Colorado Trail Overview
Length: 486 miles
Highest Elevation: 13,271 feet; just below Coney Summit, about 10 miles West of Jarosa Mesa
Lowest Elevation: 5,520 feet; Waterton Canyon terminus in Denver
Start and End Point: Northeastern terminus is Waterton Canyon State Park outside of Denver and the southwestern terminus is Durango, CO just past Indian Trail Ridge. Alternative Northeastern terminus points include Indian Creek Trailhead or Roxborough State Park.
The Colorado Trail ("CT") was first conceived by Forest Service ranger Bill Lucas in 1973, organized by Gudy Gaskill, and officially completed in 1987. The trail winds through nearly 500 miles of the awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains drawing hikers from around the world and is open to hikers, bikers, and horseback riders. It traverses six wilderness areas and eight mountain ranges with an average elevation of 10,347 feet. Hikers traveling the full length of the trail from Denver to Durango will climb a cumulative 89,354 feet. Thru-hiking the Colorado Trail takes anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks from end to end.
Planning Your Thru-Hike
WHEN TO GO: Timing and Seasons
Most thru-hikers start no earlier than late June (preferably July 1st) and finish no later than the end of September (preferably September 15).
The time frame to hike the Colorado Trail is narrow because of the deep snowpack and high chance of snow in the Rocky Mountains in the shoulder seasons. The high elevation combined with colder months can lead to extremely dangerous hiking conditions. Most hikers take advantage of the warm temperatures and longer days to hike in the summer, though some prefer a later start that avoids the frequent summer thunderstorms and crowds.
DIRECTION TO HIKE: East to West or West to East
Option 1: East to West (Denver to Durango)
Most people hike from east to west because the snowpack melts first on the lower elevations on the easternmost part of the trail, meaning you can start slightly earlier in the season if you go this direction. This section of the trail also is not as steep allowing hikers to break in their legs before they hit the higher elevations in the west. The Denver side is logistically easier to get to than Durango. There are also more bailout points if you need to leave the trail in the beginning. Best of all, you get to end in the beautiful San Juan Mountains.
Option 2: West to East (Durango to Denver)
Hiking from west to east is less common as you start in the steep San Juan Mountains and end in the rather anticlimactic Waterton Canyon area. However, finishing in Denver does make it easier to travel home when you are done. This might be the more favorable option as well if you need to start your hike later in the season - you end in the lower and warmer elevations surrounding Denver.
© Paul “PIE” Ingram (www.pieonthetrail.com)
HOW TO RESUPPLY: Food, Water and Towns
Resupplying food and gear on the Colorado trail is more similar to the PCT than the AT. In short, there are plenty of road access points to get to towns to resupply food and gear. However, the road crossings are a little farther apart (between 20 and 70 miles) and, often times, several miles from the actual trail. This can require a fair amount of planning for longer stretches of more remote trail.
Hitchhiking can be difficult because of the long distances between the towns and trail. Some towns like Breckenridge and Salida have shuttles and affordable lodging while others only have small convenience stores. Water resupply points are usually plentiful on the CT with only a few long dry stretches - notably the Cochetopa Valley and the Indian Trail Ridge. Otherwise, you can usually expect to encounter a water source at least once every day.
Some popular towns where thru-hikers usually resupply:
- Twin Lakes
- Buena Vista
- Princeton Hot Springs
NAVIGATION: Maps and Apps
The Colorado Trail is well marked and relatively easy to follow. You should always have a guidebook and/ or map on you though. Sometimes signage can disappear or cairns can crumble from rough weather, which can make it possible to get lost. Cell phone reception will be limited and unreliable.
Here are a few places to get information to make your navigation easier:
The Colorado Trail Foundation has a guidebook, a databook, and topo maps for you to chose from.
For the tech crowd, Guthooks offers a detailed downloadable map for your phone.
The Colorado Trail Foundation also provides GPS waypoints.
SLEEPING: Tenting, Shelters and Accommodation
Other than in Waterton Canyon, there are no restrictions on camping (of course, Leave No Trace principles apply). Thru hikers tents most night in flat spots that have already been established and used previously for camping.
Accommodations on the trail are few and far between and should not be relied on. There are a few huts that are part of the 10th Mountain Division Hut System. These require a reservation and often have a wait list though. There are a few campgrounds - some free and some for charge.
PERMITS: Licenses, Fees and Applications
In general, a permit is not necessary to hike the Colorado Trail and there are no quotas. Wahoo! Some wilderness areas on the path require permits, but they are free. When you cross a permit-only wilderness area, there are self-serve permit stations where you can easily fill out the form for your free permit and drop it in the box. This seem to serve as more of a safety precaution than anything else.
SOCIALIZING: Meeting Other Hikers
It can be sparse for thru-hikers to find fellow thru-hikers to socialize and form a trail family ("tramily"?). Hikers looking for a social experience, like the Appalachian Trail provides, might be disappointed. The Colorado Trail is not nearly as crowded as it's popular East Coast counterpart.
According to the Colorado Trail Foundation, there are thousands of people who hike, bike or horseback parts of the path every year. However, only about 150 people of these completely thru hike it every year. This might be good or bad depending on your preference.
WILDLIFE: Sightings and Bears
The Colorado backcountry is teeming with animals including marmots, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and several types of birds. Black bears are known to roam the backcountry, but they are not commonly seen on the trail. Because of the scarcity of bears, many people don't bear bag on the CT. According to the Colorado Trail Foundation, only a handful of people report seeing bears each year.
Marmots and other rodents are often more troublesome than bears. These smaller mammals are likely to get into your food or chew through your pack. Because of this, most hikers use bear canisters and/ or scent-proof bags to store their food. Some hikers will hang their bag, but only at lower elevations where there are ample trees. At higher elevations, bear bagging is not possible.
WEATHER: Warnings and Safety Tips
a) Snow: As mentioned, large amounts of snowfall can be extremely dangerous on the CT. Hike at your own risk outside of the warmest months of the year.
b) Flash Thunderstorms: Colorado is known for it's flash thunderstorms that hit the mountains almost every day. Pack some sturdy rain gear and a map so you can find an exit route if you need to get below treeline quickly.
If you are stuck on ridge, then get into the lightning position by crouching down on the balls of your feet, putting your head down towards your legs and covering your ears with your hands.
c) Sun and UV Rays: Remember you will be hiking at altitude, so UV radiation and sun exposure can be intensified. You will need sunglasses and sunscreen to protect yourself from the sun's damaging rays. You'll also want to pack a hydration system that can hold ample water as sun exposure can make you dehydrated very quickly.
(OPTIONAL) Alternate Route for One Section
Most of the Colorado Trail is a single route. However, in one particular section, there is a fork in the trail that gives you the option to take the eastern or western route through the Collegiate Peaks. From an aerial point of view, visualize these two routes forming a vertical eye shape - separating at the bottom point and rejoining at the top point. Note both route options will get you back to the same point of the trail. Just personal preference.
Collegiate East Route Option: The original 78 mile route. Slightly lower elevation and slightly shorter in length.
Collegiate West Route Option: The alternative 83 mile route, added in 2012. Known for higher elevation and significantly more epic and above-treeline scenic views. See more on Collegiate West route.
The Colorado Trail Foundation breaks the trail up into 28 different sections. Hikers can enter or leave the trail allowing them to do section hikes if a full-length hike isn't possible.
This first section of the trail extends from Denver to Kenosha Pass through the South Platte rivershed and Long Gulch, a six-mile meadow filled with wildflowers, abundant water and animal life.
|Waterton Canyon Trailhead to South Platte River Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||2,830 feet|
|South Platte River Trailhead to Little Scraggy Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||2,482 feet|
|Little Scraggy Trailhead to FS-560 (Wellington Lake Road) Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||1,975 feet|
|FS-560 (Wellington Lake Road) Trailhead to Long Gulch|
|Elevation Gain:||3,271 feet|
|Long Gulch to Kenosha Pass|
|Elevation Gain:||1,858 feet|
Starting in Segment 6, the Continental Divide Trail joins the Colorado Trail for the next 253 miles. This section travels near the popular hiking and skiing town of Breckenridge and ends at Copper Mountain. The trail alternates between open meadows and lush forests that are teeming with wildflowers and wildlife. Get ready for some thigh-busting ascents and high altitude exposure as the trail climbs through two passes.
|Kenosha Pass to Goldhill Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||5,196 feet|
|Goldhill Trailhead to Copper Mountain|
|Elevation Gain:||3,674 feet|
HOLY CROSS WILDERNESS
The Holy Cross Wilderness is a wild and scenic part of the trail that climbs steeply over high ridges and jagged peaks before descending into densely forested valleys. Snow fed lakes and streams provide ample water. The trail also skirts around two of Colorado’s tallest peaks, Mount Massive and Mount Elbert which you can summit on side trails. Expect to see a lot more hikers in this area and don’t forget to stop at Leadville, a booming mining town in the 1800s that is now known for its hiking and running trails.
|Copper Mountain to Tennessee Pass Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||4,417 feet|
|Tennessee Pass Trailhead to Timberline Lake Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||2,627 feet|
|Timberline Lake Trailhead to Mount Massive Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||2,627 feet|
|Mount Massive Trailhead to Clear Creek Road|
|Elevation Gain:||2,910 feet|
When you enter this part of the trail, you must decide if you are going to take the traditional east collegiate route or the new west collegiate route. If you go east, expect a nice forest walk through groves of pine and aspen and the occasional road walk. The Chalk Creek section brings you to one of the best towns on the trail -- Salida. It’s a must-stop for a zero day. As you end this section, you will encounter Marshall pass, a 668 foot climb in a half mile that is considered to be the “steepest portion” of the Colorado Trail.
|Clear Creek Road to Silver Creek Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||4,866 feet|
|Silver Creek Trailhead to Chalk Creek Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||4,296 feet|
|Chalk Creek Trailhead to US-50|
|Elevation Gain:||4,007 feet|
|US-50 to Marshall Pass Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||3,576 feet|
As you leave Marshall Pass, you will enter the cattle country of Cochetopa Valley. Cows, cowboy ranches and wide open views. The trail starts in a dry and dusty section where there is little water and ends with abundant water in the Cochetopa River watershed. Here you will climb to the top of San Luis Peak (14,014 feet) in the La Garita wilderness and pass by the town of Creede, considered by many to be the best resupply town on the entire trail.
|Marshall Pass Trailhead to Sargents Mesa|
|Elevation Gain:||3,184 feet|
|Sargents Mesa to Colorado Hwy-114|
|Elevation Gain:||2,810 feet|
|Colorado Hwy-114 to Saguache Park Road|
|Elevation Gain:||1,447 feet|
|Saguache Park Road to Eddiesville Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||2,239 feet|
|Eddiesville Trailhead to San Luis Pass|
|Elevation Gain:||3,104 feet|
After stopping at Creede, hikers begin a roller coaster ride of ups and downs through the San Juan Mountains. Thankfully, with each “up”, hikers are treated with glorious views. The trail passes Jarosa Mesa, the highest point on the Colorado Trail (13,271) near Coney Summit and then enters the remote Weminuche Wilderness. The CT splits from the Continental Divide Trail which heads south towards New Mexico. As you near the Animas River, listen carefully for the shrill whistles from the trains navigating the narrow gauge railway that connects the old mining towns of Silverton and Durango.
|San Luis Pass to Spring Creek Pass Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||3,104 feet|
|Spring Creek Pass Trailhead to Carson Saddle|
|Elevation Gain:||3,829 feet|
|Carson Saddle to Stony Pass Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||3,515 feet|
|Stony Pass Trailhead to Molas Pass|
|Elevation Gain:||3,475 feet|
INDIAN TRAIL RIDGE
The relentless ups and downs continue in this portion of the Colorado trail but you won’t care. All you will be thinking about are the breathtaking views of the expansive surroundings. Soak it all in as some of the most scenic sections of the trail are in this part of the San Juans. Before you begin your descent down into Durango, you must first cross Indian Trail ridge, an open and exposed ridge that, much like most of Colorado, is known for its afternoon thunderstorms. Once you reach Durango, you are at the southwestern terminus. Take a moment to take a photo by the trailhead sign.
|Molas Pass to Bolam Pass Road|
|Elevation Gain:||3,779 feet|
|Bolam Pass Road to Hotel Draw Road|
|Elevation Gain:||1,827 feet|
|Hotel Draw Road to Kennebec Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||4,186 feet|
|Kennebec Trailhead to Junction Creek Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||1,897 feet|
(OPTIONAL) COLLEGIATE WEST ROUTE
Collegiate West is an alternate route on The Colorado Trail that follows the existing Continental Divide National Scenic Trail through western side of the Collegiate Peaks.
Added to the CT in 2012, Collegiate West is a must-hike section that takes hikers through the higher peaks and exposed ridges of the Collegiate Peaks. It is a more challenging route with steeper climbs and fewer supply points than the eastern route, but significantly more scenic and remote.
Collegiate West 1
|Twin Lakes (near the middle of Section 11) to Sheep Gulch|
|Elevation Gain:||3,606 feet|
Collegiate West 2
|Sheep Gulch to Cottonwood Pass Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||6,122 feet|
Collegiate West 3
|Cottonwood Pass Trailhead to Tincup Pass Road|
|Elevation Gain:||3,532 feet|
Collegiate West 4
|Tincup Pass Road to Boss Lake Trailhead|
|Elevation Gain:||2,750 feet|
Collegiate West 5
|Boss Lake Trailhead to Ridge Above South Fooses Creek (rejoins near the middle of Section 15)|
|Elevation Gain:||3,750 feet|
Here are a few more recommended resources to help you get started planning your CT hike.