More beautiful than the Appalachian Trail, more fun than the Continental Divide Trail, and easier to pull off than the Pacific Crest Trail, the Centennial State’s quintessential footpath is all highlights, no filler. Running for 567 total miles between Denver and Durango, the Colorado Trail (CT) winds through six wilderness areas and eight mountain ranges packed with craggy skylines, sparkling lakes, wide-open tundra, and an entire guidebook’s worth of wildflowers. And while the CT isn’t short, compared with marquee long trails that take six months to complete, it’s much more doable—in fact, you can hike the whole thing in perfect summer conditions. “Mile for mile, it’s the most scenic hike the United States has to offer,” says 2020 thru-hiker Robin Mino of Broomfield.
The CT officially dates back to 1973, when U.S. Forest Service employee Bill Lucas embraced the notion of a cross-Colorado hiking route and magazine publisher Merrill Hastings helped spread Lucas’ idea in Colorado magazine, but the Ute people walked its terrain for thousands of years before that. “I was really fascinated by the significance of the land to the Nuche (Ute) people,” says 2020 thru-hiker Darrah Blackwater of Santa Fe, New Mexico. “I learned a lot of the trail is [made up of] trails the Nuche have used: trade routes and how people got from one place to another.” Today, the nonprofit Colorado Trail Foundation maintains the route with the Forest Service and publishes the path’s official guidebook, which breaks the trail into 28 segments. Hundreds of people from Colorado and the world over set out to trek the full trail every year (usually a four- to six-week endeavor), but many more choose to walk just fractions of the path for day, weekend, or weeklong trips.
“The Colorado Trail offers the incredible experience of exploring Colorado,” says Nika Meyers of Aspen, who set a female self-supported fastest known time record on the trail in 2021. “You hike through some of the most gorgeous landscapes ever.” But don’t just take her word for it. Here, we’ve divided the CT into four stretches and denoted their respective highlights so you can go see for yourself.
Sold on the idea of traveling the whole thing? Join the nearly 5,000 people who’ve completed the CT on foot, bike, horseback, or some combo thereof. We tapped recent thru-hikers for their essential tips and tricks.
Time required: Most people take four to six weeks to hike it, though the quickest supported thru-hikers on record have finished in a week.
When to go: Late June through late September.
Do I need reservations? Nope, though you will have to fill out free permits in wilderness areas.
What about restocking my food? There are two main ways: shopping in nearby trail towns and/or mailing yourself “resupply boxes” ahead of time to businesses that agree to hold them for you (try general stores and hostels).
How do I get to town? Some municipalities—such as Salida and Breckenridge, for example—offer buses or hiker shuttles (you might have to prearrange pickups), and you may be able to call an Uber, but many people hitchhike. For safety, go with a buddy and ask for rides at trailhead parking lots before thumbing it on the highway.
What are the best resources? The Colorado Trail Foundation’s The Colorado Trail guidebook as well as its Databook are indispensable, as is its website, coloradotrail.org. Also join the private Facebook group for your season’s trip—search “Colorado Trail Thru-Hike” and the year you intend to go—to ask questions, get route updates, and swap plans with other hikers.
Know the Lingo
- Hiker box: A shared bin of free food, gear, and clothes left behind by other hikers or trail angels; these are often found in trail-town hiker gathering spots.
- Trail name: By turns silly, serious, or tied to a great story, trail names identify thru-hikers more often than real names do. There’s only one rule: You can’t choose your trail name. It must be given to you.
- Tramily: Many thru-hikers end up traveling at the same pace as several others, forming a trail family that walks and camps together.
- Zero/nero day: A rest day, or a day you hike zero or nearly zero miles.
Thru-hikers swear by these items for a CT journey.
- Trail running shoes: lightweight and quick-drying (such as the Altra Lone Peak or Hoka’s line)
- Squeeze water filter: packable and effective (try Katadyn BeFree or Sawyer Squeeze)
- Trekking poles: help with stability on steep slopes
- Extra sun protection: a UPF-rated hoodie and sun gloves
- Rain shell: breathable; an ultralight hiking umbrella is also a good idea
- FarOut Guides Colorado Trail app: a detailed trail guide with mileages, water sources, an recent-hiker comments ($20; Apple and Android; faroutguides.com)