The Destiny of the Trail Pulls Michael Simone
What does a first-time backpacker look like in your mind? I never asked myself that question before the summer of 2018, but the images I conjured were plentiful. Maybe an adolescent getting introduced to overnight backpacking by a parent or through scouting. I also imagined this scenario in reverse, an adult taking up backpacking so they could join a child who was passionate about the activity. Or perhaps a college-age person who was learning to backpack from more experienced friends. The list went on and on…
I had never explicitly asked myself the question before meeting Michael Simone, but the day I met him I realized that, indeed, I had an image of what a new backpacker looks like. The idea in my head was, well, nothing like Michael. I was the manager at Backcountry Experience at the time, and in my role, I’d fit a lot of backpacks. Oftentimes those pack fittings happened with a new user, and Michael didn’t fit any of my preconceived ideas.
I didn’t know his age at the time but later learned that he was 68. When he stood across from me and casually mentioned that he was buying his first overnight backpack so he could hike the 567-mile-long Colorado Trail, my first instinct was to talk him out of it. I now know how wrong I would have been. Michael has experienced much more in his years as an outdoorsman than I have in my 32 years. But let’s be honest, not too many folks of any age look at a 35-day trek across the Rockies and say, “Yup, that looks like a nice first overnight backpacking trip.” Even fewer would do their first one at almost 70 years old.
In reality, Michael Simone has been hiking for more than 40 years. He started in 1978, while living in the Salt Lake City area, and he hasn’t stopped. Remarkably, he has kept a log of all his hikes over the years. He tracks his route, mileage, elevation, and anything else about the day that he deems memorable. Even before he became an overnight backpacker, he averaged about 500 miles of high-elevation hiking a year. He does a standard 13- to 14-mile in-town route to stay in shape during the winter, but he doesn’t include that in his log.
When Michael goes to the high country, he makes it a point never to repeat the same trails. In addition to his log, he takes USGS 7.5-minute quad maps and marks them whenever he completes a trail. He also writes the date on the trail map so he can go back to his log when he wants to remember a hike. After 19 years as a Durango resident, he can’t fit anymore marks on the La Plata and Silverton USGS maps.
In an era when so many of us document our outdoor adventures with cellphone photos posted to social media, it’s hard not to admire Michael’s method of documentation. There’s a beauty in the discipline, and the quad maps provide a unique visual representation of a life lived in the mountains. He doesn’t mind crossing over a trail he’s done before, but every hike he takes is a new one, and perhaps that’s why he wasn’t afraid of taking on the Colorado Trail.
In a way, it was just a natural progression for him. His objectives had grown so large that he started to experiment with bivouacking overnight on certain routes. Before taking the leap into backpacking, Michael undertook some routes that any experienced San Juan hiker would describe as nothing less than straight-up gnarly. He has summited Eolus from Missionary Ridge, gone up Silver Mountain from the Junction Creek trailhead, climbed Pigeon and Turret, and many more. All of these were undertaken as day hikes, with a few hours spent in his bivvy on his hike out.
He’ll be 71 in May, but Simone isn’t done pushing himself into new challenges. In fact, he decided he was going to undertake the Continental Divide Trail while he was still on the Colorado Trail. The CDT is 3,028 miles along the spine of the Rockies, starting at the U.S.-Mexico border and ending at the U.S.-Canada border. It is commonly considered the toughest thru-hike in the country, and only about 150 people try to complete the entire trail every year.
Michael did some large sections of the trail in New Mexico last year, but the pandemic foiled some of his plans. His current goal is to finish the Colorado section by hiking from Georgia Pass, in Colorado’s Front Range, to Rawlins, Wyoming. After that he plans to do one state a year, which would allow him to finish the trail at 74 years old.
Michael sees his age as an asset, and he credits his life experiences for allowing him to stay calm when things go wrong or he accidentally gets off trail, which is something he says he’s prone to do at times. Eventually, he learned that he could keep up with younger hikers on the Colorado Trail. “Hikers who were much younger would blow right by me, but at the end of the day I was at the same place they were. I was getting into camp an hour or two after they were, but we actually ended up finishing the trail at Junction Creek in Durango on the same day at the same time. Meeting the objective is what’s important, not when I meet it.”
When Michael meets that objective, he always takes a moment to give thanks and appreciate where he is. “I’m always grateful for the great outdoors and how lucky I am to be there and enjoy it. When I get to a summit or objective, I always give thanks and humbly kiss the ground and say a prayer, no matter the weather.”
The next time you breeze past an older hiker on a trail, tip your hat. You may be looking at an accomplished backpacker in their hiking prime.