The Colorado Trail is a 486-mile-long greatest hits collection of the Centennial State’s most picturesque scenery, from wildflower-strewn meadows to sky-high rocky ridges, that runs from Denver to Durango. Taking a month or so to thru-hike the entire length would be a dream for most backpacking enthusiasts. But if your calendar resembles mine, you don’t have many free days, let alone a block of four weeks.
My solution is to tackle it segment by segment. There are 28 total, and during the last few years, my friend Mike and I have found enough long weekends to check off 14. We’re hoping to finish in the relatively near future. But, even if it takes longer than we’d like, as Bill Manning, executive director of the Colorado Trail Foundation, says: “Hiking buddies keep each other going, so finding a good one is an important first step.”
In addition to that piece of advice, there are four other elements to consider before getting started.
The Trailhead Shuffle
Hiking usually involves either an out-and-back or a loop route. You park your car, follow the path, and a few hours later end up back at your vehicle. That’s not how it works when piecing together segments of The Colorado Trail. You can still park at a trailhead, but after a few days you’re probably 20 or 30 miles away from your ride.
The easiest solution is for you and a hiking partner to shuttle a second car to your pre-determined endpoint. The weekend Mike and I did segment eight, a 25-mile stretch from Copper Mountain to Tennessee Pass, we met on Highway 24 at the Tennessee Pass trailhead. Mike parked there and then we drove back up the road to Copper Mountain. A couple days later, he shuttled me to my car and we each went home in time for work Monday morning.
For the majority of the population, beginning the expedition with a segment near Denver also helps. “I suggest that’s how people start,” says Manning. “Transportation times and distances are shorter, and they only get more complicated as you travel toward Durango. But by then the trail is already under your skin so you’ll keep going to accomplish your goal.”
Following the Trail
Yes, the trail is generally well-marked (look for the triangular Colorado Trail symbol). If you’re wondering if we’ve ever gotten lost, though, that answer also is a yes. One particularly wet year, in the middle of a gorgeous aspen forest, the path disappeared. The lush undergrowth had simply consumed it. So we consulted our topographic maps, made our way to a marked irrigation ditch that ran parallel to the trail, and resumed our trek.
The moral of the story is you need to be prepared for minor navigational mishaps. Some people carry a GPS unit; we like old paper maps.
Every Pound Matters
If you’re new to backpacking, the mantra is maintaining comfort while minimizing weight. For example, I carry a tarp shelter instead of a tent. It keeps me (mostly) dry in the rain, but is one- to two-pounds lighter than an average tent. Speaking of drizzle, even if there is none in the forecast, I’ve learned from soggy experience to always pack my rain jacket and pants.
As for food, freeze-dried meals really are pretty tasty after a 10-mile day. I also bring beef jerky, trail mix, dried apricots, and a protein bar or two depending on how long we’re planning to be out.
I recently started using the Sawyer system for water filtration. It’s lightweight and rugged, which leaves estimating when I’ll arrive at the next river or stream as my biggest hydration challenge. For help with this, The Colorado Trail guidebook, put out by the Colorado Trail Foundation, is essential. It notes probable water sources—and other valuable information—in brief, yet detailed, segment descriptions. (To reduce weight, I cut out the pages pertaining to whatever segment I’m traveling and only carry those.)
Home Away from Home
There aren’t many actual campgrounds along The Colorado Trail (a positive attribute in my opinion). That said, the guidebook provides solid information about potential dispersed camping spots. Figure out how far you want to walk each day, and then cross-reference that with the book to determine if you need to cut it back or add a few miles in order to stop where suitable camping should be available. Using that strategy, we almost always manage to find flat space near water with a pre-built fire ring not far off the trail.