Hiking Guide to the Colorado Trail | Backpacker Magazine - Backpacker

The Complete Guide to Hiking the Colorado Trail

The Centennial State's namesake route offers a tour of some of the country's best high alpine scenery in one monthlong hike. We break down the prep, practice, and travel you'll need to bag it.
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Crested Butte, hike the Colorado Trail

The Colorado Trail is packed with gorgeous vistas.

For 485 miles between Denver and Durango, the Colorado Trail (CT) winds over rocky, 13,000-foot peaks and passes, through wildflower-filled meadows, in and out of dusty mining towns, and past snow-clad vistas as it draws a line through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. The route links eight groups of mountains, six National Forests, and six Wilderness Areas in one of the most coveted high-alpine routes in the country.

But taking on this classic middle-distance long trail is no small feat: Due to its rugged nature, the Colorado Trail requires almost as much planning and prep as longer hikes like the Continental Divide Trail (which shares over 200 miles of its route with the Colorado Trail) or the Appalachian Trail.

History of the Colorado Trail

A relative newcomer to the nation’s long trail repertoire, the Colorado Trail came into being in the 1970s and 80s as a cooperative project between the US Forest Service and the Colorado Mountain Trails Association. Workers pounded in “golden spikes” at Molas Pass, Camp Hale, and Mt. Princeton to symbolize the completion of the trail in September of 1987.

When Should I Hike the Colorado Trail?

The Colorado Trail’s average elevation is over 10,000 feet, which makes the season to take on the route relatively narrow. Before mid-June, the higher elevations and passes can still be thick with snow, and after late September and early October, there’s a very real risk of experiencing a snowstorm at the same elevations.

For those reasons, most hike the trail over the summer, taking advantage of longer daylight hours, warmer temperatures, and readily-available water. Others will take on the route later, closer to the fall, to take advantage of smaller crowds, less lightning danger, cooler weather, and fluorescent aspen trees and other fall foliage. Much of this, however, depends on the previous winter, and getting a lucky weather window will always be part of the long trail experience.

How Long Does it Take to Thru-Hike the Colorado Trail from Start to Finish?

If you’re a reasonably experienced hiker, expect to spend between four and six weeks traveling between Denver and Durango. However long you take, plan on finishing before mid-September.

Durango, hike the Colorado Trail

Aspens in Durango, Colorado 

Which Direction Should I Hike the Colorado Trail?

Hikers have the option of traveling the Colorado Trail starting in either either Denver or Durango. The trail is more difficult and the elevation higher in the San Juan Mountains around Durango than it is at the relatively mild start closer to Denver, so most choose to head southwest, easing into the difficulty. The San Juans are also a more scenic way to finish than by coming through Waterton Canyon outside Denver. However, ending in Denver makes it easier to travel home, and later in the season, hikers can extend the good weather longer by traveling northeast.

Preparing to Hike the Colorado Trail

What Gear Do I Need to Hike the CT?

In general, your typical lightweight backpacking setup will get the job done on the Colorado Trail. If you’ve never hiked a long trail before, start with our list of the best gear for hiking the Continental Divide Trail, and pay special attention to the following gear:

  • A guidebook or map. The official Colorado Trail guidebook is a good place to start. Consider also carrying the National Geographic maps for the north and south sections of the trail.
  • Flashlight or headlamp
  • Sun protection. With the trail’s high elevation, hikers can burn in a matter of minutes. Pack plenty of sunscreen and/or UV-protecting clothing and a sun hat. Don’t forget sunglasses!
  • A lightweight puffy for cold alpine nights
  • A wind shirt or breathable, light shell to protect you from the breeze when it’s warm out
  • Raingear for summer storms

What’s the Weather Like on the Colorado Trail?

In the Rocky Mountains, the temperature swings when the sun goes down, and the weather can change at the drop of a hat. The Colorado Trail Foundation tells hikers to expect temperatures from 80 to 30 Fahrenheit—potentially even lower, if you’re hiking at the tail end of the season. Summer thunderstorms are frequent; if you see lightning, descend and seek shelter.

Where Can I Find Water on the Colorado Trail?

Hikers on the CT get their water from mountain streams. With a few exceptions, sources are usually easy to find. The longest dry stretch on the trail is on Segments 17-19, where hikers can go as far as 40 miles encountering little or no water.

Do I Need a Permit to Hike the Colorado Trail?

In certain wilderness areas you’ll be required to fill out a free self-issue permit before entry, but you don’t have to worry about fighting a quota to secure any sought-after permits for the trail before you hit it.

hike the Colorado Trail

A section of the Colorado Trail

The Route

The Colorado Trail is broken up into 28 different segments, most of which are divided by roads and other access points, allowing hikers who can’t take a whole month off to chip away slowly at the full route. They’re also convenient bail-out points should something go wrong (i.e., injury or bad weather), and determine where hikers can resupply.

SegmentLocationsMileageElevation Gain

Segment 1

Waterton Canyon Trailhead to South Platte River Trailhead   

16.8 miles   

2,830 feet 

Segment 2 

South Platte River Trailhead to Little Scraggy Trailhead   

11.5 miles   

2,482 feet   

Segment 3 

Little Scraggy Trailhead to FS-560 (Wellington Lake Road) Trailhead   

12.2 miles   

1,975 feet   

Segment 4 

FS-560 (Wellington Lake Road) Trailhead to Long Gulch   

16.6 miles   

3,271 feet   

Segment 5 

Long Gulch to Kenosha Pass   

14.6 miles   

1,858 feet   

Segment 6 

Kenosha Pass to Goldhill Trailhead   

32.9 miles   

5,196 feet   

Segment 7 

Goldhill Trailhead to Copper Mountain  

12.8 miles   

3,674 feet  

Segment 8 

Copper Mountain to Tennessee Pass Trailhead  

25.4 miles  

4,417 feet   

Segment 9 

Tennessee Pass Trailhead to Timberline Lake Trailhead  

13.6 miles  

2,627 feet   

Segment 10 

Timberline Lake Trailhead to Mount Massive Trailhead  

13.6 miles   

2,627 feet  

Segment 11 

Mount Massive Trailhead to Clear Creek Road  

21.5 miles  

2,910 feet   

Segment 12 

Clear Creek Road to Silver Creek Trailhead  

18.5 miles  

4,866 feet   

Segment 13 

Silver Creek Trailhead to Chalk Creek Trailhead  

22.8 miles  

4,296 feet  

Segment 14 

Chalk Creek Trailhead to US-50  

20.4 miles   

4,007 feet  

Segment 15 

US-50 to Marshall Pass Trailhead  

14.3 miles  

3,576 feet  

Segment 16 

Marshall Pass Trailhead to Sargents Mesa  

15.2 miles  

3,184 feet  

Segment 17 

Sargents Mesa to Colorado Hwy-114  

20.4 miles  

2,810 feet  

Segment 18 

Colorado Hwy-114 to Saguache Park Road  

13.8 miles  

1,447 feet  

Segment 19 

Saguache Park Road to Eddiesville Trailhead  

13.7 miles  

2,239 feet  

Segment 20 

Eddiesville Trailhead to San Luis Pass  

12.7 miles   

3,104 feet   

Segment 21 

San Luis Pass to Spring Creek Pass Trailhead  

12.7 miles   

3,104 feet   

Segment 22 

Spring Creek Pass Trailhead to Carson Saddle

17.2 miles   

3,829 feet   

Segment 23 

Carson Saddle to Stony Pass Trailhead  

15.9 miles   

3,515 feet   

Segment 24 

Stony Pass Trailhead to Molas Pass   

17.2 miles   

3,475 feet   

Segment 25 

Molas Pass to Bolam Pass Road   

20.9 miles   

3,779 feet   

Segment 26 

Bolam Pass Road to Hotel Draw Road   

10.9 miles   

1,827 feet   

Segment 27 

Hotel Draw Road to Kennebec Trailhead   

20.6 miles   

4,186 feet   

Segment 28 

Kennebec Trailhead to Junction Creek Trailhead   

21.5 miles   

1,897 feet   

Collegiate West 1

Twin Lakes (near the middle of Section 11) to Sheep Gulch   

9.8 miles   

3,606 feet   

Collegiate West 2 

Sheep Gulch to Cottonwood Pass Trailhead  

25.9 miles   

6,122 feet   

Collegiate West 3

Cottonwood Pass Trailhead to Tincup Pass Road   

15.9 miles   

3,532 feet   

Collegiate West 4 

Tincup Pass Road to Boss Lake Trailhead   

15.9 miles

2,750 feet

Collegiate West 5 

Boss LakeTrailhead to Ridge Above South Fooses Creek (rejoins near the middle of Section 15)   

15.7 miles   

3,750 feet   

How Much Food Should I Pack, and Where Can I Resupply?

It would be incredibly difficult to carry a full month’s worth of food at a time, so resupplies along the route are vital, allowing you to carry just enough food for a few days at a time before getting off the trail and heading in to town to pick up more. Most towns along the trail have everything a hiker could need, but for anyone in a rush (or anyone negotiating specific dietary needs), shipping packages to various post office along the way is another viable option.

Most hikers don’t stop in between each section, so for those buying as they go, there are a handful of typical resupply locations from Denver to Durango:

  • Jefferson/Fairplay (72 trail miles from Denver)
  • Breckenridge/Frisco (105 miles)
  • Leadville (143 miles)
  • Twin Lakes (177 miles)
  • Buena Vista (200 miles)
  • Princeton Hot Springs (230 miles)
  • Salida (248 miles)
  • Creede (343 miles)
  • Silverton (410 miles, and 75 from Durango)

In many cases, hitchhiking is the best and quickest way to get to many of these towns to resupply. Thankfully, locals all along the route are familiar and used to lending a hand to thru-hikers. (As always, be safe and use your judgement.)

Mount Harvard, hike the Colorado Trail

Mount Harvard, Collegiate Peaks

The Collegiate Options

Since 2013, the trail has forked into two possible routes through the Collegiate Mountains between Twin Lakes, CO and Monarch Pass. Both come in at around 80 miles. The newer Collegiates West option follows sections of the Continental Divide Trail, diving deep into the mountains for a more scenic, rugged, and remote hike. The original eastern option skirts the edge of the range, staying lower and closer to civilization.

The Collegiates East option is preferable for anyone who wants to do less climbing (the western route has over 2,000 feet more of it, and its average elevation is much higher), anyone who cares less for exposure, and when the weather is questionable.

Peakbagging on the Colorado Trail

The 14,000 foot peaks that surround the Colorado Trail are irresistable objectives for many hikers, and once you’ve seen them, it’s easy to understand why. Colorado has 58 of these “Fourteeners,” many of which sit in the mountain ranges that the trail winds through.

Mount Elbert (Colorado’s high point) and Mount Massive (number two behind Elbert) are both near the Leadville/Twin Lakes area, and are only side hikes from the CT, making them both popular detours, separate or together.

San Luis Peak is only 1.5 miles from the top of San Luis Pass, making it another easy offshoot. Mounts Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Princeton are the dominant peaks of the Collegiate Range, and are popular extensions for those hiking the Collegiates West leg of the CT.

Late-season hikers can catch electric fall views like this.

Late-season hikers can catch electric fall views like this.

Can I Mountain Bike the Colorado Trail?

While mountain bikes aren’t allowed in the Colorado Trail’s wilderness areas, a series of detours from the official route make a Denver to Durango ride possible. pedal enthusiasts can hop off the official route for a serious of detours that make the Denver to Durango ride possible. The 539-mile bike route can take riders anywhere from between 8 and 18 days—far quicker than the boot-sole method.

What’s the Fastest Thru-Hike of the Colorado Trail?

Ultrarunner Bryan Williams set the current Fastest Known Time for the Colorado Trail in 2017, finishing the route in eight days and 30 minutes with the help of a support crew. He ran between 54 and 89 miles a day.

Can I Hike the Colorado Trail With my Dog?

Dogs are allowed along most of the Colorado Trail, with some exceptions. Dogs are not allowed in Waterton Canyon from the terminus to about trail mile 6. Wilderness areas may also impose their own rules on dogs; the Colorado Trail Foundation recommends that hikers check with the National Forest and District offices that manage the areas where they’ll be traveling.

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