An Expert Guide to Hiking the Colorado Trail

Colorado’s namesake route and longest continuous hiking trail offers up a tour of the state’s surreal alpine scenery and is a worthy endeavor of any outdoors person.

A high alpine lake with mountains, trees, and boulders. There is a sunset happening in the background.

Photo by Grace VanSurksum

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To thru-hike the Colorado Trail is to embark on a rewarding odyssey through nature that will leave your feet and legs sore, your mind quieted, and your soul enriched. You’ll make your way through all of the diverse natural beauty that Colorado offers, including vibrant wildflower fields, gently sweeping meadows, crystal clear alpine lakes, and impressive mountain peaks. The trail provides some of the best and most surreal alpine scenery that North America offers. It is truly a lifetime achievement and one that anyone who undertakes it will not soon forget.

Overview

  • Length: 486 miles
  • Total Elevation Gain/Loss: 89,000 ft
  • Highest Point: 13,271 ft; just below Coney summit
  • Lowest Point: 5,520 ft; Waterton Canyon outside of Denver
  • Average Elevation: 10,347 ft

Start and End

A map showing the Colorado Trail.

Photo courtesy of ColoradoTrail.org

The northeastern terminus is at Waterton Canyon State Park, just southwest of Denver, with alternate points at Indian Creek Trailhead and Roxborough State Park. The southwestern terminus of the trail is about 3.5 miles north of Durango.

The Colorado Trail winds through eight mountain ranges, five river systems, six national forests, and six wilderness areas. The northeastern half of the trail from Denver to Monarch pass makes its way through desert ecosystems with towering canyon walls and rolling foothills. It passes through historic mining towns and world-class ski areas before climbing even higher into the stunning Collegiate Peaks. From Monarch pass down to Durango, the thin ribbon of dirt stays high in the mountains and becomes a solitary communion with nature in the remote and spectacular San Juan mountains.

The Colorado Trail is managed and maintained by the primarily volunteer-based Colorado Trail Foundation with collaborative efforts from the National Forest Service.

When Should You Hike the Colorado Trail?

A dirt trail along a mountain peak. There is grass and a mountain in the background.

Photo by Brett K.

The Colorado Trail follows the backbone of the state, crossing the continental divide numerous times. The path stays above 10,000 feet most of the time, with a low point of 5,500 feet and a high point of 13,271 feet. At these high altitudes, patches of snow can stick around all year long. Before mid-June, one could still encounter deep snow on some of the higher mountain passes, and after late September, you run the risk of getting stuck in an early winter snowstorm.

The peak hiking season has its downsides as well. The Colorado Trail (and thru-hiking in general) is growing in popularity every year, so if it’s solitude you’re after, you might consider hiking later in the season. Late-season hiking provides the benefit of smaller crowds and lower lightning risk.

Route Options

A man stands on a trail with a backpack on. There are mountains in the background.

Photo by Grace VanSurksum

Southbound

Most hikers start from the northern terminus at Waterton Canyon outside of Denver and hike the trail southbound (SOBO) to Durango. This makes for a much easier start to the trail, as Waterton Canyon is only at 5500 feet. From this direction, the trail is a gradual climb for the first 100 or so miles until it reaches its first high mountain pass in Breckenridge. Best of all, SOBO ends with a climactic finish in the San Juan range.

Northbound

If you are feeling in excellent hiking shape from the start, you can begin in Durango and hike northbound (NOBO). From here, you will be dropped directly into the steep and rugged San Juan mountains - arguably the most challenging section of the trail. Waterton Canyon makes for a much less climactic finale than the San Juans, but landing in Denver does make it easier to arrange traveling accommodations back home. Additionally, early snowstorms are less likely in the front range, making NOBO ideal for anyone requiring a late-season start.

Section Hike

The trail is divided into 28 different segments, ranging from 10 to 32 miles long, and is usually marked by a trailhead or road crossing. This is an excellent way to determine resupply locations and bailout points, but also a way for people who can’t commit to a month on the trail to slowly chip away at it piece by piece.

Graph detailing all of the sections of the Colorado Trail.

Weather on the Trail

Someone walks along a dirt trail in the high mountains. There are mountains in the background.

Photo by Brett K.

Hikers can expect temps between 30 degrees and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Mornings and evenings in the Rocky Mountains are brisk, and afternoon weather can change at the drop of a hat. It’s essential to be prepared for both extreme sun exposure and severe afternoon thunderstorms.

Watch Out for Lightning!

The Rocky Mountains are breeding grounds for powerful thunderstorms, and mid-summer is the peak of their activity. According to Out There Colorado, Colorado averages 500,000 lightning flashes that strike the ground each year and currently ranks 19th in the country when it comes to cloud-to-ground lightning strikes. The high summits and ridgelines that make up much of the Colorado Trail are hotspots for those strikes.

Since lightning risk dramatically increases above treeline and on exposed ridges, the best way to mitigate lightning danger is to get up early and make your way up and over your high point for the day before 1 pm, as most thunderstorms occur in the afternoon.

If you find yourself in a storm or see lightning, immediately take the fastest route below the treeline. Ideally, find a low point amongst the trees, but away from the tallest trees in the area and any bodies of water. Contrary to popular belief, rock overhangs are NOT safe places to shelter in a thunderstorm as lightning can arc over the gap, filling the alcove with deadly electrical current.

If the hair on your arms or head starts to stand up, stop where you are and assume the lightning position immediately—put your pack on the ground and stand on it, squatting on the balls of your feet, and cup your hands over your ears.

Resupply and Town Stops

A view of a mountain through some grass and trees. The mountain is partially obstructed by clouds and it looks stormy.

Photo by Brett K.

Carrying all of your food for a four to six-week backpacking trip would be impossible, so a resupply strategy is crucial. Luckily, the Colorado Trail crosses a road providing town access about every 20-70 miles. Hitchhiking is the most common and easiest way to get into town, and most residents in towns surrounding the Colorado Trail are aware of the trail and more than happy to help you on your journey. The other option is to utilize a shuttle service. The Colorado Trail foundation provides a list of volunteer and hireable shuttle drivers servicing the entire length of the trail. As far as the actual resupply goes, there are two main tactics: grocery shopping in town and mailing yourself premade supply boxes at different points along the trail.

  • Jefferson/Fairplay (72 miles from Denver)
  • Breckenridge/Frisco (105 miles)
  • Leadville (143 miles)
  • Twin Lakes (177 miles)
  • Buena Vista (200 miles)
  • Princeton Hot Springs (230 miles)
  • Salida (248 miles)
  • Creede (343 miles)
  • Silverton (410 miles, 75 miles from Durango)

Gear

Aside from your typical backpacking gear such as water purification, a shelter, and sleep gear, there are a few items that are especially handy in the Colorado Trail’s alpine environment. For example, some sort of rain gear and sun protection is absolutely crucial. Here are a few items that I recommend specifically for the Colorado Trail:

Alternate Routes

An open field with flowers, grass, and trees. There are mountains. in the background.

Photo by Brett K.

Just southwest of the tiny trail town of Twin Lakes, the trail enters the Collegiate Peaks and splits into two routes—Collegiate East and Collegiate West. Collegiate East is the original route that skirts the collegiate range and stays lower in elevation and closer to civilization. Collegiate west is the steeper, more remote, and more adventurous option. It stays high up in the Collegiate peaks, rarely ducking below the treeline, and offers more solitude and epic scenery. The 80-mile alternate coincides with the Continental Divide Trail and became an official part of the Colorado Trail in 2012.

For those looking for a shorter alternative to the Colorado Trail, both Collegiate routes can be connected in a 160-mile loop, offering a much quicker and logistically simpler version of the thru-hike experience.

The Colorado Trail Foundation has done a magnificent job making the trail well-marked and easy to follow. However, it is still necessary to carry one or multiple forms of navigation.

Guide Book

The official Colorado Trail guidebook is one of the best options for navigating your way along the trail. It provides a breakdown of each segment with a rudimentary map and info on water sources, campsites, resupply options, road crossing, and more. Best of all, it’s thin and lightweight!

Apps

There are several different smartphone apps that can provide real-time GPS location as well as updated information on trail waypoints. The best thing about these apps, such as FarOut Guides, is that the information is peer sourced. This means that hikers currently on the trail can provide each other with useful, updated information about water sources, resupply towns, etc.

Other apps such as OnX Backcountry and Gaia GPS are great for downloading maps and getting the lay of the land and real-time GPS location in the event you should lose your way.

GPS

GPS tracking devices such as a Garmin InReach can give you and your loved ones ultimate peace of mind with features like regular GPS pings and an emergency SOS button to alert first responders in the case of an emergency.

Paper Maps

Paper maps are a lot of fun to look at and the most reliable option should your electronic navigation devices fail or run out of power.

Now Let's Hit the Trail!

View of a sunset with mountains in the background and an open high alpine basin.

Photo by Brett K.

We hope this article has inspired you to get out there and enjoy our beautiful planet! If you would like to talk to a real live person about gearing up for your next outdoor adventure, please reach out to me or another one of our Camping & Hiking Experts on Curated!

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The wilderness is my home, my vacation spot, and my church. It's where I feel the most in tune and the most like myself. If I can help even a handful of people get out into nature and experience the blissful oneness that I've experienced out there, I'll feel fulfilled as a hiking and camping expert....

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