Today’s hike was on the Old Horsethief Trail to Horsethief Trail, heading up Cascade Mountain to a peak at Heaven’s Bridge. After 8 days of rigorous hiking and biking, this was the most strenuous effort yet - but also one of the most enjoyable. The trailhead started directly across from the hotel (Hot Springs Inn in Ouray) at 7700’. That was convenient, but gave no chance for a warmup. The trail starts with an immediate steep 20 degree climb on looses rock scree. It was another unusually warm and sunny day, and I wasn’t sure I could tackle this hike today, but just kept saying “put one foot in front of the other…”
After gaining 2600’ in under 3 miles, the view opened to beautiful pastoral scenes up to the peak at 12251’. The trail was non-technical and felt very safe, which made the high altitude gain easier to handle. On the way down I took an extra side trail to gain some extra altitude to achieve a 5000’ altitude gain milestone.
12.4 miles, 6h 25m, 5180’ gain
Today was a “recovery” day from hiking with a mountain bike ride through the Ridgway Area Trail (RAT) system in Ridgway, CO, just north of Ouray.
The community created a generous 30 miles of mountain biking trails next to the Ridgway State Park. It took 15 years of advocacy and approvals from four agencies to allow the project to proceed.
The desert-like terrain is stunning in its own way, with trails ranging from easy climbs and descents to advanced features. Today I rode on trails including The Big Cheese, Speedy Gonzales, Splinter, Ratical, Rattus Maximus, Double Crosser, Rattus, Rat Trap, Squeaker, and The Maze. I skipped tougher trails like Exterminator and Plageground.
Today’s riding stats: 12.2 miles, 2h 34m, 1105’ ascent.
The Sutton/Neosho Mine Trail is a scenic hike leading from the Ouray Perimeter Trail to a mine that was active from roughly 1908 to 1930. The site consists of a bunkhouse, a blacksmith shop, and several small outbuildings in addition to the mine itself. The hike starts gains most of its altitude at the start before leveling out to provide great views of the San Juan mountains.
Hike stats: 5.0 miles, 1440’ gain, 2h 30m, peak altitude 9021’
The Ouray Perimeter Trail is a beautiful 6 mile trail that circumnavigates the town. It’s not technically challenging and is worth the effort for anyone in decent shape.
Hike stats: 6.1 mile, 1565’ gain, 2h 47m, peak height 8498’
Today was a recovery day from hiking and biking with a 100 mile trip from Ouray over to Mesa Verde National Park.
Mesa Verde was home to the ancestral Pueblo people, estimated from around 550 to 1300 AD. The landscape is a sloping mesa that rises high above the surrounding valleys. The national park provides access to the expansive mesa top (where some of the Pueblo people lived, grew crops, and hunted) and to the cliff dwellings constructed from sandstone below the mesa top.
The Mesa Verde national park makes for a great day if you like cultural history and the desert landscape. If you enjoy hiking, biking, or more in-depth learning, it’s easily worth at least two days. Options include self-guided tours, ranger-led tours, hikes, and camping.
Hiking stats: 6.1 miles, 2h 42m, 974’ ascent
It’s the final day of Colorado adventure! I planned to hike a 15 mile, 4900’ ascent Telluride loop including Bear Creek, Wasatch, and Bridal Veil. However after seeing lots of traffic heading into Telluride last night for a festival on the trip back from Mesa Verde, I used AllTrails to find a great alternative.
The Columbine Lake Trail starts from south of Ouray and north of Silverton. The trail starts in a dense forest, then rises above the tree line to great vistas and ultimately the colorful Columbine Lake at 12700’ elevation.
Today was the first chilly day of the trip, with temps in the 40s in the shade and a bit of ice pellets falling.
Hiking stats: 9.6 miles, 4h 37m, 3010’ ascent, peak elevation 12709’.
This adventure went perfectly with 11 of 13 dry days, no travel delays, and no COVID. Going into it I hoped to be active every day but realistically I’ve never hiked more than three times in a week in slightly hilly Maryland, so I thought maybe every other day I could hike. It’s amazing how acclimation, motivation, and adrenalin can help.
102 miles, 31735’ elevation gain, 49 hours 50 minutes of hiking time.
23.2 miles, 8 hours 34 minutes
Here’s some recommendations for anyone interested to try a similar adventure.
It’s hard to prepare for Colorado’s altitude and ascents near a coastline. I combined strength and mobility training for months before the trip, and started hiking more hills on hot sunny days to stress the cardio. Just before the trip I climbed the same 1100’ ascent hill (at low elevation) four times on an 85 degree day as a final test.
Once I narrowed in on southwest Colorado, I searched for things like “best hikes in Colorado”. I primarily used AllTrails to view routes, photos, distance and climb stats, and peoples’ reviews. I also searched other hiking sites for reviews of specific hikes. I ultimately accumulated a top 15 list of hikes as options. By the way, 14ers.com is a great resource for 14k and 13k Colorado hikes.
Going alone and given my comfort preferences (this is vacation after all), I chose day hikes that were:
- easily accessible from base camps
- highly rated and popular enough that other people would use the same trails
- challenging yet not commented as having significant exposure or dangers from loose rock or rock falls- not so long that I might not finish well before dark I used three GPS devices and paper maps. Overkill sure, but this worked very well. 1) iPhone running AllTrails - great for zooming into a GPS map and for dynamic route changes, and having the best battery life 2) Garmin Fenix watch with preloaded GPX maps downloaded from AllTrails. The watch has very cumbersome interfaces and it turns out the worst battery life - about 7 hours in GPS mode - but useful for viewing stats. 3) Apple Watch running WorkOutdoors with preloaded GPX maps from AllTrails. This watch had better battery life - maybe 9 hours in GPS mode - and the app is excellent when it isn’t locking up… All three devices/apps provide off route notifications, so as soon as you go off a planned route, at least one will notify you. This can get annoying when you intentionally change a route; AllTrails on the phone provided the best flexibility for dynamic route changes. I carried plenty of water and food - more weight than needed, you can use a water filtration system if you prefer. I also brought a first aid kit, whistle, headlamp, and bear spray. I did not opt to buy an expensive satellite communicator device and subscription. Recovery
To help the body recover quickly each night I (mostly) followed this strategy:
- foam roll
- hot tub
- eat and drink more than usual
I used to get knee and IT band pains on long hikes and especially going downhill. I had zero issues on this trip despite having MUCH more altitude gain and loss than every before. Here’s what worked for me.
- hiking polls: especially helpful on downhills; the extra balance reduces muscle tension and the polls let the upper body absorb some impact
- compression shorts, knee pads, and socks: the compression knee support immediately eliminated IT pain (when biking as well)
- keep the knees bent when going downhill and when at rest: this prevents locking the knees and allows the leg muscles to absorb the impact instead of the knee joint
- mini downhill switchbacks: you know how switchbacks allow you to climb or descend a steep hill more easily? The same concept can help if you start to feel knee pain going downhill. If a steep downhill trail is wide enough (maybe 5’ wide or more), try zigzagging down, left then right, instead of going straight down the path. This approach means more steps but each step is less steep, which is easier on a sore knee. Also, by descending at a slight angle to the hill, you engage the adductor and abductor muscles on each step to absorb some of the impact.