Continental Divide Trail -- Southern San Juan Mountains

The dry beauty of Ghost Ranch, the Alpine green of the Southern San Juans and we reach Colorado, this week in Walk About.


Ghost Ranch sits in the mouth of Box Canyon, its lawns and meadows and buildings positioned to take in the stunning views of the surrounding cliffs at dawn and sunset.  It is one of the finest rest days on any long trail and we all needed it.  The great beauty of the place is the reason Georgia O’Keeffe made it her home for nearly 50 years and the reason for its success as a retreat center run by the Presbyterian Church since the 1950s.  

As we sat at breakfast, Why Not, Eric, Blister and I were ready for the trail but not ready to leave.  Our bit of dawdling provided just enough time for two other hikers to show up, Lina from Germany with a pack nearly as big as she is and Dirt Monger, a hiking speed demon I had met last year on the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington.  He and his friend Rhino were near the front of the PCT pack on their way to Canada.  In a very short conversation it was clear both of them were motivated hikers.  In a flash they had been gone up trail in a cloud of dust.  

The thru hiker talk at table ranged from places we’d all been and the experiences we shared to the people we knew from trail.  After a long walk across New Mexico, the shared fun at being together with other thrus was almost too much to let go of.  Soon we had to leave and they to rest.

The trail up Box Canyon brought us to cliffs of red and rust, tan and shades of stone that brought out the artists in droves.  Vertical fracture lines cut across the horizontal strata in a grand dramatic fashion.  Long rounded columns cut by the forces of compression and expansion over the eons looked almost sculptural and pines eked out an existence wherever they could find a foothold.  An eagles nest of snags and branches sat half in and half out of a cave high on a cliff face.  It looked like a bad hair day at a punk concert, but was impenetrable, a fortress of protective, animal engineering.  

Far below, easels stood under umbrellas and the brushes and eyes of the painters transformed that beauty into works on canvas and we walked by climbing steadily out of the canyon.  A mile further on and the massive walls began to diminish and the view of plain, mesa and mountain spread, becoming immense in the hazy distance.  Central to it all was the tilt topped silhouette of Pedernal, a mountain Georgia O’Keeffe painted many times. 

Mesa land made for easy hiking over the sloping plains but as we rose, aspen, pine and fir replaced the juniper and piñon, and the expanses of sagebrush and walking stick chollo cactus thinned and became meadow land.  Green grasses and acres of wild iris in full bloom, rimmed with beds of deep purple larkspur, took our breath away.  At one particularly striking meadow, Eric and Why Not both proclaimed it the most beautiful we’d seen in New Mexico.  Half way across was a cow tank with pure spring water gushing from a pipe.  Water had ceased its scarcity.  It was no longer the central reason for the distance we hiked in a day.  

We caught up with Wyoming after lunch, as she had left Ghost Ranch before the rest of us, and we all pitched camp protected in an aspen forest that was in the throws of a caterpillar explosion.  The forest looked as if it hadn’t leafed out yet until you looked on the ground and saw the slaughtered new growth, partially eaten, the aspen trunks sometimes covered in the ravenous insects.  By the next morning Why Not found herself covered in a fine powder of what looked like coffee grounds, the leavings of the voracious bugs in the trees.  

That morning we were lost for the first half hour, trying one dirt road and then an alternate GPS course, none of which was right and on a backtrack, came upon Dirt Monger, not fifty yards from where we had camped.  He had been hiking solo for weeks and had found the hiker talk at breakfast so fulfilling he had tried to reach our camp.  

The next several days blew by in what seemed a constant conversation with one or another of us.  We also picked up Brooks Wilson, a cartographer for the Bureau of Land Management whose contract had expired and instead of immediately re-upping, he had decided to spend the summer hiking.  The group became a vortex, much like the pull of a town stop with a trail angel you simply don’t want to leave.  Here it was a moving force of camaraderie and shared experience that was simply too good to forgo.  

Dirt Monger, Blister and Eric are hikers of note, with a speed I can’t begin to match, but Why Not, Wyoming and I always seemed to be there not long after they had stopped for a break.   Over the next two effortless, convivial days we “mashed” out twenty-seven miles each and were astonished by evening when we added up the miles.  The trail has not been particularly hard, but the esprit de corps has made it fly painlessly on, mile after Alpine mile.  

Toward evening of the second twenty-seven, the wind had risen to hurricane force and the temperatures had dropped below freezing with the sun still shining.  We reached a ridge shadowing the largest snow banks we’d seen thus far.  One option was to take a low road around it, the other to scramble cross country up its side and hike straight across it.  The top proved to be the high point for this section, well above 11,000 feet.  No one hesitated, we all dashed straight up in the falling light and greeted winds of seventy miles per hour and more at the top, icy cold and biting, a killing combination if there had been any precipitation.  But we were exultant, on top of the world and given our first view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains far to the east. 

We pitched camp in the relative shelter of a stand of fir trees, howling in the relentless wind.  By 10pm, without the sun to power the wind, however, there wasn’t a breath of air to be felt and we woke to the golden east and an etched line of mountains on the curved rim of the horizon.  Shortly after setting out we saw our first glimpse into Colorado and the San Juan Mountains, cragged and snowy far to the north.

The same thru hiker spirit pushed us easily to the Colorado border where we all took pictures and stepped across the line in unison.  New Mexico had been so much more than any of us had imagined that the moment held a touch of bitter sweetness, the sense of loss upon completion when it is something you have long struggled over.  Only when it is finished do you really know how much that struggle has meant, and you miss it.  We have a long way to go.  

The conviviality ruled the moment and we set off for Cumbres Pass, our entry into the San Juan Mountains, and a hitch down for a zero day in the village of Chama New Mexico, home of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railway, the longest and highest narrow gauge railway in America.  The last few miles were all done along its narrow track and we all felt like kids again, skipping ties and trying not to trip on the rail bed.  

The train had reached the summit of the pass just as we came through and we caught the whistle and smoke of the steam engine puffing off into the forest.  There is something almost elemental in the sound of a steam whistle.  Harbinger of the industrial revolution and all the ecological disorder we now live with, it is still beautiful, a wistful sound, striking chords of an earlier time.  

News from the world filtered in as we reached the road and gained cel service and we learned of two lightening fires that had merged in the Gila National Forest.  They have become the largest fire in New Mexico’s history and are racing toward the Middle Fork of the Gila River, one of the most beautiful river canyons I’ve ever hiked.  Thinking of the huge sycamores and cottonwoods going up in flames sent a shiver down my spine.  We may be some of the last to have seen that wonderful canyon with its hot springs and lush greenery.  

Tomorrow we set off from Cumbres Pass into the San Juans.  Reports from several who have gone through already is that the snow is still deep.  Our ice axes and crampons came with our resupply box to Chama and we will be using them soon.  We have a great group of folks with whom to start this section and I think we’re ready.  Next stop, Pagosa Springs Colorado. 


“By forces seemingly antagonistic and destructive Nature accomplishes her beneficent designs - now a flood of fire, now a flood of ice, now a flood of water; and again in the fullness of time an outburst of organic life....”   John Muir


If you would like to follow our daily journals, Google: Postholer.com/Shroomer, Postholer.com/Nancy or Postholer.com/Dirt Monger.  An interactive map of the CDT on the bottom right of our journal pages will show you our current GPS Spot location.  View it through Google earth and you can see where we’re camped for that night.   You can follow Brooks Wilson’s trail journal at www.brooksmapped.blogspot.com


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