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Where Rivers Change Direction

By Ann Driggers

Note: This is the second installment from my 8 day backpacking trip through the Weminuche Wilderness. Read the first one, Adventures in the Weminuche, here.


On the third day of our trip, having dispensed with our mountaineering activites for the time being, we awoke ready to fully immerse ourselves in our multiday wilderness journey. At three quarters the size of the state of Rhode Island the Weminuche is, by far, the largest wilderness area in Colorado and covers a sprawling 499,771 acres. Although our proposed route took in parts of the classic Needles Mountains circuit we would deviate for a couple of days to take us further and deeper into the wilderness on trails less traveled.

As we hiked the 3,000 feet up Elk Creek drainage, on the Colorado Trail, the scenery was spell binding. Huge granitic domes towered above with ragged arretes etched against the sky. From hanging valleys, waterfalls cascaded thousands of feet and in grassy meadows elk bugled and moose grazed in the willows.

After a relentless climb, we finally emerged from the glaciated canyon and onto a bench scattered with sapphire blue alpine tarns.

The vistas were beyond superlative - widely considered to be the scenic climax of the Colorado Trail upon which we were traveling. With all my rubbernecking it was all I could do to keep one foot in front of the other and not fall flat on my face. Thankfully the trail was smooth and ascended evenly through switchbacks, like a zipper, to the crest of the rolling ridge at 12,700 feet. Here we arrived at the Great Divide, the Continental Divide of the Americas! To the west, watersheds flow into the Pacific Ocean and to the east, the Atlantic. We had reached the place where rivers changed direction.

For the next two days we followed the Continental Divide Trail, mostly above treeline, zigzagging up and down mountainsides and crossing the Great Divide four times.

Although less dramatic than the soaring peaks of the days previous, this landscape had its own unique stark beauty. We wandered across rolling alpine tundra, touched with the golden tinge of fall. Great expanses of uninterrupted space spread before us, with horizons so distant that the blue ridges melded with the sky. Miles and miles from the nearest road, days away from habitation, completely self-sufficent, these times on the trail were about solitude and following the rhythm of the earth. We saw very few souls of the human kind. Each day we arose with the sun, we walked along the Great Divide, and turned to bed as darkness fell.

The outside world was far far away. In the words of Kate Wolf:

"And it's gone away in yesterday

Now I find myself on the mountainside

Where rivers change direction

Across the Great Divide"


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