Saturday 9 May 2020

Thunderstorms & Sunshine: Return to the Colorado Rockies

Hunt Lake & Mount Aetna. Day 11.

Last year I went on a 400 mile walk in the Colorado Rockies. Here is a piece I wrote about the walk for The Great Outdoors. 

Returning to a place you’ve dreamed about for years has risks. Maybe it won’t be as wonderful as you imagined. Returning for a long walk could be even more disappointing if your expectations aren’t fulfilled day after day. I knew this might be the case when I finally went back to Colorado to walk 400 miles along the Rocky Mountains, thirty-four years after traversing the state during my Canada to Mexico Continental Divide Trail hike. On that walk winter had come early and deep snow and blizzards had forced me down to a lower route for the southern half of the trail in Colorado. I’d been in forest most of the time and hadn’t had more than glimpses of the mountains. Now I was going back to walk the high route I’d missed and experience what many say is the finest landscape on the whole CDT. 

Igloo Ed & Andrew Terrill above Beaver Ponds in the Guller Creek valley. Day 1.

The Colorado Rockies are high, the highest in the whole Rocky Mountain chain, and I would be above 10,000 feet most of the way. Eager to be up in the mountains as soon as possible I chose the ski resort of Copper Mountain as my start point. This was a mistake. Copper Mountain lies at 9,800 feet and the trail climbs to over 12,000 feet in the first 10 miles. I soon felt the altitude and could only walk at half my usual pace. I didn’t mind. I was in the company of two friends, Andrew Terrill and Igloo Ed, and happy to climb slowly and camp early. The landscape was lush and lovely with beaver ponds along the creek, luxurious flower meadows, and magnificent conifer forests. I relished every step. It would be many days though before I was somewhat acclimatised to the altitude and I was slower on ascents than I am at home for the whole walk. 

The first pass. Too high, too fast! Day 2.

The second day we climbed above the trees and the world opened up with alpine tundra stretching to rugged mountains in every direction. This was to be the pattern for the walk – climb through forests to high mountain passes, traverse the high country then descend back into the trees. Sometimes the trail would barely brush the forest before returning to the high country but there was always much climbing every day. 

Andrew Terrill looking to Mount Aetna. Day 11.

After two days I was alone, as I would be for the rest of the walk other than one day when Andrew kindly came up to a high camp to resupply me – and cook a delicious meal of fresh food. This meant I could do a twelve-day section without having to leave the mountains to buy food. Keeping my pack weight down was welcome. Even more was staying in the wilds for such a long time. I loved this immersion in the mountains so much that when I eventually had to descend to resupply I decided to carry nine days food so I didn’t have to do so again even though this meant a heavy load.

Although I hiked alone I did meet a few people most days. The Colorado Rockies are fairly accessible and the Colorado Trail is quite popular.

Thunderstorm over Rio Grande Pyramid. Day 27.
One initial concern I had was the threat of thunderstorms. These occur regularly every afternoon in the Colorado Rockies during the summer, fading away as autumn approaches. I hoped my mid-August start would mean the worst of them had passed and so it seemed for the first half of the walk. After a few rumbles on the second day the sky was clear for two weeks and I became used to deep blue skies and sunshine. 2019 wasn’t a typical year however and in September I had eight days with thunderstorms. They were unpredictable too, occurring at any time from dawn until dusk, so the standard advice to be over high passes by noon was worthless. I quickly learnt to watch the sky, assessing whether the dark clouds I could see were coming my way and trying to estimate how quickly they’d reach me if so. A few times I stayed in the forest until a storm had passed and a few times I was caught out in the open far from any shelter. All I could do then was walk fast and hope the storm didn’t come too close. 

The most frightening thunderstorm clearing away. Day 27.

Only once did I have a really frightening close call. Rain had turned to stinging hail and I was in mist when a bolt of lightning flashed right in front of me and there was a deafening clap of thunder. Retreating rapidly, I dropped down the narrow rocky ridge I was climbing to a wider area then left the trail for a shallow bowl. Shaken, I waited until the storm I could see raging not far away had moved on. 

Bull moose. Day 22.
The unusual summer did have rewards, as did the thunderstorms. There had been very late heavy snowfall – parts of the trail were still snowbound a few weeks before I set out – and this meant the alpine flower meadows, usually in decline by mid-August, were still beautiful and remained so throughout my walk. I have never seen such wonderful displays. Due to a thunderstorm I also had an excellent view of two magnificent moose. I was about to cross a big meadow when a flash of lightning warned me this might not be wise. Instead I dropped deeper into the forest and found shelter from heavy rain in a dense clump of small firs. Peering out of these I saw a bull moose grazing not far away, soon joined by a second one. I watched them for half an hour from my natural hide. 

Porcupine. Day 24.

The wildlife was one of the joys of the walk. The diversity and abundance were a stark contrast to the Scottish Highlands and showed just how impoverished the latter sadly are. In the forests I saw squirrels, chipmunks, jays and many smaller birds I couldn’t identify every day. In the meadows there were marmots and pikas (a small mammal related to rabbits) while in the sky I often saw hawks and eagles. One familiar bird was the ptarmigan, a different species to ours but looking much the same.

Of the bigger mammals I only had glimpses of elk and just one good view of mule deer, though I saw plenty of droppings. Beaver ponds were common in many valleys but again I only once had a glimpse of an actual animal. Black bears I didn’t see at all, despite there often being droppings, some of them fresh, on the trail. I did see a porcupine, staying out of reach of its quills while it shuffled off, and a flock of rocky mountain sheep on a steep mountainside.

Lovely rainbow, sad forest. Day 23.

The only melancholy note came during the last section of the walk. Bark beetles have killed vast areas of spruce trees and it was saddening  to look down on valleys full of dead trees. This is a natural phenomenon though the current outbreak is the worst on record.
Creede. Day 20.

Whilst many names were familiar, I didn’t recognise any of the landscapes I walked through, even in places where my CDT hike had been close by. One place I did recognise. The old mining town of Creede, my last resupply point, which didn’t appear to have changed much. I’d enjoyed staying here on the CDT and I enjoyed staying here again. I even stayed in the same motel and bought fuel and supplies in the same outdoor shop.

In the Weminuche Wilderness. Day 26.

From Creede I entered the Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juan Mountains. This was an area I had really been looking forward to experiencing. It didn’t disappoint. Not far into the region I finally left the Colorado Trail, which had coincided with the CDT since Copper Mountain. The Colorado Trail is clear on the ground and well waymarked. The CDT sees far fewer hikers and signs are rare. Once I left the Colorado Trail the path became rougher and, in many places, unclear. I had to fight through dense brush and take compass bearings in meadows, the first real navigation of the trip. It seemed appropriate. The Weminuche Wilderness isn’t tame. 
High level walking in the Collegiate West section. Day 9.

The Weminuche Wilderness was a highlight of the walk, as I expected it to be. The other highlight was the Collegiate West alternative of the Colorado Trail. This stays above timberline for many miles and has tremendous views of the mountains. The trail winds along the Continental Divide itself in places and is often only just below it. The weather was perfect here too. 

Camp at the junction of the Collegiate West and Collegiate East branches of the Colorado Trail. Day 13.
As always, my camps were as important as the walking and I had many splendid ones above the trees and many peaceful ones down in the forest. Relaxing in wild places is one of the great pleasures of long-distance walking. 

The finish! Day 30.
After 29 days and 400 miles the walk ended at Wolf Creek Pass where Igloo Ed was waiting to greet me. It was my birthday. The last month had been the most wonderful present. I hadn’t been disappointed. Rather the opposite. The walk had been even more glorious than I’d hoped.

The Route & The Challenges

The Continental Divide Trail from Copper Mountain to Wolf Creek Pass is 400 miles long. For much of the way it coincides with the Colorado Trail, including the Collegiate West option. This is a high route mostly above 10,000 feet and reaching over 13,000 feet so the altitude has to be taken into account. Don’t expect to walk as fast as in the British hills! The summer climate is benign with long hours of sunshine, but thunderstorms do occur regularly, so you need to watch for these. In a few areas water is scarce so knowing where the next source is and carrying enough to get there is important. Navigation isn’t difficult on the Colorado Trail section as this is well-marked and the path is clear. Once the CDT diverges from the CT the trail is less clear in places and there are fewer waymarks. Care is needed not to get lost – especially as the maps are sometimes unreliable (I found the online ones correct, the print one showing the trail incorrectly).

Printed maps 
National Geographic Trails Illustrated Colorado Trail North, Colorado Trail South, Colorado Trail Collegiate Loop, Weminuche Wilderness
Online maps and guide

Big Walks in Colorado

My walk was only along half the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in Colorado. In total it stretches 800 miles from the border with Wyoming in the north to the border with New Mexico in the south. This is a great walk the whole length of the Colorado Rockies. The 486-mile Colorado Trail coincides with the CDT for much of the way. For one section south of Twin Lakes there are two alternatives for the Colorado Trail, Collegiate East and Collegiate West, which can be combined to make a 163-mile route, the Collegiate Loop. The CDT follows the higher Collegiate West. There are many other trails in the Colorado Rockies that can be linked to make a long route. The State has over 3.5 million acres that are protected in 41 protected wilderness areas and 4 national parks. Peak baggers could set out to climb the 58 Fourteeners (peaks over 14,000’), which can be linked in long walks. A few do require technical climbing skills. Then there are 580+ peaks over 13,000’.
The Colorado Trail, Official Guidebook of The Colorado Trail Foundation (Colorado Mountain Club)
The Colorado Trail Databook (Colorado Mountain Club)


  1. Wonderful! Were you not afraid camping in these open areas with potential thunderstorms? I had planned to start hiking part of the CDT NOBO this spring but of course had to cancel.

    1. It was a mixture of fear of thunderstorms in the open and fear of thunderstorms bringing down one of those dead trees on my camp! I did mostly go for sheltered camps when there were thunderstorms.