Long Distance Trails

From Denver to Durango: Navigating the Colorado Trail

POSTED ON November 8, 2023 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Welcome to the ultimate guide for the Colorado Trail, an iconic hiking route that traverses the heart of the magnificent Rocky Mountains. Stretching 485 miles (782 km), this trail is a meandering masterpiece that takes you through eight distinct mountain ranges, spanning the entire length of the state. It crosses eight mountain ranges and traverses six national forests to offer hikers an unrivaled journey through Colorado’s diverse landscapes.

Also managed and maintained by the dedicated Colorado Trail Foundation, this path is a testament to the beauty of Colorado’s six wilderness areas and its rich natural heritage. As you embark on your journey, you’ll find yourself navigating through a rugged backcountry and forging a connection with the land that’s truly unparalleled.

Whether you’re a seasoned thru-hiker seeking a challenging adventure or a nature enthusiast eager to explore the wildflower-filled meadows of the San Juan Mountains, this trail has something extraordinary to offer.

History

Colorado's San Juan Mountains

The history of the Colorado Trail begins long before its official establishment. Indigenous peoples, including the Ute and Cheyenne, had been traversing the region for centuries, using the same mountain passes and valleys that would later become integral parts of the trail.

In the 19th century, European settlers and prospectors began to venture into the Colorado Rockies in search of valuable minerals like gold and silver. These early pioneers blazed rudimentary trails through the mountains, unknowingly laying the groundwork for what would become the Colorado Trail.

The modern history of the trail can be traced back to the mid-20th century when the idea of a long-distance hiking trail in Colorado began to take shape. It was the vision of “Bicycle” Bill, a Colorado outdoor enthusiast named Bill Lucas, who, in the 1970s, envisioned a continuous trail spanning the state’s diverse landscapes.

In 1974, the Colorado Trail Foundation was formed to turn this vision into a reality. A dedicated group of volunteers, including conservationists, worked tirelessly to plan, design, and construct the trail. Over the years, they secured easements, navigated private land issues, and developed a trail that would showcase the beauty of Colorado’s wilderness.

On July 23, 1987, the trail was officially opened, marking the culmination of years of hard work and perseverance. The trail was designated as a National Recreation Trail, gaining recognition and support from federal agencies like the National Park and Forest Service.

Today, the Colorado Trail is a world-renowned long-distance hiking trail that draws adventurers from around the globe.

Spanning approximately 485 miles (782 km), the Colorado Trail Foundation continues to play a vital role in its maintenance and preservation, working to ensure it remains a well-maintained and accessible resource for generations to come.

Key Facts About The Colorado Trail

Location: Colorado, United States

Total Length: Approximately 485 miles (780 km)

Time to Hike: Thru-hikers take 4 to 6 weeks to complete the entire trail, while section hikers can complete individual sections in a few days to a week, depending on their pace.

Difficulty Level: Moderate-to-challenging, with high elevations and rugged terrain in some sections.

Number of Visitors: Approximately 300-500 thru-hikers and thousands of section hikers each year.

Established: July 23, 1987.

Elevation Gain: Approximately 89,000 feet (27,127 meters) 

Best Time/Season to Hike: From late June to early September

Lowest Point: At the eastern terminus in Waterton Canyon (location), at around 5,500 feet (1,676 meters) above sea level.

Highest Point: Carson Saddle in the San Juan Mountains, at 13,271 feet (4,045 meters) above sea level.

Trail Overview

Mountain Trail

Often compared to the Appalachian Trail, this trail takes most hikers on their own adventure from Denver to Durango, following the Continental Divide Trail through some of the most remote and pristine landscapes in the country.

Whether you choose to tackle the difficult sections of the Collegiate East route or opt for the equally stunning Collegiate West route, each step along the way is an opportunity to embrace the high elevation and stunning vistas that the Colorado Rocky Mountains have to offer.

But this journey isn’t without its hurdles. The trail winds through a diverse terrain of mountain peaks, lush forests, and arid expanses, with numerous road crossings, including iconic spots like Monarch Pass, Junction Creek (location), Molas Pass (location), and Chalk Creek. The highest point on the trail, Carson Saddle, sits at a breathtaking elevation, challenging even the most seasoned thru-hikers.

Alternative Routes along the Trail

The Colorado Trail offers a range of difficulty levels, making it accessible to hikers of varying skill and experience levels.

Here’s a glimpse of some of the trail’s most popular sections and their unique characteristics:

  • Waterton Canyon to Durango: As the name suggests, this is the full Colorado Trail experience (direction). It’s a challenging thru-hike that takes you from the plains of Denver to the rugged beauty of the San Juan Mountains in Durango. The trail includes high elevations, challenging sections, and some of the most stunning scenery in the state.
  • Collegiate West: If you’re seeking even more high-elevation adventure, consider the Collegiate West route through the Collegiate Peaks. This section offers spectacular views of the Rockies and pristine wilderness, but be prepared for rugged terrain and high-altitude hiking.
  • Collegiate East Route: The Collegiate East route offers a lower elevation alternative to the west, passing through charming towns and offering a mix of challenging and more moderate terrain.
  • Waterton Canyon to Twin Lakes (Direction): This segment takes you through the beautiful Colorado Rockies, including the scenic wilderness and national forests. It’s a fantastic choice for those looking for a challenging but manageable section of the trail.

Colorado Trail Segments

For those looking to tackle the Colorado Trail in smaller sections, here’s a breakdown of a few of the trail’s segments: But you can check out the entire comprehensive list for all 33 of the trail’s segments.

  1. Waterton Canyon Trailhead to South Platte River Trailhead (Segment 1)
  2. Long Gulch to Kenosha Pass (Segment 5)
  3. Kenosha Pass to Goldhill Trailhead (Segment 6)
  4. Marshall Pass Trailhead to Sargents Mesa (Segment 16)
  5. Spring Creek Pass Trailhead to Carson Saddle (Segment 22)

Highlights Along the Way

  • San Juan Mountains: The San Juans are a highlight of the Colorado Trail, featuring stunning high-alpine scenery, remote wilderness, and the challenging high elevation of Carson Saddle.
  • Wildflower Meadows: Throughout the trail, you’ll encounter wildflowers, particularly in the San Juan Mountains. This burst of color adds to the trail’s beauty during the summer months.
  • Monarch Pass: Standing at an impressive 11,960 feet (3645 meters), Monarch Pass (location) offers panoramic views and a sense of accomplishment as you conquer this high point on the trail.

Preparing for the Colorado Trail

 

Embarking on a thru-hike of the entire Colorado Trail is a remarkable adventure, but it’s essential to be well-prepared. With its eight mountain ranges, this trail offers both beauty and challenges.

Here are some crucial tips for preparing yourself:

Physical Fitness

  • Train Adequately: Thru-hiking the Colorado Trail is physically demanding. Start training months in advance with a focus on endurance, strength, and cardio fitness. We have a guide that can help you know the exact hiking exercises.
  • Elevation Gain: Given the substantial elevation gain over the entire trail, incorporate elevation training or hiking at higher altitudes to acclimatize to the high elevations.

Specific Trail Considerations

  • Collegiate Peaks: When hiking through the Collegiate Peaks, consider the elevation gain and loss as well as the challenging terrain.
  • Chalk Creek to Twin Lakes: This section can be particularly challenging, with steep climbs and descents. Take your time and be cautious.
  • Copper Mountain to Chalk Creek (Direction): Due to its long distance, mountain biking is allowed on this segment. However, be aware of sharing the trail with bikers.
  • Trail Traffic: Expect to encounter many hikers, especially during the peak hiking season. Respect fellow hikers’ space and follow trail etiquette.
  • Route Choice: Depending on your preferences, you can choose to hike the trail from west to east or south to north. Consider which direction suits your hiking style and preferences because road crossings are common along the trail.
  • Support System: Connect with other thru-hikers and tap into the knowledge and experience of the Colorado Trail community. Luckily, online forums and social media groups are excellent resources.
  • Trail Angels: The Colorado Trail has its own network of “trail angels” who provide support to hikers. Be open to their generosity.

Weather Conditions and Best Times to Hike Colorado Trail

A flowery scene from the Colorado trail through the San Juan Mountains

The Colorado Trail’s climate can be as diverse as its landscapes. So, knowing the weather patterns and trail conditions for each season is crucial when planning your hike along this iconic trail.

Here’s what you can expect throughout the year:

Spring (Late April to Early June)

Spring on the Colorado Trail can be unpredictable, particularly in early-mid July, when the temperatures can range from 40°F (4°C) at higher altitudes to 70°F (21°C) in lower regions.

While lower elevations may experience mild and pleasant conditions, higher elevations may still be covered in snow. Be prepared for inclement weather and carry gear for varying conditions, including snow gear if starting early. Sun protection is also crucial, as the sun can be intense at altitude, even in cooler temperatures.

Summer (Late June to Early September)

During the summer months, temperatures can vary significantly, with daytime highs ranging from 70°F to 90°F (21°C to 32°C) and cooler nights.

Summer is the most popular time for trekking the trails, but it also brings the risk of afternoon storms, especially at higher altitudes. So, prepare for sudden weather changes and afternoon thunderstorms. Also, start early in the day to avoid thunderstorms.

Staying hydrated and using sunscreen will protect you against the high-altitude sun. Most hikers opt to hike this season because of the good weather and longer daylight hours.

Fall (Late September to Early October)

Fall temperatures can range from 40°F to 70°F (4°C to 21°C) during the day, with colder nights.

Fall also offers cooler temperatures and crisp, clear days. While the risk of thunderstorms decreases, be prepared for chilly nights. Fall foliage in Princeton Hot Springs can be a highlight of your hike.

Dress in layers to stay warm during cooler nights.

Winter (Late October to Early April)

Winter temperatures can drop well below freezing, with daytime highs ranging from 20°F to 40°F (-6°C to 4°C).

Winter is not a popular time for hiking the Colorado Trail due to heavy snowfall and treacherous conditions. Sections like Chalk Creek to Copper Mountain can be especially challenging. Furthermore, winter hiking requires specialized gear and experience. It’s advised to avoid hiking the trail during this season unless you have the necessary skills and equipment.

Visit the trail’s weather page to see the current temperatures before embarking on a trip to this inspiring destination.

Essential Gear and Equipment for a Successful Thru-Hike

Hiking gear in San Juan mountains

Preparing for a hike or bike ride on the Colorado Trail is an exciting endeavor. However, having the right gear is essential to ensuring your safety and enjoyment along the trail’s remote and challenging nature.

How much gear you pack will depend on your style of hiking and personal preferences.

  1. Apparel and Footwear:
  1. Backpack:
  • Well-Fitted Backpack: Choose a backpack that fits comfortably and can carry all your gear and essentials.
  1. Navigation:
  1. Shelter:
  • Tent or Shelter: Ensure you have proper shelter for camping, as some sections may not have designated campgrounds.
  1. Sleep System:
  • Sleeping Bag and Pad: Choose a sleeping bag appropriate for the season and a comfortable sleeping pad for insulation.
  1. Cooking Gear:
  • Stove and Cookware: Lightweight cooking gear and a stove for preparing meals on the trail are essential.
  1. Food and water:
  • Water Filtration: Carry a reliable water filtration system to purify water from streams and rivers.
  • All Your Food: Since resupply points can be far apart, carry all the food you’ll need for your trip. We have a guide to 25 delicious backpacking food ideas.
  1. Weather Preparedness:
  • Rain Gear: Be prepared for rain showers during the monsoon season with a waterproof jacket and rain pants.
  • Sun Protection: High elevations mean stronger sun exposure, so pack sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat.
  1. Safety and First Aid:
  • First-Aid Kit: A basic first-aid kit is essential for minor injuries like blisters and emergencies.
  • Communication Device: Consider a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon for emergencies.
  1. Miscellaneous:
  • Hiking Poles: Most hikers find trekking poles helpful for stability and reducing strain on the knees.
  • Repair Kit: Carry a basic repair kit for gear and equipment maintenance.
  • Bear Canister: In some areas, bear canisters may be required due to federal regulations.
  1. Specific gear for mountain biking:
  • Mountain Bikes: Ensure your mountain bike is well-maintained and suitable for off-road riding.
  • Protective Gear: Wear a helmet, gloves, and protective clothing when mountain biking.
  • Spare Parts and Repair Tools: Bring essential bike repair tools and spare parts, as well as knowledge of bike maintenance.
  1. Thru-Hiker Considerations:
  • Support Crew: Some thru-hikers have a support crew for resupplies and assistance.
  • Snow Gear: If hiking in early July or late September, prepare for possible snow at higher altitudes.

Navigating the Colorado Trail: Maps and Permits

Mountain Hiking in Colorado

When embarking on a journey through the diverse landscapes of the Colorado Trail, having the right resources and adhering to regulations are crucial for a safe and enjoyable experience.

Here’s a comprehensive guide to the maps, guidebooks, permits, and regulations you’ll need to navigate this iconic trail: For more information, check out the Trail’s official Maps and Guidebooks page.

Colorado Trail Maps

The Colorado Trail Foundation provides detailed maps that cover the entire trail, showcasing key landmarks, trailheads, and mileage. These maps are essential for navigation and planning.

You can access and purchase the official Colorado Trail maps directly from the Colorado Trail Foundation’s website: Colorado Trail Maps.

Guidebooks

Consider investing in guidebooks that provide in-depth information about the trail, including terrain, water sources, resupply points, and points of interest.

A popular guidebook choice is “The Colorado Trail: The Official Guidebook” by the Colorado Trail Foundation, offering comprehensive information and insights.

Permits and Regulations

While the Colorado Trail does not require a specific thru-hiking permit like the Appalachian Trail, hikers should be aware of various federal regulations and land management guidelines.

Note that the trail passes through six wilderness areas where additional regulations may apply. Check for specific rules and restrictions for each of these areas. You should purchase special permits for crossing Segment 12 of the trail (Clear Creek Road to Silver Creek Trailhead).

But for the latest information on permits and regulations, consult the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region website: USFS Rocky Mountain Region.

Resupplying and Refueling: Surviving on the Colorado Trail

One of the critical logistical aspects of hiking or biking the Colorado Trail is planning your resupply strategy because the trail cuts through diverse terrain.

Here’s a guide to a few resupply points and distances from the trail:

  • Denver Area: The Denver area is relatively close to Waterton Canyon, making it a convenient spot for any last-minute resupply needs.
  • Kenosha Pass: Kenosha Pass is a popular resupply point, and there are opportunities to hitchhike or arrange a shuttle to the nearby town of Jefferson (4.5 miles/7.2km away) for additional supplies.
  • Breckenridge: Breckenridge is a hiker-friendly town with ample resupply options. It is approximately 4 miles (6.4 km) south of the Gold Hill Trailhead.
  • Copper Mountain: Copper Mountain offers resupply opportunities and is located about 0.5 miles (800 meters) from the trail.
  • Twin Lakes: This is a critical resupply point, offering general store and post offices. The town is situated approximately 7.5 miles (12 km) from the trail.
  • Buena Vista: This area is known for its hiker-friendly atmosphere and has various resupply options. It’s about 9.5 miles (15 km) from the Avalanche Trailhead.
  • Natural Grocers: Located in Littleton, Silverthorne, Steamboat Springs, and Montrose (all accessible from the trail via a short detour), Natural Grocers offers organic and natural food options for backpackers.
  • Durango: Durango marks the trail’s western terminus and offers a wide range of resupply options and services.

You can find more details on resupply towns and distances on the official Colorado Trail Foundation website: Colorado Trail Resupply Towns. Also, consider mailing resupply boxes to key points to ensure you have the necessary food and supplies, and be aware of the limited resupply options at certain points, especially in remote areas.

Camping and Overnight Stays Near Colorado Trail

Camping on alpine tundra in southwest Colorado

Camping along the Colorado Trail is an integral part of the experience, allowing you to immerse yourself in the breathtaking landscapes and savour the natural beauty of the trail.

Here’s a comprehensive guide to camping options along the trail, whether you prefer established campgrounds or backcountry camping:

  • South Platte River: There are a few undeveloped camping areas along the South Platte River, providing primitive camping options near the trail. Make Reservations Here
  • Bear Creek Lake Campground (location): Bear Creek Lake Campground is an option for camping, but you need to check whether reservations are required.
  • Lost Park (location): Lost Park Campground is a popular camping spot along the Colorado Trail. Reservations are recommended during peak season.
  • Kenosha Pass: There are established campgrounds near Kenosha Pass (location), such as Kenosha Pass Campground, which may require reservations during peak times.
  • Breckenridge (location): The town of Breckenridge offers a range of accommodations, including campgrounds, hotels, and vacation rentals. Reservations are recommended for campgrounds.
  • Copper Mountain: Copper Mountain has campgrounds nearby, like Copper Mountain RV Park. However, make reservations if you plan to stay here.
  • Twin Lakes: This town offers camping options, including White Star Campground (location). Reservations are recommended.
  • Buena Vista: This area provides various accommodations, including campgrounds like Buena Vista KOA (location). Reservations may be necessary during peak times.
  • Chalk Creek: You can camp at Chalk Creek Campground, but reservations are recommended. Click Here
  • Salida (location): Salida offers numerous lodging options, from campgrounds to hotels. However, reservations depend on your choice of accommodation.
  • Lake City: Lake City has several campgrounds, including Henson Creek RV Park. Reservations are recommended, especially during summer.
  • Silverton (location): There are campgrounds near Silverton, such as Silverton Lakes Campground. Reservations may be necessary during peak seasons. So, check with the official camp website.
  • Durango (location): Durango offers a range of accommodations, from campgrounds to hotels. Reservations, however, depend on your preferred lodging.

Backcountry Camping

You can camp in the surrounding national forests and wilderness areas if you prefer backcountry camping. However, backcountry camping may require permits, so research and plan accordingly.

The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness is a popular area along the Colorado Trail. So, visitors must obtain a wilderness permit to enter the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. Fortunately, the self-issuing permits are available at trailheads for free.

Alternatively, you need wilderness permits for all backcountry trips in Rocky Mountain National Park. Reservations can be made in advance for campsites Here.

Other Popular Accommodations

  • In addition to campgrounds, you can find accommodations such as hostels, lodges, and cabins in some trail towns and resort areas.

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

 San Juan Mountains, Pagosa Springs, CO

Planning a trip to the Colorado Trail involves plotting your route. You’ll also need to consider how to get there and efficiently move around the trail’s various sections.

Here’s a guide on how to access the trail and move around once you’ve arrived:

Nearest Airports

The closest major airport to the eastern terminus of the Colorado Trail is Denver International Airport (DEN).

For the western terminus in Durango, you can use Durango-La Plata County Airport (DRO).

Getting from Denver International Airport (DEN) to the Denver Trailhead

Denver International Airport (DEN) is approximately 1 hour 45 minutes flight from St. George, Utah, then connects to Water Canyon Trailhead

Here are some transportation options to consider:

  • Rental Car: Renting a car at the airport gives you flexibility. Simply take I-70 west and then US-285 south to reach the trailhead.
  • Shuttle Services: Numerous shuttle services operate between Denver and various Colorado Trail trailheads. These services are convenient and often cater to hikers.
  • Public Transit: Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) offers bus and light rail services that can get you closer to the Trailhead. From there, you might need an additional shuttle or ride to reach the trailhead.

Getting Around the Trail

Once you’ve reached your chosen trailhead, you’ll want options for moving around the Colorado Trail effectively. Here are your primary choices:

  • Personal Vehicle: If you have your own vehicle, many trailheads offer parking facilities. However, it’s essential to understand the parking regulations.
  • Shuttle Services: There are shuttle services available for hikers and bikers to transport you between different trailheads or to/from nearby towns. These shuttles can be especially beneficial for thru-hikers or those completing sections.
  • Public Transportation: Some trail towns, including Durango (location), Salida (location), and Buena Vista (location), provide public transportation options to help you access the trail and explore nearby areas.

Keep in mind that access to some trailheads might involve navigating unpaved forest roads or requiring a high-clearance vehicle. Check road conditions and access details in advance.

Conclusion

The Colorado Trail stands as a testament to nature’s grandeur and the indomitable spirit of outdoor enthusiasts. As we conclude our exploration of this iconic route, it’s evident that embarking on a journey along the Colorado Trail is not merely an adventure but a profound experience that immerses you in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.

So, lace up your hiking boots or pump up your bike tires and get ready for an unforgettable journey through the stunning scenery of the Colorado Trail.

Check out other exciting destinations on our Hikes and Trails page.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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