Colorado Trail: Frequently Asked Questions

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I spent the summer of 2017 riding 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains with my partner Rich and three horses called Pinto, Pepper and Numero. I’ve been posting information about the trip online, as well as my trail diary, for anyone with an interest in the journey or backcountry horsemanship more generally. All previous entries on this subject can be found here, including a how-to guide to pack horses.

When planning our journey along the Colorado Trail last year, I spent a lot of time researching the trail itself, and in the early stages I had a LOT of very basic questions that I needed answered – and these questions come up again every year, as a new ‘class’ of thru-hikers and thru-riders plan their trip. Find some answers below, from hard-won experience.

I also recommend that you join the Colorado Trail Thru-Hikers Facebook group for the relevant year (e.g.), which is often full of tips and up-to-date information on trail closures, fire warnings, kit recommendations and so on. Horse riders should also familiarise themselves with the Long Riders’ Guild website, which is full of insight and advice from those who have ridden 1000-miles unsupported or more.

What is the Colorado Trail?
The Colorado Trail is a long-distance backcountry trail running for just short of 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains, beginning in Denver and ending in Durango, near the border with New Mexico.  It passes through six wilderness areas, and eight mountain ranges, including the rugged, beautiful San Juans. It rises and falls dramatically, averaging an elevation of 10,300 ft, and topping out at 13,344 ft just below Coney Summit. Thru-hikers (and thru-riders) traveling from Denver to Durango will climb 89,354 feet, and can easily alter their route to take in some of Colorado’s ’14-ers’ (that is, mountains of over 14,000 ft in height.

Who can use the Colorado Trail?
It varies, but hikers and horse-riders may travel along the entirety of the route. Mountain bikers are not allowed to travel through the wilderness areas, and must take somewhat lengthy detours around them by road. There are also some sections where dogs are excluded, including the first six miles – hikers with dogs are recommended to start from an alternative trailhead at the Indian Creek trailhead. Foot travellers must also share the trail with dirt bikes at a very small number of locations.

Must I travel southbound along the trail?
No! Although most people do. The northern half is somewhat lower in altitude, and somewhat less steep – which gives your body more time to adjust to the physical demands of being on trail. But experienced hikers do choose to travel ‘upstream’ every year. It’s up to you.

How hard is the Colorado Trail?
Very challenging. But just how challenging depends on many factors. How fit are you? How acclimatised to the altitude are you? How much weight are you carrying? How quickly are you attempting to complete it? An estimated 100 to 150 thru-hikers finish the trail each year, but many more start it – and some of these finishers are ‘section hikers’, who complete the trail in segments over a much longer period of time. Saying that, very few of the people on trail are professional athletes: it’s do-able, if you are determined.

How long does it take to complete the Colorado Trail? 
Usually between four and six weeks (28–42 days). Some very dedicated ultralight hikers can manage it in less (a very tiny number of ultrarunners have managed it in less than ten days), and some hikers working at a more leisurely pace have taken longer. But that’s the mean. We aimed to complete it on horseback (unsupported, with horses we didn’t know in advance) in six weeks, and that was more than enough time – it gave us breathing room in case of disasters and delays.

Do many people take horses along the Colorado Trail?
Not a lot. The year we travelled (2017) one woman thru-rode solo with two horses (supported), and a group of women from Texas thru-rode with six horses (also supported). Rich and I travelled with three horses, unsupported, which made the journey more time-consuming and logistically fraught, but extremely enjoyable. Others ‘section ride’ the trail, that is, in sections of, say, fifty miles at a time, being dropped off at one trailhead and picked up at another; if you are interested in section riding, our friend Pam Doverspike has put together a very useful list of suitable access points for those towing horseboxes.

Will I suffer from altitude sickness?
Maybe. Some people have an adverse reaction, suffering from headaches, dizziness, insomnia and, in extreme cases, vomiting or shortness of breath. Most people will cope with the altitude fine – but consider taking it easy over the first few days to let your body adapt. It will be quite difficult to disentangle your exhaustion from any altitude sickness symptoms in the initial days in any case, so drink a lot of water and stay alert for the signs.

Did you carry bear spray? Or hang a bear bag?
The Colorado Trail is in black bear country, not grizzly country – which makes a huge difference. They are smaller and much less aggressive, although you should still avoid camping with food in your tent. We carried an Ursak instead of a bear canister, which was expensive (around $90) but lightweight; in practice, though, it was too small to hold days’ worth of food for two people (plus grain for three horses) so we hung a bear bag from a suitable branch where we could. This was to avoid rodents as much as bears themselves, although a few popular campsites occasionally have issues with rogue bears.

Should I take the Collegiate East or Collegiate West route?
Many hikers are evangelical about the Collegiate West route, which is new, and sounds beautiful. But horse-riders are advised to stick to the Collegiate East route for the time being; our friend Rich Johnson (an extremely experienced Colorado Trail thru-rider, who has written his own advice sheet here) test-rode the Collegiate West leg last summer and warned us against it, saying that “the potential for disaster was high” when taking horses that way. Generally speaking, humans are nimbler when it comes to rockslides and treefall, and also less likely to panic and kill themselves. It’s up to you, but I always advise caution if travelling with large animals. In any case, the Collegiate East route is a delight, includes large sections of remote wilderness and also offers you the opportunity to stop at Mt Princeton hot springs.

Is it easier to travel on horseback?
Ha, no. Hikers assume that we had it easier than they did, and heckled us accordingly. Sure; I agree that it must be galling to see riders galloping by on Snow Mesa, but for the main part, the trail was too steep and rocky to trot or canter, and horses are a huge time sink. Each morning, they meant two hours of extra work between waking and setting off along the trail (catching, grooming, packing up the corral, tacking up, filling and weighing the packs, and so on), and then in the evening another 30 mins to 1 hour of additional tasks. They can be dangerous – for example, if they panic when caught between branches, descending steps or crossing narrow bridges. And you can’t leave them alone for any length of time. I had always dreamed of riding long distance and found the horses a charming addition to the experience, but they didn’t make our job any easier or faster. Hiking is much, much simpler.

What did the horses eat?
Mainly grass, supplemented with grain where possible. We started with a half-sack of grain, which was enormously heavy and only lasted them a week. After that, we phased grain in and out when it became available to us. Pepper and Pinto kept their condition well, but Numero was underweight by the end and in need of time off. There was one evening when I was worried that Numero was colicking, but it passed and generally they were very hardy; if you have a fussy eater, or a horse with a delicate stomach, you might run into problems.

How did you navigate on trail?
Oh, its super easy. I used my smartphone as a GPS unit (which still works on aircraft mode), after installing the Guthook app. Most days that was all we used (having done a lot of advance planning using the guidebook), and almost invariably the trail was very obvious. Compared to navigating misty sheep paths in the Highlands with a compass, it was a cinch.

What did you take with you on the trail?
Find our full kit list, with commentary, here.

Do you travel ultralight?
Hmm, sort of. In terms of our ‘human kit’, we went fairly minimal, but carried a stove and an extra change of clothes and did not regret this choice for one second. Remember, when you are planning a long-distance journey from the safety of your bedroom, that you will get wet. I mean sopping wet, so wet that no waterproof could keep you dry, soaked to the bone wet. If you don’t have any spare clothes, you’ll be miserable and hypothermic. (We have a lot of experience of this in Scotland.) I’d recommend first-time thru-hikers starting at a slightly heavier pack weight than intended, and seeing how it goes. (And, for what it’s worth, I think that wearing a ‘rain skirt’ made of a bin bag instead of proper waterproof trousers is reckless and dangerous! Stay dry! Don’t die!)

What about specialist horse equipment?
With horses, its harder to scrimp. Serious endurance riders might invest in lightweight saddles and synthetic bridles. But ultra-long-distance, unsupported, is different to riding supported in race conditions. If you are spending weeks at a time on trail, tack can and will break, so you need to carry a leather repair kit, a spare bridle and – sorry – tools to remove a shoe in an emergency. That means a rasp and nippers, which are heavy. I didn’t carry, but wish I had carried, Superfast shoe replacement glue instead of a hoofboot.

How cold is it? Do I need to take a down jacket?
The temperature varies a lot, but at the start and end of the season (June, September) it can get very cold indeed – well below freezing overnight when at elevation. Definitely take a warm underlayer and a down jacket, as well as good gloves.

Where are the best places to resupply?
We resupplied in Breckenridge, Twin Lakes, Mount Princeton (from where we hitched to Salida) and Silverton. Had our friend Pam not generously brought us several days’ worth of groceries to Spring Creek Pass, one of us would also have hitchhiked to Lake City from there.

Do you have any feminine hygiene advice?
I recommend you join the Women of the Colorado Trail Facebook group, where there is a lively discussion on the subject. But, if you insist: skip your period if you can, and always wear clean underwear. Carry toilet paper, and burn it as you use it. (Be careful, though – obey fire bans.)

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