The Colorado Trail Guide: Logistics

There are many steps in the process of planning a thru-hike, some of them more enjoyable than others. Putting together your packing list and inspiring yourself by thinking of all the amazing highlights you’ll experience on the trail are pretty dang fun, for instance. But logistics? Like, figuring out the best time of year to thru-hike the Colorado Trail, which end you should start from, and how the heck to get there in the first place? Meh. Sounds like a headache waiting to happen.

Fear not: it isn’t as complicated as it sounds, especially if you take it step by step (just like the hike itself). In this post, we’ll break down all the logistical nuts and bolts of planning a Colorado Trail thru-hike.

The Colorado Trail At a Glance

Length: 486 miles
Elevation Gain / Loss: 89,033 ft / 87,538 ft
Termini:
Waterton Canyon Trailhead / Denver (39.490955757769264, -105.09400708089927); Junction Creek Trailhead / Durango (37.33410818791997, -107.89283849236088)

How long does it take to hike the whole Colorado Trail?

The trail is 485 miles long and takes most people between three and six weeks to hike. When I did it in 2021, it took just over four weeks including plenty of zero days. I averaged about 20 miles per day on hiking days. For reference, the terrain and tread of the CT are more rugged than the PCT but not quite as rough as the AT.

Hikers coming from lower-elevation regions should budget extra time to acclimate to the high altitudes of the Rocky Mountains (even if you’re in good shape). You may want to spend a day or two in Colorado before starting the trail, if possible, and take the first hundred miles slower than you ordinarily would.

Best Time of Year to Hike the Colorado Trail

Most thru-hikers tackle the CT in summer, since Colorado winters are notoriously long and fierce. The Colorado Trail Foundation (CTF) recommends starting the CT no earlier than July 1st and finishing no later than September 30th to avoid the worst of this. If you hike outside of this window, you should be prepared for icy, snowy conditions and (particularly for autumn hikers) snowstorms.

Note that if you begin in Durango, where the mountains are higher and snow lingers longer, you’ll probably want to start a bit later in July, at the earliest, if you mean to avoid significant snow on the trail. On the other hand, if you’re a reasonably fast hiker, you could start as late as late August or early September and reach the lower elevations of Denver before the snow starts piling up.

Considerations for a July start:

  • More thunderstorms
  • More likely to encounter lingering snow (especially in the Collegiates and San Juans)—recommend starting from Denver to give the worst of it time to melt
  • Best conditions for wildflowers
  • More water availability
  • Less risk of wildfire impacts
  • Peak season for summer tourism
  • Gorgeous snow-capped vistas

Considerations for an August start:

  • Trail will probably be snow-free
  • Less water in seasonal sources
  • More risk of wildfire impacts
  • Wildflowers will probably be just past peak when you start the trail and fading by the time you end (start in Durango for maximum wildflower potential with this itinerary)
  • Afternoon thunderstorms will still be a thing but will probably be less impactful later in the month
  • Peak season for summer tourism

Considerations for a September start:

  • Starting to push your weather window by starting this late—recommend starting in Durango so that by late September you’re in the lower-elevation part of the trail near Denver
  • Spectacular fall color change in the aspens and alpine tundra
  • Significantly less likely to encounter regular afternoon thunderstorms by September
  • Less water in seasonal sources
  • More risk of wildfire impacts
  • Few remaining wildflowers by this time
  • Likely to encounter minor snowstorms
  • Fewer tourist impacts/amenities

Best Direction to Hike the Colorado Trail

Southbound is more popular—that is, starting at the Waterton Canyon Trailhead near Denver and ending at the Junction Creek Trailhead in Durango. The Denver end of the trail is lower in elevation and more gently graded, so hikers can ease themselves into the trail more gradually.

While neither trailhead is particularly dramatic in itself, the terrain of the San Juans leading up to the finish in Durango is some of the most beautiful on the whole trail and certainly makes for a more picture-perfect finish to a thru-hike than Waterton Canyon.

Finally, starting at lower elevations will give you a better opportunity to acclimate to the thin air of the Rocky Mountains if you’re a flatlander. If you’re not used to being a high elevation, it can be shocking how challenging it can be and altitude sickness is no joke. In contrast, hikers starting from Durango will reach 12,000 feet on their first or second day of hiking (you’ll gain over 5,000 feet in elevation in an almost-continuous 21-mile climb starting from the trailhead) which would be absolutely crushing if you’re not in peak shape and fully acclimated.

As mentioned in the section above, which trailhead you start with also has a lot to do with when you start your thru-hike. Snow lingers later and returns earlier to the Durango end of the trail, limiting your hiking weather window. If you need to start your thru-hike earlier in the summer, it would be better to start in Denver to give the snow further south more time to melt while you’re hiking. If you need to start late in the summer, start in Durango and get the highest mountains out of the way early.

Getting to the Trailhead and Getting Around

Both Denver and Durango have airports, though the Denver one is naturally much larger and offers more flights, including international flights. Downtown Denver also has an Amtrak station, and the city is served by all major bus lines if flying is not your jam. Meanwhile, you can connect Denver to Durango via Grand Junction on the Bustang bus.

The Waterton CanyonTrailhead is located about an hour away from Denver International, and you will need to ride in a car to get there (not served by mass transit).

Similarly, on the Durango end, the Junction Creek trailhead is about a 45-minute drive north of Durango-La Plata Airport and is only accessible via car.

Colorado Trail Shuttle List

You could try Ubering from the airport to the trail, but it would be expensive (and Uber service is spotty in Durango). Instead, we recommend reaching out to CTF to gain access to their trail angel shuttle list.

The list contains contact info for dozens of Colorado locals who are willing to shuttle hikers on the CT, including many who specialize in getting hikers from the airport to the trailhead and vice versa. Riding with a trail angel has the added advantage that you might be able to make a pitstop at the grocery store or outfitter along the way for any last-minute supplies you couldn’t bring on the plane. Many people participate in the shuttle list on the condition that it is not publicly circulated, which is why I’m telling you to go through CTF rather than just naming names.

The list is also incredibly useful for getting to and from town throughout your thru-hike. It is generally possible to hitch a ride on the CT, but more remote towns like Creede and Lake City are notoriously difficult hitches. And remember that a large portion of the traffic going in and out of the mountain towns you’ll be supplying in will be out-of-state tourists who are unfamiliar with the local roads and probably have never even heard of the CT, making them much less likely to give you a ride. In any case, having the shuttle list in your back pocket is an excellent fallback option on a trail that otherwise doesn’t have much thru-hiking infrastructure. Call ahead of time as often as possible when you need a ride! Advance notice will vastly improve your odds of success.

Tips for Flying

  • Put your entire pack inside a duffle bag. Get a large, cheap bag from a thrift store that all your gear will fit into, including your backpack itself and your trekking poles. You’ll have to check your bag, and if your gear is lost or damaged, most airlines will only reimburse you for the contents of the luggage, not the luggage itself. This is problematic when the luggage in question is a fancy, expensive hiking backpack. The duffle will also give everything extra protection.
  • Buy your fuel when you get there. You can’t bring fuel on a plane, period. Go to the store before hitting the trail to grab a canister, along with any other last-minute items you may need. A small folding knife, on the other hand, is OK to bring in your checked luggage.
  • Plan for an easy first day. If you’re going straight from the airport to the trail, don’t expect to crank out huge miles. Take it from me. Air travel is cramped and exhausting.
  • Don’t buy return tickets yet. Wait until you’re closer to the end of your hike to book return travel. As tempting as it is to settle everything in advance and lock in a certain price, it’s just too hard to know in advance what your schedule will be. If you have flexibility in when you need to get off the trail, don’t limit yourself just yet.

Leaving a Car at the Trailhead

As the CTF rightly points out, it’s best to leave your car near the trailhead you plan to end your hike at, not start. That way you can hike to your car on your own schedule and have the flexibility to leave right away when you get there—no need to worry about booking tickets or other logistical hassles.

I can’t really put it better than CTF does on their transportation page. Here’s what they have to say about long-term parking options at both trailheads:

One long-term parking option in Durango is at the Durango Transportation Center near the center of downtown; phone them Monday-Friday between 8:00 and 5:00 at (970) 375-4960. Another option is to make arrangements with Buckhorn Limousine, (970) 769-0933, as they often have space, understand thru-hikers, and are able to transport you to your destination.

Past CT thru-travelers wanting to park in the Denver area have sometimes found long-term parking at a nearby RV storage lot.

More things you should know about the trailheads.

Waterton Canyon is a cool section of trail (possibly your best bighorn sheep sighting opportunity of the whole CT!) but it’s also essentially six miles up a broad dirt road crowded with other pedestrians and bikers. Also, it comes with certain limitations. The trailhead can be closed sometimes, especially for conservation of the aforementioned bighorn sheep, and dogs are never allowed in the canyon.

If Waterton Canyon is off the table for any of these reasons (or you’re just looking to mix things up a bit), you can also start the trail at Roxborough State Park (7.5 miles to CT) or Indian Creek Trailhead (4.4 miles to CT), both of which will connect you to the CT at Lenny’s Rest (mile eight). Only Indian Creek is dog friendly, though.

Worth noting: you can’t camp within the first six miles of the starting line from Waterton Canyon Trailhead. If you’re getting to town late in the day, either be prepared to hike at least a few miles before you can make camp or get a room for the night and start fresh in the morning.

Resupply

The next installment in our Colorado Trail Guide will be a standalone post all about Colorado Trail towns and resupply, so I won’t overdo it here. Suffice to say there are plenty of towns adequately spaced along the CT that resupply shouldn’t be a big issue along the way.

Unless you have specific dietary or medical needs, there is no need to send yourself boxes as you’ll have plenty of access to groceries. However, if you do want to send boxes on occasion, the Twin Lakes General Store and Molas Lake Campground are two of the most popular places to send them.

Stay tuned for part four of the guide (resupply and towns) coming out next week. Subscribe to The Trek’s newsletter so you never miss an update.

The Moral of the Story

It’s easy to spin around in circles and stress yourself out trying to plan your thru-hike to perfection. Do not fall into this trap. While it does take some planning to get to the trailhead, that really is the hardest part from a logistical standpoint. Figure out when you want to hike and in what direction and arrange travel to the trailhead. Beyond that, don’t overthink it: everything will fall into place as you go.

More Resources from the Colorado Trail Guide

11 Highlights of the Colorado Trail You Won’t Want to Miss
Colorado Trail Packing List
Collegiate East vs. West: 8 Key Differences for CT Hikers
How to Hike Every 14er on the Colorado Trail (with FarOut Miles)

Does this list of resources seem pathetically short? Never fear, it will be much longer soon. We’ll be releasing new Colorado Trail Guide content every week this spring. Subscribe to The Trek’s newsletter to catch all the updates. Next up: resupply and towns on the Colorado Trail.

Featured image: graphic design by Chris Helm (@chris.helm).

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