How to Plan a Colorado Backpacking Trip for the First TimePublished on 12/21/2022 · 12 min readCamping Expert Olivia Whitehead runs through the best entry-level backpacking trips in Colorado and everything you need to prepare.
“Camping” can mean a wide variety of things in Colorado, from a quiet spot miles from civilization in the solitude of the backcountry, to a front-range RV site with electricity and running water. When planning your camping trip in Colorado, it’s important to know exactly what kind of camping you hope to do and plan accordingly!
The most common ways to camp are generally in paid sites at campgrounds or parks, dispersed car camping, or backpacking. This article does an excellent job of describing each of these Colorado adventures in more depth, and it can help you narrow down what best fits your trip.
In this article, we will specifically look at some of the best entry-level backpacking trips in Colorado and talk about everything you need before you go to make your trip planning a breeze!
When to Go
For your first backpacking trip in Colorado, you probably won’t want to deal with the added challenges that come with winter camping or camping in significant snow - the terrain and elevation gain will be difficult enough! For this reason, I recommend planning your first trip for between the months of June and September. This isn’t a guarantee that your trip will be snow free, but it has a much better chance than if you were to go outside this window! Going in the warmer months not only means that your trip will be generally more comfortable, but it also means bringing gear that is more lightweight and the opportunity to dial in your system without the added cold. Plus, the alpine lakes won't be iced over, providing an excellent water source, and you'll get to see beautiful wildflowers!
What to Bring
Regardless of what time of year you decide to backpack, the essential items will remain the same. For example, you will always need a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad, but the warmth and weight of these items will depend on the conditions you backpack in! We won’t go too in-depth here, but you’ll want to make sure that you have the Ten Essentials before heading out on not just your first, but every, backpacking trip.
Having the right gear is not quite enough, though. It’s important that it’s the right gear for you and that you know how to use every item that you bring! A great way to do this is to test out your new pieces on some day hikes or even at home before heading into the backcountry. If I’m planning to use a new pack for an upcoming backpacking trip, I’ll pack it for the trip and do a couple of longer day trips with it before ever using it overnight. This lets me make sure that the pack fits well and won’t be uncomfortable with a heavy load when it’s time for the multi-day hike. The same applies with other things like hiking boots, a backpacking stove, and a water filter, too! I want to know how to use and set up my gear before I’m a day’s hike away from shelter and running water.
Check out How to Pack for a 2-3 Night Backpacking Trip for a complete backpacking gear list and info on how to pack it all!
Okay! You’ve gotten your gear together, and you’ve set aside two weeks in July for your first overnight hiking trip—congratulations! Now, you’ve begun to look at maps and actually plan your route. The terminology here can get confusing, as there are a few different designations for public land in the state of Colorado. Let’s go over three of these designations below and talk about how they might affect your trip.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and US Forest Service (USFS) Land
Although these lands have different designations and governing bodies, they will generally have the same guidelines when it comes to camping in Colorado. This means that dispersed camping is allowed (for periods of time no longer than 14 days in most cases) as long as you follow the current regulations for a certain area. We’ll talk more about these regulations in a minute!
National Park Service (NPS) Land
There are four national parks in Colorado, and the regulations in these areas are a bit stricter than in areas with other designations. For example, the fees are generally greater, pets are not typically allowed on the hiking trails, and some areas within the park even require the hiker to obtain a permit. You’ll need to pay the park entrance fee to get access to this land (buying an annual pass is a great idea), and you’ll have to limit your camping to designated areas. For example, in Colorado’s iconic Rocky Mountain National Park, a single-day pass is $25, and you’ll need to pay an additional fee to actually camp in the park as well. This money goes towards maintenance of the park, but it is definitely something to factor in when planning your trip!
Some General Guidelines
One of the most important things to know on your first Colorado backpacking trip is the current fire ban status in the area you’re exploring! This was pretty foreign to me when I moved from the Blue Ridge Mountains years ago, but it makes sense considering the damage that a single wildfire can do. After enough backpacking, checking the fire ban status will become second nature. These bans are designated in three stages, with the third being the most serious, and they are not a thing to be taken lightly. Look up the local BLM or Forest Service office before your trip and give them a call if you have any confusion at all around the subject!
Another big change I noticed when I moved to Colorado was the way the elevation makes everything a bit more difficult at first. Even for experienced hikers, altitude sickness is a possibility. If you’re visiting Colorado from a lower elevation, it’s a great idea to give yourself some time to acclimate before your trip. Whether you have time to acclimate or not though, make a point to stay well-hydrated and watch any alcohol consumption when you’re up this high.
Depending on where you’re coming from, the wildlife (especially bears!) might be a bit different from what you’re used to as well. This can seem intimidating at first, but you can take steps to make your trip through bear country as safe as possible. Bear-proof food storage containers, bear spray, and bear bells are just a few of the extra items you should be prepared with.
Finally, your ultimate goal when leaving a backcountry site is to make it seem like you were never there at all. The next person deserves to see the same wilderness you saw, and it’s a great idea to refresh yourself on the Leave No Trace principles before each trip!
Three Great First Backpacking Trips
Now that we’ve talked about some essential things to know before going, we get to look at some incredible Colorado backpacking trips themselves! Let’s look at three beginner-friendly trips that showcase some of the most beautiful places this state has to offer.
1. The Collegiate Loop from Twin Lakes to St. Elmo
Located just a couple hours from Denver, the Collegiate Loop is a wonderful choose-your-own-adventure backpacking loop that intersects with both the Colorado and Continental Divide Trails. In its entirety, the loop is just under 160 miles, although you can easily choose sections that are much shorter so that you can plan for mileage within your comfort zone! My personal favorite segment of the loop is the stretch between Twin Lakes and St. Elmo, Colorado.
This section is just under 52 miles in length (although this doesn’t factor in a few extra miles on a 4x4 road) and it can be best done in three or four days, depending on your pace! While this route is definitely on the difficult side for your first time backpacking in Colorado, the incredible views and sheer time spent above treeline make it worth the miles.
Logistics You’ll begin hiking this section at the Twin Lakes TH, climbing up to Hope Pass, which is the most elevation gain of the route. Since this pass is the highest point of the trip at 12,500ft, if you can make it to the summit here, then you can do anything on this route! From here, you’ll spend the next day descending through the ponderosas only to climb again to the summit of Cottonwood Pass. A popular tourist destination for those passing through, the summit of Cottonwood Pass offers spectacular 360-degree views of the Sawatch Range. If you look closely, you’ll be able to see several of Colorado’s famous 14ers too, including the closest one, Yale. The summit of Cottonwood also makes a convenient “bail out” spot if you need to leave the trail for any reason, as the town of Buena Vista, Colo., is just a short drive down the mountain.
The last stretch of this segment is by far my favorite part, though. You’ll gradually climb and descend for the next 15.9 miles, with all of the steepest spots behind you. Finally, you’ll descend down the rough Tin Cup Pass road into the ghost town of St. Elmo, Colo. If you did a car shuttle, St. Elmo can be a great place to park while you’re on the trail.
Things to Note This is the most exposed backpacking route we’ll talk about here, so it’s even more important to pay careful attention to the current weather and forecast. You don’t want to find yourself anywhere above treeline with lightning on the horizon!
Pro Tip: When backpacking or even day hiking in Colorado, always have a rain jacket handy! Even if the weather forecast is not calling for rain or storms, weather conditions in the mountains are unpredictable and can change abruptly.
2. Chicago Basin
Chicago Basin is tucked in the more remote San Juan mountains of Colorado, specifically in the Needle Mountains (a subcategory of the San Juans). This range can be a bit harder to access if you’re traveling via Denver or Colorado Springs, but the uniqueness of this trip makes it well worth a visit. After all, what other US backpacking trips begin with a train ride on a historic railroad?
Logistics To begin your trip, you’ll first need to check the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad schedule and book your ticket in advance. It’s possible to add time to your trip and hike into Chicago Basin, bypassing the train entirely, but in my opinion, the experience of riding the train adds to the overall trip! While you can board the train in both Durango and Silverton, you will only be able to depart at the necessary Needleton stop if you board in Durango, so keep that in mind.
Once getting off at the Needleton stop, you’ll need to walk about half a mile to the Needle Creek Trailhead. From here, you’ll follow the trail gaining elevation for a six-mile hike into Chicago Basin itself. There are few good camping sites between the Needle Creek TH and the basin (most of them are too close to the creek itself), so plan to make it to the basin before dark if possible.
Once you’re in Chicago Basin, the valley will widen and you’ll have plenty of camping sites to choose from depending on the crowds. Using this valley as a basecamp, you can access three of Colorado’s 14ers (Mt. Eolus, Windom Peak, and Sunlight Peak), as well as Columbine Lake via Columbine Pass. Take your time exploring the stunning wilderness, and remember to not feed the mountain goats!
When you’re ready to catch the train back out of the basin, you’ll head down the same Needle Creek Trail that brought you here. From there, you’ll need to flag the train down to get yourself back to civilization. The train’s website has specific instructions on how to do that here.
Things to Note Where the Collegiate Loop sees relatively little traffic compared to other backpacking routes in Colorado, Chicago Basin can get quite crowded during peak summer months. If you choose to explore this remarkable area, try to go midweek if possible, and mentally prepare yourself to share the trail with many others. It’s even more important to practice those good Leave No Trace principles in areas that see higher traffic.
The area around the Needleton stop itself is also surrounded by private property, so be especially careful to stay on trail!
3. Tonahutu Loop Creek Trail
Finally, a list of Colorado multi-day trips wouldn’t feel complete without the quintessential Rocky Mountain National Park. This loop showcases the best that this national park has to offer, and it will help you find that beautiful isolation in a park that is known for being fairly crowded.
Logistics You’ll begin hiking the 27-mile route from the North Inlet Trailhead, heading north on the Tonahutu Trail itself. You’ll follow the creek until it opens up to an area known as Big Meadows, and you’ll see several campsites over the next few miles as well. A highlight of this hike is the climb to Ptarmigan Point, where you’ll be greeted by panoramic views and join the Continental Divide Trail. As you head south from here, look around to see if you can spot Longs Peak—Colorado’s Northernmost 14er and one of the most popular summits in the state.
You can then end your trip at the Tonahutu Trailhead, just a short walk up the road form the North Inlet TH where you began. Not only does this route offer views to rival other hikes on this list, but it does so with much less driving and convenient access to the Denver area as well.
Things to Note Because this route is within Rocky Mountain National Park itself, you’ll have to make special reservations and pay a small administrative fee as well.
With all of the backpacking opportunities that Colorado has to offer, it’s easy to get a bit overwhelmed when deciding on your perfect trip. My advice is to not get too caught up in picking the “perfect” route and know that regardless of where you go, your trip will be memorable! Triple check your pack, bring extra snacks, and remember that it’s okay to get a little lost (especially if you're prepared with proper navigation tools!). If you need gear to bring along on your backpacking trip, reach out to a Camping & Hiking Expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations.