During my PCT & AT hikes last summer, I had the pleasure of meeting so many wonderful people. Two of the people I met just in passing really stand out. Snorkel and Cactus. I met Snorkel in Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe. It was my birthday, and a group of what looked like thru hikers were taking a break at a trail junction. We got to talking, and realized that we were both from Denver, so we exchanged numbers. Somewhere along the way I lost that number. But when I called the Continental Divide Trail Coalition back in November, it was Snorkel who answered the phone. She’s an avid backpacker, having hiked the Triple Crown and countless other trails, and owns the current female unsupported AT record. She likes to walk – a lot. I met Cactus & Aroo on my second day on the AT in August. They were hiking Nobo, and when we passed by, I noticed a Leadville sticker on Cactus’ trekking pole. We ended up talking for a good half hour about Denver, the AT, and the PCT (which he had previously hiked), and exchanged contact info to get in touch once we were both back in Denver.
Within two weeks of getting back to Denver in November, Cactus, Snorkel, Pi, Mr. G and I set out on a ‘secret’ hike Cactus knew in the south Denver area. It took us up Waterton Canyon, and to an obscure peak with a register, named Goat F. We quickly learned that Cactus was a local guru, knowing so many obscure facts and history of the area. On our hike, he pointed out the damn and canal that started in the canyon, noting that the canal flows nearly all of the way to Denver International Airport, in the far northeast corner of the greater Denver area.
“They built this back in the 1800’s to feed the local farmers of the area the water from the mountains” He told us. “You can walk its entire length from here to DIA.”
Snorkel is what some like to call the Urban thru hiking queen, and her face lit up, “The High Line Canal Trail, I’ve got the maps for that!”
And it was set. I bought the $10 map and guide book from the local book store, and we planned to get a weekend in March or April to do the hike. Two weekends ago while on the Boulder Super Slam with Cactus, we made plans to thru the High Line Canal Trail the following weekend. I called up Snorkel, she was in. Aroo, who just recently moved to Denver from out east was also in. Nathan, a good friend from my home town in Michigan who now lives in Denver joined up. So did Bigfoot, from the PCT. Even Swami, from The Hiking Life joined us for the first 5 or so miles before the trail got too difficult for him, and he had to call it quits. Turns out his 12 long walks, and many other hikes didn’t do enough to prepare him for the ruggedness of an urban hike!
On Saturday, we met at Waterton Canyon, the eastern terminus of the Colorado Trail, at 5:30 am. Using the bright moon and that stars, we hiked 2 miles up the canyon to the true beginning of the High Line Canal. It was here, that in 1883, the first water from the high mountains was channeled down to the plains through this irrigation ditch in order to entice those who came for the gold rush of the mid 1800’s to stay in the area, farm, and build communities in the plains outside of the foothills. These communities ended up forming what is now Greater Denver.
We snapped a few pictures in the dark, and turned around, retracing the two miles through the canyon back to the trailhead. From here, our group of what some would call experienced hikers, looked awfully unprepared as we did circles trying to find where we needed to go. Five minutes later, we read the guidebook rather than just wandering aimlessly, and read that we needed to walk the road for a half mile up to the canal. Great start.
The first 5 miles were beautiful open land. The guide book states that “Surveys show that 199 species of birds, 28 mammals, 15 reptiles and all sorts of flora call the High Line home.” We joked about the wildlife we would see in the city of Denver, finding it funny that we may see all of these ‘exotic’ animals while out. But low and behold, in the first 3 miles, Cactus spotted a bobcat in the prairie in front of us. As we got closer, we watched as the long legged cat ran through the fields of tall grass and into the thicker woods. It was the first bobcat I had ever seen in my life, same for many others we were with. Maybe the guide book wasn’t exaggerating?
The HLCT sticks to the high grounds as it weaves its way around Denver. In fact, the canal drops an average of only 2 feet per mile. Although the first 30 or so miles are mostly on hard dirt, it takes a toll on your feet and joints pretty quickly. Within 15 miles, I could feel my feet getting pretty exhausted. Thankfully I wasn’t carrying more than 3 or so pounds on my back, as all I needed was a very light pack (the Gossamer Gear Murmur, with the hip belts taken off), my sleeping bag, my sleeping pad, and a warm top and bottom layer. I never carried more than a few snacks, and never more than 2 liters of water and a few beers. The pack was light!
The group stopped for lunch and drinks and continued on into the evening. Around mile 25, everyone started to get a bit burnt out. Aroo had some nasty blisters giving her trouble, Nathan and I were both chaffing pretty badly, and the rest of everyone was spent. To boost our spirits, Nathan, Cactus, Snorkel and I ordered some Pizza and soda to be delivered to the trail, while Aroo and Bigfoot had to get off trail for commitments they had on Sunday. The group that was once 7 had now dwindled down to just 4. In true hiker trash fashion, we ate our pizza in the dirt, in the dark while sharing stories about our dirtiest times on the trail. Pizza, soda, beer, friends, and gross stories on the trail. Best. Thru. Hike. Ever.
We filled our water bottles with soda and continued three or so more miles before finding a nice, secluded place to camp under some trees in an open field. There was an owl nearby in the tree hoo’ing, and we were able to locate it and get our lights on it just above us. We watched in wonder as it swiveled its head in search of prey. What a beautiful creature!
The stars were better than I imagined they would be with how close we were to downtown Denver, and the geese and ducks in the pond nearby tried their best to keep us up, but they were no match for my exhaustion. I was out like a rock.
I woke up to some noise, and notice that snorkel was already up and packed. Being too nice to wake us guys up, she simply waited. As soon as I noticed, we all started packing up and headed out within minutes. I was surprised at how quickly my body had recovered. I felt good, strong, and the chaffing and sore feet were barely noticeable. Fast recoveries, yes! On the first bend in the trail, Cactus spotted the silhouette of another owl. Again, the wildlife on the trail really was surprising me.
We started around mile 33 or so, which is where the HLCT enters more residential areas. There were huge, and I mean HUGE mansions spread out everywhere in the morning. I didn’t realize there were people that wealthy in Denver. These were mansions, white house looking palaces, with separate two story houses, likely for servants/maids/ground keepers. Those separate houses looked way more than double the size of any house I’ve lived in. It was pretty wild to see.
The four of us, Nathan, Snorkel, Cactus and I had some great discussions about money and whether or not we would upgrade significantly if we ever had that insane amount of cash. It’s tough to say, but I’m pretty sure my lifestyle would stay fairly consistent. I would still want to hike. I would likely just hike a lot more, and be able to travel exotic places to hike. I’m not sure that would make me feel as happy or fulfilled. Sure, it would be epic, beautiful, and fun, but there’s a sense of accomplishment and pride that I get from knowing that I’m financing my own adventures by working hard. That’s important to me, and it makes those times outdoors and on great adventures all the more satisfying to know that I put in the hard work to be able to have the opportunity to get out there. One thing we all agreed on, is that if we had that money we would give back more, something we all agreed we could do more of.
As the day wore on, everyone (save Snorkel) started to struggle. Chafe came back. The pounding on the pavement again began to take its toll on the bottom of my feet. It was turning in to a real sufferfest, just as we imagined it would be a week back, laughing at how silly and stupid this idea was. But this time also became some of the most enjoyable. This is when the four of us really started to pull for each other, picking one another up and helping us all get through. Throughout all the visible pain, the awkward gaits, the wincing faces, no one complained. Not once. We’re some stubborn SOB’s, and each of us wanted to hold our end of the bargain, determined not to be a weak link. We crossed I-70 at sunset, weaved in an out of industrial parks, and got some amazing views of the entire Front Range before the colors fully disappeared. We were at mile 63. Just under four miles to go. It got cold fast, and we all started to pick up the pace a bit. No headlamps were necessary as we cruised through residential areas with planes taking off just above us. In an anticlimactic fashion, we reached the end of the HLCT at roughly 8:30pm, with Aroo waiting there to pick us up. Hugs were had before piling into the car, headed back to Waterton Canyon.
We hiked nearly 67 miles in just two days. It started out as a goofy idea to try something that was different from the trails we are used to hiking; a way to explore the city we call home. Yet, for me, it ended up being much more about friendship. the trail was pretty with its large cottonwoods and wild junipers, and it has many good views of the Front Range; but as with most hikes, what I’ll remember most about the trail is the friendship and connections that happen with those that you hike with. From an on trail hiker trash pizza party, to pushing those last 10 or so miles when none of us really had the energy (ok, maybe Snorkel did), to just shooting the shit with your friends for two straight days outside. That’s what it’s all about. And that’s why I loved this past weekend exploring parts of Denver I had never seen before on the High Line Canal Trail.
For more information on the HLCT, follow these links: