Day 5 – The Literal High Point of the Colorado Trail

On my zero day in Lake City, CO (population of year round residents 350), I ate well, reorganized my gear and looked around their local museum. Lake City’s claim to fame is Alferd Packer and his cannabilistic exploits of 1874.

Tuesday morning my pack was loaded with only two days worth of food and I had intentions of resupplying with more food at Lake Molas Campground. I wanted to get there in two days and the store at the campground closed at 7:00pm. I need to cover 52 miles before then to remain on schedule to finish by Saturday, when Pam will pick me up in Durango. My hope today is to cover close to 30, so I wouldn’t be racing the clock into LM Camground.

The first few miles of trail flirts with a walk in trees but opening up to expansive parks (meadows). I walk up on a cow elk in one of the parks. We eye each other and I reach for an elk call that I purchased in Lake City. I slip the diaphragm call into my mouth and give her a little chirp. It calms her down but she moves across from left to right in front of me. She chirps back and then barks once, then twice, exactly like a dog barks. This indicates that she knows something is awry and she trots off into the edge of timber. I give her a few barks back and then a longer squeal, bordering on a bull bugle.

About 500 yards away I see two more elk that I had not noticed before and they are running toward me on a string. They veer off a bit to the cover of an island of trees and I wait for a few minutes as they emerge from there, now settled down and feeding in the park. Some mountain bikers come along and stop to view them as well. Eventually I grow bored and need to move on, the elk grow weary of my movements and trot back in the direction they came from.

I move on and come to Jarosa Mesa, a transition area from a subalpine ecosystem to alpine tundra. After the mesa I now move above 12,000′ elevation and it is here and higher that I will remain for the next 36 miles. The CT creates a ribbon of trail through the tundra and even at this altitude there are wildflowers. The dominant one that I see is Fringed Gentian, and it causes me to drop to the ground and take some time to get more interesting photos of this late season star in the world of mountain wildflowers.


Fringed Gentian


The expanse is great in my view ahead as I walk on the high tundra. Because I got back on the trail early this morning, I expect to see other hikers, having been told before my zero day that there were a number of them just ahead of me. For now, I follow the trail, being able to see ahead for over a mile, sometimes more.


A single ribbon of trail beckons in the high tundra.

At times, the weather is serene and calm and it’s hard to imagine just how high I am. As I crest yet another high point, I begin to dip down and can see dots in the distance on the trail. There are at least two people. After a bit, I realize there are three, one heading in my direction northbound and two others heading southbound. I wind down in elevation, north a bit and then back south, now catching a lot of wind because of the contour of the mountains. I chat with a really nice guy who was the one I saw coming northbound. We speak for only a few minutes, exchange information and as I leave he strikes me as the kind of person I would have liked to talk to longer,

Finally, I reach the high point of The Colorado Trail. Everybody takes their photo with this sign. I do a few silly shots of myself to document that I was here. Except for the sign itself, there is nothing extraordinary about this spot. It isn’t even really on top of a mountain or even a hill; just on the contour and 63 feet below Coney Peak.

As I descend into Carson Saddle I catch up to a father and his two college aged children who are hiking the trail. They are from Spokane. After we exchange pleasantries I meet another duo hiking together.

A few miles later I stop to filter water, heat up water for lunch and am resting up after a solid day so far. I had seen two bright orange backpacks quite a distance ahead as I was approaching the creek. The Spokane trio stops at the creek as well and then we are joined by a man that comes along in the opposite direction asking if anybody has a dog. We all shake our heads no, look at each other and then the gentleman is followed by his wife, who has two llamas in tow. “$55 dollars a day! They carry the heavy load and we just have small daypacks. We leased them out of Silverton and we are camping in style” he exclaims. The couple are from Lawrence, KS and ask one of us to take their photo because the outfitter would like some shots of his llamas. The pair of animals are as gentle as can be and I’m glad I’ve seen them because I see their tracks for the next day and I would have wondered what made that kind of track.

I love her smile!


The Spokane trio leave before me, but after I get on the move I pass them up the long pass toward Cataract Ridge. The climb below Carson Peak is a grinder in the afternoon sun, and I, who typically abhors sunscreen is lathered up today because there is no respite from the high sun here in the alpine tundra.


I find myself often looking back into valleys as I climb the mountains

I hit the top of the saddle in pretty good time and realize that my body is adjusting well now to both the high altitude and the constant elevation gain that I face every day. What was once a mental hurdle is no longer so. I am cruising along, enjoying the bluebird day and fact that there is no threat of bad weather in these high mountains. That is a welcome relief.


Hoodoos are more common in Utah, so they seem a little out of place this high in the San Juans

I quickly come up on Cataract Lake, one of the most photographed areas of the Colorado Trail. I have a big view of the lake and can just make out a large bull moose in the water. It’s amazing how he sticks out to the naked eye. He is large, jet black and I can see his large paddles even from such a great distance away. He must be massive looking up close. I snap a few photos of the lake. Can you see him there?


Where is the moose in Cataract Lake?


Cataract Lake is a popular place to camp and it is tempting for me to stop here and do so as well. But it is too early in the day, so I decide to make dinner and filter water instead. There is a family of three here and I have heard about them in previous days. I understand that they are from China and I say hello. I converse with the father and he tells me he his son, who is playing at the water’s edge is seven years old. They have come from Denver and took the more difficult Collegiate West route. I am impressed by their effort and the little boy is doing well carrying his weight.

They move on and I finish my dinner while relaxing at the small lake which lies just west of the larger lake where I saw the moose. The Spokane trio comes along just as I finish up and I wait to leave until they arrive.

They strategize about water, how much to carry and their plan for the rest of the day. I like watching them work together. They are now a well oiled machine having come so far together, 380 miles in about a month. The father and son always discuss their decisions and I love how the father, Ron, interacts with Travis, his son. There is an easygoing nature about all three of them. They are challenged by their journey, but they move as a team, a family unit, on the trail.

We talk about campsites for the night and I realize that because I have seen so many people today and visited quite a bit that I am not going to hit 30 miles today, nor do I see it necessary to do so. I decide to go about two more hours and they tell me that a young couple will be camped at the area; that they have been camping with them and they decided earlier to camp there together. I ask if it is okay if I join them for the night. Ron says sure. I am happy to camp with others tonight especially since we’ll all be in the open tundra.

I’m off before they leave and I tell them I may very well be asleep by the time they roll in to camp. I sense I will sleep well tonight.

My favorite scene of the trail thus far. I love the benched layers of green leading up to the high bowl left of Half Peak.

Of course there is more climbing to tackle and it is now taking a toll on me. The high energy I had earlier in the day begins to wane. After 22 miles, it is about persevering. As I come through another rise and round the trail I am treated to a marvelous site. I check the map and see that I am looking at Half Peak, 13,841′ high and the 86th highest peak in Colorado. It is the 8th highest in this range, hence its prominence when I first see it. Yet, I am more taken aback by the greenscape that is on its western edge. I’m reminded of mountains I’ve seen in Austria and Switzerland. If I had more time, I’d love to climb the green plateaus on its western edge and camp there. It looks fascinating and the layers of the mountain mesmerize me, especially in the evening light. It stands out as the most amazing mountain I’ve seen yet on my trek. I immediately fall in love with it, and it makes my heart skip a beat, its massiveness causing me to feel  insignificant in the scope of this big, bright, beautiful world.

I traverse around the mountain and keep looking back at the mountain to gain different perspectives as I distance myself from it. A couple of marmots sit upon a rock and seem to enjoy the evening view as well.


Not a bad view to look back upon as I reflect on my day


I keep looking for a tent, ready to finish my day. Finally I see one and arrive at about 7:00. I’m ready to stop and I’ll need an early start tomorrow to make it to my destination campground in order to resupply for the rest of the trip. I introduce myself to Andre and Brooke and joke about having a reservation for one. It’s old man humor and I catch them off guard. I put my tent up in an area with surprising deep, lush grass at 12,500′. I have never slept this high before and just before dusk Ron and his son and daughter roll into camp. I welcome them and sure enough I am not great company at this point, having worn myself out for the day. The group of five catch up and discuss details for their next day. I quickly drift off to sleep and am surprised as I wake in the middle of the night how calm it is up at this altitude. It’s amazingly serene and I sleep fairly well. It had been a great day in Colorado’s high country meeting new friends on the trail.


Day 5 mileage – 28.7

Day 5 elevation gained – 5,725′

Total trip mileage – 134.7

Total elevation gained – 22,584′

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