Continental Divide Trail -- The Walk to Grand Lake, Colorado

Thunder on the Divide, the Shadowcliff Hostel and Retreat Center and we hike one of the toughest sections of trail on the CDT, this week in Walk About Martinez.


Starting trail from Silverthorne, Colorado had been hard.  I had spent several wonderful days in Breckenridge with my wife Katie, who I hadn’t seen in over two months, and stepping onto the Ptarmigan Trail alone brought me the closest I’d come to wanting to call it quits and just fly home.  

Thank goodness the trail was easy, through an aspen forest with flowers blooming and day hikers all enjoying the beauty in their backyards.  This close to the big ski resorts the mountains were incredible.  Crags and sky, cloud and a forest of flowers and bubbling springs underfoot.  My soul was eased.  I would be home eventually at the end of this summer adventure.  In the meantime, I was hiking the Continental Divide, a trail I wanted to finish.  If the rest of it was as incredible as what I’d hiked through already, this was just where I wanted to be.  

I was hiking alone because my partners, Nancy and Lina, had left from Frisco a day earlier for Nancy’s friend Beth’s condo in Fraser.  Lina is from Hamburg and had wanted to see the Germans battle the Italians in the European Cup, Soccer semifinals on Lina’s twenty-sixth birthday.  

Hiking alone felt good.  I saw more, heard more and paid attention to my maps and GPS more because I didn’t want to get lost in those mountains.  When I reached Ptarmigan Pass and looked out over a thickly forested, glacial canyon several miles across, I was feeling pretty good.  Within a few hundred yards, however, the trail had petered out to a series of rabbit runs.  The GPS showed it at one place and the map another and neither proved to be anything more than animal trails through a steep forest of blow downs and scrub.  

I followed the basic GPS line and after an hour of bushwhacking my way through the mess found a very faint trail that switchbacked down to the stream at the bottom of the canyon.  I needed to make my way back up the other side but where the GPS showed a crossing of the creek and a climb back up, there was no trail whatsoever.  I followed that GPS line across the stream and began the worst cross country hike of the whole trail.

Within a short distance I was pulling myself up hill on roots and hanging onto tree trunks to stop from sliding back down.  I zigzagged back and forth across the slope where the digital line showed the trail to be, but couldn’t find it.  After an hour of struggling I finally came upon a little trail cutting its way across the GPS line and felt like I’d been saved.  Neither map nor GPS nor I were correct in this case.  

I was drenched in sweat and totally wiped out when I finally broke out of the forest onto the rolling meadows of the crest.   The trail was magnificent with mountain views in all directions and elk bugled in the canyon.  Clouds had gathered and thunder rumbled across the Divide.  

The sound of thunder in the high country is incredible. It just shivers your timbers. It’s everything you want in a bass track. You feel it in your body and hear it and I was lucky enough not to be right on the divide during those noisy interludes or I’d have run down hill quick.

I stealth camped just below tree line, sheltered by a large rock on one side along Bobtail Creek. I could hear water nearby and the moon broke through the clouds after a spectacular sunset.

Next day I hiked the length of Bobtail creek and up to Jones Pass.  I took a late lunch, parking myself on trail as I hadn’t seen anyone all day, when a hiker bounded down trail and stopped to say hello.  I saw the little green ULA backpack and knew he wasn’t a weekend camper.  He introduced himself as Boat, a Tennessean who had already thru hiked the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trails, where I’d met him briefly in Washington in 2010.  He had come into Snoqualmie Pass early in the morning with Golden Child, a young woman I knew, and a third hiker, looking like a drowned rat.  They’d hiked nonstop for fifty miles all night through a Washington downpour rather than pitch wet tents on a very wet night.  I’d been warm and dry in a hiker packed motel room.  

After directing them to a nearby breakfast buffet, I’d hit trail and never seen or heard from him till this chance meeting at lunch on the CDT.   We spent the rest of the afternoon comparing notes on that 2010 hike and found we’d been only days apart all summer and had become good friends with some of the same people.  

Now we had time to talk and we hardly noticed the change from sun to cloud and the drizzle that turned to hail.  As we neared the summit of Stanley Peak, lightening flashed overhead and a blast of thunder roared immediately after.  More flashed and blasted hot on its heals and we suddenly came to our senses and headed back down trail fast.  We were about to become human lightening rods.

We spent half an hour huddled lower along trail until the lightening moved on and then we re-climbed Stanley Peak in the sun.  Hiking out at Berthoud Pass, I hitched down to Fraser to spend a night in Beth’s condo and Boat hiked up trail.  

The hitch was easy and well worth the effort to join Beth and Nancy for a celebration of Lina’s birthday with cake and matches in place of the birthday candles we didn’t have.  Germany had lost the match which meant we didn’t have to make it to Grand Lake a day early for the next game, a great relief to Nancy and me.

The next several days from Berthoud Pass to Grand Lake brought us across miles of rolling tundra and up and down the largest bolder fields we’d yet come across.  One scramble over a narrow rocky pass had us clinging to rocks over cliffs and inching across narrow ledges, descending and climbing thousands of feet on either side.  We were absolutely dead by the end of each day and only later learned that according to Jim Wolf, the author of guides to the CDT, this section of trail comprised the greatest gain and loss of elevation on the entire trail.  We didn’t feel quite so bad knowing that.  

One night camped at Rawlins Pass another hiker appeared just at dusk.  It was Furniture, a young cabinet maker who had trained at the North Bennet St. School of Boston, the oldest trade school in America.  He’d also hiked the AT and PCT and was completing his Triple Crown with the CDT.  He’d gotten a leave from his job at Shackleton Thomas, fine furniture and pottery of Vermont.  Yes that Shackleton is the same family as the great Shackleton of Arctic exploration and survival on the ship Endurance. 

We all hiked together to Monarch Lake where we arrived at the Little Moose Trading Post just as it was closing.  We saw the CDT hikers welcome sign in the window and Connie and Gary Kress welcomed us with open arms.  Not only did they feed us after closing hours, they wouldn’t let us pay for anything.   Their friend Steve Johnson an arborist and lumberman showed up in cowboy hat and jeans but with a Brooklyn accent that reminded me of all my New York in-laws.   He’d helped them fell some of the bark beetle dead pines that marred the forest as they had all the way from New Mexico.  Angels on this trail seemed to appear at every turn and always surprised when they did.  

That evening, stealth camped on Granby Lake, we saw one of the most beautiful sunsets of the trip.  Water lapped at the shore and the cloudy evening turned into a brilliant, star filled night.

The next day we road-walked twenty miles into Grand Lake near the border of Rocky Mountain National Park after warnings from Lint, Dirt Monger, Silver, Ranger and Eric, that the CDT into town had the worst blow downs any of them had ever seen.  They all described being cut to ribbons by the mess of dead trees and branches.  These guys are all stronger hikers than any of us and the road walk sounded like a good alternative.

Grand Lake was another of those lovely trail towns with historic buildings, good food and resupply, but the Shadowcliff Hostel was the highpoint.  It was a small version of Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.  It had a religious bent and history, but of a very open nature.  Even the non-religious in our group found it a wonderful place to stay, and at $25 per night, the bargain of the trail.  High on a rocky promontory behind the town it had the best view of the lake we found.  We watched as sailboats popped their multicolored spinnakers and raced across the water. 

As we registered at the desk, we got the best surprise of all when Eric Bow, who we’d hiked with since Grants New Mexico, stepped up and we had hugs all around.  He had left trail for a wedding two weeks before and after returning had reached Grand Lake several days before us.  Eric is an incredibly fast and strong hiker who could leave us in the dust at any time, but had chosen to slow down on this his fifth long trail in two years and enjoy the company of a trail family.  We were now ready to head for our last stop in Colorado, Steamboat Springs, a four days walk from Grand Lake. 

With renewed energy we all stepped out on trail the next morning.  The sun was shining but the early morning clouds meant that we’d have thunder by the afternoon.  Hiking the Colorado Rockies was a balance of timing your day so as not to put yourself on a long exposed ridge in the late afternoon.  With that in mind we headed west across the bottom of Rocky Mountain National Park, following a Divide that twisted its way in a fickle, capricious line, slowly, ultimately northward. 


"I will follow my instincts, and be myself for good or ill." 

— 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

Elaine Seawell August 13, 2012 at 05:10 PM
thank you for including us on your incredible journey. Your voice and your pictures make it such an adventure for me at home love and continued support Elaine and Ned


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