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Adventure Dispatch

Collegiate Peaks Loop Part 2 (West)

By The Cairn Project

Day 5: 3rd Footbridge of South Foose’s Trail to Boss Lake TH – Mileage: 18.5 mi.

The climb up to the junction with the Continental Divide trail – about 3000 feet, with each switchback delivering a more breathtaking view than the last – is steep but swift for us. Reaching the junction, where the original Colorado Trail continues south toward Durango and where we officially “turn” northwest and begin the Collegiate Peaks West section of this route, yields celebratory cheers and a pause for photo taking. As we take in the stunning 360 degree views from what feels like top of the world, the howls of gleeful mountain bikers grow louder, and soon, we’re sharing the high point with some guys who’ve just shredded the ridge over from Monarch. They congratulate us on our hike and take off.

The few miles to Monarch Crest are just a taste of what’s to come. The high elevation landscape, with views that go forever and picturesque rock outcroppings, feel like a whole new world after so many miles in thick forests and aspen groves. We exchange Labor Day greetings with dozens of riders as we make our way toward our resupply point.

After clicking a photo in front of the Monarch Pass sign and a quick bite from the snackbar at the Crest Store, we dig into the box we’d dropped here a few days before and begin deliberating about resupply decisions. Both of us had failed to eat all of our food on the first half of this trip, and so we end up making a lot of contributions to the hiker box that the store maintains – hopefully some Continental Divide hikers like Justin’s PB packets and Epic bars! We pack up and head out.

The first few miles after the store take us through Monarch ski resort, and while the views continue to distract us, the fire roads tend to leave you feeling extra pounded. Eventually, we get beyond the resort and begin the climb to the high point of the day, the side of Bald Mountain (12,535 ft). We push hard, mindful of the need to stay ahead of weather and constantly checking the sky.

Although clouds threaten as we begin a steep and exposed descent toward Boss Lake, we don’t get rain until we’re down on the shore and in the trees. Conscious that every mile counts when the weather may cause us delays at some point, we continue on, adding a few more downhill miles and camping by the Boss Lake Trailhead. The fast moving, shockingly cold creek here makes for some great foot soaking.

Day 6: Boss Lake TH to Tincup Pass Rd Junction – Mileage: 15.7 mi.

Heading out from the trail head toward Chalk Creek Pass, we’re treated to several boulder fields that again conjure the sense of having entered a new era on this trip – more alpine, more remote, and picturesque to the max! Knowing that from here on out we’re above 10,000 feet nearly all the time, we pace ourselves, but still efficiently make our way upward to the pass.

The Alpine Tunnel trail treats us to fast, gradually climbing miles coupled with stunning vistas of the mountains we’re now deep in the midst of. As we turn at the junction and began a more aggressive climb upward, a tiny bit of nervousness about the elevation comes into focus – we’re about to go above 12,000 feet – and each one of these on this trip comes with a lot of anticipation. But we keep a steady pace, and the epic views from all directions fuel us with excitement.

There’s a special quality to Rockies miles you hike above tree line – you get to track your progress across the landscape, from ridge to ridge, with a precision that offers a particularly pronounced sense of accomplishment. That feeling, combined with our first mountain goat sighting (Alison loves mountain goats only slightly less than sheep, her favorite creature), recharges us for a fairly grueling descent to the junction with Tin Cup Pass road. We embrace the chance to hang in the valley by before the sun goes down. Anticipation for tomorrow is high.

Day 7: Tincup Pass Rd Junction to Mile 2.8 of Texas Creek Trail – Mileage: 20.3 mi.

Having realized the night before that our naiveté on Day Two (“hardest day of the trip”…yeah, right!) was real, we wake up early to get ahead of what will be a big day: Tin Cup Pass to Cottonwood Pass. We’d decided the night before that in light of the elevation, exposure, and likely water scarcity, our plan was to push hard unless weather forced a stop. Still, the prospect of 15+ miles above 12,000 feet loomed large as we began our climb.

These miles involve several boulder fields that slow us down a bit; we also have some close encounters with Pika! As we continue along the trail and chat with southbound hikers descending from the third high point (12,700’), a sense of seriousness begins to set in: people are fairly traumatized by the high winds and lack of water sources. We try to fill our bottles at a couple of lackluster trickles, but begin to moderate our water intake. At this point comfortable with the rhythm of personalized step counting each of us use to make our way up long climbs, we reach the and immediately continue on, the strong winds quashing any urge to take a break.

Although we’d encountered stretches without water already on this trip, the most notable of which had been handily noted in the National Geographic maps we both carried, today included the longest stretch without a reliable water resupply we’d face – and this is not noted on the map. It’s a big haul, with some gradual but taxing climbs in the strong wind, but we make it! We descend to the road that marks Cottonwood Pass Rd, and continue down toward Texas Creek for several more miles. As we’ve done before on this trip, we push hard late into the afternoon on the downhill, knowing that it will position us better for the next day. It’s hard to not let the “we’re almost done” feeling begin to seep in over dinner.

Day 8: Texas Creek to USFS Rd. 390 A – Mileage: 18 mi

“Last long day!” This is the sentiment as we pack up camp and set out. The big achievement of the day – Lake Ann Pass – looms in our minds as we make our way upward through the forest, along reasonably gradual contours. The sky is uncharacteristically gray all morning, and over the last 2 miles before the junction with the trail to the pass, drizzle sets in. We don pack covers and rain layers, and continue our climb.

As we reach tree line, we face a dilemma. The sky looks dark, but not that dark. It’s still early – before noon – which suggests that this is just a weird weather day. We survey the high point of Lake Ann Pass and see that it’s a clearly switch-backed trail to get there – meaning that the slope will allow a fairly fast pace. Ignoring whatever hesitation each of us had, we continue upward. The skies darken and the wind picks up; by the time we reach the pass, it’s hailing. Although this would have been a choice spot for landscape photos, the mandate is to get off the ridge quickly. We hike swiftly downward until the rain subsides and the wind dies down. Having just banked our second-to-last-pass of the trip, we take in the spectacular autumn colors before us with amped-up fervour. This is classic Rockies wilderness we’re treated to, and we soak it in on the long descent down from Lake Ann.

We make camp within earshot of the Forest Service road. We’re fairly giddy with the anticipation of finishing this trip, and that giddiness is elevated when a guy stops to tell us that he’s been hearing about “two girls hiking the loop” for the last few days – and he’s been trying to catch up with us. “I’ve had to hike 20 miles every day to finally find you guys.” Egos sufficiently stoked, we wish him good luck on the Hope Pass climb and wrap up our evening in boosted spirits.

Day 9: USFS Rd. 390 A to Interlaken TH – Mileage: 14.6 mi.

Last day! With very little left to pack and organize, and a festive vibe even through the obligatory blister triage section of the AM routine, we set our sights on our last challenge: Hope Pass. Along with the anticipation of finishing the hike and a warm meal at the Twin Lakes Lodge, belief that the worst weather experience is behind us yields a lighthearted first couple of miles. After all – even if it does hail on us again, we’re confident that we’ll finish and that showers, steak, and beer are on the agenda for the day.

Predictably, our cavalier attitude is in for a rude surprise! The climb to Hope Pass is no joke – it’s steep, viewless for long stretches, and excruciatingly slow. Whether the result of cumulative tiredness or just a legitimately tough trail, the break we take before ascending beyond tree line definitely has the vibe of “this is harder than we expected.” We push on, though, and the weather is on our side as we eventually reach the summit post, decorated with prayer flags. Taking a celebratory break at our final pass, we soak in the sunny, deep blue skies and revel in the accomplishment of our efforts over the last nine days.

As we to begin to descend with our rough endpoint in sight – the far side of Twin Lakes Reservoir – the grueling nature of those final miles of a long trip begins to set in. Similar to our experience on the hike down from Mt. Whitney the year before, these miles feel harder and slower than they really are. After several premature “we’re there!” moments, we eventually connect to the trail along the shore and numbly cruise our last hour or so back to the car. Increasing encounters with people who smell fresh and seem to be out for a leisurely stroll fuel our commitment and hasten our pace – and eventually, we’re there, back to where we started!