers the entire time.

I know this wilderness could not go on forever though, because I got my big miles in again today and positioned myself well to be in Pagosa Springs for lunch tomorrow. Who knows, if the show times and titles work out, I might catch a matinee. I still had over 150 miles of trail through the mountains south of Pagosa Springs though, so I could not relax too much yet. At least the trail started heading more or less directly south again after its loop through the San Juan Mountains. That might buy me a degree or two, but the route stayed high for most of that length, which would affect the weather a lot more than latitude.

I saw a flock of about half a dozen big horned rams today, which was a nice change from the more populace deer and elk. Unfortunately I scared them away before I could get a picture.

The trail cutting along the mountain face. Glad it was not snow covered.

September 21 — Pagosa Springs

I still had about nine miles on the trail before my lunchtime appointment in Pagosa Springs, so I was up to watch the star’s closing performance before they bowed their last to the rising sun. I made it to the pass easily and found a ride into the sulfur smelling downtown and its plethora of resort spas. Although a hot tub would have been nice, I just grabbed some food, got mistaken for a homeless person by a real homeless person, and relaxed before heading out. My scheme to catch a matinee was foiled by the wrong show times and nothing good playing anyway.

I got lucky quickly finding a ride out of town, but unfortunately somewhere in that process I lost my camera. I know I had it walking out of town because I snapped a picture of the town’s welcome sign. It either fell out while I had my thumb out, in the guy’s car, or at Wolf Creek Pass while I rested there afterwards.

For door number 3, I spent well over an hour tearing apart the hillside but discovered nothing. I eventually had to resign my search for a needle in the haystack, since I did not even know if this was the right haystack.

If my camera was in the car, I knew the driver’s first name, trail name, about where he lived, and that he hiked the PCT, so there was an off chance I could track him down. I think that still put me in the denial phase of losing my camera. Dropping the camera was not so much the issue — I could buy anther one in the next town — as it was the pictures. I at least had everything before Rocky Mountain National Park backed up, but to have probably lost 90% of my Colorado pictures was a downer.

Humanity has survived worse tragedies, and I had no one to blame but myself for not always being vigilant with my gear, but it was still frustrating. I had torn my pack apart three times, so there was no small crevasse in which it could be hiding. If someone randomly happened to find my camera, I had no contact information contained on it — as I intended but never got around to — so they could not track me down even if they wanted to.

Of all the non-survival related gear (and possibly some of that too) my camera was the last item I would want to loose. Even this journal I could recreate from memory. It would not be as detailed or good (not like this is the next great American novel anyway), but the pictures were probably gone forever. My basic cell phone did not even have a cheap camera to serve me going forward.

If there was any positive side, being without a camera should force me to live in the moment more, and enjoy the experience, and not worry about finding that spot which would produce a great picture.

Rock Lake
All the fancy spa resorts in Pagosa Springs

September 22 — The Parable of the Lost Camera

I tossed and turned all night, not getting much sleep, with the loss of my pictures still racing through my head. My stubbornness prevailed and despite having hiked most of the way to the top of Wolf Creek Ski area, I headed back down to the pass, and into town if necessary, to find my camera. As a last resort I could buy a new one in town and at least have pictures heading south.

I spent another unfruitful half hour searching at the pass before giving up and quickly getting a ride into Pagosa Springs — again. I looked around the areas where I hitched from the prior day, but unfortunately discovered nothing. While walking through town — again — I passed a cross country meet, and that brought back memories of running, my friends from it, and the competition, which I temporarily gave up to vagabond. Although the trail had been great, I sometimes missed those things. That longing, combed with my depressed state from my lost pictures was one of my lowest points on the trail. If something else had gone wrong, such as the weather turning, I might have given up on the CDT right there.

While waiting for the bus to the shopping area on the west end of town, which hopefully sold cameras, I did some web searches for the person who gave me a ride out of town the prior day, but found no leads. I sent a couple emails to groups in the area where he lived that might know him, but those were shots in the dark.

Cameras were scarce in Pagosa Springs — the second rate big box store had nothing and Radio Shack had a single model, but no compatible memory card. I caught my first break when a local A/V store that usually was not open Saturday, happened to have a few technicians present who graciously sold me a camera. Their selection was limited, but cameras have improved so much that almost anything was good enough for a point and shoot guy like me. The camera was not free but still a good deal and an upgrade from my old one. Of course that money could have been better spent putting me in a real bed for the night and relaxing in a hot spring, but such is life.

I rode the bus back to the east end of town, grabbed another meal in a restaurant, and was doing a last walk by where I had hitched from, when a genuine trail miracle occurred. As I searched the ground, a car pulled up and asked if I wanted my camera back. My jaw about hit the ground. This man had found my camera yesterday on the side of the road where I had my thumb out, and had been looking for me since. He had unsuccessfully asked around town for my whereabouts, and happened to be driving by when he recognized me from my pictures — he had gone through them looking for something that might identify me. What an amazing man and answer to my prayers! I was so joyful. I had found my lost camera. I was even able later to get a cell signal to rejoice with my friends and neighbors. On top of that he even gave me a lift back to the trail. There truly were some great people in this world.

I now had two cameras on me but was never so happy to be carrying the extra weight, because at least I had my memory card back!

The thought later crossed my mind that had my Good Samaritan never found my camera or just left it on the side of the road, I probably would have found it quickly that morning, not have had to buy another one, and had a much less stressful day. But then I would never have met this great person, had faith in my fellow man increased, and would have relied on myself more instead of God. Although we both did a lot of leg work to find each other, I have no doubt there was some divine intervention helping us to meet.

I actually had to hike back on the CDT and covered some miles in the afternoon — now with a camera to record it. With almost an entire day delay from loosing my camera, I would not have quite as easy days going to Ghost Ranch as expected, but that was okay. From finding my lost camera (or perhaps it finding me) I had a smile on my face that a snow storm could not erase (although I would still prefer not to test that theory).

September 23

The trail returned to cattle country for a short stretch in the morning, and the plethora of cow tracks had me turned around a couple times, but I eventually figured out the correct direction of the CDT. The trail then climbed above tree line, and as dumb as bovine can be, they are smart enough not to venture that high. The wind does frequent the ridge though, and that force was strong along the divide, although the openness also provided great views. And opposed to how it seemed most of the time, this stretch of trail often followed the leeward side of the mountain, providing some protection.

My legs were very tired today, but I endured. Although I had not covered many trail miles the past two days, I had been on my feet a lot, wandering around town and stressed over my once missing camera. My time in Pagosa Springs was not as relaxing as it should have been. Hopefully Ghost Ranch would provide a chance for R&R, although that was still over a hundred miles down trail in the next state.

An interesting peak along the trail
Summit Peak
Looking up Adams Fork

September 24

A night’s rest and a day’s less food on my back did little to rejuvenate my body as I dragged myself through the Southern San Juan Mountains. I still made good progress, but I felt drained. Instead of skipping the town of Chama, I really should have visited for some recovery, but I doubt I would afford myself such a luxury.

The day was mostly overcast, with occasional sunshine breaking through, but also hail, rain, and a few snow flurries. Nothing much fell on me, but the sky was ominous all around. Some of the far off peaks to the north appeared to have received snow too. I was not quite in the clear yet and the weather window was quickly closing, but hopefully I would make it. Of course even if snow fell, I could still hike through it. Plenty of other CDT hikers have. I just did not particularly want to if I could avoid it.

The trail faded out in many sections today. Much of it was alpine, without enough cairns to completely mark the way, and the next cairn was not always visible. No mans land usually only last a couple hundred yards, and I could use the terrain and my brain to navigate. Often when the trail did reappear, it seemed the NOBO and SOBO paths did not quite line up. One went a little to the east, the other to the west, before both faded out. I just had to do my best to locate the other one.

Blue Lake
Trail Lake
The mountain sides full of trees changing color