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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008

Rocky Mountain (Extra) High: Lightning On The Colorado Trail

Dodge high wattage on the newest stretch of the Colorado Trail.

by: Charlie Wood & Casey Lyons

The Hike
The Colorado Trail, running 480 miles from Chatfield State Park (20 miles south of Denver) to Junction Creek trailhead (3.5 miles northwest of Durango), is a life list romp over jagged peaks, sawtooth ridges, and rolling, columbine-filled meadows. And this year it gets even better. The Colorado Trail Foundation recently completed a reroute (in segments 23 and 24) that snakes the CT onto the Continental Divide through the San Juan Mountains. This adds 20 miles of ridgeline as high as 13,275 feet–the CT's highpoint, just south of Coney Summit. Once you climb out of Wager Gulch, you won't pass a tree for 38 miles; the trail's lowest point is 12,200 feet (1,000 feet higher than Mt. Hood). Plan on four to six days to cover this 51.2-mile stretch from Spring Creek to Molas Pass (sections 22-24).

The Crux
Intense lightning between Cataract and Eldorado Lakes; this exposed 38-mile stretch has an average elevation of 12,700 feet. Colorado sees 50,000 cloud-to-ground strikes per year, and alpine summer storms roll in between noon and 3 p.m.

The Key
Smart timing, obsessive map work, and weather vigilance. As you plan, scout out potential bomb-downhill points in between camps where you can descend and take cover, and mark them on your map. Look for relatively level areas below 12,100 feet (average treeline for this area), and seek uniform stands of trees if lightning is six miles away or closer. (Count the seconds between lightning flash and thunder, then divide by five. This gives you the storm's distance in miles.) Spend your first night at Buck Creek Headwaters, two miles into this section. Then plan successive camps, easily reached by early afternoon, at the following locations: Ruby Creek Headwaters, Cataract Lake, and Shepherd's Camp.

The Way
From Lake City, drive south on CO 149 for 1.5 miles to a fork. Go right, toward Lake San Cristobal, and head 9.3 miles to Wager Gulch Rd. and a six-mile rattle to the trailhead.

Plan It
Head to for The Colorado Trail: The Official Guidebook of the Colorado Trail Foundation ($25; Colorado Mountain Club Press), The Colorado Trail Databook ($10), and free downloadable topo maps of the reroute.

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