Diversity on the Colorado Trail: Empowerment and Setback While Thru-Hiking
When was the last time that you felt like you didn’t belong? For minority thru-hikers, each day on trail is a reminder that they are different. Last year, I had the privilege to thru-hike the Colorado Trail — a stunning 486-mile footpath that winds through mountains of Colorado starting in Littleton and ending in Durango. I saw just one other hiker of color for the entire 34 days I was on trail. As luck would have it, he and I were headed in opposite directions.
Being an Indian-American woman, I knew I stood out in the backcountry well before I landed at Denver International Airport. This was not my first rodeo with long-distance hiking. I had thru-hiked before (Wonderland Trail in 2019 and Tahoe Rim Trail in 2020) and had a good idea of what to expect.
I was not blissfully ignorant enough to think that long-distance trails were teeming with folks who looked like me. However, my past experiences with thru-hiking were with my partner, who happens to be a white man. I had no idea how much this had affected my experience during my previous thru-hikes. The CT would be the first time I would be tackling a long-distance trail alone.
A Different Experience
I quickly learned that things white hikers did with ease could send me sliding down an emotional scree field of anxiety. Most hikers are ecstatic on town days, and for good reason. Town means a shower, real food that isn’t freeze-dried, and a bed to sleep in. However, I found myself dreading the idea of town days. I would have so many questions racing through my head hiking the final miles before town. When I stand alone on the side of Highway 114 with my thumb out, who do people think I am? What do I look like? I quickly learned to keep my backpack and hiking poles close to signal who I was to all of the cars whizzing by.
The blazing sun turned my brown skin darker as I spent day after day hiking in the intensely exposed alpine above 10,000 feet. The spiraling thoughts continued as I hiked more miles. Would having darker skin make my chances of getting a hitch harder? Could I get a ride at all? Would the driver ask me the dreaded “But where are you really from” question?
It’s easy to have these thoughts become all-consuming when your day-to-day consists of walking alone. Thru-hiking becomes a different experience entirely.
The Dreaded Question
One day I will never forget is when I was in the town of Salida, Colorado. Salida is known to be a hiker favorite and a “must-see” town for both Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers alike. There is good reason for this; Salida is an adorable, picturesque mountain town located about 250 trail miles south of the Colorado Trail Northern Terminus.
After spending the night at the Loyal Duke Lodge (highly recommend), I woke up and made my way onto the main street to indulge in actual coffee and a ginormous vegan breakfast burrito. Waiting in line to order, I shouldered my teal ULA Circuit that was ready to accompany me for the next 75 miles of wilderness. The man behind me in line noticed (certainly did not smell) my backpack and was curious.
This was not the first time someone in town asked what I was doing. I semi-robotically rambled off the answer to yet another stranger’s question: what the Colorado Trail was, how I started at Waterton Canyon on July 1 and was continuing to make my way south to Durango. Something about this explanation impressed this man and he offered to buy me my coffee and breakfast. An act of kindness from a stranger that I was extremely grateful for.
We proceeded to sit outside on the picnic tables on the main street, eating our breakfast, sipping iced lattes, and chatting. I got to know more about this man and his wife. How they lived in Utah but were road-tripping their way south and mountain biking trails along the way. We chatted about the beauty of Colorado wildflowers and the intense monsoons that year.
Then – out of the blue, as always — came the question I had learned to dread: “Are you Indian?” It hit me like a truck. No other context to the question, just blatantly posed like a blank checkbox to be filled in on a race declaration form. I blurted out the same people-pleasing response I had memorized by this point: yes, I was Indian but no, I did not grow up there. I live in Seattle now and grew up in the Midwest.
Finishing what was left of my oat milk latte in record time and wrapping up the conversation with pleasantries, I grabbed my pack and got up. I left feeling uncomfortable, called out for being different, and that my identity was boiled down to what I looked like.
Later on trail, the anger came. I was angry for not standing up for myself. I ruminated over the conversation over and over, each time editing it to what the correct snarky comeback should have been. There is so much more to me than what I look like: my love for marmots and protecting public land, my analytical side from being an engineer, and my adventurous bold spirit. I felt like what made me me was stripped away in that moment.
The sad part was the timing of this. Hiking and being away from society’s expectations, I was just starting to feel like my authentic self for the first time in my entire adult life. My self-image and confidence took a huge step back after this interaction. I felt like the hiking community, from whom I was so badly seeking validation, didn’t have room for me.
If you are a white hiker, I’m willing to bet you have never had an experience like mine. The hiking community needs to recognize that never feeling “othered” is a privilege. “Othering”, or when individuals are labeled as not fitting the norms of a group, can have devastating emotional impacts. It makes those who don’t fit in feel unworthy and less than.
What We Need: Leadership From the Top
It is the job of long-distance trail organizations to speak up about diversity and inclusion on trails. In the ever-growing digital age, these organizations have huge outreach and power. Their websites and social media pages need to highlight actionable commitments to being an ally for minorities. Their Instagram pages need to showcase diverse individuals using these trails; not just the same pictures of white hikers on repeat.
In my opinion, the Colorado Trail Foundation is falling significantly behind other trail organizations on the topic of diversity. I personally reached out to them about publishing minority hiker stories in their bi-yearly newsletter. The response I received read “Our mission and focus are around trail building and volunteer crews. If you’d ever be interested in joining one of our volunteer crews, which I imagine would represent a similar level of diversity that you found on the Trail, we would love to have you and to further share your experience afterward.”
I find it quite ironic that the mission statement highlights the “diverse, high mountain, natural environment” but has no mention of diversity with the types of people who use this trail.
Recognition and Action
The hiking community cannot make progress on diversity until we openly admit there is a problem. Thru-hikers are some of the most resilient people around. We push through intense discomfort and commit to huge goals. I would like to see this same spirit put towards the issue of diversity and inclusion.
As for me, I mostly look back at my time on the CT fondly. Eventually, I was able to separate this negative experience from my thru-hike as a whole. I learned to speak up when I felt uncomfortable. I found friends I could trust on trail who listened to me when I wanted to share my experiences. My hope is that minority hikers continue to get out on trail. We deserve to experience these beautiful and wild places when they call to us.
About the Author
Hi! I’m Nisha, and go by Mallard on the trail. My happy place is in alpine meadows filled with whistling marmots. I discovered backpacking when I moved to Washington after college. I hiked the Wonderland Trail in 2019, the Tahoe Rim Trail in 2020, and the Colorado Trail in 2022. When I’m not in the backcountry, I love walking my dog, Cosmo, and shooting 35 mm film.
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