The Colorado Trail: A journey to Janet’s Cabin
Special to the Daily
Colorado Trail — Copper Mountain to Camp Hale
Distance: 16-plus mile, depending on variations
Elevation gain: Approximately 4,020 feet
Parking: Leave one car at Copper Mountain and the other at Camp Hale
Variations: You can start at Copper’s Center Village or the Far East parking lot, and choose your exit point at Camp Hale for more or less distance
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two-part series on the 500-mile Colorado Trail. For Part 1, an overview of the 12.5-mile day hike between Gold Hill and Copper Mountain, click here.
For those who want more than a day hike, this section from Copper Mountain to Camp Hale is a great overnight option. I indulged in a night at Janet’s Cabin to avoid carrying a tent and stove. While I did an A-to-B itinerary, you could also do an out-and-back from Copper to Janet’s on the CT.
If you want to pick up where you left off from the day hike, not missing a single foot of the CT, by all means start at the Far East lot. However, note that you will be stringing together a hike along the lower part of Copper. Getting a late start, I opted to have someone drop me off at Center Village. Let it be known that I cheated, and you can too.
Walk uphill from the Burning Stones Plaza, and you’ll hit the CT almost immediately. Go right and follow the trail markers. Look behind to see where you ended your day hike, providing some continuity between these two little adventures.
While there are many twists and turns at the beginning of today’s hike, the trail is exceedingly well marked by a wide variety of painted and carved markers. Starting up the hill at 5 p.m., I crossed many day hikers and mountain bikers headed downhill. I saw by their traces that horses use the trail as well.
Once you pass through the maze of dirt roads and trails on the mountain, you start a slow uphill meander through the woods. Upon exiting Copper Mountain, get ready for pristine beauty. After crossing two streams, you will spend the majority of the hike alongside an open meadow. You follow the valley uphill, surrounded by monkshood and sticky geranium.
This meadow is a popular campsite for thru-hikers. As I was passing through, I saw everyone setting up their camp, catching up on trail beta with one another, and lighting up their stoves for the evening meal. In between taking notes and pictures, I leapfrogged with a young woman who had just graduated from college in Las Vegas. Looking at her pack, and admiring her slow, steady pace, I felt good about having such a light backpack for my hut-assisted overnight. Her fellow thru-hikers encouraged her to camp nearby, but she was determined to make it to tree line.
As I left the Nevadan with her heavy pack, I climbed several switchbacks back into the forest, rising up to the ridge. Janet’s Cabin sits at tree line, and as the sun was setting on the mountains and the trees started to thin, I wondered if I’d somehow missed the spur. Then, two mountain bikers appeared out of nowhere, reassuring me that I was about 100 feet from the trail.
Janet’s Cabin makes for a rustic stopover on the Colorado Trail. It is big and welcoming, particularly compared to some other huts in the system. I knew that I would be able to boil water, sleep in a bed, and use the hut’s dishes. For a solo hiker, it was a huge relief to lighten my load.
I’m pretty used to hiking and camping solo, but for those who find the prospect a bit daunting, know that at least in this section of the trail, you will not be alone. If you choose to stay in the hut, chances are you’ll have company. I showed up just as night was falling, and met two friendly girls who’d settled in hours before. After a little socializing, they left to read their books in bed while I made dinner and played Janet’s guitar.
Lying in the lower bunk next to the north-facing window, the nearly full moon lighting up the night sky, I felt pure bliss.
At dawn I left the quiet comfort of the hut and traveled up the hill to rejoin the Colorado Trail. There were predictions of afternoon thunderstorms, and since most of the hike is above tree line, it’s wise to get an early start.
On the lookout for Little Elephant’s Head, one of my favorite wildflowers, I was overjoyed to see whole fields of them at sunrise. The views ranged from the Gores to Searle Pass awaiting me ahead. I thought that I had risen early enough to enjoy some solitude.
Suddenly, near the pass, a mountain biker came barreling towards me. The Steamboat resident was doing the Colorado Trail Race. Riding hard since Durango, he had treated himself to some new garb in Leadville and was proudly showing off his bike shorts when his race buddy Adam from British Columbia joined the conversation. Both had started riding five days before. To cover that much distance in that little time, they had to do things like ride until 10 p.m., get back up at 1:30 a.m. and ride until naptime. They were excited to head down to Copper for coffee and doughnuts.
“Did you come from Denver?” Steamboat asked dubiously.
“No, just Copper,” I responded.
“I thought you looked a little fresh.”
Yes, I was an imposter trying to fit into the Colorado Trail.
When I hit Searle Pass, the light was so soft that even the Climax tailing ponds seemed like gentle swimming pools. I kept moving, as reality would have sunk in sooner or later.
One of the perks of day trips and overnights on the Colorado Trail is that I feel better able to appreciate my backyard. Unlike the trail weary, I am not dulled by days of travel. This brief journey has allowed me to experience the terrain in a different way. Traveling alone, I find myself grinning at the views and marveling at the beauty out loud. Perhaps solitude is the best policy.
The trail stays above tree line, contouring around the curves, and then slowly rising again. Mount Massive and its fellow snowcapped peaks appear off in the distance. I reach Kokomo Pass, which is the boundary of Summit County on the Colorado Trail. However, you must continue down if you expect anyone to come pick you up. Looking down to the trail ahead, remembering being here years ago, I put one foot in front of the other.
Savor this last bit above tree line, where the colors of the flowers are outrageous. After a few fields of sunflowers, you will find yourself back in the cool quiet of the woods. Enjoy it while you can, since Camp Hale, your destination, is a hotbed of ATV activity.
Being strategic about distances, I had parked my car at the winter trailhead. As you duck into the woods you’ll start to notice blue diamonds in addition to the CT trail markers. At the very end of this hike, there will be a fork. Following the blue markers to the left will take you quickly to your car, and continuing on the CT will take you a lot farther on a relatively flat trail, passing a small waterfall on Cataract Creek. There are two other parking areas and trail exits ahead. If you are hiking solo, I suggest you leave your car here and identify the trailhead where you’ll exit. There is no cell reception here, so unless you are excellent at time management, it may be hard to coordinate a pick-up.
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