CDT 2021: Day 44, Cumbres Pass to Spectacle Lake Campground

You gotta go where you wanna go

I didn’t sleep well last night, but that wasn't because I felt anxious about the next leg of this hike. On the contrary, I felt good about my decision to take a lower alternate that would avoid dangerous snow conditions. I was also glad Top O' was hiking with me.

I think my restlessness was simply from not being tired. After a few strenuous days on the trail, I got a lot of rest yesterday. It was a relaxing day because there wasn't much to do. That's unusual for a zero day.

DateWednesday, May 26, 2021
WeatherCloudy sky, clearing late, with temperatures from low-40s to low-60s
Trail ConditionsAsphalt and gravel roads
Today's Miles19.0
Trip Miles648.9

I ate a big cinnamon roll for breakfast. It caught my eye yesterday evening when I walked to the counter to pay for my dinner at the Box Car Café.

Top O' and I wanted to return to the trailhead as soon as possible this morning, but we weren't sure how we would do that. Shortly after 7 a.m., however, Top O' came back to our room and said Carl offered to drive us back. That was the guy who brought us here on Monday.

As I loaded my pack into Carl's car, my inflated bag of Fritos exploded. Chips flew everywhere. That was the bag that puffed to nearly bursting when it was mailed from home.

I guess I should have opened the bag to release the air pressure before strapping it to the outside of my pack. Embarrassed by the mess, I tried to sweep up the scattered chips. Carl wasn't bothered by the mess, though. "Don't worry about it," he said. "Have you noticed the condition of my car?"

It was true his car was already messy. You had to hold the handle on the passenger-side door in just the right spot before it would open. The backseat was filled with soft drink cans and other assorted debris. My chips just blended in.

We arrived at Cumbres Pass a few minutes after 8 a.m. It was a good thing I had walked up to the gap on Monday in my attempt to hitchhike. Carl dropped us off at the same spot. Now I wouldn't have to backtrack down the road to keep my footsteps connected.

After Top O' and I gave Carl some gas money and thanked him for the ride, we were on our way.

Native Americans used Cumbres Pass long before white settlers migrated here. Ute Indians were the primary inhabitants, but Navajo, Apache, and Comanche were also known to be in the area for trade, hunting, and raids.

Trappers and soldiers began using the pass by 1871. The first train crossed the pass in 1880, and a toll road was constructed a year later.

Although the CDT crossed the highway near here, we would not be following the trail today. We took a route called the Great Divide Alternate. It also crossed Cumbres Pass on Colorado Highway 17. From here, it will keep us at a lower elevation to avoid most of the snow.

The alternate's name comes from a mountain bike route that runs from Jasper, Alberta, in Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. This isn't the first time I've walked on that bike route. The CDT and some alternates sometimes followed my footpath in New Mexico.

The road crossed another pass after a little more than seven miles. This was La Manga Pass, which was about 200 feet higher than Cumbres Pass.

Traffic was light, and the road had a wide shoulder. We had no problem walking on the road and felt safe. Walking here wasn't as enjoyable as a trail, but at least it was easy to walk.

The sky was cloudy and the temperature was cool. These conditions also allowed us to hike a little faster than normal.

One downside of walking on a highway is there usually aren't many places to stop for a break. We found a spot for a short break in the morning, then didn't stop again until 12:30 p.m. Our lunch spot was on some large boulders where the highway made a hairpin curve in a long descent.

A snow-capped 13-er, Conejos Peak (13,179-feet high), was just visible in the distance. It was about 16.5 miles away.

The way down the long descent gave us a view of the valley where we were heading. The Conejos River ran through the valley.

Compared to most of New Mexico, this valley looked lush and verdant. Near the bottom of the highway's descent into the valley, we turned to follow a gravel road.

We would stay on gravel roads for the rest of today and the next three days. As much as I grew to dislike walking on gravel roads in New Mexico, I immediately could see this experience was different. The river was one reason for that because it kept the vegetation green. The surrounding mountains were also unlike what I was used to seeing in New Mexico. There was a much denser covering of trees.

The gravel road crossed a bridge that had been closed to vehicles. We stopped to talk briefly with a man fishing on the bridge and a short time later with a lady walking her dog. After that, we didn't see anyone except for the rare occasion when a car drove by.

After crossing the bridge, we turned to follow another gravel road, Forest Service Road 250. It went upstream along the river.

South San Juan Wilderness was on the other side of the river. Much of the CDT's high route was within its borders. I would have liked to stay on the "official" trail if the conditions had been better. Still, I was quickly beginning to appreciate the pretty views in the valley.

Pockets of limestone deposits were scattered in this area. I hadn't realized that until we passed the crumbling remains of a lime kiln. A marker next to the ruins said the kiln was constructed in 1889.

The kiln was used to heat limestone, a process that took several days before the lime could be extracted. Lime was used in a variety of construction materials, such as mortar, plaster, and whitewash. It was also used as a disinfectant and in the preparation of hides for tanning.

The Conejos River snaked through the valley. It was wide and mostly shallow. The river's source is high in the San Juan Mountains and runs more than 90 miles before joining the Rio Grande.

Some stretches of the river have been considered for preservation status, but no action has been taken yet.

Late in the day, the road took us past Black Mountain. We couldn't see the peak because it was set back on a plateau.

The sky remained cloudy all day. A sunny day might have made the long road walk unbearably hot, but the temperature was never a problem for us.

Because of the many bends in the river's path, the road had many curves. The views on our walk were constantly changing. Thanks to the river, the mountains, an easy route, and pleasant temperatures, this had been an unexpectedly enjoyable day.

If we had wanted to stop to camp along the road, we would have had trouble finding a suitable spot. We saw several signs posted where camping was prohibited.

The lack of camping spots on the road wasn't a problem for us because a Forest Service campground was within easy reach just off the road. We arrived there at 4 p.m. That was much earlier than we usually prefer to stop, but the location was ideal, and we couldn't pass it up.

The entrance gate was locked, so we had the place to ourselves. Surprisingly, the privy was unlocked and a water pump worked.

Despite our late start and early quitting time, we completed 19 miles today. I would be hard-pressed to complain about that mileage any day on the trail.

Top O’ and I walked at roughly the same pace for the whole day. We didn't always walk together, but we were usually within sight of each other. I didn't expect to have a problem hiking with him, but it was still nice to see we got along well.

I couldn't see the conditions on the CDT's high route. There was no way to tell for sure they were as bad as reported and if I had made the right choice to take the alternate. Still, I also saw no reason to regret my decision.

You gotta go where you wanna go
Do what you wanna do
With whoever you wanna do it with

Babe, you gotta go where you wanna go
Do what you wanna do
With whoever you wanna do it with

From "Go Where You Wanna Go" by John Phillips (The Mamas & the Papas)

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