Start planning your trip! Here’s all you need to know about the Colorado Trail, like the best maps, guides, logistics, alternate routes, bikepacking, races, 14ers to climb, and more. This page features a superb journal from a solo thru-hiker’s perspective, with over 40,000 words and 1,500 beautiful photos.
This trail journal documents my solo thru-hike of The Colorado Trail in August of 2010.
I started on August 1st in Denver and finished in Durango on September 6th.
I finished the trail in 37 days, taking three “zero days.”
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
Day 37 – The Road Home – Epilogue
Often abbreviated to just “the CT,” the Colorado Trail is known for its high Rocky Mountain elevations, brilliant wildflowers, beautiful aspen groves, violent summer thunderstorms, and classic Colorado scenery.
Length and Duration
The path currently spans 486 miles across the state, from Denver to Durango.
Thru-hikers average 4 to 6 weeks to backpack its entire length.
Elevation – Rocky Mountain Highs and Lows
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 10,000 feet above sea level!
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.
Origin, Maintenance, and Usage
The trail was established in 1987 and is maintained by The CT Foundation.
Along the way you’ll encounter eight major mountain ranges, seven national forests, and six wilderness areas.
For a couple hundred miles it shares the same path as the (much longer) Continental Divide Trail.
Hikers may share the path with mountain bikes and riders on horseback.
Mountain bikes are not allowed in the six wilderness areas, but the official guidebook gives descriptions of the necessary detours for cyclists. With the added detours, bike-packers are looking at a total distance of 539 miles to ride the entire trail.
Bikepacking.com is the best resource about biking the trail. They quote that the trip takes anywhere from 8 to 18 days (With an average of 13 days), and almost 10% of your time will be spent pushing the bike, or “hike-a-bike.”
A mountain bike race is held over the full length of the trail each year, usually starting in late July and extending into August. Here’s the official race website.
Planning a Long Hike on the Colorado Trail
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. Snow can linger well into late June, and winter storms are 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 out there. The CT isn’t especially “crowded” like the AT or PCT, so more thru-hikers is generally a good thing.
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.
Popular towns and locations that thru-hikers use to resupply are:
- Jefferson / Fairplay (72 miles by trail from Denver)
- Breckenridge / Frisco (105 miles)
- Leadville (143 miles)
- Twin Lakes (177 miles)
- Buena Vista (200 miles, via route 306)
- Princeton Hot Springs (230 miles)
- Salida (248 miles)
- Creede (343 miles)
- Silverton (410 miles, and 75 from Durango)
Hitchhiking is required to reach many of these towns.
Cell phone coverage is still said to be unreliable throughout the length of the trail, but I assume that this “improves” each year.
A fun note about Leadville – at 10,152 feet above sea level, it takes pride in being the highest incorporated city in the United States (The Two Mile High City!).
Guides and Resources
If I were to do the CT again I would bring only the data book and the new maps by National Geographic. I might compliment these with some of the Trails Illustrated Maps that correspond to areas where I plan to explore off the main trail (see below).
If you’d like to get the most information from a single resource, I’d recommend the Official CT Guidebook. I’ve never owned a copy – it’s a bit heavy and loaded with too much information for my lightweight needs, though I’m sure plenty of backpackers love it. It’s a nice-looking volume – something that I wouldn’t have the heart to cut up into sections. Yogi’s Guide is an excellent book that’s packed full of information too.
Most hikers coming from experience on other long trails find that Paul Mags End to End Guide is all they need to plan their trip. His site is what I used to plan my hike in 2010. The resupply information and data on how to travel to and from Denver and Durango is especially valuable.
The Data Book is indispensable. I kept it in my pocket for easy access and referenced it frequently.
My apologies to the Colorado Trail Foundation, but I don’t care for their official map booklet. I purchased this before my trip, but 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 else beyond it.
Fourteeners Along The Colorado Trail
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. Here’s a list I’ve compiled of 14ers along the way. 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
The Collegiate Loop
In 2012 the Colorado Trail Foundation introduced the 80-mile Collegiate West route. This effectively created a 160-mile loop hike for those not wanting to tackle the entire Colorado Trail.
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 in Segment 11 and rejoins it in Segment 15.
I’d certainly recommend this alternate for its beauty and access to 14ers. The Collegiate West Route won’t add significant mileage to your trip. Pick up a map of the Collegiate Loop here.
Historically the Colorado Trail used to go over Hope Pass, which is the most iconic section of the popular Leadville 100 Trail Run. It’s certainly still possible to backpack through here, and more scenic than the official CT. Now it gets even more love as part of the official Collegiate Loop.
Hope Pass leaves the CT in Segment 11 and rejoins it shortly afterward via route 390 (A dirt road), or you can continue to Missouri Gulch.
From Hope Pass one can continue to the Missouri Gulch trailhead and over Elkhead Pass, eventually picking up another short 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.
Trails Illustrated has a new set of two maps that cover the entire trail. These are probably the best choice for thru-hikers. The Colorado Trail is a well-marked path, so navigation is fairly simple. These will serve you well, primarily for identifying distant landmarks and alternate routes (And for emergencies too, of course). They’ve also done a new map for the Collegiate Loop.
Listed below are the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps that cover the Colorado Trail in more detail, 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
It’s irresponsible to recommend that anyone should travel in the backcountry without a map. With that in mind, the trail is well-marked, and an experienced long-distance backpacker who is trying to cut back on pack weight could possibly get by without one… though going without a map is never recommended.
Happy hiking! Enjoy it out there, where life is good!