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Colorado Hiking
An Ultralight Backpacking Adventure

Cottonwood Pass, Colorado


I was in Colorado about twelve years ago, hiking in the Weminuche Wilderness Area, when the snow came. Maybe I should have been more specific when I asked the sky to stop the rain. It was only my second day out of Silverton, where the locals told me it rains (or snows) every day in August. I made a note to myself to do a little research next time. Then I made a note to myself to try to find the trail. I was lost again.

I had come to the San Juan Mountains in Colorado to try out all my new lightweight gear for seven days hiking in the San Juans. I had about sixteen pounds on my back, total. I was using an ultralight tarp for a shelter, and a very light down sleeping bag, which I knew would leave me cold if I got it wet. I had survived the first night of rain and stayed dry, but now I was above the trees, lost in the rolling tundra, unable to pick out the trail under several inches of snow. But it was beautiful. The mountains suddenly appeared all around at every break in the weather.

Hiking Becomes Climbing

Eventually I stumbled down into the trees, and then back up to the tundra, where I found myself on the map. The sun even came out, and everywhere there were white mountain tops rising up out of the green. Mountain goats somehow played on the cliffs without falling. It was a beautiful day for an hour or two. Then the rain returned, as it did every single night of the trip.

The morning of the fourth day, I was hiking before it was light, on my way up Mount Eolus (14,083 feet). One of the things I love about backpacking in Colorado, is hiking up above 14,000 feet without the necessity of climbing gear. "Walk-ups" they are referred to, but they may require a bit more than hiking. The "catwalk" on the way to the top of Eolus, for example, is easy hiking, if it is easy for you to walk a two-to-three feet wide edge, with a drop to your death on either side of you.

I also made it up Sunlight Peak (14,059 feet) later. That one requires a leap across a thousand foot drop to get to the summit rock. An easy jump, though. I was chased off by a thunderstorm, and didn't get to go up nearby Windom Peak. The next day, I found my way to the train tracks of the Silverton-Durango train (there were no roads out there), and took the train to Silverton to re-supply. I still had three more days in Colorado, hiking in the rain.

Hiking with Lightning

I was in one of the most beautiful parts of Colorado, hiking above tree-line along Silver Creek. After buying some food in Silverton, I had immediately hitched a couple rides to get up to The American Valley. A rainy night and a trip over the top of Handies Peak (14,048 feet), and I was looking at another storm. My Frogg Toggs rainwear had turned out to be one of my best investments.

A couple came down from the ridge, and warned me that their hair had been standing on end, and their aluminum trekking poles were buzzing. There might be a bit too much electricity in the air to go higher. I set up the tarp and waited out the rain with a book. After an hour, the sun almost came out, so I quickly stuffed the wet tarp in the mesh pocket of my pack, and headed up Red Cloud Peak (14,034 feet) with my twelve-pound load.

I went over the top of Redcloud and to the summit of Sunshine Peak. Yet another Colorado thunderstorm came, and chased me along the ridge, and back over Redcloud. Hiking became jogging, and I was really appreciating my running shoes and light backpack. I made it to the trees about the time it started raining. The thunder echoed in the mountains all around me. It rained all night, of course.

Lessons Learned Hiking in Colorado

I will be in Colorado hiking and backpacking again. It is one of the most beautiful places I know. I will also go lightweight again. It was wonderful to carry my pack easily up the mountains, and be free to descend by any route available, because I always had everything with me. My balance was better with the light load, and I was hiking up to 22 miles per day (110 miles total) without one blister. I won't bring $7 running shoes next time though. They almost fell apart. Staying dry, which I did well, was as much technique as it was good equipment. I was very careful when I was backpacking in Colorado (at least with my equipment and clothing).

The backpack I used, which I take hiking everywhere now, was a GoLite Breeze. It weighs only 13 ounces, and has mesh outer pockets, which worked well for storing my often-wet tarp. It is frame less, but with my folded-up sleeping pad for a frame, it was very comfortable.

My Western Mountaineering sleeping bag weighs only 17 ounces, and has never left me cold yet. It is a down bag, and seems very fragile, but I have used it for years, in several countries and all climates, and it still looks almost new.

Frogg Toggs are sold at most golf course pro shops. You will think their rainwear is too papery when you first see it, but I have taken it on trips up glaciers and through woods, and it really is waterproof and breathable. It's also less expensive than almost any waterproof /breathable rainwear out there.

Colorado has great hiking and backpacking opportunities. Just be prepared for rain (and snow) if you go to the San Juans in August.


The Ultralight Backpacking Site | Colorado Hiking