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

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

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

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.