Colorado Trail Segment 23 of 28
Start: Carson Saddle
End: Stony Pass TH
Distance: 15.9 miles
With only a little over 100 miles to go, we were beginning to sense our journey was nearing its end. After segment 23 there were only five more segments to go. Excitement was building for the finish, though quietly, as we still had plenty more miles and challenges in front of us. Still, we were at the very least beginning to think about it, versus day one when we didn't want to even consider how far away we were. Honestly, now that we are on the back side and all of our aches and pains have subsided, we are ready to get back out on trail. Planning for 2020 has already begun!
The Carson Saddle is a popular place for 4X4, dirt bike and ATV enthusiasts. Unfortunately, the trail shares the road at times in this area and can be quite slippery underfoot. We didn't see anyone while we were there, but traveling the shared trail / road was tricky at times. It would be nice to see the trail detour away from these areas and on to its own singletrack. Though, even with this small distraction, the surrounding views were amazing.
Once the trail left the road and returned back to a normal hiking trail the views just kept getting better. We were heading up a valley walled in by rocky ridgelines, a creek running down the middle and patchy snowfields atop the head wall where we would climb to. Yes, another saddle. About halfway into the valley, we stopped to filter water and have a very flavorful lunch. We sat on a small outcrop looking back down through the valley and beneath Carson Peak (13,657'). Nothing like a table for two (unless you count the curious pikas) with a view. We enjoyed Spicy Thai Peanut Curry with Vegetables, hiker food has come a long way.
After lunch our climb would continue, and intensify. We were also watching the afternoon sky closely now as clouds were beginning to form ahead of us on the peaks. One thing we didn't want was to be exposed during a storm. Our luck would hold, along with the weather, for now anyway. We continued on climbing to the saddle and down into the next valley. This form of travel would become the norm for the rest of the day. Up, over and down. Repeat. The views were commanding in all directions.
We were deep into the San Juans, feeling quite remote and isolated. We saw no one for a good portion of the day. In these parts you must rely on yourself. Good preparation, knowledge and planning go a long way to a successful and safe hike. It wouldn't be until Cataract Lake that we would see other hikers, momentarily anyway, and then we would again be alone on the trail. Water sources just seem to be the social place on trail. After traversing Cuba Gulch, we did see a woman traveling the Continental Divide Trail on horseback!
The wide open spaces we continued to enjoy had one drawback, the trail was always visible in front of us. The miles go slowly when you see the path stretch on before you, as much, when it climbs straight up in a daunting fashion well before you get to the climb itself. These are the times on trail you either just stare at the ground, not looking up, or take a deep breath and continue on. Either way, the climb will come and you'll "get over it!"
Our last climb of the day would have us expediting our decent as storm clouds were brewing overhead and thunder was beginning to rumble all around. We found a small saddle in between two climbs. At least we wouldn't be the tallest objects around on trail. We set up the tent and remained there for the night, emerging to an incredible sunrise that had us wondering if we were on mars. We would only have a few climbs for the day, most of the day would be rolling and end with a huge drop into segment 24.
We had been traveling at high altitude for several days, we weren't sure what a tree even looked like anymore, much less an entire forest! Our water came direct from melting snowfields and small creeks running with icy cold water. Traveling in the alpine region for this long was a special treat for us that we will cherish for a long time to come. Sunsets, sunrises, extreme views and starlit skies beyond imagination made for great moments and everlasting memories. While the remainder of the trail would certainly touch the alpine again, it would not be as long a duration as what we had just journeyed through. That said, there were still plenty of miles and magnificent views ahead.
On the last climb of the day, we were witness to sheep grazing high above us, their numbers had to have been in the hundreds if not more. The baaas echoed all around as the sheep dogs kept them in check. We sat and enjoyed the show before moving on. Though the landscape might not reflect it, we were traveling, more or less, in a downward direction now, losing altitude slowly. Approaching the end of the segment we had to make a decision on our direction of travel. The traditional route through the Elk Creek drainage in segment 24 was devastated by avalanches and was piled high with debris making for difficult travel. We had heard stories of hikers taking longer than they anticipated, or just having to concentrate more on footing than on enjoying the hike. Either way, we had our own aches and pains and were not sure if we were willing to risk ourselves to further injury so close to the end.