Why The Colorado Trail is Experiencing Record-High Traffic This Year

As countless aspiring long-distance backpackers prepared to thru-hike either the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or Continental Divide Trail this 2020 season, their plans came to an abrupt halt due to COVID-19. The organizations that oversee these trails urged hikers to postpone their adventures  in hopes of minimizing the spread of this deadly virus within trailside communities and among hikers. The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) requested hikers to “avoid long distance travel on the PCT” while the The Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC) stated that “no vacation is worth compromising the safety of others” and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) addressed potential thru-hikers in a letter specifying that the ATC “will not recognize thru-hikes that continue after March 31, 2020” until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that these precautions are no longer necessary or the ATC makes an announcement. The vast majority of hikers planning to hit the PCT, CDT, or AT this season heeded these organizations’ calls for hikers to avoid the Triple Crown trails.  As a result, many turned to alternative thru-hikes, among them The Colorado Trail.

The Colorado Trail

The Colorado Trail, stretching 485 miles between Denver and Durango, Colorado, traverses six national forests, six wilderness areas, eight mountain ranges, and five river systems.  This popular “shorter” thru-hike takes the average hiker around a full month or more to complete.

Due to a shortage of long trail options, a surge of hikers have found their way onto the CT this year. As the 2020 season progresses it has become increasingly apparent to members of The Colorado Trail community that this season has been seeing more foot traffic than ever.

The Colorado Trail Foundation

The Colorado Trail Foundation has cited a number of observations suggesting an increase in The Colorado Trail’s popularity this season.  The CTF has seen a massive uptick in calls from people looking to learn more about The Colorado Trail. They’ve also received calls from hostels and community members relaying that trail towns have seen more hikers than normal, with some hostels reaching capacity, a rarity compared to years past. As a result, hikers wanting a zero day find themselves forced into higher priced alternatives such as a hotel or Airbnb.  In towns where tourism is strong already, many hikers find themselves without any lodging options whatsoever.

The CTF has also received a record number of store orders for guidebooks and trail maps. The increase in trail traffic has also been corroborated by repeat Colorado Trail thru-hikers, who’ve reported a greater number of hikers compared to seasons past to the CTF.

“Applications for thru-hike completion certificates seem like they’re coming in at the fastest pace ever,” stated Bill Manning, executive director at the CTF.  It’s been clear to the CTF that “the drive to go somewhere and have an adventure through COVID-19 is quite strong and people are heading to the mountains in great numbers as a result”.

Trailside Businesses and Hikers

Local businesses and hikers alike have noticed the influx of day hikers and thru-hikers on the trail this season. High Mountain Pies, a pizzeria based in Leadville, cited a large number of hikers taking advantage of their backyard dining when the restaurant’s indoor dining area was closed due to COVID.

Deidre Rosenberg, a resident in The Colorado Trail’s San Juans section, hiked the trail this season and reported that “the trail seems much busier this year, with tons of people coming from out of state.” Rosenberg was surprised by the amount of trail activity near her home this July as the crowds don’t typically pick up until much later in the season.

Big Money, a first-time CT thru-hiker, recently completed her trek and spoke with many members of the local trailside communities along the way. According to Big Money, the business owners and residents she spoke with said that the trail wasn’t only more popular, but even “overcrowded.”

Big Money at the Colorado Trail’s terminus in Durango.

As for the social element on trail, according to Big Money, “Tramilies were similar to other thru-hikes. Once you had your group most people stayed with those groups.”  In recent years, many Colorado Trail hikers recall a much different social setting compared to the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail.  Zach Davis, The Trek’s editor and chief, and a 2015 Colorado Trail hiker, adds, “because the trail only takes a month to complete, a typical year provides about a 3 and a half month weather window, and the trail generally sees modest traffic, you’re less likely to encounter the hiking groups you’d find on the AT or PCT.”

The US Forest Service Advice for Hikers Still Seeking The Colorado Trail

The US Forest Service serves as the primary decision maker over The Colorado Trail, as it holds more than 95% authority over the land. In partnership with The Colorado Trail Foundation, the Forest Service has been working to respect both county and state regulations as they change and develop throughout the season in relation to COVID-19. It can be tricky to track regulations from one county to to the next, but according to the Forest Service, “there is no concern for closure of the trail this season.” The only portion of the Colorado Trail that has closed to the public this year has been the Waterton Canyon Trailhead,  reopened on weekdays as of June 15.

For those still wanting to hike The Colorado Trail this season, be considerate of the communities you are entering. Although the trail is not at risk of closing, at least anytime soon, the increased traffic to towns, especially from out-of-state travelers, can pose an increased risk. Let’s make sure to adhere to the CDC guidelines so that everyone remains safe.

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Comments 2

  • Murali Chinnakonda : Aug 27th

    I thru hiked the CT from July 16 to Aug 14 this year. I didn’t find it over crowded at all. I used to hardly meet folks on the trail. Camped mostly alone except a few nights. Not more than 5 or lesser in a day. The section from Molas Lake to Durango had a little more traffic. But, no issues getting camp spots etc. Sure once in a while, you will see a group of 6 kids or 6 AT hikers or PCT hikers…but much more desolate than JMT or the PCT…


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