Trail Love Letter: The Hardrock 100 from Ouray to Telluride

AJW's Taproom[Author’s Note: This is the seventh installment of a monthly series to pay homage to some of my favorite trails. These are not trail guides, per se, but rather tributes to some of the finest running trails in the United States. As with last month’s Trail Love Letter to a portion of the Western States Trail, this month’s article pays tribute to my favorite section of the Hardrock 100 course when it is run in the counterclockwise direction, this year’s direction.]

The garden spot of the Hardrock 100 counterclockwise course comes at mile 56.6 in the town of Ouray, Colorado. At an elevation of 7,700 feet, Ouray marks the low point of the course, and typically provides runners with a brief yet much needed respite from the high altitude exposure that characterizes much of the Hardrock experience. After leaving Ouray, runners face one of the most challenging and rewarding climbs in a race chock full of them.

The incredible 5,400-foot ascent from Ouray to Virginius Pass begins innocently enough, with just under eight miles of the gentle gravel climb along Camp Bird Road. Runners climb 3,000 feet in those eight miles before arriving at the Governor Basin aid station at mile 64.5 and an elevation of 10,800 feet. From Governor Basin, the climb begins in earnest!

When I ran my first Hardrock in 2009, shortly after leaving Governor Basin, my pacer Mike Stevens pointed to a bright star up in the sky and said, “See that star up there, that’s the Kroger’s Canteen aid station.” I said, “What? No way, that’s way up in the clouds!”

Just over three miles and 2,300 feet later, I pulled myself up the last few feet of the snow-covered Virginius Pass, and entered what is unquestionably the most incredible aid station in all of ultrarunning, Kroger’s Canteen at mile 67.8 and 13,100 feet on the course. Documented in the 2015 film, “Kroger’s Canteen,” this iconic aid station is one of the true highlights of the race for anyone who ever has the chance to run Hardrock. Staffed for years by legendary Hardrocker Roch Horton, the aid station is now captained by Joe Grant and a group of hearty mountain folks who make every runner at the pass feel at home.

The first 500 feet of the descent from Virginius Pass in the counterclockwise direction toward the town of Telluride is one of the most technically challenging portions of the course, and requires that runners stay alert so they remain on the trail and not head directly down the mountain. Ultimately, after about two miles of scrambling and route finding, a more established trail emerges. This levels out to a less precipitous grade and finally runners emerge below treeline and into the town of Telluride at mile 72.8 and 8,800 feet. Running into Telluride is one of the most surreal experiences of the race: runners have traversed 72.8 miles and climbed over 25,000 feet, yet most of the townspeople don’t even know there is a race going on.

Next weekend, after a long absence — the last race was last held in 2018 — 146 runners will converge on southwestern Colorado to take part in the Hardrock 100. They will face daunting challenges and achieve rewarding goals, but I bet their biggest challenge and ultimately richest reward, will be to traverse the extraordinary 16.2-mile stretch from Ouray to Telluride.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

AJW's Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Steamworks Brewing Company in Durango, Colorado. Steam Engine Lager is a classic American Lager style beer with a hint of sweetness and a touch of malt that belies the typical tastelessness of this variety. If you’re passing through Durango on your way to Hardrock, this beer is well worth your time.

Call for Comments

  • Have you had any special experiences at Kroger’s Canteen? If so, what were the most memorable?
  • Do you prefer running the course clockwise or counterclockwise, to reach Kroger’s Canteen sooner or later?
Krogers Canteen 4

Bringing mail to the Virginius Mine below what is now Kroger’s Canteen in 1890. All photos courtesy of Roch Horton unless otherwise noted.

Krogers Canteen 1

Chuck Kroger (left), for whom Kroger’s Canteen is named, and other runners in 1994.

Krogers Canteen 3

Two of the three amigos, including Roch Horton, at Kroger’s Canteen.

Bryon Powell - 2016 Hardrock 100 - Kroger's Canteen

Bryon Powell during the 2016 Hardrock 100. Photo: Jared Campbell

Krogers Canteen 5

The 2017 Kroger’s Canteen team.

Hannah Green at Krogers Canteen

Nighttime at Kroger’s Canteen during the 2017 Hardrock 100. Photo: Nick Martin