What: thru-hike of the Colorado Trail
Where: Littleton to Durango Colorado; West Collegiate Alternate
When: July 28 to August 23, 2016 (26 days)
Distance: about 485 miles
Highlights: decent mountain walking; easy logistics; well maintained trail
The Colorado Trail Association website is a helpful resource.
Paul Magnanti offers a very useful Route Guide on his website.
Guthook’s Colorado Trail Hiker App, is extremely useful and very worthwhile.
We recommend The Colorado Trail Databook for use on the trail. The maps and data are sufficient for on-trail navigation and resupply planning, especially when used with maps on a smartphone. We also purchased and carried Erik the Black’s Colorado Trail Pocket Atlas, but we thought it was not as clear and easy to use, so we left it in a hiker box.
In our opinion, The Colorado Trail, 9th Edition is superfluous because it is too heavy to carry on the trail, and the critical pre-trip planning information is available from free on-line resources. That said, it is an excellent book and is nice to have for anybody who is willing to spend the money.
Why we went
We met a congenial backpacker on the Arizona Trail and traveled with her for a day or so. She had worked on the Colorado Trail as a hiking guide and highly recommended the route. Since the CT was already on our list of potential hikes, her enthusiasm convinced us to commit.
The vast majority of our North American backpacking trips have been in our three favorite regions: the San Francisco Bay Area, Sierra Nevada, and Southern Utah. We have been making an effort to take trips to other regions in the country.
While we are willing to spend inordinate amounts of time planning novel and creative routes in our three favorite regions, when we travel to unfamiliar destinations we usually prefer plug and play trips on defined routes with high quality route information. The Colorado Trail is such a route.
I love wilderness hiking in North America. And I love the town-to-town hiking we have done in Europe, Turkey, and Australia. To my surprise I was a bit disappointed by the overall structure of this trail. For me it was a weird combination in that it is not a wilderness hike (it crosses at least one and sometimes several roads nearly every day), but it does not have the advantages of the hiking in Europe where trails pass through beautiful and interesting towns (this trail avoids all towns).
For example, we would spend several hours on a beautiful ridge with big vistas, but then come to a pass and enter a drainage that had OHV activity. Just when I was getting in the groove of the scenery, the vroom-vrooming OHVs would break the spell. Some stretches of trail are open to motorcycles, their tires chew up the trails and their high speed ripping around corners really disrupts my sense of what a long distance hike is all about.
As James says, perhaps we are spoiled by having the Sierra Nevada as our backyard range of mountains; for me, they are hands-down more scenic than the mountains of the CT. I enjoyed hikes in other mountain ranges more than I enjoyed hiking the CT, including Vermont’s Long Trail, the HRP in the Pyrenees, and the Arizona Trail. For a combination of reasons, those other trails seemed to have more integrity and internal consistency than the CT. Soon after completing the CT, we spent 13 days in the Sierras, and for me every one of those 13 days was more scenic than 90% of the days on the CT.
Perhaps we have done so much hiking now that I’m overly persnickety, and I’m looking for magic. In spite of my negative comments, I did enjoy the hike very much, primarily because I enjoy the process of backpacking.
On the plus side, this is a very well maintained and well-marked trail with predominantly easy tread. Good campsites are (usually) abundant and easy to locate. Distance between resupply towns is reasonable. Access to water is good. It is well suited to a hiker without much long-distance backpacking experience.
In 2007 we thru-cycled the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Banff to Mexico, a route that crosses the CT several times. I loved that trip (it’s on my Top Ten list), and my overall summary is that the geography of this region and the plethora of roads make it better suited to bicycles than to hiking.
Would I recommend this hike? To be honest, I think that the PCT from Interstate 80 (near Truckee) to Cottonwood Lakes or Kennedy Meadows South (just south of Mt Whitney) is a better stretch of trail. It’s roughly the same distance; similarly well maintained and documented; with roughly similar distances between resupply. I believe that the scenery is better, the trail is dedicated to hikers, and the trail has internal consistency and integrity.
This spring, while hiking the Arizona Trail, we met another thru-hiker, a strong young woman who in a previous life had been a guide on the CT. She raved about the trail and Amy and I decided then and there to do the walk. We started with high expectations, however this walk was not as rewarding as I had hoped. The trail is very well documented, mostly very well marked, generally well maintained and easy to follow. Most of it is above 10,000 feet, so I expected that we would have many days of beautiful high altitude mountain walking. For me, the problem is that walking in the High Sierra has spoiled me. In my opinion, there is simply no comparison between walking in the Colorado Rockies and the Sierra Nevada.
The CT crosses numerous paved and unpaved roads, sometimes a couple of times a day. The non-wilderness sections of the CT are part of a popular long-distance mountain bike route and in some places there are large numbers of day-tripping bikers on the trail as well; the riders were mostly polite but constantly having to dodge out of the way of the bikes was distracting. There are even a few stretches of the CT where motorcycles are permitted.
Tree line is much higher in the Rockies than it is in the Sierra, so even though you are walking at high altitudes you may still be in forested areas. The first 100 miles or so of the CT are mostly in the trees. The trail does open up a lot more after Twin Lakes, at least on the West Collegiate alternate. The San Juan Mountains are quite beautiful, but not, to my eye, as dramatically mountainous as the southern Sierra. The weather in Colorado is more problematic than in California. We had afternoon clouds almost every day and frequent thunderstorms as well. Lightening is a distinct and common hazard.
There are very few lakes along the CT and most of those are beaver ponds or man made reservoirs. There are very few of the beautiful alpine lakes and mountain tarns that dot the Sierra. The flowers on the CT were good and the meadows were pretty. In many areas, the spruce forests on the CT have suffered massive beetle kills to the point where not a single Blue Spruce has been left alive; so far the high Sierra has been spared this disaster.
This may sound like I am commenting based on selective memory. Three weeks after returning home from Colorado, Amy and I took an eight-day mostly off-trail trip in the southern Sierra, going in and out over Baxter Pass. A week after that trip we took a five-day walk on the PCT between Ebbett’s Pass and Tuolumne Meadows. These trips were much more satisfying to me in terms of the scenery, wilderness feeling, weather, solitude, and the overall hiking experience and validated my strong preference for the Sierra.
Do I recommend the CT to others? Conditionally yes. If you have lots of time to spend outdoors, by all means walk the CT. We did enjoy the experience and it is always good to travel in new places. The trail was nicely routed and passes through some attractive mountains. Campsites were generally easy to find. Water resupply was rarely an issue. We had no real problems during the walk. However, if your time is limited and you have to make a choice, I believe you can have a better over all mountain wilderness experience in the Sierra Nevada.
Notes for Potential Hikers
There is a significant amount of data about this trail in print and on-line available to those who may want to walk the route. Our comments below are limited to a few topics that we think may be of interest.
We mailed food boxes to five locations ahead of our walk. Each box contained the basic supplies we needed for the next trail leg. We were able to supplement the contents of the boxes with whatever was available locally. Sometime shopping opportunities were good, but some resupply stops had very little food useful to a long-distance backpacker. Our resupply points are listed below:
- Jefferson: mail drop; tiny market and café; easy hitch to and from Kenosha Pass.
- Frisco: the CT crosses Highway 9 at a bus stop where free shuttle buses run between Frisco and Breckenridge; both towns have big markets and lots of restaurants.
- Copper Mountain: a tiny and very expensive food shop and many restaurants; we had a surprisingly good meal at the reasonably priced JJ’s.
- Leadville: lots of markets and restaurants; a laundromat with pay shower facilities near the Safeway; a moderately easy hitch to and from Tennessee Pass.
- Twin Lakes: mail drop; moderately expensive but quite friendly small store with limited supplies and a hiker box; a food truck with good hot sandwiches was parked just west of the market when we were there.
- Monarch Crest: mail drop; friendly place with extremely limited supplies and extremely limited fast food selections and a hiker box.
- Lake City: mail drop; fine trail town with a couple of well stocked grocery stores, restaurants, the Raven’s Rest Hostel with drop-in showers and tent site; a great bakery and a laundromat; slow hitch into town and a moderately easy hitch out; in season there is a free once-daily shuttle between town and the trail.
- Molas Lake Campground: mail drop; friendly shop with very limited supplies, showers, and a hiker box; an easy hitch down to Silverton where there are many restaurants and a good grocery store, and an easy hitch back to the trail (the local sheriff gave us a ride).
There are a few places where water sources are miles apart, but in general, finding good water is not an issue on the CT. The trail guide lists the areas where water is sparse.
We camped every night on this trip. Finding quiet sites was easy with the exception of the first night as many other hikers occupied the first sites beyond the Waterton Canyon no camping zone. Due to lightening hazards, we were careful with the weather when camping on exposed ridge tops. On a couple of nights, we went to sleep under clear skies, but storms moved in later at night.
There are Black Bears in the Colorado back country, but they are reputed to be much less of a problem than those found the Sierra. We saw no bears on our trip and only occasional evidence of their presence. We took no particular precautions with our provisions other than maintaining a clean camp and not cooking our meals. We met one person who reported seeing a bear.
We did see about a dozen moose, including one at about 12,500 feet just north of the San Luis Peak saddle. We had no problems with the animals but they can get aggressive, so we give them room. Squirrels and chipmunks were abundant and we also saw a few Mule Deer and some American Elk. We were thrilled to see five weasels.
We saw 108 species of birds, including 14 seen only in Durango at the end of the walk. Brown-capped Rosy Finch was a life bird for us. Yellow-rumped Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Steller’s Jay, Common Raven, American Robin, Mountain Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, and Northern Flicker were the most commonly seen species.