THE Colorado Trail Guide | Interactive Map and Thru-Hike Planning - Greenbelly Meals

Colorado Trail Map and Guide


An interactive map of the Colorado Trail complete with a guide to plan your thru-hike.



Colorado Trail Overview



Colorado Trail Map

Length: 486 miles

Highest Elevation: 13,271 feet; Jarosa Mesa just below Coney Summit

Lowest Elevation: 5,520 feet; Waterton Canyon terminus in Denver

Start and End Point: Northeastern terminus is Waterton Canyon State Park outside of Denver and the southwestern terminus is Durango, CO just past Indian Trail Ridge. Alternative Northeastern terminus points include Indian Creek Trailhead or Roxborough State Park.

The Colorado Trail ("CT") was first conceived by Forest Service ranger Bill Lucas in 1973, organized by Gudy Gaskill, and officially completed in 1987. The trail winds through nearly 500 miles of the awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains drawing hikers from around the world and is open to hikers, bikers, and horseback riders. It traverses six wilderness areas and eight mountain ranges with an average elevation of 10,347 feet. Hikers traveling the full length of the trail from Denver to Durango will climb a cumulative 89,354 feet. Thru-hiking the Colorado Trail takes anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks from end to end.



Planning Your Thru-Hike


WHEN TO GO: Timing and Seasons

Most thru-hikers start no earlier than late June (preferably July 1st) and finish no later than the end of September (preferably September 15).

The time frame to hike the Colorado Trail is narrow because of the deep snowpack and high chance of snow in the Rocky Mountains in the shoulder seasons. The high elevation combined with colder months can lead to extremely dangerous hiking conditions. Most hikers take advantage of the warm temperatures and longer days to hike in the summer, though some prefer a later start that avoids the frequent summer thunderstorms and crowds.


DIRECTION TO HIKE: East to West or West to East

Option 1: East to West (Denver to Durango)

Most people hike from east to west because the snowpack melts first on the lower elevations on the easternmost part of the trail, meaning you can start slightly earlier in the season if you go this direction. This section of the trail also is not as steep allowing hikers to break in their legs before they hit the higher elevations in the west. The Denver side is logistically easier to get to than Durango. There are also more bailout points if you need to leave the trail in the beginning. Best of all, you get to end in the beautiful San Juan Mountains.

Option 2: West to East (Durango to Denver) 

Hiking from west to east is less common as you start in the steep San Juan Mountains and end in the rather anticlimactic Waterton Canyon area. However, finishing in Denver does make it easier to travel home when you are done. This might be the more favorable option as well if you need to start your hike later in the season - you end in the lower and warmer elevations surrounding Denver.


colorado trail hikingcredit: mittencamper.com


HOW TO RESUPPLY: Food, Water and Towns

Resupplying food and gear on the Colorado trail is more similar to the PCT than the AT. In short, there are plenty of road access points to get to towns to resupply food and gear. However, the road crossings are a little farther apart (between 20 and 70 miles) and, often times, several miles from the actual trail. This can require a fair amount of planning for longer stretches of more remote trail.

Hitchhiking can be difficult because of the long distances between the towns and trail. Some towns like Breckenridge and Salida have shuttles and affordable lodging while others only have small convenience stores. Water resupply points are usually plentiful on the CT with only a few long dry stretches - notably the Cochetopa Valley and the Indian Trail Ridge. Otherwise, you can usually expect to encounter a water source at least once every day.

Some popular towns where thru-hikers usually resupply:

  • Jefferson
  • Fairplay
  • Breckenridge
  • Frisco
  • Leadville
  • Twin Lakes
  • Buena Vista
  • Princeton Hot Springs
  • Salida
  • Creede
  • Silverton

NAVIGATION: Maps and Apps

The Colorado Trail is well marked and relatively easy to follow. You should always have a guidebook and/ or map on you though. Sometimes signage can disappear or cairns can crumble from rough weather, which can make it possible to get lost. Cell phone reception will be limited and unreliable.

Here are a few places to get information to make your navigation easier:


SLEEPING: Tenting, Shelters and Accommodation

Other than in Waterton Canyon, there are no restrictions on camping (of course, Leave No Trace principles apply). Thru hikers tents most night in flat spots that have already been established and used previously for camping.

Accommodations on the trail are few and far between and should not be relied on. There are a few huts that are part of the 10th Mountain Division Hut System. These require a reservation and often have a wait list though. There are a few campgrounds - some free and some for charge. 


PERMITS: Licenses, Fees and Applications

In general, a permit is not necessary to hike the Colorado Trail and there are no quotas. Wahoo! Some wilderness areas on the path require permits, but they are free. When you cross a permit-only wilderness area, there are self-serve permit stations where you can easily fill out the form for your free permit and drop it in the box. This seem to serve as more of a safety precaution than anything else.


SOCIALIZING: Meeting Other Hikers

It can be sparse for thru-hikers to find fellow thru-hikers to socialize and form a trail family ("tramily"?). Hikers looking for a social experience, like the Appalachian Trail provides, might be disappointed. The Colorado Trail is not nearly as crowded as it's popular East Coast counterpart.

According to the Colorado Trail Foundation, there are thousands of people who hike, bike or horseback parts of the path every year. However, only about 150 people of these completely thru hike it every year. This might be good or bad depending on your preference. 


colorado trail hike


WILDLIFE: Sightings and Bears

The Colorado backcountry is teeming with animals including marmots, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and several types of birds. Black bears are known to roam the backcountry, but they are not commonly seen on the trail. Because of the scarcity of bears, many people don't bear bag on the CT. According to the Colorado Trail Foundation, only a handful of people report seeing bears each year.

Marmots and other rodents are often more troublesome than bears. These smaller mammals are likely to get into your food or chew through your pack. Because of this, most hikers use bear canisters and/ or scent-proof bags to store their food. Some hikers will hang their bag, but only at lower elevations where there are ample trees. At higher elevations, bear bagging is not possible.


WEATHER: Warnings and Safety Tips

a) Snow: As mentioned, large amounts of snowfall can be extremely dangerous on the CT. Hike at your own risk outside of the warmest months of the year.

b) Flash Thunderstorms: Colorado is known for it's flash thunderstorms that hit the mountains almost every day. Pack some sturdy rain gear and a map so you can find an exit route if you need to get below treeline quickly.

If you are stuck on ridge, then get into the lightning position by crouching down on the balls of your feet, putting your head down towards your legs and covering your ears with your hands.

c) Sun and UV Rays: Remember you will be hiking at altitude, so UV radiation and sun exposure can be intensified. You will need sunglasses and sunscreen to protect yourself from the sun's damaging rays. You'll also want to pack a hydration system that can hold ample water as sun exposure can make you dehydrated very quickly.


(OPTIONAL) Alternate Route for One Section

Most of the Colorado Trail is a single route. However, in one particular section, there is a fork in the trail that gives you the option to take the eastern or western route through the Collegiate Peaks. From an aerial point of view, visualize these two routes forming a vertical eye shape - separating at the bottom point and rejoining at the top point. Note both route options will get you back to the same point of the trail. Just personal preference.

  • Collegiate East Route Option: The original 78 mile route. Slightly lower elevation and slightly shorter in length.

  • Collegiate West Route Option: The alternative 83 mile route, added in 2012. Known for higher elevation and significantly more epic and above-treeline scenic views. See more on Collegiate West route.

Collegiate West Map Route Colorado Trail


Sectional Breakdown


The Colorado Trail Foundation breaks the trail up into 28 different sections. Hikers can enter or leave the trail allowing them to do section hikes if a full-length hike isn't possible.


SOUTH PLATTE

This first section of the trail extends from Denver to Kenosha Pass through the South Platte rivershed and Long Gulch, a six-mile meadow filled with wildflowers, abundant water and animal life.

SEGMENT 1
Waterton Canyon Trailhead to South Platte River Trailhead
Mileage: 16.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,830 feet
SEGMENT 2
South Platte River Trailhead to Little Scraggy Trailhead
Mileage: 11.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,482 feet
SEGMENT 3
Little Scraggy Trailhead to FS-560 (Wellington Lake Road) Trailhead
Mileage: 12.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,975 feet
SEGMENT 4
FS-560 (Wellington Lake Road) Trailhead to Long Gulch
Mileage: 16.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,271 feet
SEGMENT 5
Long Gulch to Kenosha Pass
Mileage: 14.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,858 feet

KOKOMO PASS

Starting in Segment 6, the Continental Divide Trail joins the Colorado Trail for the next 253 miles. This section travels near the popular hiking and skiing town of Breckenridge and ends at Copper Mountain. The trail alternates between open meadows and lush forests that are teeming with wildflowers and wildlife. Get ready for some thigh-busting ascents and high altitude exposure as the trail climbs through two passes.

SEGMENT 6
Kenosha Pass to Goldhill Trailhead
Mileage: 32.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 5,196 feet
SEGMENT 7
Goldhill Trailhead to Copper Mountain
Mileage: 12.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,674 feet

HOLY CROSS WILDERNESS

The Holy Cross Wilderness is a wild and scenic part of the trail that climbs steeply over high ridges and jagged peaks before descending into densely forested valleys. Snow fed lakes and streams provide ample water. The trail also skirts around two of Colorado’s tallest peaks, Mount Massive and Mount Elbert which you can summit on side trails. Expect to see a lot more hikers in this area and don’t forget to stop at Leadville, a booming mining town in the 1800s that is now known for its hiking and running trails.

SEGMENT 8
Copper Mountain to Tennessee Pass Trailhead
Mileage: 25.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,417 feet
SEGMENT 9
Tennessee Pass Trailhead to Timberline Lake Trailhead
Mileage: 13.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,627 feet
SEGMENT 10
Timberline Lake Trailhead to Mount Massive Trailhead
Mileage: 13.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,627 feet
SEGMENT 11
Mount Massive Trailhead to Clear Creek Road
Mileage: 21.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,910 feet

CHALK CREEK

When you enter this part of the trail, you must decide if you are going to take the traditional east collegiate route or the new west collegiate route. If you go east, expect a nice forest walk through groves of pine and aspen and the occasional road walk. The Chalk Creek section brings you to one of the best towns on the trail -- Salida. It’s a must-stop for a zero day. As you end this section, you will encounter Marshall pass, a 668 foot climb in a half mile that is considered to be the “steepest portion” of the Colorado Trail.

SEGMENT 12
Clear Creek Road to Silver Creek Trailhead
Mileage: 18.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,866 feet
SEGMENT 13
Silver Creek Trailhead to Chalk Creek Trailhead
Mileage: 22.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,296 feet
SEGMENT 14
Chalk Creek Trailhead to US-50
Mileage: 20.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,007 feet
SEGMENT 15
US-50 to Marshall Pass Trailhead
Mileage: 14.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,576 feet

COCHETOPA VALLEY

As you leave Marshall Pass, you will enter the cattle country of Cochetopa Valley. Cows, cowboy ranches and wide open views.  The trail starts in a dry and dusty section where there is little water and ends with abundant water in the Cochetopa River watershed. Here you will climb to the top of San Luis Peak (14,014 feet)  in the La Garita wilderness and pass by the town of Creede, considered by many to be the best resupply town on the entire trail.

SEGMENT 16
Marshall Pass Trailhead to Sargents Mesa
Mileage: 15.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,184 feet
SEGMENT 17
Sargents Mesa to Colorado Hwy-114
Mileage: 20.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,810 feet
SEGMENT 18
Colorado Hwy-114 to Saguache Park Road
Mileage: 13.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,447 feet
SEGMENT 19
Saguache Park Road to Eddiesville Trailhead
Mileage: 13.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,239 feet
SEGMENT 20
Eddiesville Trailhead to San Luis Pass
Mileage: 12.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,104 feet

CATARACT RIDGE

After stopping at Creede, hikers begin a roller coaster ride of ups and downs through the San Juan Mountains. Thankfully, with each “up”, hikers are treated with glorious views. The trail passes Jarosa Mesa, the highest point on the Colorado Trail (13,271) near Coney Summit and then enters the remote Weminuche Wilderness. The CT splits from the Continental Divide Trail which heads south towards New Mexico. As you near the Animas River, listen carefully for the shrill whistles from the trains navigating the narrow gauge railway that connects the old mining towns of Silverton and Durango.

SEGMENT 21
San Luis Pass to Spring Creek Pass Trailhead
Mileage: 12.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,104 feet
SEGMENT 22
Spring Creek Pass Trailhead to Carson Saddle
Mileage: 17.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,829 feet
SEGMENT 23
Carson Saddle to Stony Pass Trailhead
Mileage: 15.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,515 feet
SEGMENT 24
Stony Pass Trailhead to Molas Pass
Mileage: 17.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,475 feet

INDIAN TRAIL RIDGE

The relentless ups and downs continue in this portion of the Colorado trail but you won’t care. All you will be thinking about are the breathtaking views of the expansive surroundings. Soak it all in as some of the most scenic sections of the trail are in this part of the San Juans. Before you begin your descent down into Durango, you must first cross Indian Trail ridge, an open and exposed ridge that, much like most of Colorado,  is known for its afternoon thunderstorms. Once you reach Durango, you are at the southwestern terminus. Take a moment to take a photo by the trailhead sign.

SECTION 25
Molas Pass to Bolam Pass Road
Mileage: 20.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,779 feet
SECTION 26
Bolam Pass Road to Hotel Draw Road
Mileage: 10.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,827 feet
SECTION 27
Hotel Draw Road to Kennebec Trailhead
Mileage: 20.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,186 feet
SECTION 28
Kennebec Trailhead to Junction Creek Trailhead
Mileage: 21.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,897 feet

(OPTIONAL) COLLEGIATE WEST ROUTE

Collegiate West is an alternate route on The Colorado Trail that follows the existing Continental Divide National Scenic Trail through western side of the Collegiate Peaks.

Added to the CT in 2012, Collegiate West is a must-hike section that takes hikers through the higher peaks and exposed ridges of the Collegiate Peaks. It is a more challenging route with steeper climbs and fewer supply points than the eastern route, but significantly more scenic and remote.

Collegiate West 1
Twin Lakes (near the middle of Section 11) to Sheep Gulch
Mileage: 9.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,606 feet
Collegiate West 2
Sheep Gulch to Cottonwood Pass Trailhead
Mileage: 25.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 6,122 feet
Collegiate West 3
Cottonwood Pass Trailhead to Tincup Pass Road
Mileage: 15.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,532 feet
Collegiate West 4
Tincup Pass Road to Boss Lake Trailhead
Mileage: 15.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,750 feet
Collegiate West 5
Boss Lake Trailhead to Ridge Above South Fooses Creek (rejoins near the middle of Section 15)
Mileage: 15.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,750 feet

MORE RESOURCES

Here are a few more recommended resources to help you get started planning your CT hike.



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    By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.
    About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.



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