Santa Maria Spring, Grand Canyon NP | Mr. Bubbles, Yellowstone NP | West Maroon Pass, CO | Mills Lake, Rocky Mountain NP | The Colorado Trail | Gunsight Pass, Glacier NP
The numbers tell the story: This 480-mile trek, from Denver to Durango, averages 10,000 feet elevation and passes right under clutches of Fourteeners and hundreds of 12,000- and 13,000-foot peaks. The sustained alpine scenery is so spectacular it makes even the most jaded locals giddy—and not just from lack of oxygen. “It’s absolutely the best long trail you can do within a summer vacation,” says Keith Koepsel, who thru-hiked it in 1992. Fit hikers notch the CT in a month, but most take six weeks, which allows extra time to bag trailside peaks (or to take rest days in the many lush meadows).
The route starts in the plains (at Chatfield State Park, 20 miles south of Denver) and serves up several days of stiff climbing as you enter the mountains. Plunge into dense Ponderosa pine forest in the Lost Creek Wilderness—the first of six wilderness areas the CT traverses—before crossing the Continental Divide at 10,800 feet, just above Georgia Pass. This is the start of a high-alpine tour de force–including 38 consecutive miles above treeline–that lasts until your final descent some 300 miles later.
Go to coloradotrail.org to find The Colorado Trail: The Official Guidebook of the Colorado Trail Foundation ($25), The Colorado Trail Databook ($12), and The Colorado Trail Map Book ($49), which includes GPS waypoints.