Ever since coming to Colorado, I’ve been obsessed with finding the source of its eponymous river. The source is strangely obscure.
A couple of weeks ago when I hiked on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park I came close to the source. I hiked a mile or two upstream from the Colorado River trailhead. That trail climbs for seven miles to La Poudre Pass at about 10,200 feet on the Continental Divide, which I have finally determined is the point where the river starts before cutting through the Grand Canyon and ending about 1,450 miles away near the Gulf of California. It is our sixth or seventh longest river.
But a 14-mile round trip is too long for a day hike. So I studied my maps and saw that I could drive quite close to La Poudre Pass from the north. The only problem is that it’s about a 200 mile drive from Boulder and down a long dirt road, the condition of which I had no idea. That meant staying overnight some place in the far north central part of Colorado.
Since I didn’t know the first thing about the area, I did what any good researcher does. I searched the Internet. The only town in that area is Walden, population 837, elevation 8100 feet. But 20 miles closer I discovered the Powderhorn Cabins in Gould, elevation 8900 feet.
The cabins in Gould turned out to be just what I was looking for. While Walden has several typically trashy motels, and I found other cabin rentals along the highway, the Powderhorn Cabins are a half mile off the highway and are truly primitive and ideal for my needs.
I stayed there on Monday and Tuesday nights in what they call “a rustic cabin,” which is no exaggeration. While it has electricity, it lacks almost everything else – no rug, no closet, no TV, no phone (except in the office), and – most important – no water. My tiny log cabin was, however, clean. I could keep it warm at night with a small electric heater, and the double bed was good enough, although it would have been awfully cosy for two people. I sometimes sat on the tiny porch out front to study my maps and hiking guides of the area.
The owner’s daughter showed me where and how I could pump water, where my outhouse was, and the communal shower room. When I asked the owner how many people lived year around in Gould, he counted on his fingers and came up with the number 16.
Not only doesn’t Powderhorn Cabins lack Internet access, I couldn’t even find any place in the whole area, including Walden, where I could connect with my laptop. That meant it was truly a mini-vacation.
During each of my three days in the area I took one major hike. On my first day I drove about 60 miles north of Bouler mostly along boring Interstate 25. To relieve the monotony on the way up and back I listened to Martin Dugard’s Into Africa on my iPod. The book turned out to be most appropriate, because it was also about a journalist (Henry Morton Stanley) and an explorer (David Livingstone), who was also searching for the source of a river.
When I drove into the canyon, I put the iPod away and enjoyed my surroundings. This is one of only five roads in the whole state that crosses the Continental Divide. For much of the way it follows the Cache La Poudre River, which flows eastward into the South Platte, carved that canyon. Locals call it the PU-der river. The name is French for “hiding place of the powder.” It refers to an incident in the 1820s when French trappers, caught by a snowstorm, were forced to bury part of their gunpowder along its banks.
About 60 miles of the river are part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers and National Wilderness Preservation System. On Monday, my first day in the area, I hiked up the Big South trail into the Comanche Peak Wilderness along this truly wild, raging, and scenic river at the point where the highway left the river.
This is one of John Fielder’s favorite trails and promises to be one of mine when I am able to walk the entire trail some day. John Fielder is locally famous as Colorado’s greatest wilderness photographer.
But it was a heavily overcast day that was threatening to rain in the afternoon, as it seems to on most of our summer days. So after cutting the hike short, I drove on, crossing Cameron Pass, elevation about 10,300 feet into the “North Park” area of Gould and Walden. That evening I drove into Walden, which bills itself as “the official moose viewing capital of Colorado.”
It has that right. On my way there the weather cleared in the evening and I drove through the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, where I was fortunate enough to view my first Colorado moose. I also saw two pronghorn antelopes, deer, and many species of birds, the most dramatic of which were a large group of white pelicans. This refuge brought back bittersweet memories of the Elkhorn Slough refuge south of Santa Cruz, where Catherine and I enjoyed one of the few hikes that we took together.
I reserved Tuesday, my second day in this country, for my exploration of the source of the Colorado. Backtracking about 30 miles and driving about 13 miles down the dirt Long Draw Road wasn’t too bad, and I finally came to La Poudre Pass. Along the way and on the trail, sometimes just a few feet from me, I saw groups of moose seven or eight times.
It was the moose that excited me most during this trip. I think that the only animals that could have excited me more here would have been bears, lions, elephants, whales, or dinosaurs!
My hike to discover the source of the Colorado was my longest during this trip, 5 and one-half hours and 15,000 steps. No one was at the trailhead and on the entire hike I saw only one couple, who had hiked up from the Colorado River trailhead in the park. Hiking down into the northern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, I found several streams, including Lady Creek, that provide the source of the mighty river. It was a hard hike, going down much further than I had anticipated, and it rained all the way back up to the trailhead.
As it continued to rain all afternoon, I went back to my cabin and napped before dinner. Again, I drove into Walden to eat, and just as I left the restaurant the rain turned so heavy that I could barely see the road for my drive back to the cabin.
On the trip I ate once at all four restaurants between Walden and the well-named town of Rustic, some 60 miles from Walden. In the mornings there was only one place to get coffee closer than Walden, the KOA campground a couple of miles from my cabin.
Yesterday was my best hiking days. Three of my hiking books recommended the Montgomery Pass trail that climbs steeply from 10,000 to 11,000 feet in two miles each way. The last few hundred feet are tundra or alpine vegetation above the treeline, offering tremendous views to the east and west. The view west was best with snow-capped Mount Zirkel, elevation about 12,000 in the distance and a lake, probably Lake John, clearly visible in this photograph.
While the weather was so cold when I hit the trail at 7:30 that I had to put on my sealskin gloves to stay warm, it was a beautifully sunny and clear day that warmed up, calm until I reached the pass, which like most passes in my experience was awfully windy. The four-hour hike added another 10,000+ steps to my boots.
Now I am looking forward to something a little different. And I haven’t decided exactly what, but I know that it will require my new high-sensitivity hiking GPS receiver (a Garmin etrex Vista HCx), which was waiting for me when I got back to my place yesterday afternoon. My next adventures will be either to start climbing some of the many 13,000 and 14,000 foot mountains in Colorado or going on overnight trips.
The mountain climbing will get me above the treeline for the views that I love so much, but may be too dangerous for someone of my age and will certainly require hitting the trailhead by about 3 a.m. to avoid summer afternoon lightening. On the other hand, multi-day hikes will require that I get a sleeping bag, tent, and backpack, like I used 30 years ago but gave away when we lived in northern California.
I probably will start with the later and specifically with camping at Forest Service campgrounds along the highways. For my next long trip I’m thinking of going to Dinosaur National Monument in the northwest corner of the state. In studying the road there from Boulder it seems there are almost no towns. So camping out makes a lot of sense, both because it will give me a lot of flexibility and because it will be excellent practice for carrying my house on my back into the woods.
It happened that a new friend of mine just offered to lend me one of his sleeping bags and pup tent. Mike MacFerrin found my last April Health Central article, “Hiking for Diabetes” (http://www.healthcentral.com/diabetes/c/17/1596/hiking-diabetes ), a few days ago, when he put up his “Hiking with Diabetes” page (http://www.rainforesttreks.com/diabetes.asp). He left a comment on my site and we discovered that we both live in Boulder, we subsequently talked on the phone and met in my favorite coffee shop. I’m going to take him up and that offer.
Whatever I do next, my trip this week was certainly great practice for the longer and harder hikes to come.