Exploring the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado

Nancy tells us about her ride-of-a-lifetime along a part of the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado. After having ridden at high altitude the whole summer she was able to convince the trail guides to allow her to use her own horse, a leggy Arabian. This was an unusual sight in between the drafty trail horses generally used up in the mountains. Nancy proved herself and her trusty Arabian worthy of the Rocky Mountains. And even got a new nickname for her steed: “Alien Mosquito.”

Author: Nancy Spoolstra

The opportunity to participate in a “bucket list” ride-of-a-lifetime came at the end of my second summer in Estes Park, Colorado. Because my father resided in an Estes nursing home, I spent most of the summers of 2013 and 2014 riding in the Rockies and looking after him. My tall, leggy Arabian had more than enough stamina to climb the mountains after spending the summer in the high altitude. He was fit, conditioned and adjusted to the climate.

The horseback riding guide leads through a boulder field in the Rocky Mountains on the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado
Boulder Field. Photo Credits: Nancy Spoolstra

Tough Terrain in the Rocky Mountains

One of my Estes friends, Kathy Walker, and her husband Cody manage the Hi-Country stables that have been a fixture in Estes Park since the 1960’s. Every August, there are 8-10 opportunities to ride across the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado. Because of the high altitude, August is the only month where conditions are favorable enough to attempt this ride … snow is present often into July and returns as early as September. The park service has to give permission before the first ride of the year is planned, confirming that conditions at the top are suitable and safe. Once the riders had to turn around and come home before even getting near the top because visibility was less than a few feet due to low clouds.

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Typically, only livery horses belonging to Hi-Country are used on this ride, and these mounts are chosen carefully. They must not be so old that it is too hard on them, or so young that they are not safe and experienced. Kathy had ridden several times with me and my Arabian, Kadeen. That’s why she was comfortable allowing me to participate in the ride. She knew that my horse could make the journey and that I was a competent enough rider to be an asset and not a liability!

And … GO!

I had only 3 days’ notice that I was going to be able to do this. So, I scrambled to find a duster. After looking high and low all over the region, I had to settle for an ugly, used duster that wasn’t oiled. A fact which definitely came back to haunt me later! It fit and it was warm … that is, until the cold rain soaked it and added five pounds to my body. But more on that later …

The Continental Divide Trail offers amazing views of the Rocky Mountains
View from horseback riding on the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado. Photo Credits: Nancy Spoolstra

I was told to report to Glacier Creek Stables inside Rocky Mountain National Park at 5:30 AM on Thursday August 14, 2014. I trailered over to the stable and arrived on time or a little early, only to discover that the rest of the group was about ready to leave because there was already concern about the afternoon weather! The group consisted of Chris, the guide; 2 gals who had also been livery guides that summer for the Moraine Park stable; and a father/son pair who were actual “tourists”. ALL of the horses were livery horses except mine. Cody helped me quickly tack up but he still sent the other riders on ahead of me. So in very short order I found myself riding alone through the woods in early dawn light, in hot pursuit of my group.

Climbing Up Into The Tundra

I caught up in about 15 minutes and the adventure continued. At first I was on familiar ground: around Sprague Lake (elevation 8200 feet) on the Glacier Creek trail and up towards the Bear Lake trailhead. A little north of Bear Lake we headed west on the Flattop Mountain Trail. At this point we are riding through forests of evergreen trees and aspens. The twisting trails are used by wildlife, hikers and equines alike. Kadeen and I followed Chris, who was riding a half draft paint gelding who had one speed. Needless to say, that it was not nearly fast enough for my Energizer Bunny. But Kadeen adjusted and up we climbed. The weather was cool but I was warm enough.  As we continued to climb, we rose above the tree line and the wind picked up considerably. I put on my warm but ugly duster.

Riding on a horse in the tundra up in the Rocky Mountains as part of the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado.
The tundra and the blue sky. Photo Credits: Nancy Spoolstra

When we were on the tundra, there was nothing along the Continental Divide Trail but rocks, sparse grass, occasional pools of water nestled in the rocks, and a spectacular view of the mountain range. Kadeen decided it was time to pass the slow poke in front of him but alas, it was not to be. We had to follow the guide. It was too windy for much conversation and too breathtaking to want to talk anyway. So, we all rode along, lost in our own thoughts.

Getting Caught In The Rain

The elevation on Flattop Mountain is 12,324 feet! We had climbed over 4000 feet in about two hours. We crossed the tundra, experiencing expansive views, before we started down “the other side” towards the trees below us. I remember the trail on the other side of Flattop as being angled downward to the left. Something that was quite noticeable as the drop off was also on the left! It was not a particularly wide trail and clearly water runoff had influenced the topography of the path. Flattop trail became the Tonahuto Trail about halfway across the tundra.

On a downward stretch of the trail. Nancy was very aware of the drop off on the left.
Downward. Photo Credits: Nancy Spoolstra

Up to this point we had avoided the rain, but we knew our luck was running out. We stopped a bit early for lunch, hoping to beat the weather, but after only 10 minutes or so, the sky opened up. We hurriedly tacked up and headed on down the trail, having stopped for no more than 20 minutes. In very short order, my ugly duster was now ugly and cold and very heavy.

Kadeen Needs a Stretch

We rode on in relative silence as the rain came down and the trees became more and more plentiful. Soon we encountered beautiful ponds with mist rising from the rain. Eventually we reached Big Meadows, shortly before picking up the last trail of our journey, the Green Mountain Trail. Big Meadows was lush and beautiful. Several trailheads came together at the point that the Green Mountain Trail began, and the trail widened considerably.

A Canyon in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado seen from the back of a Nancy's Arabian horse
Canyon. Photo Credits: Nancy Spoolstra

My short-striding guy had endured enough, and abruptly he pulled around the slow-going draft horse and headed on down the trail at a good clip. Chris gave me permission to take the front and Kadeen happily stretched out his stride. At this point we had covered at least 17 miles, and not easy ones at that. We led the rest of the way, doing what we often do when riding with slower paced companions: Every so often, we stopped and waited. We burst into the Green Mountain Trail parking lot ahead of the others, tired and wet and cold and exhilarated! It was about 4 PM.

Getting A Dry Jacket

We didn’t have to wait for long before Cody arrived to load the horses into the trailer and haul them back to the livery. Because I was a tag-along, there was not room in the truck for 7 passengers, although there was room in the trailer for my horse. So everyone, including my horse, headed east while I waited for my neighbor to pick me up. I didn’t have to wait long and soon I was in a warm car, wearing a borrowed dry jacket, and reflecting on the amazing ride I had just completed.

Once you climb above the treeline, you'll find a lot of rocks and spectacular views.
The Continental Divide Trail in Colorado is breathtaking. Photo Credits: Nancy Spoolstra

The “Alien Mosquito!”

I didn’t learn this until later, but apparently the other livery stable hands referred to my leggy Arabian as the “Alien Mosquito”! True, he didn’t look anything like any other horse at the stable! And Cody told me (after the fact) that he had to do a lot of processing himself when I showed up that morning at 5:30 with my stretch riding breeches, my helmet with a GoPro attached, and my “Alien Mosquito!” But Kadeen earned their respect for making the journey. Indeed, he was right behind the leader and well ahead of the other four livery horses most of the time.

Crossing a creek on the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado.
Time for a drink. Photo Credits: Nancy Spoolstra

Be Prepared …

My GPS clocked this ride at a hair short of 20 miles, although the website quotes 26 miles if they ride all the way to Grand Lake. It was unquestionably one of the most amazing rides I have ever done. I was tired for sure, and just a little sore but not much. I had been riding all summer. This is not a ride for an inexperienced or under conditioned horse. Many a “newbie” rider has sat astride a livery horse and made this trip, but some didn’t look so happy on the other side!

The part of the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado Nancy rode on; marked on a map.
Map of the ride. Photo Credits: Nancy Spoolstra

… And Get A Guide

Even though I have done it once, I would not feel comfortable taking a group over the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado myself. I would highly recommend that anyone interested in doing this use local horses unless you are going to be there for a long enough period of time to condition yourself and your horse. Unfortunately, the options for stabling are extremely limited in the Estes area. And you have the additional issue of trailering back to where you started.

Aftermath

One of these days I’ll take that 6 hours of GoPro footage and put together a video. That will allow me to relive this ride again and again. But in the meantime, I’ll just bask in the memories of an amazing day on the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado in the Rocky Mountains!


If you want to get some first hand impressions of the ride or you are looking for some real insider information, don’t hesitate to ask Nancy directly. You can reach out to her via her website.

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More Information about the Continental Divide Trail

Find out more about this opportunity to ride on the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado on horseback.

We also just recently published a podcast episode with Jodie who trekked along the Continental Divide Trail on her own. Hear how she tried to convince her mom that she won’t get eaten by bears …

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