The Beginner’s Guide to The Colorado Trail

The Beginner’s Guide to The Colorado Trail

Are you looking for a challenge and a late summer project? You’ll find it on the sweeping vistas of Colorado Trail, which spans 486 miles between Denver and Durango. Unlike other state trails, like the Arizona Trail or The Long Trail (Vermont), the Colorado trail does not run from one end of the state to the other. It does cover some stunning territory, however—mountainous and usually strenuous.

With its 33 segments, the average hiker requires 33 days or about five weeks to finish. Along the way, they discover steep switchbacks, meadows of wildflowers, hidden waterfalls, and dramatic weather changes. The “average” Colorado Trail hiker is fit and experienced. Days on this trail can run from mild 12-mile jaunts to upwards of 20 miles. This is Colorado, so elevation change is par for the course. Hikers find an average elevation of 10,000 feet here, which for the unacclimated will lead to breathless steps.

Where to start and when to go

Backpacker hiking in a red rock mountainous area.

Experts recommend beginning the trail in Denver, where the mountains tend to be less rugged in comparison to The San Juan range which sits on the opposite end of the trail in Southwest Colorado. Some hikers prefer starting out in Durango, however, since exiting the trail in a city like Denver makes travel, especially flying home, easier.

Due to snowfall, the best time to start is after mid-June with a goal to complete all sections no later than mid-September. Storms in the mountains of Colorado are sudden and severe. Even in summer, a snowstorm can overtake hikers who are trekking passes above 12,000 feet.

What should I take on the trail?

Backpacking gear in preparation for the Colorado Trail.

If you are planning a multi-day hike, you’ll know that a popular question is, “What do I bring?” In Colorado, extreme elevation means some of your basic equipment must include a decent hat and sunglasses, along with sunscreen. In fact, we recommend doubling up and bringing two hats and two pairs of eye protection. The sun may not feel as hot in the mountains but it is significantly closer! Even in the summer hikers are at risk of "snow blindness", a temporary loss of vision due to too much UV exposure.

Most hikers opt for ultra-lightweight gear if they can afford it, and today’s camping technology offers a tremendous array of high-tech camping gadgetry. It’s possible to conquer the Colorado Trail with a decent sleeping bag and low-rent tent, so you don’t need to break the bank. Most sections of the trail include streams or lakes, so you will not need to haul your own water, except in one 40-mile section. Take water purification equipment and, in case of emergency, iodine tablets, and taste-refresher tablets. 

Other must-have items include a cheap rain poncho or rain jacket, a trail guide map, flashlight and/or headlamp, shoes you like, and a lightweight down or synthetic jacket for cold nights. 

Plan today, go this year

Colorado trail in grassy valley within the Rocky Mountains.

If you want to hike an incredible trail, the Colorado trail is an excellent pick and a true challenge. While the season is short, the scenery is world-class. In addition to plentiful, good quality water Colorado offers terrain that rivals the famed Sierra Nevada trail (mostly in California) and competes with the Swiss Alps in terms of mountain views.

Many hikers don’t know about some of the other perks of this trail. It’s in the middle of the country, so easy to get to (especially flying in or out of Denver). Dogs are allowed on all sections and there is no permit required to hike any part of the trail. Because 58 peaks rise over 14,000 feet the Rocky Mountain State, hikers on this trail have several opportunities to “bag” a Fourteener.

Many hikers do not have 5+ weeks to spare and choose to section hike this trail which is a more feasible way to experience its beauty.  The Colorado Trail has also become a mountain biking destination with some bikers navigating their way through the entire 486 miles!

Best of all, hiking here means practicing social distancing is easy. Locals are supportive, too, often picking up hikers who are hitchhiking to re-supply at towns along the way.  Make sure to check local travel restrictions before planning your trip and to leave no trace.