Colorado Trail Day 20 – Back in the Saddle! | Average Hiker

Hiking above treeline near Monarch Pass on the Colorado Trail

Although I was advised to stay put for another 2-3 days, I could feel my altitude tolerance slipping away as I sat in a hotel in Salida at 7,000 feet above sea level. I was also about to go stir crazy, so on Day 6 in Salida, after my hiking preventing symptoms had mostly cleared up, I headed back up to Monarch Pass for what would be a tough day.

Related Posts: Colorado Trail – 2020; Colorado Trail – Day 15

Since I had missed the miles between Cottonwood Pass and Monarch Pass, I would hike back to Cottonwood (north). I would then hitch hike around to Monarch Pass again and resume my hike south towards Durango. I was beginning to feel a little anxiety as I was now hiking near the end of August. I had lost a week in Salida, and would now lose close to a week hiking backwards. Winter could definitely hit anytime in September, although it was not too common at the beginning of September.

Debbie was a regular shuttle provider in Salida, and gave a ride to me and Buck (SOBO) up to Monarch’s Pass. The hostel I stayed at had given me her number. The ride went by quickly and we chatted easily. There was really almost nobody I had met in Colorado that was not friendly and likable.

Arriving at the Pass, Buck headed out immediately. I stopped to situate my pack and unstrap my hiking poles. I always strap them to my pack when riding. It is too easy to leave them in vehicles, as I’ve seen hikers do so many times. I also always carry my money and ID on me also – just in case my pack goes somewhere without me. It has happened.

Heading across Highway 50, I began the moderate climb out of Monarch Pass, and felt good for about the first 10 minutes. As I climbed I could feel the nausea beginning to settle back in again, and I found myself sucking air like I had been the first week out of Denver. Ugh…

Colorado Trail Day 20 Backpacking Out of Monarch Pass
Backpacking just out of Monarch Pass along the Colorado Trail

Hiking was tough. I would walk about 100 yards, stop to lean over my hiking poles, and then start again. This was going to be a long day. On a more positive note, the scenery was fantastic! The day was bright and sunny, and even the smoke couldn’t hide the vistas.

The first 6 miles were mostly above tree line as I wound my way along the rock strewn trail. One of my favorite sections was the “Prehistoric Walls.” A placard claimed you could still see walls built by prehistoric man, used to herd animals during their hunts. Hmmm – I had visions of teenagers hastily building these low walls – kind of like crop circles, but it was still pretty cool to imagine as I looked out over the ridge I had just traveled across.

Most of the morning was spent being passed by every single hiker hiking in my direction as I turtled my way through a really nice piece of trail. I stopped at a picnic table up at Monarch Ski Resort for a short break, but I wasn’t hungry so I just sat back and soaked in a beautiful day. I could hear the constant whisper at the back of my mind – keep hiking, keep hiking. I needed to make miles. Winter was coming.

Reaching my high point for the day at 12,552 feet, I collapsed onto the grass and gummed a small granola bar. It was a relief to finally be heading downhill, but I did not think I was going to make the miles I had planned for the day. I studied my map and selected Arkansas River as my stopping point. This would only be 10.6 miles over 10 hours, but I did not want to push too hard my first couple of days out of town – not that I really could anyway. I had averaged 20 miles out of Denver, so I’ll admit this was a little discouraging.

Above Treeline hiking out of Monarch Pass
Lake Hiking Near Monarch Pass on the Colorado Trail
Large Rock Cairn Backpacking Near Monarch Pass
Backpacking on a smokey day near Monarch Pass
Views Hiking along Ridgeline Near Monarch Pass

The rest of the afternoon was mostly downhill, winding through Spruce forests past Hunt Lake and Boss Lake. Hunt Lake had a lot of really nice camping, and I considered stopping. I really wanted to make it down to the river though, even if I knew it would probably be cold in the valley tomorrow morning.

Over the course of the day I had flipped back and forth with two guys hiking together. I always knew where they were because they chatted non-stop, and one of them had a distinctive voice that carried quite far. I usually caught up with them, but often stopped to break so they would pass me and we would start the flipping process all over again.

Down near an old service road leading to Boss Lake I stopped for one of many breaks. There was a fantastic sitting log next to the trail. A few minutes later the two fellas caught up with me, and I met Pat and Steve from Steamboat, CO and Buena Vista, CO. I would end up hiking and camping around them for the rest of this section.

As they walked up, Pat immediately turned in my direction and began asking gear questions. I learned later that he taught outdoor education at a college where he lived – at least I believe that is correct. Steve was an engineer and they were both close to retirement. They could not have seemed more different at first glance. Steve was rather reserved and Pat a gregarious extrovert.

At some point I believe Pat told me I looked like crap, or something along those lines, and I immediately liked them both! During much of my exchange with Pat, Steve sat there grinning, tossing in the occasional comment. They were nice guys and quite entertaining. Pat’s outfit was hands down the high point of the day, with his Sugoi arm warmers.

Meeting Pat and Steve on the Colorado Trail near Boss Lake
Old Cabin on Boss Lake Damn
Bridge Over Spillway at Boss Lake on Colorado Trail

Steve and Pat had planned to stay at Boss Lake, but I told them I was going on to the Arkansas River. It was pretty early, so they decided to head on down to the river also.

The hike down was steep, so I took my time picking my way down the rocky trail and taking a few pictures along the way. Alpine lakes are always so pretty, nestled into the craggy mountains, and these were no exception. There was also an old cabin near the spillway to Boss Lake, so I definitely stopped to snoop around a little.

Once at the river, I saw the guys setting up camp, and I began to prowl the neighboring woods looking for a flat spot. I did not want to camp too close since I was noisy and started hiking early. I finally found a good spot to camp up the hill, threw up my Altaplex, and then headed down to have dinner with my neighbors. Other than Sam and Shy, I think this would be the first time I had camped with other hikers.

The guys were fun, and dinner went by quickly. As it began to grow dark, I headed back up to my camp to begin the nightly nesting process. Getting the shelter organized for sleep always took a while. Everything had a place. I finally burrowed down into my quilt listening to the river (really a large stream) outside. I was not awake long.

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Ellie Thomas

I've hiked thousands of miles and still love the unknown of the journeys. Trails hiked include the AT, PCT, CDT, CT, AZT, NET, BMT White Mountains, and numerous blue-blazed trails around the country.