This journal documents my thru-hike of The Colorado Trail in August of 2010. It has 40,000 words and over 1,500 photos.
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
Overview of the Colorado Trail
The Colorado Trail is known for its high Rocky Mountain elevations, brilliant wildflowers, beautiful aspen groves, violent summer thunderstorms, and classic Colorado scenery.
The trail is currently 486 miles in length across the state, from Denver to Durango.
It encounters eight major mountain ranges, seven national forests, and six wilderness areas.
Thru-hikers average 4-6 weeks to backpack its entire length.
For a couple hundred miles, it shares the same path as the (much longer) Continental Divide Trail.
The trail’s highest point is at Coney Summit in Segment 22 (13,334 feet above sea level). Its lowest point is 5,520 feet at Waterton Canyon – in Segment 1 at the trail’s eastern terminus near Denver.
As a whole, the Colorado Trail averages over 10,000 feet above sea level.
It passes within a few miles of Colorado’s highest mountain – Mount Elbert. This peak measures 14,443 feet at the summit. It’s the second highest mountain in the lower 48 states, 62 feet below Mount Whitney in California.
The trail was established in 1987 and is maintained by The Colorado Trail Foundation.
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. With the added detours, bike-packers are looking at a total distance of 539 miles to ride the entire Colorado Trail.
Bikepacking has the best resource for more information about mountain biking the trail. They quote that the trip generally takes anywhere from 8 to 18 days (With an average of 13 days), and that 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 Colorado Trail each year, usually starting in late July and extending into August. Here’s the official race website.
Planning a Long Hike
Timing and Direction
Because of heavy winter snowpack along the high elevations of the CT, hiking season is only from late June through early October. This figure is the widest possible window for hiking – it’s generally best to be on the CT only from July 1st through mid-September. If there’s a solid winter, the snowpack can linger well through late June, and winter storms are likely to hit the mountains after mid-September (I even experienced a light snowstorm in August).
The highest sustained elevations occur in the San Juan Range (Closer to the trail’s western terminus in Durango), so most hikers choose to start their trip on the Denver side (Waterton Canyon, in Littleton). The elevations are significantly more gentle over there, so you have more time to acclimate and are less prone to altitude sickness. As a bonus, the San Juans are generally considered to be the most scenic section of the Trail – I think it’s more aesthetically pleasing on a long hike to save the best for last!
For strong, acclimated backpackers, there a couple negligible 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 extra interaction with the “herd” of thru-hikers starting in Denver, if that’s your prerogative.
Other things to consider are that the early season (July) has a higher incidence of lightning, but more wildflowers and more thru-hikers to interact with – the CT has yet to be especially “crowded” like the AT or PCT, so more thru-hikers is generally a good thing, especially for those coming from experience on those trails.
Popular towns that thru-hikers use to resupply are Breckenridge / Frisco, Leadville, Buena Vista, Creede, 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).
Hitchhiking is generally required to reach all of these towns.
Cell phone coverage is still said to be spotty and unreliable throughout the length of the Trail, but I assume that this “improves” each year.
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 possible 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 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. Yogi’s Guide is an excellent book that’s packed full of information too.
Most hikers coming from experience on other long trails will find that Paul Mags End to End Guide is all that they’ll need to plan their trip. His site is primarily what I used to plan my hike in 2010 – his resupply information and data on how to travel to and from Denver and Durango is especially invaluable.
The Data Book is indispensable. I kept it in my pocket for easy access on my entire hike, and referenced it very frequently.
My apologies to the Colorado Trail Foundation, but I don’t 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 else beyond it.
Fourteeners Along The Colorado Trail
The most popular thing to do 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 relatively easy striking distance of The Colorado Trail.
Each peak has 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 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
The Collegiate Loop
In 2012 the Colorado Trail Foundation introduced the 80-mile Collegiate West alternate route, effectively creating 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 dubbed “Collegiate East”), but in Colorado more scenery comes with higher elevations and exposure to lightning. If you’re comfortable with these factors, I’d certainly recommend this alternate for its beauty and access to 14ers. Pick up a map for the Collegiate Loop here.
Hope Pass and Missouri Gulch
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. It’s now part of the official Collegiate Loop.
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 a part of the Collegiate Loop.
I went over both Hope Pass and Elkhead Pass on my hike, and I recommend that you do it too! Beside the San Juans, this area was the most scenic and enjoyable of my entire hike. These bypasses leaves the CT at Twin Lakes (Segment 11) and rejoin it in Segment 12. The corresponding Trails Illustrated maps are #127 and #129
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 entire Colorado Trail in more detail, 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
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 your pack weight could possibly get by without one, though I absolutely wouldn’t recommend it.
Happy hiking! Enjoy it out there, where life is good!