Backpacking the Continental Divide

The Continental Divide. The backbone of our continent, where the waters running off the eastern slopes drain into the Atlantic and those going west drain into the Pacific Oceans. The location of our latest backpacking adventure.

My longtime climbing and backpacking partner Joe and his wife Sara met me in southern Colorado over the Fourth of July for a week in the “high country.” 

P1070813The Continental Divide Trail, or CDT, begins in southern New Mexico and runs across the top of the continental divide all the way to Canada. A small number of “through hikers” successfully backpack the entire length of the trail in one summer, while a much larger number of “section hikers” complete smaller sections of the CDT in small bites. We fall into the latter group. Our plan was to spend the better part of a week doing a loop in the vicinity of Pagosa Springs, CO. Our starting point was the famous Wolf Creek Pass, where we posed for a trailhead photo.

P1070816Wolf Creek Pass is at an elevation of 11,400 feet, so we picked up the CDT from the overlook parking area near the top of the continental divide. The ridge just above the trail is the actual continental divide.P1070826

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P1070844Whenever the trail dropped away from the high ridge above timberline, the proliferation of wildflowers did not disappoint. Here bluebells are mixed with several other species that I will not attempt to identify, other than recognize them for their beauty, and the familiar blue and white columbine was to be found in volume.

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P1070857Here the CDT winds west and then northward just below the high ridge towards our camp for the second night out on Archuleta Lake, just below the divide.

P1070864aP1070868Sunset below the divide gives way to the glow from fires burning north of Durango, which dropped ash on us like light snow after dark.

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Next morning an 800+ foot climb from Archuleta Lake to the top of the divide got the blood flowing. Amazing how flowers hang on at these altitudes above 12,000 feet.

P1070904P1070929The CDT is really exposed up on top…a place not to be caught by afternoon thunderstorms with their deadly lightning. We made camp after 6 miles on top at a small “pond,” our last chance for water for another 6 miles. This has been the driest year in memory for long-time hikers in this part of the Rockies, and we were thankful to find water at the actual source of all streams and rivers.

P1070913Evening showers treated us to a brief rainbow rising out of the top of the divide.

P1070944That night the Milky Way put on a show, with the bright Saturn shining through the band of stars rising in the southeast, here the brightest “star” just to the left of center.

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P1080001Next morning we climb over 1000 feet to a pass which is the high point of our trip at 12,800 feet. From here we follow the top of the divide along knife-edge ridges for another 6 miles before we make camp for the night. 

An even greater variety of wildflowers appear as we click off the miles.

P1080011Small ponds, our first substantial water in 3 days, reflect the ridgeline of the divide as the CDT drops through a pass between mountains.

P1080029P1080027P1080036“Tiptoe Through the Tulips” becomes our trail song next morning as we wind our way through a waists-high sea of flowers along the “Rainbow Trail” which follows the West Fork of the San Juan River from its source down the West Fork drainage.

P1080055The pine and spruce forests of the Rockies have been devastated by spruce beetles. Here the dead stands of trees proved to be excellent fuel for a fire that swept through this drainage in 2013. The deadfall from downed trees made for a nearly impassable trail through the steeper sections.

P1080070P1080074P1080060Campsite the last night along the West Fork of the San Juan. We were visited by several deer, here a couple of bucks with nubbin antlers in velvet just beginning to grow out make a leap over some deadfall trees with much more grace than we.

P1080093Last day on the trail, we pass hot springs, a favorite destination for day hikers.P1080101Fireweed, the first plant to thrive after a forest fire, lights up the trail in burn areas.

Butterflies and moths are everywhere, taking advantage of the bloom nectar.

P1080120P1080129And so, 6 days on the CDT comes to an end with majestic views of lofty escarpments that form the canyon of the West Fork. This is a short (30-mile) loop with easy access to trailheads. With so many of our western national forests closed due to fire danger, this is a gem waiting to be enjoyed. BEWARE…the Rainbow Trail through the West Fork drainage has some extremely difficult sections due to tree downfall on steep slopes. Be prepared for a lot of difficult scrambling to get over and around these blockages, especially through one 2-mile stretch. A challenge well worth the effort.