About halfway between Silverton and Durango, which happened to be our next destination, the highway climbs up to nearly 11,000 feet at Molas Pass. From a highway overlook travelers will have a wonderful panoramic view of the mountains in the wild Weminuche Wilderness. It is a place that affords a moment to contemplate the majesty of nature and the wild expanse of a pristine landscape. Which was exactly what I was doing, standing alone on the viewing platform, when unexpectedly and quite suddenly, I wasn’t alone. A guy had come up to stand beside me and spontaneously says “Hi! My name is Kurt and I’ve just come off the Colorado Trail which I’ve been hiking since leaving Denver nearly a month ago! I’m on such a high right now that I’ve just got to share it with someone!” He was beaming with obvious joy and, just as spontaneously, I found myself caught up in his euphoria. “Wow!” I exclaimed, searching for words that would adequately match his accomplishment. “What was that like?” was all that I could think to say. But it turned out to be enough. His ebullience carried him on a wave of illustrative explanations.
The Colorado Trail extends from the outskirts of Denver to the town of Durango, for a total length of 470 miles. Traveling through the spectacular Colorado Rockies, it encompasses mountain peaks with their alpine lakes, creeks and streams, and diverse ecosystems. Hiking the entire distance will include six wilderness areas and eight mountain ranges topping out at more than 13,000 feet. The trail’s average elevation is over 10,300 feet and it rises and falls dramatically. If they make it the entire distance, hikers will have climbed 89,354 feet. To say it is an accomplishment would be a drastic understatement.
“The stars at night were like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” was Kurt’s first remarks to my simplistic, utterly inadequate question. He went on to provide other thoughts, still wearing a wide grin while nearly quivering with excitement as he stood there. He had never done anything like this accomplishment in his 70+ years, and that was undoubtedly a big part of what he was now feeling as he was on the very last leg of his adventure. I remarked that just the day before I was up on Stony Pass and noticed the Colorado Trail passed over it. “Hey, that’s where I was too!!” he exclaimed, which raised his effervesence at least a couple notches higher. “That very morning . . . I was sleeping right up there just below the pass! What time were you there?” When I said it was around 11am, he said he had packed up and taken off by then, sounding as if he almost regretted that we didn’t have an encounter then. I remarked that there was still snow up there, and that it must have gotten pretty cold at night. (Everything that was coming out of my mouth seemed so trivial in comparison to the feat that he had just accomplished).
In retrospect, one tends to think of all the things that SHOULD have been said, all the questions that SHOULD have been asked, after the fact. Pertinent questions such as “Did you have any serious wildlife encounters?” Or “What was the best part of the trail?” Maybe–”Was it more difficult than you thought it would be?” And even better—“Ever think of giving up?” But instead, caught in the suddenness of the encounter, like a deer trapped in headlights, instead I blurted out “How did your boots hold up?”—Yes! That was the very next thing to come out of my mouth!! But indeed, I’ve always wondered how hard the long miles must be on a pair of even the sturdiest hiking boots. “Just fine,” he replied, not acting at all surprised at the obvious mundane and simplistic query, as we both looked down at what he was wearing. (As a matter of fact, they didn’t seem to be anything special—just your ordinary, everyday hiking shoes). Okay, so much for the insignificant question.
After that, we both took time to look at the trail map on the board there in front of us, remarking about where the route went. He was still obviously feeling nearly unconstrained exuberance as he turned to go. His friend from Durango was there to meet him and take him in to town for more provisions and a well-anticipated cleaning up. (Actually, I thought he looked to be in pretty decent shape for all the hardship he’d just come through). So, I wished him well on his last segment and ended by saying “You’ve just done something that many might dream of doing, but few actually get it done. Congratulations seems so meager, but what else can I say? Thanks for sharing your moment of joyful accomplishment with me! I feel honored to have shared it with you!” With a last big grin, he turned to leave. I called out to him as he was walking away “Live long and prosper, Kurt!” which just kind of slipped out spontaneously. But he turned to wave and I’m sure there was mutual happiness in this moment of his personal triumph.
Now it was on to Durango and our next campground. Continuing south on US-550, a segment of the San Juan Skyway, the scenery continued to amaze. Tucked between reddish sandstone bluffs, Durango occupies a spectacular position in the wide Animas River Valley close to the sharply uplifted peaks of the San Juan Mountains. Its location has become an asset as the mining industry dwindled, which had been the mainstay of the town’s economy for decades. Falling on hard times, Durango languished for years before seeing a growth in the tourism and education industries. Today, tourism is booming, with local businesses the beneficiaries, as well as the founding of Fort Lewis College in 1956. Located atop a high mesa near town, the college has had few troubles attracting students to its prime location in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains.
About 10 miles north of the city limits a very distinguishing landmark stretches for nearly a mile. Towering above the road, the Hermosa Cliffs form a high wall on the western side of the Animas River Valley. With high mountain peaks to the east, the verdant valley of ranchlands sandwiched between, the landscape approaching Durango is hard to beat.
Just across from these cliffs is the turn-off for the Durango Riverside Resort and RV Park, our home for the next 4 days. With a great location just outside the city limits but part of great scenery, we loved this place.
Besides having wonderful amenities (including a heated swimming pool), we had opted for a prime site adjacent to the fast-flowing Animas River. We’d enjoy a peaceful and hopefully leisurely time here enjoying this ideal spot.
But we couldn’t spend ALL our time settled in . . . this area was too full of outdoor potentials. One afternoon was all the time I gave him for lounging before we headed out.
There happened to be a rather perfect fishing spot just a short drive away (in fact, we had passed by it further north just off US-550). Known to be prime trout waters, it also had a reputation for being one outstandingly scenic location. With late afternoon being prime time for both fishing and photography, Andrews Lake seemed to be the perfect match.
Great photo op (check!); great fishing hole (double-check!!)
Early the following morning we were heading out once more. (You didn’t think I’d let him do more riverside lounging?) There was a hiking trail I’d had my eye on ever since researching this trip. With afternoon monsoons still being the rule rather than the exception, we were pulling in to the trailhead at the unheard of (for me) early hour—8am.
Our destination in sight as we headed up to 10,600-foot Coal Bank Pass, the trail we’d be taking led to the base of Engineer Mountain (or on up to the summit, if legs were willing).
The trail to the base of Engineer Mountain is known as the Pass Creek Trail. Access it directly from US-550. From there, the trail climbs through a steep open field before entering the forest. Follow the switchbacks up, up and ever up until you reach tree line. This is where the magic happens: wide and open vistas with the sheer cliff walls of Engineer looming large in the foreground. Toward the top, the trail breaks out into beautiful alpine meadows at the base of the peak, offering sweeping views of the Needles Mountains and Animas Valley.
The start of Pass Creek Trail is a real winner! The path leads through a stunning array of masses of colorful wildflowers. To see it is even hard to believe what you’re seeing!
Engineer Mountain Trail brings the best of both worlds into one amazing day-hike – a pleasant, albeit uphill, climb through Colorado’s finest terrain and an adrenaline-pumping scramble to the top of the mountain. With easy access from US 550, this trail is popular with hikers and mountain bikers alike who enjoy a climb through cool conifer forests before reaching an open meadow, blossoming with Colorado’s classic wildflowers.
Leaving the wildflower meadow, the trail begins to gain in elevation. Hard-packed dirt makes for easy footing, the forest shade keeps us pleasantly cool. I couldn’t imagine a better trek!
When the trail comes out of the dim forest, we have our first sight of what’s waiting ahead.
Tired legs forgotten . . . I felt my heart beat faster (not due to the high elevation, to be sure). Fields of flowers will continue to lead the way to Engineer Mountain.
At 11,600′ the path emerges from the woods onto a broad swath of land, the Engineer Plateau. And now, for the first time, we felt the pulling force of the mountain, first sight is seen through the trees.
We have arrived at the Engineer Plateau—a magnificent peak soars above a flamboyant floral tapestry at its base. I am transfixed. Chris is somewhat taken back too (just not quite to my degree).
He’ll continue on down the trail . . . not attempting to climb to the summit, but at least to get a feel for its climb. I am transfixed where I am . . . content to remain in the meadow and bask in the wonder of it all. Perhaps take a photo or two (or maybe considerably more).
About 12,000 years ago, the most recent episodes of repeated glaciations took place along the Animas River Valley. The glaciers began their formation from Silverton all the way through Durango and they were the driving force behind the geography we see here today. The ice was more than two thousand feet thick in places but Engineer Mountain was high enough to stick out and become what geologist call a “nunatak’. As the glacier slowly plowed its way to the south it smashed into the mountain carving out the tall cliffs and shaping the sides as it went along. What we see today is the aftermath of what the ice and water did ages ago.
Sometime later, he returns. Blue skies have turned overcast and ominous. It signals what I know is moving in, reminding us we must be returning. Back down the trail, we turn to retrace our route. My breath stops once again at the sight that’s been behind us, unseen until now. Another heart-rending, unbearably beautiful scene.
Lest you begin to think from the photos I’ve been posting that the Colorado Rockies are awash in a wildflower splendor, let me assure you that isn’t quite the case. True, we timed our visit in hopes of hitting Colorado’s wildflower peak season, but even in the best of years you won’t find this flowery carpet in every field and meadow you chance to pass. Colorado has its special places—usually remote, hidden away, often well-kept secrets, not passed on every road and highway. Places that require some knowledge beforehand, research often pays off with high rewards. So when you come across these glorious locales where wildflowers carpet the landscape, the rewards are felt many times over. They are treasures that will enrich whatever time you have in Colorado.
Doing what we do best
Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris