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Denver to Mt. Massive
Segments: 1 to 10
For most thru-hikers, Waterton Canyon, about 40 minutes from downtown Denver, marks the journey’s start. Heading southbound on the Colorado Trail (CT) involves a more gradual elevation gain, giving backpackers time to develop their trail legs before hitting the really steep stuff, whereas hiking northbound from Durango tosses you right into the alpine crucible. The Colorado Trail Foundation breaks up the route into 28 segments, with the first starting here. Get ready for dramatic shifts in the landscape, from scrubby foothills to the tundra flanking Colorado’s tallest summits.
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This vertiginous chain of peaks smack in the middle of ski country has plenty to recommend it on its own merits: Over 13.2 miles, you’ll get the trail’s first sustained tundra walking, carpets of wildflowers such as Ross avens and alpine forget-me-nots, and rooftop views over the surrounding ski towns. Its easy logistics, however, are the real beauty of this stretch of trail. “Of all the segments of the Colorado Trail, this is probably the best one for dayhikes because the Summit Stage bus runs from Copper Mountain to Frisco and Breckenridge,” says Kai Malloy, two-time thru-hiker from Moab, Utah. “You can park your car on one end or the other, hike over the range, then take the bus back.” We like starting at the Gold Hill trailhead, four miles north of Breck, which gives you a slightly gentler approach to the high country as you skirt Peaks 3, 4, and 5 of the ski resort en route to a high point of 12,495 feet. The next 3.5 miles scrape the sky (be mindful of thunderstorms) before plummeting back down to Copper Mountain Resort, where you can catch the free bus back to your car (transfer in Frisco to get back to Gold Hill) and an après beer.
Don’t oversleep at your primo campsite flanking these two tiny lakes at 11,450 feet in the Holy Cross Wilderness: You won’t want to miss the tent-door view of morning alpenglow lighting up the shoulders of 12,893-foot Galena Mountain like a marquee. The quickest route to Porcupine Lakes (5.1 miles one way) departs from the Timberline Lake trailhead just west of Turquoise Lake near Leadville. The CT ascends north to treeline with views of Colorado’s two highest peaks, Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive. Look for orchids and paintbrush lining the footpath in July.
Best Long Weekend
Kenosha Pass to Breckenridge
The CT really shows its swagger on this three-day, 32.7-mile stretch. Up until this point, the trail has snaked through lower-elevation forests, shrublands, and burn zones; Kenosha Pass marks the true entrée to the mountains. Park at 10,000-foot Kenosha Pass, start among its famed aspen groves—expect peak fall color in mid- to late September—and hike through subalpine fir woodlands until the 1,900-foot climb to Georgia Pass begins at mile six. Scout for a sheltered campsite just below the pass (around mile 11). On day two, meet the Continental Divide at 11,874 feet on Georgia Pass, from where you’ll savor views of 13,370-foot Mt. Guyot. Drop 1,900 feet into a lodgepole-pine-forested canyon crisscrossed with several babbling streams, then camp around mile 19.5 near the North Fork of the Swan River. Your final day features a ridge climb with views of Keystone Ski Resort, followed by a switchbacky descent to your ride or shuttle car at the Gold Hill trailhead just north of Breckenridge.
Point of Interest
Before the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division gained fame for harrowing World War II victories in the Italian Apennine Mountains and helping birth the American ski industry, its soldiers trained in climbing, skiing, and winter survival at Camp Hale, a hastily built base at 9,200 feet. The CT tracks right by the remains of the site—which President Joe Biden designated as Camp Hale–Continental Divide National Monument this past fall—where hikers can take a short, self-guided history tour.
Trail Town Spotlight
The former mining hub, which claims the title of the continent’s highest incorporated city, at 10,152 feet, caters to high-elevation hikers. Must-do’s: Grab a latte at Zero Day Coffee, operated by two CT thru-hikers; sip a Camp Hale Pale Ale at Two Mile Brewery; and book a hard-to-get shopping appointment to buy a coveted Melanzana fleece. “Every single hiker that I meet on the Colorado Trail will be like, ‘Did you get a Melanzana store appointment?’ ” says four-time thru-hiker Lauren Veloz of Denver. “It’s everyone’s mission to get a Melly.”