Living the High Life

Colorado's Continental Divide
Colorado CDT Practicalities
The route: Northbound on the crest of the Continental Divide from Jones Pass to Rollins Pass in the Arapaho National Forest.

Distance: 27 miles.

Weather: You'll get some. Watch especially for high winds and afternoon thunderstorms.
Check the guidebook (below) for bail-out points. About 11 miles from Jones Pass, the trail crosses Route 40 at Berthoud Pass.

Information and maps: A detailed description of the route with essential information concerning seasonal water sources is found in the Guide to the Continental Divide Trail: Volume 4: Northern Colorado, by Jim Wolf, published by the Continental Divide Trail Society, (410) 235-9610. (Note: The guidebook predates the Forest Service's decision to route the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail around some of the Divide's more difficult sections. When completed, the official CDT will offer an alternative, especially if the weather is bad.) Forest visitors maps are $4 (paper) and $6 (plastic-laminated). Arapaho National Forest, 240 W. Prospect, Fort Collins, CO 80524, (970)498-1100.

USGS quads: East Portal, Berthoud Pass, Empire, Byers Peak.($3 each).

Getting there: Berthoud Pass, which bisects this hike, is on US 40 near Winter Park. Both Jones Pass and Rollins Pass are accessible by Forest Service roads shown on the visitor's map, but when we reached Jones Pass in late July, the road was snow-blocked. Build in extra time, in case you have to walk to the ridge

If you're looking for a leg-stretching, lung-busting challenge, not to mention high-above-the-world, million-mile views of more mountains than you can count for as far as you can see, this 27-mile hike along the open crest of the Continental Divide on Colorado's Front Range offers what may be the quintessential high country experience. Everything about this hike is on an oversized scale: The size of the mountains, the length of the climbs, the scope of the views, the thundering storms. It's a trip to open up your lungs and clean out the cobwebs.

Expect a Challenge

Storms race in fast and furious, and with treeline some impossible distance downhill, there is nowhere to hide once the sky turns purple and the thunderclouds start hurling their fury. The footway, if you can call it that, is a rock-strewn, ankle-twisting obstacle course occasionally marked with improbably placed cairns. The wind roars and gusts, until your rain gear crackles and whips around like a torn sail in a hurricane. And, since you're atop a ridge, there's the problem of water: The few sources are sporadic and too far apart.

I mention all this in the spirit of fair warning. This is not a hike to tackle if you're looking for a gentle, restful walk on a scenic ridge. It's a hike to take if you want to come face to face with the power of mountains: their rage, their beauty — sometimes both within minutes. The payoff is the inimitable exhilaration of walking atop the world: of getting high and staying there, mile after windblown mile.

Elevations range from 11,300 at Berthoud Pass to 13,391 atop Parry Peak, and in between it's a roller coaster ride, so in addition to being fit, you'll need to be acclimated to high elevations. In good weather, strong hikers can do this hike in three days, but it's better to build in extra time. My extra-tough, marathon-running, rugby-playing, thru-hiking, mega-mileage backpacking buddies are still reminiscing about this hike, so don't underestimate it. Be sure to plan your days with water sources in mind. While there isn't much water atop the ridge, there are a few springs and you can test your bushwhacking skills by climbing down to some of the jewellike alpine lakes visible from the trail. You need extra time for these off-trail forays.

Most important, plan extra time to just sit and stare. It would be as easy to count the waves in an ocean as the mountain peaks that surround you.


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