Colorado Trail – Segment 1

Waterton Canyon -> South Platte River -> Waterton Canyon

November 15, 2020

RT Length: 34.18 miles

Elevation Gain: 4308’

High Point:  7517’ Low Point: 5522’

Time:  11 hours, 20 minutes

The Colorado Trail has been calling my name for some time now, so I put it on my list of goals for 2020.  When I put down a goal in writing, there’s a 99% chance I’ll hit it.  I try to make my goals a bit of a stretch, varying, but still doable, which keeps things fun.   This was my last goal to achieve this year, and I honestly didn’t think I was going to make this one.  But, a very windy forecast across the state above treeline gave me the opportunity to hike segment 1 of the Colorado Trail (or is it “The Colorado Trail”?  Since I’m from California, not putting “the” in front of a trail, road, highway, etc. feels weird, but this is most likely also technically wrong.  Please indulge me).    

I know I’ll never get enough time off to hike the trail as a thru hike, so I’m going to need to segment hike when possible. The cool thing about this is if I park at a trailhead, hike the segment, and then hike back, I’ll essentially be hiking both SOBO and NOBO.  Pretty cool!  (Does that mean I get to say I’ve hiked it twice?)  At this point I’m thinking I’ll still start out SOBO and try to do the segments in order.

I arrived at the Waterton Canyon trailhead to find the lot empty.  This wasn’t strange, as it was 2am, but it did tell me I wasn’t likely to see anyone as I was hiking this morning.  The trailhead is positioned close to many large cities, and I was a bit worried my truck would be broken into, since it was the only vehicle in a lot that doesn’t get much ‘midnight traffic’  My only solace:  I have a topper and a potential thief wouldn’t know if I was sleeping inside (or not) or if I was armed or not (I always am).  It was much colder than I’d anticipated:  18 degrees at the trailhead instead of the forecasted 35 degrees.  I knew it was supposed to get up to 60 degrees today, so I forwent the ski pants and instead put on my heavy-duty winter gloves.  I said a prayer to the wind gods, asking them to play nice.

I was on the trail at 2:21am.  Because it was still dark, most of the pictures I’ll be posting from the hike in were actually taken later in the day, on my hike out.  Here’s a look at the parking lot.  It was big enough to hold about 100 vehicles, and was past capacity when I got back.

The trail starts at the west end of the parking area.  I had to first cross the street.  This was easy at this time in the morning, but the button I pushed that enacted the flashing lights on my return to stop traffic were uber useful.

I saw signs indicating I was at the right place!

There was a ‘last chance water station’ that was unfortunately closed (most likely due to COVID).  Side note:  I didn’t drink a single sip of water on this entire hike, yet I brought along a full water bottle and filtration system.  If you’re doing this as a day hike and are an experienced hiker, extra water isn’t a necessity.  However:  know yourself and your water intake.  And prepare adequately.  There is obviously water along the first 6 miles of this hike, and also at the end, so filtration is possible, and easily accessible. 

From the beginning there were signs indicating dogs weren’t allowed due to the Bighorn Sheep. I hoped this meant I’d been seeing some wildlife today. I also believe this is the only 6 mile segment of the trail dogs aren’t allowed, so if you want to bring along your canine, it might be prudent to start at the South Platte River Trailhead with your pup (well, start at the Waterton Canyon trailhead ad have a good friend bring you your pup the next day, because if you have a canine companion it’d be worth it).

I passed some bathrooms (vault toilets) and smore signage.  I just continued following the road west.   It was dark out, but at times I could actually smell the bighorn sheep.  I knew they frequented this area, and at this point they must have been close.  It’s funny how your sense of smell can guide you at times.  Side note: in the 6 miles to the Stronia Dam there are 3 bathroom stops. I felt this was quite excessive until I hiked back and saw hundreds of other hikers along the trail.                                                                                                                                     

The road here is wide and there isn’t much elevation gain for the first 6 miles.  There are mile markers every half mile or so, which are helpful.  Interestingly, the mile markers switch sides of the road halfway through, so in the dark I ended up missing a couple, only to find I’d hiked further than I’d thought.  In the daylight this made sense, as they followed the contour of the mountains.  On the positive side, the miles were just flying by!  This was good, because it was quite cold and I was willing the sun to rise.  My fingers were frozen and I kept pumping them back in forth inside my gloves.  Also, seriously, my fingers were frozen.  I actually gave the thought to going back, but the knowledge it was supposed to be a warm day kept me continuing on.

The road follows the South Platte River, with several bathrooms along the way (no less than 3)

After hiking for 6 miles I came to the last bathroom area, and, in the dark, saw lights illuminating the Stronia Springs Dam on the right (there will be a better picture of this dam later)

I continued following the road for another half mile or so as the road began to narrow.

It was a bit icy out, even on the way back, but nothing that required spikes or even more than common sense to navigate.

The trail is very well marked and easy to follow.  I thought it was cool Colorado Trail is Trail 1776. 

After hiking for 6.7 miles on a flat road, the real trail began.  And so did the wind.  I don’t want to make a big deal of this, mostly because the wind across the state this weekend was intense, but the wind didn’t stop for this entire hike.  It was insistent, but always above treeline, which made it manageable. Yes, it had been a good idea to take this hike, as anything above treeline would have been intolerable.  I’ll stop mentioning the incessant wind here.

I was surprised it was still dark outside.  It had been my goal to get to this point before daylight, but daylight was still a long ways off.  Woot!  I didn’t check my phone to see the time (too cold for that) but the sky wasn’t even beginning to lighten.  This was good news.  Since I usually do intense elevation hikes I had no idea how long this hike would take me, but it seemed  I was making better time than I’d anticipated.

From this point it was 10 miles to South Platte River Trailhead.  The trail continues gaining elevation for 1.2 miles, switchbacking south, gaining about 725’ of elevation. 

At the end of the 1.2 miles is a sign indicating the Colorado Trail, and a bench entitled ‘Lenny’s Rest’.

You should take time to read the plaque while there.  My son is an Eagle Scout, and I’m an avid hiker, so I took time to appreciate this monument.  I’m not providing a clear indication of the wording because I believe it’s best experienced in person.  Rest here. 

From Lenny’s Rest I was disappointed to find the trail started losing elevation.  I lost a total of 350’ as I hiked down.  Maybe I should have done more research?  The hike started in chaparral and ended in pine.  This seemed something of a paradox, but also fitting to the area.  There are pinon pines, junipers, scrub oak, and ponderosa pines in this area.

You’ll know when you’re at the lowest part when you cross this drain.  Maps show this point as crossing Bear Creek.  This was more of a jump across a drainage than a creek, but it was late in the year so water was low.

Then, it was all uphill for the next 4.2 miles, as I gained 1332’, switchbacking again.  There are a lot of switchbacks on this segment.  Switchbacks are a blessing and a curse, depending on where you are in your hike.  If I’ to do this entire hike in segments, they will most likely be a curse, as I’d prefer elevation gain, but if I were a thru hiker, I’d appreciate the ease in elevation.

Some of the signage needs work.  I’m not sure what the wooden plaque says?

There are a lot of good campsites in this area.  I’m guessing that’s because it’s a nice ‘last night’ for Colorado Trail thru hikers before finishing up the next day (that, and camping isn’t allowed along the road).  If this is the end of your NOBO journey, this is a great last place to camp.  Also, high-five and congratulations!

The highpoint of this hike came below treeline, where these metal signs are present.  From here, it was (mostly) all downhill.

The sun hadn’t yet risen, and I was getting excited about my time, mentally calculating how much longer I had to reach the South Platte River Trailhead and the distance to my halfway point for today.  As I hiked, I contemplated the different trail signs, which ranged from actual signs (wooden or metal) to the Colorado Trail Marker and blazes on the trees, both etched and painted.  It seemed a shame the trees had been blazed, but this also makes sense, as the paint eventually goes away and people steal the markers (or the trees eat them).

Sometimes the markers are placed over the blazes.  There were quite a few markers (it’s difficult to get lost on this trail). I spent a lot of time contemplating most of this.  Also, if you’re hiking the Colorado trail and want a marker as a memento, you can buy one here for $5 and not have to carry it with you, and you don’t need to feel the need to take one from the trail (don’t take one from the trail.  Don’t). 

The trail continued to wind around the mountain

There was a considerable number of downed trees in this area, and also tree cutting boundary signs.  (Another side note:  a forest fire has decimated the corresponding segment, most likely spreading quickly due to dead/downed trees.  This area needs to be cleared, or is most likely next to go up in flames).

I hiked around a spot that looked like it’d be a fun rappel point (for new learners)

And kept hiking, losing elevation as I went

In total, I’d lose 1375’ before making it to South Platte River trailhead.  There was a small plateau with a great view of the South Platte River trailhead.  I hit this point at sunrise, with the sun was rising behind me.

From here I swtichbacked what seemed like another 50 or so times before making it to the bottom.  The good news:  the sun was starting to rise and I had a great visual of the trail.

I made it to my half-way point, South Platte River Trailhead, at 8am.  There were some other vehicles in the lot, with hikers putting on gear, getting ready for their morning hike.  I was quick, took a few pictures to prove I’d made it, turned around and headed back.   It had taken me 5 hours, 40 minutes to make it the 16.7 miles.  I considered this a good time. 

There is a vault toilet at this trailhead.  It was now 8am and I’d hiked 16.91 miles so far this morning (in about 5.5 hours.

To head back, I just retraced my steps.  However, now it was daylight, so I’d be able to get some appropriate pictures.  Starting from South Platte River Trailhead, heading NOBO:  The trail starts at the east end of the parking area

There are several great camping spots along the trail, just a few dozen yards from the parking area.  I’m sure these are for CT hikers on their first (or last) nights.  Lots of room here for a dozen or so campers that play nice.

This was a very easy to follow trail that switchbacked northeast along the mountainside, first through chaparral, and then pine trees. There are lots of areas with chaparral, pinons, and pines along this trail.

Here’s another look at the quick plateau

And more hiking through pine trees. I promised I wouldn’t say anything more about the wind, so I won’t. 

Here’s a cool log I hopped over on the trail.  I’m a fan of the markings the beetles make, if not a fan of the beetles themselves. 

And now I was back up at the highpoint/ridge

From here I’d lose 1319’ of elevation as I wound my way back down the mountain

There are several good camping spots directly off the trail, just before the low point and after (if you’d want to camp closer, rather than later in your end hike).

When you see this metal drain you’re at a low point.  I believe this is Bear Creek.

From here I gained the last 350’ of this hike in elevation as I hiked back up to Lenny’s Rest

Another camping option, although this one is kind of steep to get to. 

I made it to Lenny’s rest, and stayed straight to stay on the Colorado Trail (going right brings you to Roxborough Park

From here I switchbacked and switchbacked and switchbacked back down to the road.

This is also where I encountered my first ‘people’ of the day.  These people were riding bikes.  I’ve encountered a lot of bike riders in my hiking experience, and I’d like to note everyone I encountered today was cordial. In Colorado Springs I’ve found the bikers had attitudes, but not here.  I did my best to give them passing room on the trail, and they verbalized thank you’s.  However, I was still frustrated.   Over and over and over and over again I passed bikers headed towards me.  Because I was hiking I gave them room and stepped aside.  Again, and again.  And again, and again.  And again, and again.  There were so may bikers I lost over an hour of hiking time giving them room.  This was the right thing to do, but very, very frustrating.  This is November, how many bikers could there be?  (side note:  dozens, if not hundreds).   The trail eventually led to the road that navigates through Waterton Canyon

I was quite excited to see during the day what I’d missed hiking in at night. The first thing I noticed was a sign stating “This part of the Colorado Trail is maintained by the Colorado Mountain Bikers Association”.  Well, that explained a lot.  I just needed to prepare myself for bikers that wouldn’t end.  The road led me past a maintenance yard and a ‘private residence’, which I believe belongs to a permanent/stationed worker here.

I quickly came to the Strontia Springs Dam, and got the feeling I’d be seeing a lot more people today than I’d imagined.  And a lot more bikers. Sigh.  Well, at least this was happening at the beginning of my journey.  Also, I don’t dislike bikers, sharing trails is great, but I think we can all agree separate bike-motorcycle/ hiking trails is the optimal solution.

Most of the hike out was uneventful.  I hiked for 6.2 miles along a well-maintained dirt road, doing my best to stay out of the way of the hundreds of bike riders along the way.  Yes, hundreds.  It was insane.  There were bathrooms and picnic areas every 2 miles or so.

This road follows the South Platte River, which, according to the dozen or so fishermen I saw along the trail, is a good place to fish.  Unfortunately, it must be too late in the year, as I didn’t see a single of these dozens of fishermen with a caught fish.

I saw birds nests in the trees

And wood ducks (the kind with red heads) floating in the river

There were several interpretive signs along the trail as well

I passed the Marston Diversion Dam.  At night, this was hard, yet amazing to see.  Here it is in daylight.

And some more buildings/houses.  It looks like they store snow equipment here

This is where it got really interesting:  I could see people gathered along the side of the road ahead of me, and to the left of the road there was a large herd of bighorn sheep.

That’s when I heard it:  the thundering of hooves quickly approaching from behind me.  I turned and saw a rather large ram chasing an ewe down the mountainside at breakneck speed.  They made it to the herd and everything settled down. 

Well, kind of.  It seems this is mating season, at least for the males.  The rams kept chasing the females, sniffing their backsides and sticking out their tongues, testing if they were ready to mate.  The females were having none of it, and kept darting away.  You could see the power these animals have:  lots of muscles and agility.


Bighorn Sheep – Waterton Canyon

Head Butt:

I was surprised at how close the people were to all this madness.  There are signs posted asking you to stay a minimum of 25 feet away from the Bighorn Sheep, but it seems many people either hadn’t read the signs or forgot this.  The sheep were all riled up (due to mating) and unpredictable.

I passed so many people on the way out.  Hundreds of hikers, bikers, walkers, runners, and lots and lots of children on the trails.  OMG, this was an insane entry point:  One I’d love to do again, but never with this may people.  INSANE. 

Here are some pictures of the end of the trail

And a picture to prove I made it back

I made it back to my truck at 1:45pm, making this a 34.18 mile hike with 4308’ in elevation gain in 11 hours, 20 minutes.  Added bonus:  My truck was as I’d left it.  I’d been a little bit worried, because about 5 miles in I realized I’d forgotten to lock the topper.  Whoops!   I was lucky this time.   Here’s a topo of the route.  (Side note:  feel free to contact me if you’d like a copy of the GPX file for this route).

The most difficult part of this hike ended up being the drive out.  It took no less than 15 minutes for me to leave the parking lot, due to the number of people using the crosswalk and drivers coming each way.  A nice person finally realized my predicament and waved me on, even though they had the right of way.

When I got home I took out my journal to write notes, but decided I’d rather start a specific journal, just for the Colorado Trail.  I have some stocked up, for just this reason.  Emily drew the Colorado Trail logo on the front, and I started jotting down notes.  I’m kind of liking this journal…

Author: Laura M Clark

Laura has summited over 500 peaks above 13,000' solo, including being the first woman to solo summit all of the Colorado 14ers, as well as the centennials. After each hike, she writes trip reports for each one and publishes them on her blog, which is read by fans all over the world. Author of Wild Wanderer: Summiting Colorado’s 200 Highest Peaks, which is available to purchase on Amazon.

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