Sand Creek – Cottonwood Creek Loop

The Sand Creek Trail with Music Mountain and Milwaukee Peak.

The Sand Creek to Cottonwood Creek Loop (named by me, I haven’t heard of any other name for it) is one of the finest and most logical long trail loops in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a range not very well set up for loop hikes. It is roughly 30 miles long with at least 6,500 ft. of total gain, but a little shorter if you set up a car shuttle to skip the roughly two miles of dirt roads that connect the two trailheads in the Baca Grande neighborhood. Covering an incredible range of topography, the loop connects a long and flat section of the historic Liberty Road  in the Great Sand Dunes NP to the spectacular and long Sand Creek Trail all the way to the top of “Cottonwood Pass” at over 13,300 ft. and then down the very rugged and often hard to follow Cottonwood Creek Trail back to the beginning. Traveling through every life zone the Sangres have to offer, with easy driving access, and all in a very remote wilderness setting, this loop is destined to be a classic.

A zoomed out version of the whole loop.

I first heard about this amazing loop when I read a nice story about a summer backpacking trip taken by some Crestone locals in the Crestone Eagle newspaper. Apparently the ability to hike the loop was fairly novel as of a few years ago because traditionally the section along the front of the range, the Liberty Road section, was private land and under no circumstances were people allowed to use this land. However, the land was purchased by the government and became either part of the Great Sand Dunes National Park or Rio Grande National Forest land. So the entire loop has only been owned by the public for a few years, and as such has not been traveled by very many people. I would not be surprised if the entire loop had been traveled continuously by less than a handful of people.

The loop can be traveled in either direction, and there are specific and easily identifiable advantages and disadvantages to both directions. By heading up the Cottonwood Creek Trail first, one can get the major climb out of the way right off the bat and navigate the difficult cross country sections early in the journey. However, this means traveling on the Liberty Road, which is long, flat, sandy, and potentially very hot, at the end of the trip. The other option is to bust out the Liberty Road first, then hike up the Sand Creek Trail and head down the steepest and hardest part, Cottonwood Creek. The disadvantage here is that the upper Cottonwood Creek trail doesn’t exist, and route-finding and speed can also be very difficult on this section, which one may not want to do at the end of their journey. This is offset by the advantages of traveling the Liberty Rd. early in the trip, or day, when you can pick a cool time of day, and the advantage of heading downhill late in the trip, or day. I traveled the loop in a counter-clockwise direction (Liberty Rd. first), starting and ending at my house in the Baca Grande, so that is how I will describe the route. Continue reading

Upchuck 50k

The Upchuck 50k race took place in Soddy-Daisy just outside of Chattanooga, TN, on Saturday Nov. 10th, and I was lucky enough to have the chance to compete. I had grown to be friends with Wild Trails race director Randy Whorton over the past year of trying to collaborate on a Chattanooga Trails guidebook, and thus kept asking him if I was to fly out for a race, which one should it be? He always answered that the Upchuck was one of the finest ultra courses around, and so I booked my week long work trip around the early November race.

The Upchuck is heralded as an underground and low-key race of sorts, in that it stays small in nature by design, and has minimal aid stations or course markings other than the ubiquitous white blazes on trees that mark the Cumberland Trail, which it follows for its entirety. It is a point to point course which traverses three major river gorges – Rock Creek, Possum Creek, and Soddy Creek – each providing incredible terrain which had a unique feel compared to the other gorges. Adding to the inherent beauty was the fact that the under-canopy was still lit up in bright fall yellows, oranges, and reds, while the upper canopy had already mostly shed its leaves, providing openings to greater vistas.

The idea for the race came about after two local runners – Matt Sims and Chad Womack – set out about five years ago to run this roughly 30 mile segment of the Cumberland Trail. The story is summed up nicely in the video below made by my friend Andrew Kornylak, but the short version is that at mile 18 the trail crosses a highway where there is a convenience store. Feeling iffy and low on energy, Chad bought an excessive amount of munchies in the convenience store and proceeded to scarf his entire supply in a few short minutes, despite whatever running wisdom might have suggested that he do otherwise. A few short miles down the trail and the belly purging began, not to be completed until their run was over, roughly 12 miles later. They later decided that the run was such a classic tour that it deserved its own race, and the name “Upchuck” of course seemed appropriate.

Continue reading