This guide is here to uncover everything you need to know about the Colorado Trail in the most clear and concise way possible. Start planning your trip!
If you’d like a more subjective take on thru-hiking the trail, check out my journal. It’s over 40,000 words with 1,500 beautiful photos.
MAP: Trails Illustrated
PERMITS: none (easy self-registration for wilderness areas)
DESIGNATION: primarily 7 different National Forests
BEST SEASONS: July, August, September
DISTANCE: 485 miles from Denver to Durango
WATER: I thru-hiked with 4 liters capacity.
ELEVATION: average ~10,300 feet
ROUTE: well maintained, popular trail, signed junctions
GUIDEBOOK: Colorado Trail 9th Edition
DATA BOOK: 7th Edition
Frequently Asked Questions
Where does the Colorado Trail start and end?
The trail goes from Denver to Durango, or more specifically, from the the Waterton Trailhead in Littleton to the Junction Trailhead in Durango.
Most thru-hikers start from the east end of the trail at Waterton Canyon, on the west end of the greater Denver metro area (Technically Littleton, Colorado). You can enter “Waterton Canyon Trailhead” on Google Maps to see the precise location.
No dogs are allowed at Waterton Canyon. The trail will often close due to issues related to its nearby dam too, so there are two alternate trailheads:
Indian Creek (Waterton alternate #1)
This is the primary alternate for those with dogs. “Indian Creek Campground Sedalia” on Google Maps will essentially get you there, but you’ll want to have a copy of this PDF file with precise directions. You’ll walk 4.4 miles to connect with the official Colorado Trail. This also acts as a shorcut, shaving 3.5 off of the official route.
Roxborough State Park (Waterton alternate #2)
This alternate became popular a few years ago, when Waterton Canyon was closed for almost an entire season. You’ll have to pay an entrance fee for the state park, but some folks still like this as a quiet alternative to the busy Waterton Canyon Trail. There are no dogs, bicycles, horses, camping, etc. allowed here.
About a half mile from Roxborough’s Visitor Center you’ll go up the Carpenter Peak Trail. Near the summit of Carpenter Peak will be a singed junction that leads you to the official Colorado Trail. You’ll connect with the CT near Strontia Springs Dam. This alternate shaves about a mile off of the official route.
Durango – Junction Trailhead
From Main Avenue in Durango you essentially follow 25th street to the end of Junction Creek Road. Try entering “Junction Creek Campground Durango” in Google maps to get on the right track.
How long does it take?
It depends how fast you go! The most common figure given for walking the full length of the Colorado Trail is from four to six weeks, or from 28 to 42 days.
28 days (4 weeks) = 17.4 miles per day (fast)
35 days (5 weeks) = 13.9 miles per day (average)
42 days (6 weeks) = 11.6 miles per day (roses)
My thru-hike took 36 days.
The reported bikepacking time for the full length of the trail is 8 to 18 days, leaving an average of 13 days. Most of us mere mortals would probably take something like 15-20 days. This equates to an average of:
8 days = 68 miles per day (fast)
13 days = 42 miles per day (above average)
18 days = 30 miles per day (realistic)
What are the fastest known times?
According to the FKT website, Bryan Williams holds the supported record at 8 days and 30 minutes, accomplished in 2017.
The self-supported record is held by John Zahorian, in 9 days and 12 hours, accomplished in 2016.
The female supported record was established by Betsy Kalmeyer in 2003 – 9 days, 10 hours, 52 minutes.
Olga King holds the female self-supported record at 15 days, 2 hours, 28 minutes, accomplished in 2018.
Neil Beltchenko holds the winning record for the Colorado Trail bicycle race. His recorded time was 3 days, 19 hours, and 15 minutes, set in 2016. Jeannie Dreyer set the female course record in 2015 at 5 days, 15 hours, 36 minutes. The race is held each year in early July.
Do you need a permit?
No. This is not the John Muir Trail. You will not cross any of our highly-regulated National Parks out here.
The wilderness areas on the Colorado Trail do have a permit system in place, but they don’t involve any designated campsites, fees, or general planning. When you enter a wilderness area you will find a self-registration box. That’s it.
Can you mountain bike the Colorado Trail?
Yes! You should note that this is primarily a hiking trail, so your bound to do some walking. Five bypasses from the official route are necessary to go around the designated wilderness areas (more on this down the page).
Where is the camping?
You can essentially camp wherever you like along the trail. Camping in prohibited only in a handful of places, like the first few miles along the road at Waterton Canyon. The Data Book shows a number of campsites marked on its maps.
Are dogs allowed?
Yes! There’s only one small section at Waterton Canyon where dogs are not allowed. This is easily bypassed via the Indian Creek trailhead (see above). Otherwise dogs are okay throughout the entire Colorado Trail. Some of the National Forest Wilderness Areas require dogs to be on a leash.
What about bears? Do I need a bear canister?
No. Bear canisters are not required anywhere on the Colorado Trail. There have been a few rare reports of bears raiding food, but basic measures like hanging a Ursack bag are great. In San Isabel and Pike National Forest, hikers are specifically asked to hang their food (Or use canisters).
Is it a part of the Continental Divide Trail?
Not really. The CDT was established after the Colorado Trail, and coincides with it for roughly 200 miles, from Segment 6 through Segment 24. Add about 50 miles to this figure if you follow the Colorado Trail’s Collegiate West route.
What’s the elevation up there?
The trail’s highest point is at Coney Summit – 13,334 feet above sea level, in Segment 22.
Its lowest point is at 5,520 feet in Waterton Canyon – the trail’s eastern terminus near Denver.
As a whole, the Colorado Trail averages over 10,300 feet above sea level!
Elevation profiles are listed in the Data Book.
The route is near to Colorado’s highest peak, Mount Elbert, at 14,443 feet. Elbert is the second-highest mountain in the lower 48 states, only 62 feet lower than Mount Whitney in California.
Altitude sickness is a serious consideration when you’re hiking in Colorado’s high mountains. Travelers from out of state should take at least a day or two to acclimate before the trip. Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of altitude sickness (dizziness, headache, nausea, etc.) and be aware that the only cure is to go back down!
Various Maps of the Colorado Trail
My favorite maps of the CT are published by Trails Illustrated. These give a great overview of the trail and surrounding area. The Collegiate West alternate route is not included. They have a separate map for that.
Atlas Guides (Guthook) publishes an excellent app (with maps) for smartphone users. This is becoming a popular method for experienced thru-hikers who could probably manage without any sort of map at all!
I’m not a big fan of the map book that’s published by the Colorado Trail Foundation. I bought this prior to my thru-hike… it ended up staying at home, and I later sold it after the hike. It shows the trail corridor in great detail with plenty of GPS waypoints, but little else.
The pocket map is worth mentioning, but only because it exists. I’ve never handled one and don’t get the impression that it’s very useful.
The Guidebook and Data Book also have useful maps tucked away in their pages. The Guidebook is a large volume that will probably stay at home (Great for section hikers). The Data Book has useful overview maps to follow your progress through each segment.
If you’re looking for a quick small-scale topo map to do your own research, look no further than the wonderful resource that is CalTopo, free on the internet.
Individual Trails Illustrated Maps
Finally, a number of other Trails Illustrated maps can be pieced together to cover the entire trail.
This is somewhat of an old school method. Once upon a time, the narrowly-focused map book was your only option. If you were interested in the surrounding trails and landscape (What’s that cool mountain over there?), you were forced to pick up the following maps, listed in order from Denver to Durango:
#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
Weather Conditions, Snow Levels, and Lightning!
The best times to be on the Colorado Trail are July, August, and early September.
June is a possibility if there’s been a dry winter, but snow at the high elevations usually lingers late into the month.
Likewise, the chances of encountering an early-season snowstorm increase significantly from September into October.
The Colorado Trail Foundation has an informative conditions page that provides links to local weather forecasts and snowpack levels, organized by segment.
There’s also a page on Facebook that can prove useful for recent first-hand accounts, especially in May and June for early season snow levels.
Colorado gets frequent afternoon thunderstorms in July and early August. Getting caught in can be scary and unnerving, especially if you’re above treeline!
Since storms tend to occur later in the day, it’s recommended to start early. This way you’re less likely to get caught on the move above treeline.
Avoid camping above treeline, unless the weather looks absolutely perfect.
Should you get caught on an exposed ridge, descend immediately off the trail if necessary (Don’t get lost!) and hunker down. Once you’re below treeline it’s best to squat on your backpack to insulate yourself from the potential ground current.
If you’re hiking with a partner, create some distance from each other to decrease the likelihood of both of you getting zapped by a single strike. Needless to say, if you’re still on foot and see or feel the hairs rising on your head, get out of there.
Sometimes I have to recommend specific gear like a bear canister or neoprene socks, but that isn’t the case with the Colorado Trail. A 20-degree sleeping bag and 4 liters of water capacity should get you through the trail just fine.
If you’re looking for some more advice on backpacking gear, start with my ultimate gear list.
Or, if I’m truly ready to enter the 21st century like a modern thru-hiker, I’d ditch all that and simply use the Guthook App and Pmags resupply info. Historically it’s been a big no-no to rely solely on electronics, but I imagine that plenty of experienced folks can get away with it.
Biking is most popular on the sections of trail nearest to Denver and Durango.
Some reports say that about 10 percent of the distance is spent hiking with your bike, but others say that it feels like quite bit more. Remember that the Colorado Trail is hiking trail that simply allows cyclists to use it… if you dare 🙂
Bikepacking is growing increasingly popular on the Colorado Trail. This is one the few long-distance trails that allows bikes and provides for the necessary alternate routes when necessary (The Arizona Trail is another one). The standard hiking trail is 486 miles, but the biking bypasses extend a full length adventure to approximately 540 miles.
The most popular places for cyclists to resupply are Frisco, Leadville, Buena Vista, and Silverton
There’s an annual race.
Six wilderness areas need to be bypassed. These are:
- Lost Creek Wilderness – segments 4-5
- Holy Cross & Mount Massive – segments 9-11
- Collegiate Peaks Wilderness – segments 11-13
- La Garita Wilderness – segments 18-21
- Weminuche Wilderness – segment 24
These bypasses are described in detail (with maps) in the official guidebook.
Considerations for Thru-Hikers
Because of heavy winter snow along the the trail, hiking season is only from late June through early October. This is the widest possible window for hiking.
It’s best to be on the Colorado Trail only from July 1st through mid-September. Snowpack can be a problem through late June, and winter storms are more likely to hit the mountains after mid-September (I even experienced a light snowstorm in August).
July has a higher incidence of lightning, but more wildflowers and more thru-hikers. The CT isn’t especially “crowded” like the AT or PCT, so more thru-hikers is generally a good thing.
Direction – Which way to go?
Denver to Durango
The highest sustained elevations occur closer to the trail’s western terminus, so most hikers choose to start their trip on the Denver side. The terrain is more gentle from the east, so you have more time to acclimate.
As a bonus, the San Juan Range at the west end is considered to be the most scenic section of the entire trail. I think it’s more pleasing on a long hike to save the best for last!
Durango to Denver
For strong, acclimated backpackers, there’s a couple of advantages to starting the trail from Durango. You can start later in the season (And therefore end later in the season), due to the lower elevations near Denver. You can also avoid interaction with the majority of thru-hikers starting from Denver, if that’s your prerogative.
Getting There (And Getting Home)
Fortunately the logistics of traveling to Denver and Durango are fairly simple. Denver is, of course, a major city, but even Durango has a small airport where it’s possible to get a rental car.
Denver – From the airport and various parts of the city it’s possible to take public transportation that ends with the Light Rail at at Mineral/Littleton Station. From there you can take a taxi or Uber, private shuttle, etc. to Waterton Canyon.
Durango – It’s only about 4 miles from the end of the trail to downtown Durango. I ended up walking it and it wasn’t so bad. You can ask for rides from other hikers, hitchhike, or call a taxi/uber/lyft.
Pmags.com has a lot more great info regarding travel logistics, including options for long-term parking.
How much does it cost to thru-hike?
Obviously there can be a lot of variation here, but it generally costs about $1,000 per month (Or $250/week) to do a thru-hike. This figure accounts for your food on the trail and an average amount of restaurant meals and lodging.
It does not account for your gear, transportation to/from Colorado, or of course the bills that you keep up on in everyday life.
Alternate Routes – the Collegiate Loop & More
In 2012 the Colorado Trail Foundation introduced the 83-mile Collegiate West route.
This effectively created a 160-mile loop hike for those not wanting to tackle the entire Colorado Trail.
So thru-hikers have a choice to make when they arrive at the Collegiate Loop:
Should I follow the Collegiate East or Collegiate West?
The Collegiate West alternate is reputedly more scenic than the original trail (Now often dubbed “Collegiate East”). In Colorado, however, more scenery comes with higher elevations and exposure to lightning.
Collegiate West leaves the CT (Collegiate East) in Segment 11 and rejoins it in Segment 15.
Collegiate East is 78 miles with a southbound elevation gain of ~17,800 feet.
Collegiate West is 85 miles with a southbound elevation gain of ~19,800 feet. The west route maintains a significantly higher elevation and adds just 5 miles to a thru-hike.
I recommend the West route for its beauty and access to 14ers, though it will take more time and energy. If you’ve had enough of high, exposed elevations and lightning, then go East.
Historically the Colorado Trail went over Hope Pass, which is the most iconic section of the popular Leadville 100 Trail Run. Eventually the official trail was re-routed to the east, but several hikers still chose to incorporate Hope Pass into a thru-hike. Now it gets even more love as part of the Collegiate West route.
This split in the CT occurs in Segment 11. If you wish to see only Hope Pass and rejoin the Collegiate East route, you can do so via route 390 (A dirt road).
OR you can continue on the Collegiate West Route.
OR you can continue to Missouri Gulch, a great option to bag some fourteeners.
From Hope Pass one can continue to the Missouri Gulch trailhead and over Elkhead Pass, eventually picking up the Pine Creek Trail that leads east back to the official CT. From the pass you’re within striking distance of three Fourteeners – Missouri Mountain, Belford, and Oxford.
Missouri Gulch is not part of the Collegiate West Alternate and rejoins the CT in Segment 12.
My experience with the alternate routes
I went over both Hope Pass and Elkhead Pass (Missouri Gulch) on my hike, and I loved it!
This was prior to the creation of the Collegiate West Route. If I were to go again, then that’s the road I’d choose – the Collegiate West. With extra time and energy I’d consider doing an out-and-back trip up Missouri Gulch to do the nearby 14ers.
Climbing the Fourteeners
The most popular activity when hiking in Colorado is to climb the peaks that are over 14,000 feet above sea level. About fifty so-called Fourteeners are in the state, and a few are within striking distance of The Colorado Trail.
Each peak has its own character. Hiking just one 14er offers an unparalleled experience, with views that aren’t found along the official trail. You can expect to see more crowds on these mountains than the main trail.
You’ll be tempted to leave all of your backpacking gear behind to bag these summits. You should try and go as light as possible. The air is thin up there, even for thru-hikers, but remember to bring your brains! Snacks, water, headlamp, and extra layers are essential. Don’t be afraid to turn around.
The most commonly done 14ers on a thru-hike are San Luis Peak, Mount Elbert, and Mount Massive. San Luis Peak is the easiest one to get, as its summit is nearest to the official trail. Mount Elbert is especially tempting too, since it’s the highest mountain in Colorado!
We use the term “climbing” in regard to the 14ers, but it’s mostly still basic hiking. Some of the peaks listed here require a little 3rd class scrambling. Missouri Mountain, in particular, had a short section that struck me as exceptionally exposed. Others like Mount Elbert are just fine.
Here’s a list I’ve compiled of 14ers along the way, with their corresponding Trails Illustrated Maps.
Justin Simoni has compiled a detailed page about climbing the 14ers along the Colorado Trail, too.
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
Section Details: Access & Resupply
The Colorado Trail is broken down into 28 “Segments.” Rather than diving deeply into each individual segment, I’m going to break down the main sections of the trail according to my own thru-hiking resupply strategy.
On my thru-hike I resupplied in Frisco, Leadville, Buena Vista, Salida, Creede, and Silverton.
Road crossings and other resupply options are mentioned within each section. Mileages are listed from Denver.
Thru Hikers, note the following:
The intent here is to help you get a ballpark idea of your resupply strategy.
Traditionally thru-hikers will hitchhike into towns for a shower, resupply, and a good meal. Or more. Alllllll the food.
It’s possible to mail food to yourself prior to your hike. You can ship it via USPS to a local post office. Sometimes businesses along the trail will accept packages too (Especially worth considering for UPS and FEDEX, which do not deliver to the Post Office).
For boxes going to the post office, the way to address them is:
Amazing Hiker (Your name)
Awesome Town, CO 12345
I prefer buying my food along the way on a thru-hike. Those who send packages to themselves often do a lot of supplemental shopping anyway! Are you really going to eat oatmeal every morning for a month? Really?
Modern Resupply Strategies
Since it’s 2019, thru-hikers are getting more clever and:
Calling hostels and services (Or Uber or Lyft) via cell phone to pick you up at the trailhead. There’s extra fees involved here, but it’s not hitchhiking!
Using AirBnB to get lodging in town.
Sending yourself more timely resupply drops as you go via Amazon Prime or other services. Why not? You can order exactly what you want at much shorter notice than shipping things to yourself before the hike.
For more information about specific services and hostels available in towns, check out Pmags guide.
I’m sometimes asked what is the “best” section of the Colorado Trail. In my experience, the section from Creede to Silverton is the most scenic (Segments 21 through 24).
My second-favorite area was in the Collegiate Peaks. I have not hiked the official Collegiate West route, but I recommend it based on my experience through Hope Pass and Missouri Gulch. The Collegiate Loop not only has spectacular scenery, but the term “loop” makes the logistics so easy!
Segments 9 through 11 are great too, primarily because this is where you can do Mount Elbert and Mount Massive. It’s fun to experience the town of Leadville too. Just remember that you’re bound to see plenty of other hikers in this section.
For more information various trailheads to access these sections, pick up a copy of the Official Guidebook. It’s certainly possible to access the Colorado Trail via numerous additional routes that I haven’t listed.
Mileages are listed from Denver.
1) Waterton to Breckenridge/Frisco (104 miles from Denver) – Segment 1-6
This is a long section for rookie thru-hikers. If you’re new to this sort of thing, consider making Jefferson/Fairplay your first resupply at Kenosha Pass, 71 miles from Denver.
16.8 – County Rd 97: Conifer
26.9 – County Rd 126: Buffalo Creek
40.5 – FS 543/68: to Bailey
71.7 – US Hwy 285: Kenosha Pass, Jefferson, Fairlplay
104.4 – Hwy 9: Breckenridge, Frisco
2) Breckenridge/Frisco to Leadville(143m) – Segment 7/8
117.6 – Hwy 91: Copper Mountain
143 – US Hwy 24: Leadville
3) Leadville to Buena Vista(216m) – Segment 9-12
176.9 – Hwy 82: Twin Lakes
183.4 – Collegiate East/West Divide
209.7 – County Rd 365: Buena Vista
216.3 – County Rd 306: Buena Vista
4) Buena Vista to Salida(253m) – Segment 13/14
There are several paved roads in Segment 13.
230 – County Rd 162: Mount Princeton Hot Springs
252.9 – US Hwy 50: Salida
5) Salida to Creede(343m) – Segment 15-20
261.5 – Collegiate East/West Junction
302.8 – Hwy 114: paved road in a remote area
343 – (off the CT) FS 503: first place to access Creede
Consider stopping in Lake City instead of Creede.
6) Creede to Silverton(411m) – Segment 21-24
357.8 – Hwy 149: Lake City, Creede
411.1 – US Hwy 550: Silverton
7) Silverton to Durango(485m) – Segment 25-28
There’s no good resupply options from Silverton to Durango.
465.9 – accessible via 171
485 – Route 171 at Junction Creek – end of the trail!
Collegiate West Resupply
The Collegiate West route has only a few unique resupply options, like Taylor Park and St. Elmo. Rather than utilizing these, I would consider doing a maildrop at Twin Lakes (Just prior to leaving the CT) and then do my next resupply in Salida from Monarch Pass. Twin Lakes to Monarch Pass is about 85 miles.
The Colorado Trail Foundation Deserves Your Love
Without the efforts of the Colorado Trail Foundation, there would be no Colorado Trail! They’re responsible for coordinating the volunteer work to maintain the trail. You can donate to their efforts here, because money makes the world go ’round.
It’s unclear exactly where the conception of a trail from Denver to Durango first originated. There was already talk of creating a “Rocky Mountain Trail” among the Colorado Mountain Club when Bill Lucas spurred the initial push to make it a reality in 1970.
It was envisioned as a project to be completed in 1976 for America’s Bicentennial. Merrill Hastings, as editor of Colorado Magazine, played a big roll in drumming up early support.
Gudy Gaskill took the reigns in 1974. Most of the original route was drawn out by 1976, but interest waned and funding disappeared. Gudy never gave up, and the trail was officially completed in 1987. The Colorado Trail Foundation was founded in the same year, and still serves as the trail’s primary steward.
Gudy served as the first president of the CTF through 1998. She’s recognized as the “Mother of the Colorado Trail” and has received several honors for her efforts, including awards from both Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush.
Any More Questions?
I hope this page has satisfied what you needed to know about the trail, or at least pointed you in the right direction. Feel free to contact me with additional questions.
Don’t forget to have a look at my thru-hiking journal!