The Colorado Trail system is one of the most aesthetically remarkable and athletically challenging places to hike in the United States. A variety of terrain is covered, from snowy mountains to lush forests to meadows, stretching across half of the state of Colorado, not to mention eight mountain ranges, six national forests and five river systems. The trail begins at Waterton Canyon, outside of Denver, and ends in Durango in southwestern Colorado -- more than 486 miles (782 kilometers) away. Most of the trail sits more than 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) above sea level and peaks at 13,271 feet (3,045 meters) for a vacation-length, exhilarating experience, no matter which of the 28 sections and trailheads you tackle.
Because of the elevation and the often steep terrain, the entire trail isn't suitable for the beginning hiker. Fortunately, day hikes are a possibility, as are full-trail hikes or "thru-hikes." Severe weather is also a concern, but hike the Colorado Trail in the summer months (it's barely accessible in the winter) and you're sure to have a memorable experience.
Want to find out more about this beautiful expanse of land? Read on.
Colorado Trail Hiking: Main Routes and Access Points
The Colorado Trail is broken up into 28 segments, each with its own individual entry points at the beginning and end. Each one is a moderate to exceptional hike in its own right, from 11.4 miles (18.3 kilometers) to 32 miles (51.5 kilometers) in length.
The trail's first segment and most popular entry point is the Waterton Canyon to South Platte River path. It's a good way to get ready for harder sections, with a 6-mile (9.7-kilometer) incline up a dirt road into a single-track trail. In total, it's 16.8 miles (27 kilometers) with a 2,338-foot (712.6-kilometer) elevation gain. Kenosha Pass to Goldhill Trailhead, the sixth segment, has the steepest elevation gain of any of the segments, with a total rise of 4,495 feet (1,370 meters). However, it's not so steep, because it's spread out over 32.9 miles (52.9 kilometers), also making it the longest segment of the Colorado Trail.
You'll want to protect yourself from altitude sickness -- read about that on the next page.
Colorado Trail Hiking: Avoiding Altitude Sickness
The air is thinner the higher you go, which means that there is less breathable oxygen -- as much as 30 percent less at 10,000 feet versus sea level. You need oxygen for your body to work properly, particularly during physical exertion, and a lack can lead to altitude sickness, with symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headache, difficulty breathing and premature fatigue on the low end, and fluid in the lungs or cerebral swelling at the high end, both of which are fatal if not treated within 24 hours.
Do your best to prevent altitude sickness (also known as "mountain sickness"). If possible, give yourself a couple of days in the Denver or Durango areas to allow your body to adjust before you begin your trek. A slow, gradual ascent can also help; generally, east-to-west on the Colorado Trail allows for a steady upward trajectory to acclimate your facilities.
Colorado Trail Hiking: Terrain
The Colorado Trail had to have been what they were talking about when the phrase "the Great Outdoors" was coined. Every possible, element of terrain, from the easy hike to the challenging cliff, is represented on the 28 segments of the Trail.
As a hiker, you may encounter as many as 15 mountain passes along the length of the trail, and it's possible that you'll face thunderstorms and snowfields even into mid-summer. The next day, you're likely to hit a pond or lake in which to cool off from the beating sun.
The roads are traversable (they're mostly dirt and rock), but look out for hazards such as exposed ridges, high water and washed-out bridges. No matter where you are, you probably won't see many signs of civilization, but you will have the constant backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.
Colorado Trail Hiking: Day Hikes
The kind of 5- to 10-mile hikes that would be considered "day hikes" almost anywhere else simply don't exist on the Colorado Trail. Day hikes here are long and challenging, and they traverse a variety of terrain. There aren't any individual segments less than 10 miles (16.1 kilometers), meaning a day hike might actually be a two-day-long day hike, with camping in between.
For a short hike, the best bet is near the end of the trail, segment 26, Bolam Pass Road to Hotel Draw Road, a relatively breezy 10.9 miles (17.9 kilometers) with a 1,126-foot (343.2-kilometer) incline. With relatively smooth dirt surfaces and the occasional downhill section, it's also a popular course with mountain bikers. There's also segment 3, Colorado Trailhead to Wellington Lake Road, a little bit longer at 12.2 miles (19.6 kilometers) and a 1,268-foot (386.5-kilometer) elevation gain.
Colorado Trail Hiking: Thru-hikes
The Colorado Trail offers a rare, astounding challenge: a thru-hike, or a hike that goes through the entirety of the almost 500-mile (805-kilometer) trail in one fell swoop. Even if the terrain were steady and at low altitude, it would still be something to hike 586 miles (943.1 kilometers) in one go.
The best way to do the thru-hike is from the east, outside of Denver, to the west, ending in Durango, Colo. Why is this? The snow melts earlier the farther east you go, so as you travel, you literally leave the colder, snowier weather behind you. The terrain changes also prepare you naturally for adjusting to the high altitudes, starting with small elevation gains in the east, working up to steep and rugged terrain farther west.
Colorado Trail Hiking: Camping
As tempting as it may seem, you're not going to want to haul all of that camping gear with you as you hike miles and miles through the mountains. There's the Colorado Trail Trekking Program, which takes away some of the hassle. Hikers who sign up for this week-long service only worry about their daypack, which contains supplies to get them through the hike. Additional camping supplies are waiting for them at the next night's pre-selected campsite.
However, most camping hikers opt to carry their overnight packs with them. Camping is allowed throughout most of the Trail (Waterton Canyon is a notable, if rare, exception). There are a handful of specified campsites, but most campers opt to just go off to the side of the trail and settle for the night. Plus, it's free.
Some things to think about: Be respectful of the small, permanent communities along the Trail, and get to hiking early, so that you can establish camp later on while you still have sunlight and energy.
Colorado Trail Hiking: Insider Tips
Even a day hike on the Colorado Trail is high-level hiking, and extra precautions and information are going to get you through. Fortunately, more bridges and markings are added every summer. Research your trail section before you go, paying special attention to the elevation. Individual trails have elevation gains ranging from 1,040 to 4,520 feet (317 to 1,378 meters), so choose appropriately. The hikes may take you to remote and snowy mountainous areas, so don't hike alone if you don't have to.
Regardless, always file a hiking plan with friends or family, so somebody back home knows where you are if the worst happens. Take a cell phone to call for help, but be advised that service is not consistent along the Colorado Trail. (However, they do work better in high, open areas, such as on the peaks of passes or ridges.) Wear wool or synthetic clothes (and multiple layers of it), as cotton doesn't insulate if it's wet. And as with any trek, pack extra clothing, food, and water, just in case. And when in doubt, there's always more information available at local ranger stations.
There's also more information on hiking trails on the next page, so head over there if you're ready for the journey.
- Colorado Mountain Club. "The Colorado Trail Databook, 4th Edition." Colorado Mountain Club Press. 2009. (June 4, 2012)
- Colorado Tourism Office. "Hiking the Colorado Trail." 2012. (June 4, 2012) http://www.colorado.com/articles/hiking-colorado-trail
- Colorado Trail Foundation. "The Colorado Trail: The Colorado Mountain Club Guidebook, 8th Edition." Colorado Mountain Club Press. 2010. (June 4, 2012)
- Colorado Trail Foundation. "Frequently Asked Questions about The Colorado Trail." 2012. (June 4, 2012) http://www.coloradotrail.org/faq.html
- Colorado Trail Foundation. "Hiking and Backpacking the Colorado Trail." 2012. (June 4, 2012) http://www.coloradotrail.org/hike.html
- Colorado State Parks. "Trails Program." 2012. (June 4, 2012) http://www.parks.state.co.us/trails/Pages/TrailsProgramHome.aspx
- Dzieysnki, James. "Big Trip: The Colorado Trail." Elevation Outdoors. 2 March 2012. (June 4, 2012) http://www.elevationoutdoors.com/travel/big-trip-the-colorado-trail/
- Wagstaff, Keith. "How to Prevent Altitude Sickness." USA Today. 2010. (June 4, 2012) http://traveltips.usatoday.com/prevent-altitude-sickness-1535.html