Ranking the Colorado Trail Segments: 100% Subjective, Completely True
The 486 miles between Denver and Durango on the Colorado Trail (CT) weave through six wilderness areas, eight mountain ranges, and five major river systems. The Colorado Trail Foundation calls it “mile for mile the most beautiful trail in America.” Thousands of hikers explore it every year in some capacity.
The CT is divided into 28 numbered segments, beginning at Waterton Canyon near Denver and wrapping up at Junction Creek Trailhead on the outskirts of Durango. This matches the direction most commonly taken by thru-hikers, myself included. There are also the five segments that make up the Collegiate West alternate, which bypass those of Collegiate East.
For the purpose of this article, the segments on Collegiate East will remain unranked, as I have no first-hand experience hiking them. If you’ve been lucky enough to see them, please let me know where you think they stack up compared to the rest of the trail!
READ NEXT —
- Everything You Need to Know to Hike the Colorado Trail
- Colorado Trail Section by Section
- Collegiate East vs. West: 8 Key Differences for CT Hikers
While each segment is beautiful and unique, I have strong opinions and an uncontrollable urge to systematically rank things. If you’re planning a thru-hike of the Colorado Trail, and are looking to get excited for specific sections, you’ve found the right article. If you’ve previously completed the trail, and are curious about how in-sync our memories are, read on! And, if you’re a section hiker trying to plan for the best segments to tackle, I’m happy to be your guide.
Of course, every year is different, and our memories of specific sections of trail are so dependent on our individual experiences that day. On the other hand, I have never been wrong about anything in my life.
Let’s dive in.
#30 Segment 17: Sargents Mesa to Colorado Hwy 114
Segment 17. My nemesis. In this segment, I drank from a stream containing a freshly dead cow and had flies bite through my clothes hard enough to draw blood. The terrain is loose gravel and a single track, and I fell several times on the slippery tread.
The view you have at the beginning of the segment, looking into a meadow beneath you, is the highlight of the entire section. From here, you follow a rocky ridgeline with no views (and no water) before crossing over Highway 114.
Consider this segment the price you have to pay to enter the San Juans. I will say that the flat terrain and lack of good views make this segment a great one for crushing a big-mile day.
#29 Segment 16: Marshall Pass Trailhead to Sargents Mesa
This segment takes you deep into the heart of Cowland. While much of the trail still hovers around 10,500 feet, Segment 16 is almost as flat a trail as you will have experienced thus far on the Colorado Trail. It is also dry and dusty, with only one major water source about 0.2 miles off the trail.
I try to think of positives for each segment, so here is my only nice thing to say about Segment 16: It isn’t Segment 17.
#28 Segment 18: Colorado Hwy 114 to Saguache Park Road
The worst of the trail may be past you, but you’re still deep in Cowland with no end in sight. Luckily, this segment of the trail is short. And, as a bonus, a lot of this trail follows a dirt road, meaning the hiking is flat and easygoing.
You’ll dip into some trees briefly, but will still be baking in the sun for the majority of this segment. Don’t worry, fresh water isn’t too far in your future.
#27 Segment 19: Saguache Park Road to Eddiesville Trailhead
Segment 19 sees you continuing along a dirt road for several miles before — could it be?! — you begin to see some foothills rising around you. Even better, you’ll hit Cochetopa Creek, your first real water source in about 13 miles.
After jumping into this creek I came out with leeches on my foot, but it was so clear and fresh and cold that I (almost) didn’t care.
#26 Segment 03: Little Scraggy Trailhead to FS-560 (Wellington Lake Road) Trailhead
Segment Three was the first time that I stopped having fun on my thru-hike. It was hot, dry, and dusty with mediocre views, deep gouges cut into the trail from bikes, and it was also my first on-trail poop. I don’t care how many thousands of miles I backpack, that first poop outside always makes me question every decision that has led me to that point.
There is also something to be said for expectation. I had heard horror stories of Segment Two, and had built it up in my head to be this terrible beast. Segment Three, on the other hand, did not have the same fearsome reputation. So, not only was I miserable, but also I didn’t feel I had the right to be so upset since no one else seemed to have the same experience.
This is me giving you permission to be absolutely miserable in Segment Three. It sucks.
#25 Segment 10: Timberline Lake Trailhead to Mount Massive Trailhead
This segment boasts fairly gentle grades and good tree coverage to protect you from the sun. The views, as a result, are minimal and made this segment rather mentally tough for me.
You spend some time hiking near the bases of Mount Massive and Mount Elbert, making this a great time for you to add either of these peaks to your hike. Be warned — both hikes take you above 14,000 feet and will likely take you longer than the hike’s mileage would suggest. Mount Massive can be an especially difficult summit to tag.
If you’re feeling up to the challenge, both peaks will reward you with amazing views of the surrounding Collegiate Peaks.
#24 Segment 15: US 50 to Marshall Pass Trailhead
Here, the Collegiate West and Collegiate East trails reconvene, allowing you to possibly reconnect with any friends who chose a different route than you. The trail is fairly flat as you are beginning to enter cow country. You should embrace your final fleeting views of the vast Collegiate Peaks. Several boring and dusty days are in your future.
#23 Segment 01: Waterton Canyon Trailhead to South Platte River Trailhead
Most CT thru-hikers tackle the trail East to West, meaning they begin at Segment One in Waterton Canyon. The trail starts gently, and the first flat 6.5-mile walk on a dirt road passes quickly as you keep an eye out for bighorn sheep and work through all the jitters that come with starting a long trail.
While this segment, compared to the rest of the trail, has few notable views or large climbs, the joy of a dip in the South Platte River after a frustrating, switchbacked descent cannot be overstated.
There is not too much water in this segment, but the well-maintained trail and ease of navigation will make the miles pass quickly.
#22 Segment CW03: Cottonwood Pass Trailhead to Tincup Pass Road
This is a controversial placement, I know. The views are objectively stunning, the tread easy to follow, the climbs gentle, and the water plentiful. However, it was also the first time on my hike I was caught above treeline with storms brewing all around me, and I spent the entire segment head down, holding back tears, and power walking as fast as I possibly could.
This segment ends at North Fork Chalk Creek, and will likely be crowded as it is the first good campsite available after dipping back below treeline. Prepare to share your sleeping area with new friends — and perhaps a moose or two. I hope you have a better time on this segment than I did. It does deserve to be ranked higher, but I hated it too much to consider that.
#21 Segment 02: South Platte River Trailhead to Little Scraggy Trailhead
Segment Two has a bad reputation. Yes, the swift ascent up from the South Platte River is tiring. Yes, the subsequent 10-mile hike through an exposed burn area is hot. However, this is a terrain that you likely won’t see much of again for the rest of your hike.
The expansive views offered up due to the burn are stunning, and the fire station at the end of the segment is a wonderful place to hang out, replenish water, and meet fellow hikers.
Load up on water at the South Platte River, get an early start to the segment to beat the afternoon’s heat, and you’ll hopefully look back on this segment just as fondly as I do!
#20 Segment 09: Tennessee Pass Trailhead to Timberline Lake Trailhead
Segment Nine will bring you past several alpine lakes — some perfect for a dip, and some absolutely swarming with mosquitoes. The trail here is a little bit of a rollercoaster; a gentle uphill gives way to a gentle downhill back to a short ascent and will leave you wondering if there couldn’t have been a flatter way to traverse this section.
Maybe I didn’t sleep well the previous night, or maybe the rollercoaster was harder than I anticipated, but I was in a sour mood for this segment. The mosquitoes didn’t help.
#19 Segment 11: Mount Massive Trailhead to Clear Creek Road
In this Segment, you will decide to take the Collegiate West or Collegiate East route. While everyone needs to decide for themselves how they want their hike to look, and there are no wrong answers… Collegiate West is best.
The majority of this segment has you descending a brutal trail down to the town of Twin Lakes before hiking six flat, exposed, and hot miles around the lakes themselves. Many will choose to bypass these lakes by fording a river.
I considered myself a purist for my thru-hike of the Colorado Trail, so I went ahead and did the entire hike around the lakes. It was a mistake. Take the bypass.
#18 Segment 05: Long Gulch to Kenosha Pass
Segment Five is largely flat, peaceful, and enjoyable as you meander past cow pastures, through aspen groves, and up to the parking lot for Kenosha Pass. With plenty of water, well-maintained trail, and beautiful aspen, this segment has few negatives.
For me, however, it also didn’t stand out in any particularly positive way. Truly a very average segment. Consider this the midpoint: I enjoyed every segment ranked higher than this, and had a not-so-fun day on every segment below.
#17 Segment 04: FS-560 (Wellington Lake Road) Trailhead to Long Gulch
Segment Four will bring with it your first large climb as you approach the Lost Creek Wilderness Boundary. The trail becomes reminiscent of hiking on the East Coast, as you’re doing more step-ups onto boulders than actual walking.
The descent from this climb drops you into a stunning meadow with wildflowers, butterflies, and your first real views of the mountains in the distance. Additionally, bikes are not allowed in the Wilderness Area, so you’ll find far better trail conditions in this segment without the tire tread you saw in Segment Three.
#16 Segment CW05: Boss Lake Trailhead to Ridge Above South Fooses Creek
The final segment on the Collegiate West route will take you around Bald Mountain, across a ridgeline, and down to Monarch Pass. Monarch Pass, best known for its friendly gift shop/burger food truck, is an excellent place to wait while you try to catch a hitch into Salida.
Yes, the gift shop has ice cream.
#15 Segment 06: Kenosha Pass to Goldhill Trailhead
From the Kenosha Pass Trailhead you will head up your first major pass of the trail: Georgia Pass. The long and difficult climb will reward you with your first above-treeline views as you gaze west towards Breckenridge.
In this segment you will hit the 100-mile marker and join the Continental Divide Trail. The stone mile marker sits next to a stream and makes for a wonderful place to rest, eat, and celebrate.
The area leading into Breckenridge traverses a burn scar and, on a hot day, will leave you tired and sunburned. However, there is no better reward than getting into town and enjoying a shower and hot meal.
#14 Segment 07: Goldhill Trailhead to Copper Mountain
This section — I will not lie to you — is a challenge. The steep climb up to the saddle between Peak 5 and Peak 6 leads you to above 12,500 feet for the first time, and the views are expansive and breathtaking.
This segment offers your first longer period of time above treeline, and it’s hard to complain when you’re hiking across the top of the world and enjoying all the sights below you.
Water is fairly plentiful in this segment, and you’ll be appreciative of that on your long, exposed descent down to Copper Mountain Resort.
#13 Segment 21: San Luis Pass to Spring Creek Pass Trailhead
This portion of the trail will take your breath away in every way possible. The views are endless: rolling green hills dotted with wildflowers, elk running over the red rocks, and a flat expanse across Snow Mesa with towering peaks in the distance.
However, you have to work for these views, and you’ll be getting quite a workout on every mile. At the end of this segment, catch a hitch into either Lake City or Creede to enjoy town food and some much-deserved rest.
#12 Segment 28: Kennebec Trailhead to Junction Creek Trailhead
Segment 28 — your final segment — leads you down to Taylor Lake and up a tiny climb before taking you down a gentle descent into Durango.
This segment, for me, was clouded with sadness over finishing the trail, and the weather matched my mood with a torrential downpour. Everyone will have their own cocktail of emotions to grapple with at the end of a thru-hike, and the easy terrain and lack of significant climbs in this segment give you plenty of opportunities to do that.
#11 Segment 25: Molas Pass to Bolam Pass Road
Beautiful wildflowers — depending on the month you are hiking — will surround you for the entirety of Segment 25. With only one short climb, and the majority of the sweeping, above treeline views behind you, this segment can feel a tad anticlimactic.
But, you’re still in the stunning San Juans, on a well-maintained trail, surrounded by easily filterable water. It’s hard not to love being here.
#10 Segment 27: Hotel Draw Road to Kennebec Trailhead
We have entered the Top 10 Segments of the Colorado Trail! If you are looking for only one segment of the trail to hike, I strongly recommend any of the remaining sections.
If you are thru-hiking the trail, your second to last segment will take you up the final pass of the trail: Kennebec Pass. From the top of this stunning pass, you will gaze down at Taylor Lake (definitely swim in that later!) and have the realization that the trail is all downhill from here. Congrats on your last big climb!
#9 Segment CW02: Sheep Gulch to Cottonwood Pass Trailhead
This segment brings you up Lake Ann Pass. Known to cling to late-season snow, Lake Ann Pass is perhaps the hardest pass of the trail, but you have plenty of stunning views to enjoy every time you need to stop for a breather.
This segment also puts you close to Huron Peak, if you are trying to tackle some 14ers while on the trail.
#8 Segment 22: Spring Creek Pass Trailhead to Carson Saddle
Segment 22 has you hiking up a dirt road away from Lake City until you reach the high point of the Colorado Trail: 13,259 ft. A wooden signpost marks the spot, as the trail itself is rather unassuming. Still, the stretch up to this sign has you wandering up and down the San Juans’s rolling hills as you stare off at jagged peaks in the distance.
If you’re lucky enough to have clear weather, the high point makes for a beautiful spot to cowboy camp. I have never in my life seen stars the way I did that night.
#7 Segment 26: Bolam Pass Road to Hotel Draw Road
Segment 26 starts at Celebration Lake. This lake is a wonderful campsite, and is one of the few available spots to camp in the area, so you will likely be waking up to see some new faces and friends at camp. It is a wonderful place to reconnect with friends you separated from previously, and a fitting place to reconvene as you begin to reckon with the end of the trail.
Also — there are salamanders in the lake. Cool!
The climb up to Blackhawk Pass is gorgeous, as the multicolored rocks of the San Juans are on prime display. Marmot dens dot the sides of the trail so — even if you didn’t meet up with friends at the lake — you won’t be alone.
#6 Segment CW04: Tincup Pass Road to Boss Lake Trailhead
The fourth segment on the Collegiate West route has you meandering over some unnamed passes, past some beautiful alpine lakes, and between towering peaks. Some of my best skinny dips on trail came during this segment. I have nothing negative to say (a first, for me)!
#5 Segment 20: Eddiesville Trailhead to San Luis Pass
Finally! After days of walking through Cowland, Segment 20 will carry you from dry and dusty cow pastures to the saddle of the 14,000-foot San Luis Peak. Yes, you should hike up to the summit from the saddle. It is very worth the extra time.
This segment, especially since you’ve grown accustomed to flat days, can be challenging as your lungs and legs face terrain they haven’t seen in some time. Enjoy the plentiful water and green, rolling hills. It truly is a sight for sore eyes.
#4 Segment CW01: Twin Lakes to Sheep Gulch
This segment brought me to tears — in a good way. The ascent to Hope Pass is challenging, with my lungs and legs burning with every step. However, cresting the pass and watching the gentle giants of the Collegiate Peaks rise up in front of me was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
The pass is also a wonderful place to stop and enjoy a snack while you wait for your red, tear-streaked face to calm down so you can take a pretty picture.
#3 Segment 08: Copper Mountain to Tennessee Pass Trailhead
Segment Eight punishes you with a sharp climb out of Copper Mountain Resort, but rewards you with breathtaking views on Searle Pass and Kokomo Pass (Yes, you have to do a little dance to the Beach Boys here).
As an additional bonus, the final seven miles to the Tennessee Pass Trailhead are shaded, gently graded, and extremely well-maintained.
As I wrote in my trail journal: “Something about this day — I can’t capture it on paper. Maybe it’s the long stretch above treeline with stunning views, or the moose at my tent this morning. Maybe I’m just in a good mood. But this has been my favorite segment so far.”
#2 Segment 24: Stony Pass Trailhead to Molas Pass
Segment 24 is — quite literally — picturesque. In this section, you encounter the view that graces the front of the Colorado Trail Databook as you begin the knee-destroying descent into Elk Creek Canyon.
It is also in this segment that the Colorado Trail splits from the Continental Divide Trail. So, if you’ve been loving your hike, why not take a left at the fork and continue heading for Mexico?
However, if you stay on the Colorado Trail and head down to the Animas River, be sure to not drink the water. A catastrophic mine spill a few years back still leeches heavy metals into the water that cannot be filtered out.
To add insult to the injuries you probably sustained on the slippery and rocky trail down to the Animas River, you now have a fairly grueling climb back up to Molas Lake. Don’t underestimate this section, like I did, or you’ll arrive at your final trail town of Silverton in a very bad mood.
Enjoy the absolutely unbelievable views as you stare out over Elk Creek Canyon and remember that complaining about the upcoming descent is a rite of passage and part of the fun of the segment.
#1 Segment 23: Carson Saddle to Stony Pass Trailhead
I think we all knew Segment 23 would take the top spot on this list. How could it not? This segment is notorious for being above treeline for the entire 15.9-mile stretch and, as someone caught in a thunderstorm here, I know how scary that can be.
However, even with the rain, I only have good things to say about this portion of the trail. You pass stunning lakes (keep an eye out for moose!) and spend quite literally the entire segment immersed in some of the best scenery Colorado has to offer.
Do yourself a favor — don’t watch videos from this segment before experiencing it yourself. It is something that needs to be seen for the first time in person.
Each segment on the Colorado Trail offers something different and valuable, and I feel so lucky to have been able to see it all. I hope one day soon to hike the trail again, and see how my rankings change after experiencing the segments under different circumstances.
The takeaway is that every segment on the Colorado Trail is wonderful, and the argument can be made for any of them being the best one.
Except Segment 17. That segment is unequivocally the worst one.
Featured image: A Katie Jackson photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann
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