Sunday, June 27, 2010

Rails to Trails: Medicine Bow Trail

Medicine Bow Trail
~45 miles Round-Trip

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy does great work reclaiming abandoned railroad lines around the country, and repurposes them into multi-use paths. Advantages of this approach include the obvious reuse of existing infrastructure to provide active outdoor leisure opportunities, but another great feature is that the gentle grade required for train locomotives is also gentle enough to be accessible to anybody able to walk or ride. These trails have been more popular out East, including our former home states of Wisconsin and Minnesota, as my wife's family and I have fond memories of the Elroy-Sparta trail in Wisconsin.

Fortunately, one of the newer trails is the fabulous Medicine Bow Trail in Southern Wyoming, just a couple hour drive from Fort Collins, and I finally had a chance to check it out on Saturday. One of my goals was to get familiar with it and check it out for a possible family trip later this summer or fall -- I know it's a work in progress, and trail condition information from the National Forest line was scarce. However, I had an even bigger interest in checking out this trail, which has to do with South Dakota.

Geographically confused? Well, I've had my eye on the Lean Horse 100 in South Dakota this August for my first 100 miler. I ran it as my first 50 two years ago, and really enjoyed the course, race organization, people, and scenery, and wished I had been trained at the time for the longer distance. At 25 miles, we short-coursers turned around, and I watched with some envy as other folks pressed on into the unknown. Anyway, that course is about as 'easy' as you can get for a non-road, non-loop course, yet is also an incredibly scenic route through the Black Hills. Most of the run is on the Mickelson Trail, which is -- you guessed it -- a rail trail. Therefore, I figured the Medicine Bow Trail would be good training, since it offered a similar surface. Even better, the Medicine Bow Trail is nearly twice as high, at 9000 feet -- awesome!

The Medicine Bow Trail is currently listed at 21 miles long, so I readied myself for a 42-mile training run. However, there's a Forest Road detour around Fox Park, just over a mile in either direction, so you're looking at 44-45 miles in the current configuration. There are several trailheads along the way, conveniently spaced, and all but the northernmost one have restrooms and require a National Parks or America The Beautiful pass. Unfortunately, the only spot with potable water is at Lake Owen, near the northern terminus, and even more unfortunately, this water is currently not available. However, I somewhat prepared for this, as I had heard that the campground wasn't open yet. Therefore, the only rational (and I use that term loosely) way to do this was to start in the middle, at the Woods Creek Trailhead, which left me with a 23.5-mile roundtrip northern run, and a 21.2 roundtrip southern run, with a water/food stop at my car in the middle. Also, this TH is right off of Hwy 230, so it's really easy access and one of the closest from Ft. Collins, as the other TH's require more distance on dirt roads.

I headed northbound just after 8AM, with about 50oz of water (one big handheld, one bottle in a backpack), some food, homemade gel, and pepper spray (to be explained), but no camera (sorry). I crossed Hwy 230, and I was off into the woods. First impressions: gorgeous, as I was surrounded in a tunnel of pine, broken up by large ponds, creeks, and swamps. This section of trail, as it turns out, is the least developed, in terms of not having sufficient crushed stone to keep out plant growth, so it would be slightly slower but still quite easy for recreational cyclists.

I quickly hit the detour around Foxpark, which is a fenced-in collection of cabins (apparently there is a right-of-way dispute), but the detour was well-signed with a map. I headed out on dirt NF roads, worthy of exploration in their own right, and continued northward. The trail soon became developed in terms of consistent gravel, and also had occasionally surprising views as the trail was elevated high above surrounding wetlands. The trail itself, along the entire length, was dry with good drainage on either side.

I continued past some of the other trailheads, which occasionally denoted the distances to other trailheads. Even better, each mile is marked using the old railroad measuring reference, so somebody with a cheap watch, rudimentary math skills, and plenty of time (ahem) can easily calculate splits. The trail is also intersected by nearby motorized OHV trails, which is a blessing (as it keeps motorized traffic off of this trail) and a curse (with the occasional noise and exhaust from motorized users). Still, during the entire day, I had maybe 3-4 minutes total interfacing with motorized traffic, nothing to complain about.

I did expect to see more other folks using the trail, and I'll skip ahead and give you a grand tally here: 2 parties total walking, 2 parties total picnic-ing...and that's it, except for folks at Lake Owen itself, which was expected. I alternated between enjoying my good fortune of having the trail nearly to myself, while also wishing more people were out enjoying this gem.

Finally, I reaced Lake Owen itself, about 10 miles in, which I rightly anticipated would be the most scenic section. Folks were fishing from the shore and in non-motorized craft on the lake itself, and a few dogs milled about. Medicine Bow Peak itself poked out above distance trees. I didn't know it at the time, but apparently there's a loop trail around the lake itself. I definitely would return here and spend some time just chilling out by the lake.

But, distance to be covered. I finished out the remaining couple of miles to the Dry Creek TH, which ended near a road and wasn't terribly scenic. Here, I turned around, grabbed some food from my pack, and alternated water bottles, as I began walking for the first time.

And then, I heard a crash in the woods to the side of me, and caught a glimpse of a giant moose head bulldozing it's way parallel to me, but in the opposite direction. And here, I got the pepper spray ready as I quickly began to run again! Although he was headed opposite to me, he was also heading up toward the trail, and I didn't want to stick around if that happened. Luckily, I think he wanted nothing to do with me, and the feeling was mutual.

Back at Lake Owen again, I poked around a bit looking for the fabled water supply, but only found a sign saying it was off. No worries, as I knew would survive this section just fine, and had 3 more bike bottles in the car. That just meant I would get back to the car on empty.

I got back to the car after the first 24 miles, ate and grabbed some more food, and readjusted water bottles. I had spent the whole day comfortably shirtless, with temperatures in the low 70s, but clouds were moving in from the West, so I stuffed my rain jacket in my pack as well. Honestly, I briefly considered calling it a day -- albeit a fun, beautiful day -- already, which I sort of anticipated might happen when I reached the car. I doubted that the weather would hold off completely for the next few hours, and the distance was getting daunting, and wasn't 24 miles enough already? But the unknown lay before me, so I made myself some deals: just run a mile and see how you feel; run to the next TH; and the biggest out-and-back trick of them all, "You really only have to run halfway and then you don't have a choice!" So off I went.

The southern section was every bit as beautiful, with nice consistent gravel packed on the trail. Soon enough, the clouds came in, with occasional bursts of cold but refreshing rain. And then, thunder directly to the West. The West looked gloomy, but the South had a break in the clouds, so I figured if I got lucky I could get past the brunt of any storm if I just kept moving. Plus, I hadn't seen any flashes of lightning, let alone ground strikes, and the trail is nicely ensconced in a tunnel of trees (although many of them are beetle-kill trees, sadly, so the more realistic threat here might be wind).

The storm got nearer, but most of the thunder was behind me, so I kept moving South. Didn't see any humans until a few cabins about halfway down at a road crossing, and then I continued as the trail headed South before hooking West. Just before it did, though, a fun sign: "Welcome to Colorful Colorado!" Indeed, the trail does dip into my home state. Finally, I hit the Southern terminus at Mile Marker 67, where I turned around to head back to Woods Creek (MM 56.4).

Now the storm had held off, but my water supply didn't. Unfortunately, at this point, I was down to my last bottle. I should have known better, as I would have ideally been drinking a bottle an hour, or more, which meant I should have had at least 50% more water than I did. Part of this was due to the lack of water at Lake Owen, and the rest was due to laziness of how much water I was willing to carry and "survive." Survive I did, it just wasn't comfortable. No true emergency, as I was completely surrounded by water, but with no filter, I didn't want to risk a summer of illness unless necessary.

So about 8 miles out, I severely rationed my water, and now I was racing storms again, as I was headed back into the thick of it. Luckily, most of the thunder was now East of me, so I truly did skirt most of it. Oh, in this section, I practiced walking occasionally, as I would walk 1 minute at the beginning of a mile and then run the rest, to make sure I could make the transition and keep a consistent pace, but I still preferred to run as possible to get back.

About a mile and a half away, and I saw my first flashes of lightning -- ridiculous! Nothing cloud-to-ground, though. Reached the car in 7:30:30 (stupid 30 seconds!), pretty much exactly 10min/mile including monkey business (food and water transition, exploration, trying to get my cell phone to work), closer to 9:30/mile if I excluded the monkey business which wouldn't exist in a race. Either way, it's very possible the FKT, SKT, and OKT for this trail on foot. This is right at the training pace I'd like for Lean Horse, which I would run even slower, yet not have to deal with the pack weight and higher elevation (although Lean Horse heat would likely be worse).

(Then again, this pales in comparison to what some folks were doing in the mountains of California for more than twice as far -- WOW! I was happy to get home, settle in with a pizza and beer, and essentially refresh a spreadsheet with people's names and numbers that represented what was going in California. Awesome battles for position from Colorado folks: Anton, Nick, AJW, and Pete especially).

In sum, I felt great about getting out there, checking out the trail, and getting this run done, feeling better about my body and mind being ready for longer distances. I intend to keep training through July and August, with at least one more run similar to this one, but generally more vertical (out of sheer opportunity and enjoyment). My legs and body felt ready for more, though I did hit a low point as I ran out of water and decent food/gel. It is plainly obvious to me (now) that my mood suffers dramatically when dehydrated or hungry, something many others have observed but hard to appreciate until you're in it, so I need to avoid that situation and press through.

Back to the trail, though, what a fantastic opportunity we have right nearby! I wish more folks would get out there to check this out. I could definitely envision a great trail race (marathon or up to 50 mile) organized out here some day, with the easy TH accesses, and dirt road possibilities for extensions.

Happy trails!


  1. Awesome training run for Lean Horse! Your pace was almost exactly the same as mine when I did a 40 miler several weeks ago (I ran 10 minutes and walked 2). If you do decide on Lean Horse, we might benefit from pacing each other for awhile at least. By the way, I officially registered last week, so I guess it's truly time to get my butt in gear.

  2. Thanks Chris, definitely would be fun to pace each other when we can! Glad you signed up, or Jerry guilted you into it while you were vulnerable! I need to make sure I don't have a personal scheduling conflict (unlikely, but just making sure) which I'll know by the end of the month, but in the meantime I'm training as if I'm running it and as long as the training is fun and manageable. I'm looking forward to 2-3 more big weekends in July, and then some sharpening in August.