The Colorado Trail vs. The John Muir Trail: Which Trail is Better?
Anyone who knows me, knows I love comparison. I have lists outlining most of the hikes I’ve ever done, and objectively ranking/rating subjective experiences. So, when I set out to complete my John Muir Trail thru-hike one year after completing the Colorado Trail, I fully expected to pit the two trails against each other in my head and arrive at a firm answer to the question: Which Trail is Better?
First, some statistics
The Colorado Trail is 486 miles long, with about 89,000 feet of elevation gain and 88,000 feet of elevation loss. It winds its way from Waterton Canyon, just South of Denver, to Durango. Along the way, it passes through eight mountain ranges, six National Forests, and six wilderness areas. Most thru-hikers will take between four and six weeks to complete the trail in its entirety.
The John Muir Trail is much shorter, at only about 214 miles. It has around 47,000 feet of elevation gain and 37,000 feet of elevation loss. The trail stretches from the Happy Isles in Yosemite to the summit of 14,505-foot Mount Whitney. It’s relevant to mention that, while the trail (depending on your direction) ends/starts at the Whitney summit, you still need to find your way up to/down from the summit, which will add some mileage and elevation change to the overall hike. The trail passes through three National Parks, two National Forests, and two Wilderness areas, and takes thru-hikers around two to three weeks to complete.
I have no problem taking strong stances based on subjective criteria.
For example: Devils Postpile on the JMT? Boring. Hated it. Why? My tummy hurt that day so I did not enjoy it.
Cottonwood Pass on the Collegiate West Portion of the Colorado Trail should be bulldozed. Why? I got caught in a thunderstorm above the treeline there, so I will hate it forever.
But, when it comes to the comparison of these two trails, I struggle to come to a firm conclusion on even the most basic criteria.
Which Trail is Harder?
The Colorado Trail is more than twice the length of the John Muir Trail, with a similar average elevation change per mile, so the answer should be easy- but it’s not.
My experience on the JMT taught me that the difficulty of a thru-hike is so much more dependent on the random, unlucky, circumstantial experiences you have on the trail than the trail itself. My JMT thru-hike was far, far harder than my CT thru. If someone told me their CT experience was more challenging, I would absolutely believe them.
Thru-hiking is waking up, hiking for ten hours, going to sleep, and repeating that cycle until hitting a terminus. The terrain of the two trails is honestly not SO different from each other that your rhythm will change depending on the trail.
What will affect your experience are the big three outside factors:
Weather, Health & Well-Being, and Trail Conditions.
On the Colorado Trail, I experienced one of Colorado’s rainiest summer months in history. However, I rarely was caught above treeline in a thunderstorm, the temperatures were reasonable, I was in good health, I met lots of people on the trail to befriend, and the trail was well maintained that year with plenty of available water.
On the John Muir Trail, I was hit by Hurricane Hillary — along with one of California’s rainiest Augusts ever — suffered a bad, multi-day bout of food poisoning that left me dangerously dehydrated, and had to navigate so much damage on the trail after a record-breaking year in the Sierras for snow.
Obviously, the JMT was harder.
But, isn’t this just the luck of the draw with thru-hiking? I never could have predicted these things back in February when I was securing a permit. It’s just sheer coincidence that all of these things happened on the JMT and bypassed me on the CT. These trails are ever-changing beasts, and too many external factors exist to ever be able to predict your experience.
However, I found the significant climbs of the CT to be tougher than the passes of the JMT, despite the JMT’s reputation for frequent and challenging mountain passes. By no stretch of the imagination am I calling Forester Pass easy, but I will say that Hope Pass took me a lot longer, left me a lot more winded, and led me to appreciate that stunning view of the Collegiate Peaks just a little bit more.
To sum it up
The John Muir Trail was harder for me, despite the Colorado Trail being a harder trail when you disregard the external factors that change from year to year. It’s closer than you’d think when you look at just the raw numbers for the two trails, but the mental challenge of the longer timescale and the physical challenges of the Rockies give the CT an edge. (In my opinion!)
That being said- add an anti-diarrheal to your med kit for both trails. Trust me.
Which Trail is Prettier?
Let’s get the obligatory “both trails are stunning!” out of the way first- it’s true, but that’s not what you’re here to read, is it?
Here we go: The Colorado Trail is prettier than the John Muir Trail.
If you disagree with me, that’s okay. It’s hard to walk through Evolution Valley or past Thousand Island Lake and imagine anything prettier existing anywhere in the world. But, at least hear me out on my reasoning.
I find views more rewarding when I suffer for them. Maybe that tells you everything you need to know right off the bat, but I’ll delve a little deeper.
On almost every single day of the John Muir Trail, you will see something that takes your breath away. With the trail starting at the summit of Mount Whitney, going over 8 equally stunning major mountain passes, and ending in the heart of Yosemite Valley, it’s easy to see why the views are so plentiful. But, the best views of the Colorado Trail (The San Juans, in my opinion), are preceded by 50 miles of brutal, hot, dry, flat, dusty, awful trail through Colorado’s cow country.
It’s hard to really value the view from the top of Mather Pass when you saw the view from the top of Glen Pass the day before and know you’re going to be seeing the view from the top of Muir Pass the next day. It’s harder to take the views for granted on the Colorado Trail. After three days of pain, climbing up to San Luis and staring out at the rolling mountains beneath you? That’s a feeling that I wish I could bottle.
The Colorado Trail also gets the benefit of being longer, so the scenery is much more varied. The landscape surprises you constantly, from the rocky and jagged peaks of the Collegiates, to the green and red San Juan mountains, to the wildflower-filled meadows surrounding Kenosha Pass, to the long stretches above treeline.
The way I would summarize my opinion is this: The Colorado Trail has higher highs view-wise, but also lower lows. It is these (few and far between!) lows that make you truly appreciate the stunning scenery every time you’re walking through it. Does that mean the John Muir Trail can receive my subjective award of “Least Ugly Trail”? Yeah- I wouldn’t disagree with that.
I’ll say it again: both trails are unbelievably stunning. Your favorite will likely depend on what you value in a view, what the weather happened to be at the time, and your mood that day.
Does the comparison even need to be made? No. But, here I am, doing it anyway. The CT is prettier.
Which Trail is Better?
We’ve arrived at the question. Maybe you’re trying to decide which trail you should hike, or you’ve hiked both trails and are also trying to make sense of them. Or, maybe, you’ve hiked one of them, and are rage-reading this to try and confirm that the trail you hiked is, in fact, harder/prettier/better.
I have another disappointing answer for you. Experiences on these trails rely far too much on the external for me to give any sort of advice.
Really, if you’re struggling to pick between the two, go with the one that you have time for. If you’re not able to take a month away from work, it sounds like the JMT might be for you. If you live in Colorado and it would be a meaningful experience for you, then the CT is your trail.
I personally enjoyed the Colorado Trail more than the John Muir Trail. This is in large part due to the fact that I didn’t get scarily, dangerously sick on the Colorado Trail. However, I know people who got scarily, dangerously sick on the CT and would probably have had a better time being healthy on the JMT.
And, not inconsequentially, the Colorado Trail was my first thru-hike and is in my home state. I will always hold a special corner of my heart for that trail. I warned you I’d draw an objective conclusion based on subjective experiences.
The Colorado Trail is better than the John Muir Trail.
I’m sure you’ll see me again after the Long Trail for another comparison, likely arriving at the same conclusions. As long as we agree Devils Postpile is not worth the side trip, I’m fine agreeing to disagree.
Read more about my time on the JMT here.
Featured image: Katie Jackson photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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