The Known to The Unknown

While I consider myself a self-proclaimed mountaineer who has done many things even most thru-hikers would not, this is new territory for me. The longest I’ve hiked in one single trip was 155 miles; and that was in 2016 before I became a mom.

The Colorado Trail is 567 miles from Denver to Durango climbing nearly 90,000 vertical feet with an average elevation around 10,300 feet above sea level and topping out at 13,271 feet above sea level. It takes the average hiker four to six weeks to complete by itself. Last year my son and I set out at the end of May with the intention of taking three whole months to complete the trail. Our only timeline goal was to be in the San Juans for our birthdays. He would turn 5 and I would turn 29 on trail with this plan. 

Needless to say, a lot of things went wrong early on, and we didn’t thru-hike the trail together. As I switched gears, I found myself in a battle of mom guilt and separation anxiety relearning how to be alone in the wilderness – something I previously would have considered more natural than being around other humans. Ultimately, I figured it out and by the end of the year I knew for my own sake I had to return to The Colorado Trail… Alone.

Jennifer D with her child in front of a beautiful alpine lake in Colorado.

July 20, 2019 Abyss Lake, Mt Evans Wilderness. Pre-kiddo I hiked this once every week. Once my son came to be it took us several tries and a 2-night backpacking trip to get all the way up to the lake together. Then it hailed while thunder and lightning echoed through the bowl as we nearly ran back down to camp.

The Colorado Trail has been pulling on my heart since I heard about it as a teenager. You see as someone who left home at 17 and graduated college at 19… I never fit in. The trails were where I found myself and felt welcomed. Later, after my son came to be I would discover that I am autistic and ADHD. Now it all makes sense. Society is the bane of my existence. I prefer my solitude in the middle of nowhere. I feel more connected to squirrels and bears than I do other humans. The mountains are the only place my mind ever feels like it’s mine. The Colorado Trail is known for being one of the more remote long trails in the country, and well who wouldn’t want to spend six weeks (or more) alone in the mountains? (Apparently not everyone.)

So now 10 years after graduating college I finally find myself with the opportunity to hike The Colorado Trail…alone. But with 10 years life changes a lot. Now I’m a mom. I’m definitely not at my peak fitness having struggled with a multitude of my own health issues over the years. Most recently I seriously injured my back and have continued to have nerve issues from the injury. I also got a concussion with this injury. I have a rare genetic condition, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, that mostly gives my joints issues, but also affects my whole body in a multitude of ways. Right now, I need a custom knee brace to do the trail and I’m just hoping it shows up in time. I also struggle with severe asthma that I haven’t been able to get under control since having pneumonia in 2019.

But the trail is there. It waited. It calls to me. And for the first and maybe the last time… I can go… alone.

Deep snow pack in colorado.

Looking back after post-holing with snowshoes on while spring hiking Section 13 of The Colorado Trail. When dry this section is fairly flat but snowdrifts leave many steep banks to climb.

Today this scares me more than I ever thought possible. Over the years of becoming a mountaineer I’ve learned enough to know all the possible things that can go wrong; from the stories of women being stocked and harassed on the trail to the possibility of hypothermia or fatal fall and everything in between. Despite my long multitude of skills, I know I have, I still doubt my own abilities on trails.

With a start date of June 3, I know I am starting a whole month earlier than The Colorado Trail Foundation recommends on a normal year due to high mountain snow. This year is a record-breaking snow year, and the recommendation has been pushed back about two weeks…. So, the recommended start date is now around the time I need to be done! I have the equipment and the knowledge to handle the snow, but I am also highly aware of the extra dangers it poses to my life. I live central to the trail in Buena Vista, CO and see firsthand all winter what the trail looks like with snow…and it’s extremely challenging and not recommended.

Segment 2 looking towards Segment 1. The only thing that came to mind was “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold” Song from The Hobbit. It poured all day and the trail was flooded and slippery.

I have a family I’ll be leaving behind. While I finally brought myself to go alone on trips last year for the first time since my son came to be, the longest has been five nights, six days. Six weeks is a lot longer. See my son was born three months too early followed by a grueling 74 nights in NICU. During this time, I had no choice but to leave him alone in the hospital at the mercy of the nurses and doctors. While I am forever grateful that he is still here, the trauma that causes a mom is indescribable.

For the last five years my life has solely revolved around my son’s life. It’s included many more hospital stays, surgery, more near death experiences, a broken arm, and more. I know he’s not out of the woods. He never will be. For five years I’ve just focused on keeping him alive and doing my best to provide him with an epic life, because what if he dies? If he dies today, I want to know that I did everything in my power to provide him an epic life. So, we’ve explored mountains, often with him strapped to me. We’ve traveled to places near and far, where neither of us have ever seen. We’ve made friends in multiple states. We’ve fished in every lake and stream we can. We stop at every park. And so on.

But in this I have lost myself. Who am I? I can’t just be mom? Who is Jennifer?



I return to the trail that’s been calling me for ten years. That’s how. I have to start, because the hardest part in facing your fears, is starting.

Jennifer D with a dog and kiddo on a section of the Colorado Trail.

Starting The Colorado Trail from the Indian Creek trailhead alternate start with my son and dog in 2022. I am carrying a 101L pack that weighs around 70lbs before water.

Segment 4 descending the long climb opens to a valley floor with views of the infamous Bison Peak, still very much so snow covered. It snowed later this day after many bouts of freezing rain.

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