Six tips for hiking the first quarter of the Colorado Trail

One aspect of trail life that I love so much is that the learning curve is so steep. You hop on a trail and a week later you’ve already learned so much! This holds true for the Colorado Trail, which I am currently thru-hiking. So, I wanted to share a few practical tips that I’ve picked up along the way thus far, in case you’re planning your own Colorado Trail hike. For reference, I started the trail at Waterton Canyon and am hiking southbound to Durango, and these tips are based on my experience in the first 120 or so miles of the trail. Here goes!

  1. Start at Waterton Canyon in the morning or early evening, not in the middle of the day. While absolutely gorgeous (and full of wildlife, in my experience!), this canyon is pretty darned exposed. I’d recommend avoiding the hottest part of the day to make it a more enjoyable experience. And, if you’re hoping to see wildlife, many animals are most active at dawn and dusk, so this will increase your chances of seeing them! (I saw a bear, some bighorn sheep, a beaver, and a tarantula and tarantula hawk in the canyon!). Just note that you can’t sleep in Waterton Canyon; you have to hike at least 6.7 miles in to where the trail begins before camping is permitted.
  2. Bring sun protection! Colorado is an extremely sunny state (Denver boasts 300 days of sun per year!), the elevation can make its rays seem stronger, and some of the early sections of the trail are pretty exposed. So definitely bring a hat and sunscreen, but perhaps consider a sun umbrella and sun gloves as well if you have more sensitive skin.
  3. Speaking of exposed sections, segment two of the CT is exposed, dry, hot, and lacks water for about 10 miles. (This 10-mile section would be even longer if the local fire department didn’t generously allow recreationists to fill their water bottles from a spigot on the side of their building. Thank you, firefighters!!). Just like Waterton Canyon, I’d recommend starting this section in the early morning or evening to avoid the heat of the day.
  4. Speaking of segment two, this section is extremely popular with mountain bikers, who share the trail with hikers. If you don’t want to have to move out of the way every five minutes or so, don’t hike through this segment during the weekend! (These bikers were all very friendly and aware, in my experience, and of course they have as much right to be there as the hikers, so no hate whatsoever to the bikers. It can just be frustrating to have to move over constantly when you’re trying to make miles).
  5. Late afternoon thunderstorms are super common in Colorado. Plan accordingly. First, you may want to start early in the morning so that you are set up at camp before the storms roll in. More importantly, you do NOT want to be above tree line during a thunderstorm. Obviously, lightning can be a concern anywhere. But people die from lightning strikes in Colorado each year, and being above tree line, aka being the tallest thing around during a storm, is a great way to increase your chances of being struck.
  6. Love slackpacking? Me too! If you decide to stay the night in Frisco or Breckenridge, you can easily slackpack (hike without most of your backpacking gear) the section between the bus stop at mile 103.7 and Copper Mountain at mile 119. There is a bus that runs between Breckenridge and Frisco hourly, and another that runs from Frisco up to Copper Mountain. Leave your heavy gear at your hotel or hostel, take the bus up to Copper, and hike the 15.3 miles back to the bus stop at mile 103.7. This is a tough (but incredibly beautiful) section so I was really grateful not to have to carry all my gear for it! Bonus: I got to go back and stretch in the hot tub at my hotel after. Well worth the town stop and hotel bill!

I hope you found these tips useful! If you’ve hiked the Colorado Trail and have anything to add for the first quarter of the trail, please post them in the comments below! If you’d like to follow my journey along the Colorado Trail, you can find me on Instagram and YouTube, and I will keep on posting to The Trek as well!

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