Hiking The Colorado Trail

This journal documents my thru-hike of The Colorado Trail in August of 2010. It’s about 40,000 words, and has over 1,500 photos. Scroll below the table of contents for general information about the CT, as well as info on planning your own hike.

Day 1 – Waterton Canyon to the South Platte River – Segment 1
Day 2 – South Platte Canyon to the Shinglemill Trail – Segment 2
Day 3 – Shinglemill Trail to Lost Creek Wilderness- Segment 3 – 4
Day 4 – Lost Creek Wilderness to Kenosha Pass – Segment 4 – 5
Day 5 – Kenosha Pass to Horseshoe Gulch – Segment 6
Day 6 – Horseshoe Gulch to Frisco, CO (Goldhill Trailhead) – Segment 6
Day 7 – Zero Mile Day in Frisco, CO
Day 8 – Frisco Peaks Trail to the Ten Mile Range – Segment 7
Day 9 – Tenmile Range to Kokomo Pass – Segment 8
Day 10 – Elk Ridge to Leadville – Segment 8
Day 11 – Tennessee Pass to Rock Creek – Segment 9, 10
Day 12 – Mount Massive – Segment 10
Day 13 – Mount Elbert – Segment 11
Day 14 – Twin Lakes and Hope Pass – Segment 11 and CDT
Day 15 – Missouri Mountain – Off the CT
Day 16 – Elkhead Pass to Three Elk Creek – Off CT and Segment 12
Day 17 – Three Elk Creek to Buena Vista – Segment 12, 13
Day 18 – Buena Vista to Princeton Hot Springs – Segment 13
Day 19 – Princeton Hot Springs to Squaw Creek – Segment 14
Day 20 – Squaw Creek to Salida – Segment 14
Day 21 – Rest Day in Salida
Day 22 – Rest Day in Salida
Day 23 – Monarch Pass to Marshall Pass – Segment 15
Day 24 – Marshall Pass to Tank Seven Creek – Segment 16
Day 25 – Tank Seven Creek to Lujan Creek – Segment 17
Day 26 – Lujan Creek to Cochetopa Creek – Segment 18 – 19
Day 27 – Cochetopa Creek to San Luis Pass – Segment 20
Day 28 – San Luis Pass to Creede
Day 29 – Creede to Jarosa Mesa – Segment 21
Day 30 – Jarosa Mesa to Lost Trail Creek – Segment 22
Day 31 – Lost Trail Creek to the Pole Creek Trail – Segment 23
Day 32 – Pole Creek Trail to Molas Pass – Segment 24
Day 33 – Silverton to Rolling Mountain – Segment 25
Day 34 – Rolling Mountain to Blackhawk Pass – Segment 25-26
Day 35 – Blackhawk Pass to the Indian Trail Ridge – Segment 27
Day 36 – Indian Trail Ridge to Junction Creek – Segment 28
Durango – Epilogue – The 48 States

About The Colorado Trail

The Colorado Trail currently spans 483 miles across the most mountainous areas of Colorado, from Denver to Durango. It’s known for its high Rocky Mountain elevations above treeline, wildflowers, aspen groves, violent summer thunderstorms, and classic Colorado scenery. It encounters eight major mountain ranges, seven national forests, and six wilderness areas. For 200 miles it shares the same path as the Continental Divide Trail. The typical “thru-hiker” averages four to six weeks to backpack its entire length.

The trail’s highest point is in the rugged San Juan Range at Coney Summit (13,334 feet above sea level), though it passes within a few miles of Colorado’s highest mountain – Mount Elbert (14,443 feet, second highest peak in the lower 48 states, 62 feet below Mount Whitney, California). Much of The Colorado Trail stays within the range of 10,000 feet above sea level. Its lowest point is 5,520 feet at Waterton Canyon – the trail’s eastern terminus near Denver. Long-distance hikers are advised to begin their trips from Denver in order to acclimate to the thin air and avoid elevation sickness.

The trail was established in 1987 and is maintained by The Colorado Trail Foundation. With the exception of the designated Wilderness Areas, hikers may share the path with mountain bikes and riders on horseback. Because of its high elevation, the trail is realistically suitable for exploration only from late June through early October. It’s covered in snow for the remainder of the year.

Popular towns that thru-hikers use for re-supply are Breckenridge, Leadville, Buena Vista, and Silverton. At 10,152 feet above sea level, Leadville takes pride in being the highest incorporated city in the United States (The Two Mile High City).

Planning a Long Hike On The Colorado Trail

The first thing I’d like to mention for those planning a long hike on the Colorado Trail is Paul Mags’ online End-to-End Guide. This page answers almost every question that an aspiring CT hiker may have. It’s what I used to plan my trip – his re-supply information is especially valuable.

It’s irresponsible to recommend that anyone should travel in the backcountry without a map, but I’d dare to say that the The Colorado Trail Databook coupled with Mags’ guide is all that anyone should really need. The Data Book is indispensable. I kept it in my pocket for easy access on my entire hike, and referenced it very frequently.

I’ve never owned a copy of the Official CT Guidebook. It’s a bit heavy and loaded with seemingly too much information for my simple lightweight needs, though I’m sure plenty of backpackers love it. It’s a nice-looking volume – something that I probably wouldn’t have the heart to cut up into sections. The Coloardo Trail Foundation has just issued a new edition for this year (2011). This latest edition should contain a handful of my photos, so maybe it’s worth checking out after all. 🙂

My apologies to the CTF, but I don’t particularly care for their official map booklet. I purchased this before my trip, and it stayed at home. Though it has great detail with a thorough tagging of GPS waypoints, this set of maps shows only the main trail corridor and little outside of it. There’s some amazing things to be seen on the side trails off the CT, and this booklet leaves you blind to them. I’d recommend this booklet only for a GPS user, or a “pure” hiker that plans to walk every step of the official CT without exploring the nearby peaks.

If I were to do the CT again I would bring only the data book, complemented by only a few of the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps that correspond to areas that I hope to explore off the main trail. Before my hike I didn’t know which sections those would be, so I’m going to try to help you with that below.

Fourteeners and Alternate Routes Along The Colorado Trail

The “thing to do” when hiking the Colorado backcountry is to climb or bag the peaks that are over 14,000 feet above sea level. There’s about fifty of them in the state, and quite a few are within relatively easy striking range of The Colorado Trail. Each one is different with its own character, and hiking just one 14er offers an unparalleled experience, with views that are never seen along the official CT. Here’s a list that I’ve compiled of these peaks near the trail – please let me know if you have any additions or corrections.

Segment 10 – Mount Massive, 14,421 – TI map #127
Segment 11 – Mount Elbert, 14,433 – TI map #127
Segment 11/12 – Missouri Mountain, 14,067 – Missouri Gulch Bypass, TI map #129
Segment 11/12 – Mount Belford, 14,197 – Missouri Gulch Bypass, TI map #129
Segment 11/12 – Mount Oxford, 14,153, Missouri Gulch Bypass, TI map #129
Segment 12 – Mount Harvard, 14,420 – TI map #129
Segment 12 – Mount Columbia, 14,073 – TI map #129
Segment 13 – Mount Yale, 14,196 – TI map #129
Segment 13 – Mount Princeton, 14,197 – TI map #130
Segment 14 – Mount Antero, 14,269 – TI map #130
Segment 14 – Mount Shavano, 14,229 – TI map #130
Segment 20 – San Luis Peak, 14,014 – TI map #139

On Paul Mags’ page you’ll see a description of an alternate route that leads over Hope Pass, through Missouri Gulch, and over Elkhead Pass. I recommend that you do it! Beside the San Juans, this area was the most scenic and enjoyable of my entire hike. The bypass leaves the CT at Twin Lakes (Segment 11) and rejoins it in Segment 12. The corresponding Trails Illustrated maps are #127 and #129


Mags also does a great job of covering the town re-supply points, but I’d like to go out of my way to recommend The Leadville Hostel, the Salida Simple Hostel, and Durango Hometown Hostel – all great places. No love for the Silverton Hostel because I didn’t stay there, but I heard it’s good too. Come to think of it, all my lodging experiences along the CT were great.

Below is a list of the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps that cover the entire Colorado Trail.

#135 – Deckers Rampart Range
#105 – Tarryall Mountains, Kenosha Pass
#104 – Idaho Springs Georgetown Loveland Pass
#108 – Vail, Frisco, Dillon
#109 – Breckenridge Tennessee Pass
#110 – Fairplay, Leadville
#127 – Aspen, Independence Pass
#129 – Buena Vista, Collegiate Peaks
#130 – Salida, St. Elmo, Mt. Shavano
#139 – La Garita, Cochetopa Hills
#140 – Weminuche Wilderness
#141 – Telluride, Silverton, Ouray, Lake City
#144 – Durango, Cortez

Happy hiking!