CDT 2021: Day 91, Mineral Basin to Hancock Lake

Smoke gets in your eyes

Thick smoke from the Morgan Creek Fire

A wildfire sparked by lightning Friday afternoon near Steamboat Springs was rapidly becoming uncontrollable. By last night, the Morgan Creek Fire had burned more than 3,400 acres. Though it was about 150 miles away from us, it was affecting our hike.

As the sky grew increasingly hazy yesterday, I didn't think at first I was seeing smoke. There was no doubt later when the sky turned dirty brown.

DateMonday, July 12, 2021
WeatherPartly cloudy/hazy, temperatures from the mid-40s to low-70s
Trail ConditionsLong climbs and descents on a well-maintained trail
Today's Miles17.7
Trip Miles1255.7

I had always felt Top O', OldTimer, and I made the right decision to flip to Wyoming and hike south through Colorado. Now I had another reason to be glad we did that.

The fire was burning in Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, a section of the trail we hiked more than three weeks ago. The trail there is closed now, and northbound hikers are forced to find an alternate route around the fire zone.

Smokey sky over mountains

Our campsite was perched just below the treeline on a slope of Mount Kruetzer. As soon as I began walking, I noticed the smoke had become significantly thicker overnight. A brown-gray cast made the sky gloomy and nearly blocked out the sun.

Oblong-leaf bluebells

Oblong-leaf bluebells and other wildflowers that grew along the trail were the only bright objects to see.

Two trail emblems on a gnarly post

The trail soon climbed above the treeline. I had difficulty getting started again this morning. I felt as if I was carrying lead weights on my legs. This has become a recurring problem for me in the morning and is probably a sign I need to add more carbohydrates to my breakfast.

Rocks and a smokey sky look spooky

With a jumble of rocks and a dirty sky, the terrain took on an other-world spookiness. Sprinkles noticed that too. She caught up to me when I stopped to take a photo of some wildflowers and said, “The flowers are nice here on Mars.”

narcissus anemone

The flowers that attracted my attention were narcissus anemone. In Colorado and Wyoming, this plant is only found in a few high-mountain alpine locations. It is more common in Alaska and northwest Canada.

The sun barely shines through a smokey sky

The sun didn't get much brighter as it climbed higher. It was still a small orb of orange fighting to be seen in the thick brown sky.

Looking across a distant ridge

The first climb of the morning wasn't overly strenuous, and I gradually got over my sluggish start. The trail went up a shoulder of Emma Burr Mountain, which stands at 13,538 feet high.

This is one of the few mountains in Colorado that is named for a woman, though oddly, no one seems to know who she was.

After going up about 800 feet in 2.9 miles and reaching the top of the shoulder, the trail started a slightly steeper descent.

Rocky, rugged mountain slopes

The terrain was just as rugged on the other side, but the trail had been constructed well and didn't have many rocks.

A marmot sitting on a large boulder watched me as I passed by.

Thick smoke

Although it looked as if the trail might drop much deeper into a valley, it made a turn at a stream and then climbed up a ridge. I stopped for a short break at the stream.

While I was stopped, I looked across the valley. Mountains on the other side were barely visible through the smoke.

The trail descends

The climb from the stream was also not strenuous. Many switchbacks helped to make it less steep.

Trees along the trail

The next descent was much longer, dropping for the first time below the treeline. At the bottom, the trail passed the south junction of the Mirror Lake Alternate.

Another climb started immediately after the junction. I found OT and Top O' part of the way up the other side, where they had stopped for lunch. Although I fell behind them early today and didn't see them until now, I was glad to discover I hadn't been walking as slowly as I thought.

The trail climbs above the treeline

I lost sight of Top O' and OT again soon after we continued the climb. Although I couldn't keep up with them, I was feeling stronger than this morning.

A wide-open valley

By mid-afternoon, the smoke had cleared enough that I could see clouds and patches of blue. Nevertheless, enough smoke lingered in the sky that my eyes were starting to sting.

The stoney slope of a mountain

This climb wasn't nearly as steep and didn't ascend as high as the others today. As the sky gradually brightened, the day became much less gloomy.

The last high point of the trail today was a pass near Tunnel Lake. When I saw the lake on the map, I thought "Tunnel" was an odd name for a lake, but I soon learned why it was given that name.

A railroad track bed comes into view

Near the bottom of the descent, something unexpected came into view. I hadn't spent much time looking ahead in the Guthook app, so I didn't know the trail would turn to follow an old railroad bed, though that became obvious as soon as I saw it.

The trail took the path of tracks that had been laid around 1880. If the CDT had turned left at the railroad bed, it would have gone to Alpine Tunnel. That's how Tunnel Lake got its name.

The tunnel was 1,772 feet long but is now collapsed on both ends.

Where the Denver, South Pass & Pacific Railroad once ran

Soon after I made the turn, I could see remnants of the track's wooden ties. The rails had been removed more than 100 years ago.

This was a route of the Denver, South Pass & Pacific Railroad, which served mines and the communities that sprung up around them. It's been said that as many as 10,000 men were employed to construct the tunnel and tracks.

The effort and expense involved in constructing a railroad in these mountains show how much the owners hoped to profit from the mining boom that was underway. Their investment paid off at first but soon turned bad because of a string of catastrophes. The owners went bankrupt more than once, and mining diminished until it was no longer sufficient to sustain the railroad.

The tracks were pulled up less than 30 years after trains first ran on them.

The railroad track bed descends

The disasters that doomed the railroad were due largely to the unforgiving terrain and weather. With massive snowfalls in winter and unstable geology, the tracks were closed and severely damaged many times during the railroad's short period of operation. In one horrifying incident, several people were killed when a small town was buried in a snow avalanche.

I could see how keeping the tracks open was a constant struggle. At above 11,000 feet, the tracks would be buried in several feet of snow for many months of the year. Several large boulders covered the route that was now the trail, which showed the instability of the mountainside.

A sign points to a new trail section

We followed the railroad bed for nearly three miles. Before the end, a sign pointed to a new trail that turned off the old tracks. The new section was constructed so recently that it didn't appear on Guthook, though it was mentioned in a couple of comments. It didn't look like anyone had walked on it.

Top O' said some NOBO section hikers told him the old route was a better way to go, so we decided to stick with it. The two trails would soon reconnect anyway, and as best as we could guess, both sections were about the same length.

OT and Top O' walk ahead

After the trail split, the railroad bed was smoother, with fewer large rocks and boulders. The trail went past a bend called Sawmill Curve. A steep grade and a sharp curve made this the site of several train derailments.

Rain falls in the distance

Soon after we walked past the curve, rain began to fall and some thunder rumbled in the distance. It wasn't heavy rainfall, but it looked worse in the direction we were walking.

I stopped to put on my rain gear, and as so often happens, the rain stopped soon after that. Still seeing rain ahead of me, however, I decided to keep my rain gear on and didn't take it off until the rain dissipated.

Ruins of Hancock

I was glad we had decided to take the old route instead of the new trail because we passed another historic site. There wasn't much left to look at, but we walked through the ruins of a mining town called Hancock.

Nearly 200 people lived here during the mining boom days of the late 1880s. It became a ghost town then the railroad shut down for good in 1910.

A valley of fragile tundra vegetation

Where the new trail rejoined with the old trail, the footpath left an old road and entered a wide alpine valley. A sign posted here warned this was a fragile tundra.

Hancock Lake was in the middle of the valley, though really it was two lakes. The lower one was much larger.

Tents pitched near Hancock Lake

We reached the lower lake at 5:30 p.m., then spent several minutes looking for a spot to set up our tents. We needed some time because we wanted to find a clear spot where we wouldn't trample on sensitive foliage. The site also needed to be sufficiently far from the lake.

Clearing sky

By 7 p.m., the sky above us was bright blue with a few puffy clouds. This was the first time all day it looked clear of smoke.

A smokey sky to the north

Then I turned to look north and saw the sky in that direction was still very smokey. It seemed the rain that fell on us had only cleared the air in the immediate area.

After I finished eating dinner and crawled into my tent, the wind picked up, and a light sprinkle of rain began to fall. I hoped this would keep the smoke away from us, but the rain didn’t continue for long.

I had some difficulty breathing overnight. We were camped at 11,681 feet. That was 240 feet lower in elevation than last night when I didn't notice any breathing problems. Was the smoke causing my problem, or was it the elevation? I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing the smoke was irritating my lungs as much as it was my eyes.

They asked me how I knew
My true love was true
I of course replied, something here inside
Cannot be denied

They said someday you'll find
All who love are blind
When your heart's on fire, you must realize
Smoke gets in your eyes


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.