The Colorado Trail: Epic Big-Mountain Hiking at its Finest
Length: 485 miles
Location: The trail runs from near Denver to Durango, Colorado
Trail Type: Out and back or shuttle
Scenery: Classic Rocky Mountains with significant mileage above tree line
Often called “the most beautiful long trail in America,” the Colorado Trail (CT) winds across eight named mountain ranges, five river systems, six wilderness areas and some of the most awe inspiring sections of trail in the Rockies. The CT shares about half of its mileage with the Continental Divide Trail. With an average elevation of over 10,000 feet, 90,000 feet of climb, few convenient resupplies and little support structure, this is not a trail to be taken lightly.
The route does not go over any major peaks, but winds around them. In addition, the trail is well constructed and well maintained, with no “scrambling” required. Despite this, with big mountains come big climbs and big descents; often lasting five miles or more at a time. The highest point on the trail is 13,271 feet and long stretches are above tree line.
Most thru-hikers hike from east to west. The climb is more gradual, allowing for a better opportunity to acclimate to the mountain elevations. The Eastern/Northern terminus is located at 11300 Waterton Road, Littleton, CO 80125. From Denver, take I-25 South to C-470 West to CO Hwy 121 South. After 4.5 miles turn left onto Waterton Rd.
There is both air and bus service between Durango and Denver.
Why Hike This Trail
Because it’s epic. The fact that it was my first thru-hike might affect my opinion, but the CT was pretty much everything I hoped for in an adventure. The scenery was second to none with incredible views on a daily basis. I saw plenty of mountain wildlife such as marmot, pika, elk and big horned sheep. I even had a close encounter with moose at 12,000 feet. The trail was challenging, but doable. The sun shined every day. There were no crowds, no permit issues. I even was able to stop a steam locomotive to use as a resupply shuttle!
While the CT was perfect for me, that doesn’t mean it’s a great trail for everyone. Is also important to know what this trail is not. The CT is not a social trail the way the AT is. I met less than a dozen other thru-hikers the entire way. As with most trails, it is getting significantly more popular (Over 300 successful end-to -end completions in 2017), but don’t expect crowds of other thru-hikers. There were no shelters, little trail magic, and resupplies were far apart. CT hikers need to be absolutely self-reliant.
High-altitude hiking has its downsides too. Morning sunshine often turned into afternoon thunderstorms, which were less than fun above tree line. I was postholing through snowfields in July. And there’s that pesky lack of oxygen. One fellow backpacker, a successful AT thru-hiker, told me that between the altitude and lack of support structure, the CT was actually the tougher hike for her. It all depends on what you are looking for.
Climate and Weather
On a typical year, the snow is melted back enough to start hiking east to west by the end of June. My starting date was June 21 and I dealt with significant snow at higher elevations for the first 150 miles. Starting from the west should be put off until at least early July. Winter returns early so plan your hike to be complete before October.
I was on the trail for 32 days and the sun did shine on every one of them. Bring sunscreen. There were also many afternoon thunderstorms which were occasionally violent. These need to be respected, especially when traveling above tree line. Daytime temperatures are normally pleasant, but the thin, dry atmosphere does not hold the heat once the sun sets. On several nights my 20 degree bag was near its limit. One hiker I met tried to get by with a 40 degree bag and by building fires on cold nights. During one long stretch above tree line (no firewood) he spent a rather uncomfortable night doing hours of calisthenics as a Plan B attempt to stay warm.
Nearly all of the CT route is within either National Forest or Wilderness Areas. The only permits required consisted of an occasional self-issued form at a kiosk along the trail. With few exceptions, camping involved finding a flat area that had obviously been used by others before. The Colorado Trail Databook lists most of the sites I used. Generally, there was a water source in the vicinity and I only dry camped on one occasion. The only “amenity” at most camp areas was an occasional fire ring.
Bring a tent. There are no shelters and with long stretches at high elevation, there will be times when there’ll be no trees to hang a hammock from. While I never saw a bear, they are in the area. I “bear bagged” my food at night when a tree was available.
Despite the high altitude, the route was relatively abundant with creeks and ponds. The longest stretch I had between water sources was 15 miles, though my early season departure meant several sources were being fed by snowmelt.
The CT has the greatest resupply shuttle ever. After 400 miles of hiking, deep within the Weminuche Wilderness, there is a railroad track. Time it right and you can wave down a steam locomotive of the Durango & Silverton Railroad. Hand the conductor the fee and ride the train into your resupply.
Overall, resupply options are not abundant. Towns within easy reach range from 60 to 105 trail miles apart. There are some interesting resupply options though. There is free transit service with a bus stop at a trailhead near the town of Frisco. Another bus stop at a trailhead 14 miles further down the trail makes for an easy slackpack day.
I resupplied at Frisco (mile 104), Twin Lakes (175), Salida (253), Lake City (357) and Silverton (405 at the train). Boxes can be sent to each town, or groceries are available. The grocery selection is thin at Twin Lakes however. The trail also passes right by a general store at Mt. Princeton (mile 230). I did not resupply there, but had one whale of a 2nd lunch.
If you are looking for big mountain scenery, enjoy being self-sufficient in the wilderness and have the time to hike 500 miles, the CT may be the trail for you. Epic views, wildlife sightings, incredible wildflower displays and plenty of sunshine are highlights. Thunderstorms, 5-10 mile climbs and postholing might be considered drawbacks.
Hiking east to west gives you over 100 miles to acclimate before going over 12,000 feet. (West to east gets you there in 23 lung busting miles.)
The Colorado Trail Foundation manages the trail and they do a great job. They produce a Colorado Trail Guidebook that provides a wealth of information about the trail and surrounding area. At 300+ pages, it is a better planning read than a trailside companion. Their Databook weighs under 4 ounces and provides detailed maps, camp and water locations as well as resupply intel. A still lighter option is the Guthook phone app, but the Databook worked very well for me on the trail and I never had to worry about battery power as I used it. (I did use some of my battery power listening to John Denver tunes. Rocky Mountain High seemed especially appropriate.)
A great place to begin research on the trail is at the Foundation’s website, coloradotrail.org. The site has quite a bit of information as well as an online store that sells the Guide and Databook. If you are looking for a journal type book to get a feel for the hike from one person’s perspective, I’m rather partial to this one.
Regardless, when you finish the trail and get to Durango, swing by Carver’s Brewpub. When I finished they were providing thru-hikers with their first glass of Colorado Trail Nut Brown Ale on the house. I’m not sure a beer ever tasted any better.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” John Muir
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