When people talk about classic thru-hikes, they talk about the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the John Muir Trail – but they usually don’t mention the equally phenomenal Colorado Trail.
But they should. At 485 miles, the Colorado Trail isn’t as long as the coastal behemoths, but it’s perfect for the hiker who wants a challenging summer excursion without having to commit months of their life to hiking. And it’s absolutely beautiful. With only 150 hikers completing the trail a year, it’s also a great chance for some solitude.
The trail stretches from Denver, in north central Colorado, to Durango, in Southwest Colorado, and passes through some of the most mountainous terrain the US has to offer, with an average elevation of over 10,000 feet.
Due to this high elevation, the window for hiking the Colorado Trail is relatively narrow. The snow doesn’t melt until mid-June, and it starts to snow again in September. Luckily, this window is plenty big enough for the estimated four to six weeks you’ll spend on the trail.
It’s definitely big enough if you want to try to break Bryan Williams’s record of eight days, but take your time; you’ll want to enjoy it. Four to six weeks puts you at a nice leisurely fifteen miles a day, plenty of time to enjoy the mountains and even some of the towns along the way.
Every mile of the Colorado Trail is known for its beauty, but a few sections are especially breathtaking:
A section with epic views of the mountains making up the Needles, the Twilights, and the Grenadiers ranges. If you’re lucky enough, the pass will be full of wildflowers.
A mountain pass near Durango in which the mountains are especially steep and jagged and the views are spectacular.
A gorgeously unique plateau situated relatively close to the beginning of the hike in Denver.
An enormous section in the middle of the trail renowned for its beauty.
Colorado is full of mountain towns. It’s a state that lives in the mountains, and that makes resupplies relatively easy. You’ll pass plenty of towns, general stores, and post offices along the way, especially when compared to how remote the trail feels.
There’s a comprehensive list of all resupplies that you should check out here. The first 200 miles give you a lot of options — including the full service (hotel, store, restaurant, and post office) towns of Breckenridge, Leadville, and Buenavista — but after that, you’ll be a little more remote. That doesn’t mean there aren’t resupply options, it just means they’re less luxurious.
If you want to have complete control over your resupplies, then you should mail them yourself. By pre-mailing your own resupply boxes, you can better distribute items such as toothpaste, medications, or soap, so that you don’t have to carry everything with you from the beginning. You also get complete control over your food, so budgeting money and calories is easy. The downside is that you won’t have as much flexibility and you might be surprised at how quickly you get sick of the Peanut M&Ms you send yourself.
If you choose to mail your resupplies, be sure to contact the hotels or post offices that will be receiving your boxes. Ask them the best way to send them mail and label your packages well with your name and “Colorado Trail Hiker.” Then when you show up, it should be easy to collect your package using your ID. Be sure to send your packages well ahead of time.
- The Big Four: As with any backpacking trip, you need to bring a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, a proper hiker’s backpack to carry everything in. Be prepared for cold and rain. Hammock campers beware: a lot of the trail is above the treeline, so you might have trouble finding trees.
- Clothing: Once again, be prepared for cold, wet weather. Most of the time, the weather will be beautiful and you’ll be wearing shorts and a tee-shirt. But on extreme days, the temperature can drop below zero, so be prepared. Don’t forget a sturdy pair of hiking boots, too.
- Hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen: Because of the high elevation and lack of trees, you’ll be very exposed to UV radiation.
- Cooking Fuel: There aren’t a lot of stores that sell fuel along the trail, and mailing fuel can be tricky. It’s a good idea to bring a lot with you if you plan on cooking.
- Miscellaneous: Don’t forget all of the little things — survival gear, headlight, water bottle, water treatment supplies, bug spray, etc. You can find other hikers’ gear lists online (such as this one) in order to get an idea of things you might be forgetting.
Unfortunately, the priceless experience of hiking the Colorado Trail comes with a cost. The cost will vary greatly from person to person, but you should expect to spend at least $1000 and maybe over $2000, not including gear.
Your biggest cost will be food, and that will vary tremendously depending on whether or not you can resist the urge to eat at restaurants. You think a warm meal sounds good now? Just wait until you’ve been on the trail for two weeks and you pass a quaint little town with a pizza shop. Saying no will be difficult, but if you manage to resist you’ll save a lot of money.
Another big cost will be lodging. Some people like to splurge on hotel rooms as they pass through towns like Breckenridge and Leadville, but this will drain your money quickly. Unfortunately, it’s hard to avoid staying in a hotel room at the beginning, in Denver, and at the end, in Durango.
On top of food and lodging, you have a lot of other miscellaneous costs such as broken gear, transportation, and beer! If you don’t have enough money saved up to comfortably spend $2000 or more (again, without gear), maybe you should wait a bit longer before you tackle the Colorado Trail.
As a rough estimate:
Hiking the Colorado Trail solo can be an especially amazing experience. Unlike on the PCT and AT, you probably won’t find a bunch of trail friends to share the experience with (though it is possible), simply because far fewer people tackle the Colorado Trail. This can be a wonderful experience of self-discovery, but it also means you should be extra careful.
Most importantly, make sure friends and family know your itinerary. If you’re willing to spend the money, a GPS beacon will give friends and family up-to-date info, so they’ll know exactly where you are if anything bad happens. Make sure to train well and practice survival situations in less remote environments so you’re prepared if something goes wrong in the backcountry.
Don’t be overconfident. Know your limitations. There won’t be anyone out there to pick up your slack if you make a mistake. Hiking alone is absolutely worth, but you need to take it seriously.
- The Colorado Trail is managed and maintained by the Colorado Trail Foundation, and they have a website full of lot’s of great info about the trail along with a useful FAQ section.
- For a comprehensive guide to backpacking the trail, check out the PMags guide. It includes all the essentials you need to know when planning your trip, including a comprehensive list of resupply options.
- The Whiteblaze forums have a great section on the Colorado Trail with a lot of informative discussion. Go here if you want to know what the hiking community has to say about any aspect of the hike. You’ll get a wide variety of opinions and experiences you can use to inform your preparation.
- If you really want detail, dive into the Colorado Trail Journals over at trailjournals.com. Reading someone’s day by day journal may sound tedious, but it’s a great way to get every last piece of information you can about the trail before setting off.
- There’s an extremely comprehensive trail journal over at DownTheTrail.com. The site also includes a lot of useful information about backpacking in general.
So…How long does it take to hike the Colorado Trail? Between 4-6 weeks for the average thru-hiker. Basically it’s a great first thru-hike if you want to start off with something less monstrous than the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail. The scenery is just incredible too. Take a look: