The Colorado Trail Guide: 11 Highlights of the CT You Won’t Want to Miss
Planning to hike the Colorado Trail? You’re in the right place. This spring, we’ll be writing about all things CT so prospective thru- and section hikers can figure out what’s what. We’ll kick things off this week with highlights of the Colorado Trail. Because I’m a firm believer that the first step to planning any backpacking trip is to get hyped about all the amazing things you’ll get to see and do on the trail.
I thought this post would be really easy to write because the CT is jam-packed with awesomeness, but I ended up struggling to pick just a few highlights out of the many, many high points of this hike. This list is by no means comprehensive, but hopefully, it will give you a snapshot of the CT’s incredible beauty and diversity. Without further ado, here are 11 unforgettable highlights of the Colorado Trail you can look forward to on your thru- or section hike.
Want more CT inspiration? Have a look at these 86 Absolutely Incredible Photos from the Colorado Trail.
All mileage based on the FarOut Colorado Trail guide (SOBO).
11 Highlights of the Colorado Trail You Won’t Want to Miss
Segment 2 | Mile 16.5 – 26.6
This often maligned section of the CT is unlike any other. Stretching roughly 10 miles from the South Platte River to the Buffalo Creek Fire Station, this arid segment is as close to hiking in the desert as you’ll get on this trail. The area was devastated by the Buffalo Creek fire in 1996, leaving behind little vegetation and virtually no shade. There’s also no water anywhere in the segment, so you’ll have to fill up at the South Platte and then stop at the Buffalo Creek Fire Station for water after 10 miles (the station generously lets hikers use its outdoor tap).
I know, I know. Right now you’re probably like Jeez Kelly you’re really overselling this segment, we know it can’t be as fun and awesome as you’re making it sound.
True, Segment 2 isn’t all fun and games–but there’s no denying the strange, austere beauty of the burned landscape. Ideally, you’ll want to start hiking at sunrise during the summer months and carry plenty of water so you can safely enjoy this unique and remarkable segment.
READ NEXT – Colorado Trail Segment 2: The Burn Scar
Georgia Pass | Mile 83
Shortly after crossing I-70 at Kenosha Pass, you’ll start to climb, starting from the tranquil banks of Jefferson Creek and culminating five miles and nearly 2,000 feet of elevation later at Georgia Pass. The ascent is long but steady: abundant water, shade, switchbacks, camping, and smooth tread make the climb very manageable and even enjoyable. At the top, you’ll break out above treeline for the first time (if you started in Denver) and be rewarded with splendid views of the Rocky Mountains unfolding before you. It’s the first taste of the wild, high elevation environment the CT is known for. Fittingly, the CT also joins up with the CDT at this point
Georgia Pass is a milestone: in getting past that first big climb, you’re also breaking into the heart of the trail. Say goodbye to the hot, arid lowlands: it’ll be a roller coaster ride of big mountains and even bigger views from here on.
Just watch out for the mountain bikers: Georgia Pass is a popular destination for them too.
The Alpine Slide at Copper Mountain Resort | Mile 119
I have to be honest with you guys: I actually didn’t ride the alpine slide. When I first learned about Copper Mountain’s Rocky Mountain Coaster, I was very excited. I have hazy, fond childhood memories of riding a different alpine slide closer to Durango that I was eager to recreate on my thru-hike, but I came through the ski resort at the wrong time of day and the coaster wasn’t running.
The trail goes right underneath part of the tracks, though, and looks awesome. The resort’s website boasts that the 5,800-foot long alpine slide is one of the longest of its kind in the country. A ticket costs $29 and the trail goes right past the resort, so if your timing is right, it’s both convenient and relatively inexpensive to ride.
I realize that rocketing down a mountainside in a tiny cart, presumably while shrieking at the top of your lungs, and rolling into a posh ski resort at the end is not going to be every thru-hiker’s cup of tea. But if you’re looking for a (literal) change of pace on the long walk from Denver to Durango, it could be just the ticket.
Mt. Elbert | Mile 170 or 174.6
The Colorado Rockies boast some of the tallest peaks in the country, including over a dozen “14ers,” or summits above 14,000 feet, that can be accessed from the Colorado Trail. Among these is 14,439-foot Mount Elbert, the tallest peak in Colorado and second-tallest in the continental US after California’s Mount Whitney. If you start the trail in Denver and hike south, it’s also one of your very first opportunities to try your hand at summiting 14ers.
There are two trails to the summit, and both of them intersect the Colorado Trail, so you could conveniently hike up one side and down the other without having to do any road walking. This would only add about two net miles to your thru-hike.
Unsurprisingly, Elbert is one of the most popular 14ers (if not the most popular 14er) among thru-hikers.
A fellow CT hiker who lived in Colorado for years told me outright that I shouldn’t even bother hiking Elbert on the grounds that the hike is “not very interesting” and that the view from the summit is “just a bunch of mountains.” Maybe I just have low standards for mountain views, having lived on the east coast for 15 years, but I hiked Elbert anyway and thought it was a fabulous experience. While I can confirm that the summit view was indeed just of a bunch of mountains, I didn’t mind that all since I happen to kind of like ’em.
Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort | Mile 230
Thru-hiking is tough, dirty, hungry work. Break up the grind by pampering yourself with a hot meal from the on-site restaurant (many hikers rave about the breakfast here), a shower, and a long soak at Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort. There’s also a Starbucks and a convenience store for snacks for the road, or you can send yourself a resupply box at this location. If you really want to be indulgent, you can also reserve a room for an overnight stay at the resort. “Plan ahead. Reserve a room at the resort,” one FarOut user advised in the comments. “This is the place to splurge.”
You’ll have to commit to the Collegiate East route to treat yourself to this awesome trailside experience.
Hope Pass – Lake Anne Pass (Collegiate West) | CW Mile 7 – 19
Those who choose to hike the Collegiate West alternate will be greeted almost immediately after Twin Lakes by a searing, relentlessly steep four-mile climb up to Hope Pass—a fitting introduction to a section that’s notorious for its grueling terrain. Fortunately, the lactic acid is richly rewarded when you reach the top of the climb. Behind you, you’ll see Twin Lakes, along with Massive and Elbert, sprawling. Ahead, the soaring peaks and lush, plunging valleys of the Collegiates—and the promise of many dramatic vistas ahead.
From the pass, you’ll have an equally steep, leg-jiggling descent down to the valley bottom, where you’ll enjoy miles of shaded hiking among wide trees and gurgling streams. At mile 15.4 you’ll have the opportunity to take a side trail to the summit of Mount Huron, which some say is the most spectacular 14er summit accessible from the CT.
Eventually, you’ll start climbing steadily again and will enjoy substantial alpine meadow goodness (including stunning views of Apostles Basin and the three Apostles themselves) before getting up and over Lake Anne Pass. This pass is arguably even more scenic than Hope, thanks to the beneficial presence of glorious Lake Anne itself. Ample exposed camping opportunities near the lake so long as you’re confident of the weather.
Salida | Mile 253
Pretty much every town along the CT is amazing in its own way: Leadville, Creede, and Silverton are also among my loves. But if I had to pick just one favorite, it would be Salida. It has a little bit of everything, including beautiful art and architecture and a vibrant downtown area. The town also has all the amenities a hiker needs, including lodging (Salida is one of the few towns that has an actual hostel in addition to hotels and AirBnBs), groceries, and restaurants.
I spent a relaxing day just wandering around Salida, window shopping, and ogling the random deer that can often be found ambling down the town’s sidewalks. The pancake place was closed the day I was there, but word on the street is that it’s an awesome/affordable place to eat. Meanwhile, the riverfront park is a perfect spot to while away a summer afternoon in the shade (or even splash around in the Arkansas River itself—the town even provides free life vests for safety).
Worth noting: virtually every town on the CT is a full-blown tourist mountain town to a greater or lesser extent, and prices tend to reflect that. Unlike, say, the AT, trailside towns are generally not catering to thru-hikers. Don’t count on hiker discounts at hotels and be prepared for outfitters to have a fairly limited selection of actual hiking and camping gear. Advise avoiding towns on summer weekends, when the restaurants and hotels are often packed with tourists.
Eddiesville Trailhead – San Luis Pass Trailhead | Mile 330 – 343
Welcome to the San Juans, SOBOs—this mountain range could fill out a list of Colorado Trail highlights all on its own.
This was one of those stretches that made me wish I had a GoPro because I kept stopping every 90 seconds to take more pictures. The views were just that good. Eddiesville trailhead marks the end of a long and tedious stretch of endless cow pastures and mild, rolling hills with few dramatic vistas. From the trailhead, you’ll soon find yourself in a boggy valley with a nice mix of shady trees, willows, and low grasses. This is prime moose-sighting territory, particularly if you come through at dawn or dusk, so stay alert.
At mile 340, you’ll reach the top of a saddle well above treeline, from which you can follow a 1.5-mile side trail to the top of 14,014-foot San Luis Peak if you so choose. The next three miles are all views all the time—I don’t know how else to describe the section without sounding repetitive. Majestic mountains, splendiferous valleys, and so on.
From San Luis Pass trailhead you can hike another three miles down a side trail to get to the Equity Mine parking lot and hitch a ride to Creede (not an easy hitch, you’ll more likely be lurking around the parking lot hoping to bum a ride with some San Luis peak baggers when they come back to their cars). Creede isn’t easy to get to, but it’s a delightful stop and one of the few resupply points in this stretch of the trail. The town features a full grocery store, multiple restaurants, lodging, and a thriving theater scene.
The View Just South of the CDT/CT Split | Mile 398
The CT and the Continental Divide Trail share the same tread for hundreds of miles starting at Georgia Pass, but the trails part ways again some 10 miles north of Silverton. The area where they separate is quite beautiful: miles of high, grassy ridge walking, with lush valleys unfolding on either side and occasional tarns peeking out from among the hills around you. And honestly, practically every step from the CT High Point at mile 373.5 to here is a stunner. But about a half-mile past the junction of the two trails on the CT (don’t quote me on the exact distance), the views go into high gear.
You come to the start of a long, switchback-laden descent and find yourself looking down on a grassy plateau beneath. Two perfect, glassy lakes perch right on the edge of that plateau before the landmass plunges down into a deep gorge framed by soaring cliffs. The dark entrances to a few abandoned mine shafts yawn out from the cliff face as you descend.
If you happen to hit this area in a typical July, the whole slope is absolutely laden with wildflowers in the densest concentration I’ve seen anywhere on the CT: columbine, kingscrown, bluebells, orange sneezeweed, paintbrush, and more, all clamoring for attention among the lush green grasses. I’ve hiked the CT twice now, and to me, this is hands-down the best view on the entire trail. I might even say it’s one of the loveliest mountain views I’ve seen on any trail.
Durango-Silverton Railroad | Mile 406.4
Immediately after stopping to drink in the aforementioned gorgeous view, SOBOs begin a looooooong (and surprisingly grueling) downhill to the Animas River. Trekking poles are a must here. Be particularly careful of the loose, treacherous pea gravel littering the trail for the first couple of miles, which will probably slow you down significantly if you’re like me. There is ample shade, water, and camping on this downhill once you get below treeline, and at the bottom, you’ll cross the tracks of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Rail.
If you’re heading into Silverton anyway and you’d like to skip the grueling climb back out of the river valley (and/or just experience something a little unique along the way) you can also take a short side trail to the Elk Park rail stop and flag down the passenger train when it comes by (obviously, you’ll have to know the schedule in advance). You’ll pay a reduced fare to the conductor when you board—something in the neighborhood of $35—and enjoy a scenic half-hour ride directly into Silverton. Do call the railroad ahead of time if you’re interested in riding the train, as I’ve heard that fares and availability can change dramatically depending on how busy the tourist season is.
Incidentally: if you don’t do the train ride and also don’t plan to skip Silverton, Molas Lake Campground is a great place to pick up a resupply box and grab a hot shower. You can even rent canoes and stand-up paddleboards from the campground office if you’d like to have some fun on the water before popping back into the high mountains.
Indian Trail Ridge / Taylor Lake | Mile 462 – 463.5
Indian Trail Ridge and Taylor Lake culminate an epic ride through the gorgeous, scenic San Juan mountains. Once you get off Indian Ridge heading south, it’s literally all downhill from there to Durango.
Indian Ridge is a roughly 0.75-mile long spine of rock that’s infamous for unpredictable weather conditions. I’ve hiked across the ridge twice: once I ended up flat-out sprinting to get off the ridge before an impending thunderstorm hit in the afternoon, and the other time it was freezing rain and high winds. Best to get across the ridge in the morning if at all possible, as you’re very exposed and don’t even have a way to bail to lower, more sheltered ground once you’re up there.
Despite (or maybe partly because of) these difficulties, Indian Ridge is a striking way to say goodbye to the high mountains of the CT, which culminates in a dramatic knife-edge traverse just before starting the downhill. Descending from the ridge, you’ll find yourself skirting the shores of beautiful Taylor Lake, a great place to spend the night before making one final 21-mile downhill push into Durango.
Your Mileage May Vary (and That’s OK)
I know I’ve already said it half a dozen times, but at risk of being repetitive, I’ll point out once more that this list is by no means comprehensive, since the Colorado Trail is basically a 485-mile continuous highlights reel. Besides, the CT is an incredibly diverse and variable trail. Your experience of a given section will be dramatically different depending on the time of year —and even the time of day—you pass through.
Where I got snowcapped peaks and glorious wildflowers, you may get vivid fall colors. Where I encountered teeming herds of floofy, bleating sheep, you might instead see intrepid marmots and delightfully rotund pikas. No two Colorado Trail experiences will be exactly alike, and that’s what makes the hike so special.
What are some of your favorite highlights of the Colorado Trail? Let us know in the comments below.
More from the Colorado Trail Guide
Everything You Need to Know to Hike the Colorado Trail
11 Highlights of the Colorado Trail You Won’t Want to Miss
Towns and Resupply on the Colorado Trail
Logistics for a Colorado Trail Thru-Hike
Essential Safety Tips for Thru-Hiking the Colorado Trail
Colorado Trail Section-by-Section
Collegiate East vs. West: 8 Key Differences for CT Hikers
How to Hike Every 14er on the Colorado Trail (with FarOut Miles)
The Beer Drinker’s Guide to the Colorado Trail
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