Continental Divide Trail in the Weminuche Wilderness
In July of 2017, we walked fifty-five miles on a remote section of Continental Divide Trail in the Weminuche Wilderness of Colorado, a profound experience, hiking ridge top trails at the level of the clouds. Our group consisted of six people lead by Alicia Viskoe, a tall, quiet engineer who lives in Cody Wyoming. Alicia didn’t have a lot to say but displayed significant wilderness skills, especially in the use of Geographic Positioning Systems to navigate.
After hiring a shuttle from Wolfe Creek Pass to 30 Mile Campground on the Rio Grande River near Creede, we started our hike on a sunny morning climbing very gradually up the broad Squaw Creek valley. Half way up the valley, we spotted a dark shape moving in the vegetation by the creek below us. Suddenly, the shape moved rapidly up the other side of the valley. We thought it might be a moose, but I looked at it through my camera zoom lens, and it was definitely a horse – a most unusual sight. The lone horse raced away from us and into the wilderness.
We walked through large stands of Chiming Bells, Geraniums and Jacobs Ladder, and spotted the deep purple flowers of both Monkshood and Larkspur. Many scattered clouds passed overhead, but the day remained dry and very warm. At times, we found it difficult to follow the Squaw Creek trail because of fallen dead trees and dense vegetation. We hiked all the way to the place where the trail intersected with the CDT. There we had a choice. Alicia and Don had hiked the CDT segment to the north and knew we could camp close by if we went that way. However, we were headed south, and on the map, it looked like there might be a place to camp ahead of us near a large stream. So Joon and I volunteered to scout ahead less than a mile to the stream. There we found no level ground for a camp. After we returned to the group with the bad news, we hiked north and camped on the low, level top of Squaw Pass in a marshy area.
On July 10, we climbed south from Squaw Pass on the CDT, first through the forest and then through dense willows. Near the beginning of the climb, I spotted a mountain sheep ram running across a scree field and steeply up the slope above us to join with two female sheep and then disappear into the forest. Soon we climbed up rocky alpine tundra to the top of the ridge where there were vast views of the San Juan Mountains and of an enormous, green basin far below us. We spotted elk in the basin. We saw a young elk frolicking among the others, and an adult splashing in a pond. We saw several lying on a snow field. Eventually, more and more elk came together, until we realized we were looking at a herd with over seventy individuals. We could hear the bugling of the elk far below us.
We stayed high on the ridge top for the rest of the day. We dropped onto a saddle where there were two ponds, mirror-like, reflecting the surrounding mountains, and there we refilled our water containers. Later, we looked down into another basin where we spotted a lone elk and then a bald eagle flying loops. Alicia said, “It is rare that you get to watch a bald eagle flying from above.”
We next climbed to a highpoint above 12,000 feet where we ate our lunch. By the time we reached the next high point, the sky was dark and we could hear thunder in the distance. We hurried down into the next basin above beautiful Trout Lake. The trail was near another smaller lake where we could have camped, but Alicia told us we still had two more miles before we could camp. We traversed the side of a ridge and started climbed towards a point on a ridge. The far end of the ridge with the point was called the Knife Edge because of its narrow width. As we climbed, there was booming thunder above us. The trail hung off the side of the ridge and was covered at places by small snow fields. We managed to skirt the first couple, but arrived at one that was too big to skirt and too steep to cross. A couple of members of the group attempted to go above the snow field but found that too difficult. Alicia said that we needed to go below, so I led the way below the field. By then it was pouring rain and it was a difficult traverse and climb, requiring the use of hands and knees because it was steep and because the rocks and dirt were loose, wet and slippery. But we all eventually made it, with some of the group creatively finding new climbing routes. We had to climb over a second snow field on a route consisting of loose boulders. By then, we were working well as a team, helping each other find the best way.
The Knife Edge was interesting. The trail followed the top of the ridge which fell away steeply on both sides. There was a jagged fence-like formation on one side. The trail turned sharply and descended into the next basin, which we immediately climbed out of to a ridge where we found a pond. We camped next to the pond. My tent site was at the top of a cliff where I could see Cherokee Lake below. At camp, the sun shone long enough to dry us, but after dinner the wind picked up and it got very cold. I went into my tent and was quickly warm under my down quilt.
From Cherokee Lake, we climbed high up onto the Continental Divide and walked the narrow ridge for miles. The views were endless, mountains and more mountains. Then, we descended into forests where many of the trees had been killed by the Pine Beetle. Studies have suggested that there is a strong link between climate change and the killing of forests by pine beetles in Colorado. In the journal Science, a study was reported which suggests that the devastation is simply due to a longer warm season in the high Rockies. With this longer season, the beetles are able to breed an additional generation during the season, creating severe destruction. The Forest Service concurs that there is likely a link between climate change and the pine beetle plague.
As we hiked, we often followed stone cairns, and just before we went around a pyramid shaped mountain, I found a tall cairn built on a large rock extending free into the air. All day long, we walked up and down on the Divide, and it was hiking on the top of world. We camped in a large meadow with a small pond fed by a melting snow field. When the next storm struck, after a beautiful evening, we were in our tents. It rained all night.
The rain stopped around 5:00 am the next morning, and outside of our tents, we found that it was foggy. Our campsite was in the low clouds. By the time we started hiking, the weather had cleared and we had a beautiful morning walk through the wonderful high country of the Divide. I was hiking far ahead of the others when I caught a momentary glimpse of a female elk with her young little one. We descended into the dead trees and into the wide open valley of the Piedra River Valley. In the valley, using her GPS, Alicia realized we had missed a turn, followed an informal trail, and were now off our route. With the help of a camper, we found a trail which took us back to an intersection with the CDT just below Piedra Pass. From the pass, we began climbing through the forest and found a nice stream where we filled all our water containers so we could, if we decided to, camp far above water sources, in the alpine country above us. We climbed to the tree line and into a large alpine basin where we could see our trail traversing the slope, up a high grassy wall to a pass between two peaks. At the top, we camped in a low spot on the pass at an elevation above 12,600 feet. We spent time in the heavily flowered meadow looking at the astounding views of the mountains to the south. The skies darkened in the evening and through gaps in clouds, beams of light illuminated parts of the hard stone mountains.
When I got up on July 13, we were in a cloud, surrounded by dense fog. The wind was cold, and I started hiking with all my layers on. We spent the day on top, resulting in one of the most marvelous hiking days in my life. The sun and wind were gradually dispersing the clouds but fragments of low hanging clouds scattered across the landscape, and clouds remained over much of the scene. We followed mountain-top trails across the high terrain. Ahead was a climb to a high ridge, and I went slowly hoping more clouds would disperse before I got there. When I got to the thin ridge, I could see one range after another. Here I could see much of the Weminuche Wilderness. The others went on but I stayed for some time. I walked out to a rounded point on the ridge and took pictures. In his CDT guide book, Tom Lorang Jones has written that this spot “may be the most breathtaking experience on the entire CDT.” For me, it was a transformed consciousness. This place at this time was meant for me. It was hard to leave it.
I descended from the pass on a trail with several switchbacks, and then hiked for some time on the rolling, open CDT. I hurried to catch up with the others on a highpoint above me. When I got there, they told me that a black bear had run across the trail behind me. I did not see it. We stopped on a high pass for lunch. Next, we climbed steeply to a high point above Archuleta Lake. From this highpoint, we could see the South San Juan range and, in places, on to New Mexico. We hiked down past Archuleta Lake and up to smaller Spotted Lake where we made camp and spent time in the warm sunshine doing chores, talking, and soaking our feet in the stream. The whole day had been a highpoint.
The last night at Spotted Lake, I did not sleep so well because of the anticipation of hiking back to civilization the next day. On our last day, we had approximately 10 miles to hike back to Wolfe Creek Pass and our cars. I was up early and packed and ready to go by 6:30 am. I asked Alicia if she minded if I took off. She said, “Sure, I would do it too if I could.” I enjoyed the morning immensely because I was free to challenge myself and pick up my hiking speed. I hiked through quiet forests, grassy meadows, muddy basins with small lakes and wildflower gardens. There was a final long climb to the high point above the pass. Then down to the car. I arrived at the car at 11:00 am. After some cleanup, I headed for home and, on the way, had a nicely authentic Carne Asada for lunch at Cavilla’s Mexican restaurant in Del Norte. This largest wilderness area in Colorado was wilder than expected. We saw a number of other people, though all we saw on the CDT were serious hikers – they had to be to be there, but the numbers were diluted by the unexpected immensity of the place. The adventure exceeded my expectations.