Why YOU Should Hike the Colorado Trail Early Season

First, A Prelude

Climbing the Tenmile in snow (segment 7)

I hiked the Colorado Trail from June 18-July 18, 2023, as an 18 year old, first time thru-hiker, solo. As with any new thru-hiker, there were many people eager to offer their advice, concerns, and discouragement. “You’ll run out of food!”, “what about bears?”, and “you’re going ALONE?” were common concerns from those unfamiliar with thru-hiking as a whole. These basic discouragements did little to stop me from taking on the trail, but as I turned to the more experienced hiking community for advice, I faced a new wall of pessimism in my hike planning: 

“You need to be prepared to posthole through endless miles of mashed potato snow… Tenmile, Kokomo Pass, and all of the Collegiates will be high risk areas .”

“Having a hard end date is dangerous on any hike. Worried about your safety.”

“This year will be rough. Ice axe, crampons… might want to include snowshoes. Georgia Pass will be post hole hell.”

“Deadly slab avalanche danger”

“Only 50% of hikers complete long trails and your odds go up if you don’t heed warnings or set dates that can’t realistically be met.”

Graphs from the 2023 Colorado Snow Survey (my start date is highlighted). The light green line is average Colorado snowpack, 2023 was exceptionally high.

I’m not implying that these comments were made with ill-intent, but I think they reflect the overall culture of fear-mongering that thru-hiking culture often harbors. I needed direction, but the feedback I too-often got was that it was just better that I not do the trail than take a risk on the unknown. In my specific case, I believe the best option was to go early season, to take that step, to take on a challenge just a little bit bigger than I thought I was capable of, ‘cause that’s what adventure is, right? This post is my argument against those overly-cautious voices. If you are considering the Colorado Trail early season, here’s why YOU should do it.

Cross-slope snow hazards

Steep cross-slopes on Segment 7. An unprotected fall here would have sent me thousands of feet down the mountains, over several cliff bands.

An obligatory disclaimer…

I am in no way advocating that all thru-hikers, and especially hikers new to the sport, should attempt the CT with extreme snow. There is adventure and risk, and then there is stupidity. Snow adds another layer of risk to thru-hiking, and spring in Colorado can present unexpected conditions such as snowstorms and avalanche hazards. In winter conditions, the CT turns into full on mountaineering, with equipment required for safe travel. Remember, if your misjudgement of risk leads you to injury/needing to be rescued, your negligence also jeopardizes the lives of the SAR personnel sent to save you. Know your limits and research the conditions before you head out. Get outdoors, and have fun!

 

The Pros to Early Season Travel

  1. The snow adds an additional layer of epic challenge to your hike

This could be you! (entering the Weminuche Wilderness, San Juans)

Yes yes, I know what I said in the disclaimer, but as long as you’re safe about it, snow can be really really fun. Hiker trash snowball fights, glissading down passes, and the general epic aura about you from hiking snow-covered peaks are all benefits to the early season. The trail doesn’t get dull when every step you take above treeline requires managing the variables of grip, slip, and balance, all while taking in the dramatic landscape around you. Cornices, avalanche fall lines, snowbridges, sun cups, and ice formations are all unique features to observe and challenges to conquer. Alpine lakes are bright, fresh blue and the wildflowers are in peak showing. The entire landscape is at its peak for the year, and you get to be there to witness it.

 

  1. Plentiful water

This section is usually high and dry, but there is water everywhere right now!

During the melt, the mountains are full of water and runoff. Even sections of the CT that are generally 20-30 mile water carries had plenty of water and I rarely had to carry over 1-2 L. Because there’s so much water, you’ll likely witness the mountains in peak wildflower season, and the trail will be less dusty, so you’ll stay cleaner. And, if there’s only snow around, you can always melt some for water! Additionally, this means that wildfire risks are at their all time low, so the risk of having to get off trail because of flames or smoke are low too!

 

  1. More solitude

The dreaded day hikers, mountain bikers, and lay people we hikers avoid like the plague are largely absent from the mountain environment in the early season. This means fewer frantic rushing off trail at the sound of biking bells, fewer dayhikers giving you concerned looks, and less competition for already limited campsites on trail.

 

  1. You (likely) won’t have to deal with the monsoon

San Luis Peak, a 14er, summit at 4 PM

Imagine, for a second, summiting passes and 14ers at 5 in the afternoon with bluebird skies… no fear for the all-but-guaranteed pop-up thunderstorms that form above treeline every afternoon from mid/late July through late August. Imagine not running from the certain death of lightning behind you on the 70 miles of continuous above treeline trail in the San Juans, and doing it the next day, then the next. This wonderland scenario is possible if you start earlier than July 1, and was what I experienced on my thru.

 

The Cons to Early Season Travel

  1. Snowed in routes can limit your flexibility & options

Long postholing sections below and after Georgia Pass, segment 6. Sinking up to your hips in snow for miles is not fun any way you slice it, and is an invitation for injury.

Although I had aspirations to do the Collegiate West route, it was simply unfeasible in late June 2023. Lake Ann Pass was a 40-foot ice wall paired with a dangerous, avalanche-prone cornice. 14er side quests or high routes like the Lost Creek High Route might be too snowy to do safely. You might even have to skip around snowed-in sections (like the Tenmile Range).

 

  1. More solitude means less trail support

A snowed in Georgia Pass. There was no one here with me to embrace the suck with, which made it 1000% worse, tbh.

Fewer people in the mountains means that there will be little or no trail magic. Especially on a trail where it can be hard to form tramilies, starting before the hiker bubble can mean loneliness and a loss of trail community feel. Campsites or businesses along the trail may be closed. It will likely be significantly harder to get hitches into town. This lack of community and support will mean a lot to some hikers, and not much to others, but it’s something to be aware of. 

 

Conclusion 

The snowy trail between Searle and Kokomo Passes, segment 8.

While early-season travel might not be for everyone, in my opinion, the challenges are worth the rewards. To stand on top of the snow-covered San Juans is an experience I will not soon forget. I believe that my early season thru hike was augmented by my snow experiences, and I hope others will consider this as an option as they plan their future adventures. Whatever you decide though, get out there, and enjoy our public lands!

Happy trails, Maps signing out  ; )

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Comments 3

  • Rolf Asphaug : May 31st

    I really liked your article. I think you did a great job laying out the pros and cons to early CT thru hiking. Yes, there’s a tendency to come on too strong with flat-out “don’t do it” responses.

    I have one more suggestion, and a question.

    Suggestion: since there are so few people early in the season, a Garmin InReach, Zoleo or similar device is strongly recommended.

    Question: How do you think mosquitoes were compared to later in the summer? (Decisions, decisions: more mosquitoes or more lightning?)

    Since you’re a guide from Twin Lakes I assume you’ve now experienced the joy of the Collegiate West. I did the East route on my 2021 thru but so many people told me what I’d missed out that I did the Collegiate Loop in 2022. The West truly is spectacular!

    Again, really enjoyed your article! Thanks for the great advice and images.

    Reply
  • Nick : May 31st

    Snowshoes, crampons, ice ax?

    How much mud?

    Details please! 🙂

    Reply
  • Doug : Jun 5th

    Always take what others say with a grain of salt – nothing wrong with going it alone if you do your homework and know your limits. Use common sense and only take calculated risks. Avoid unnecessary risk, and have fun! The foregoing advice has served me well for 50 years of backpacking.

    Reply

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