By Dave Stamboulis
Hiking a long-distance trail, better known as thru-hiking, has become wildly popular over the last decade. Those looking to “find themselves,” see some country, get into prime shape or just enjoy America’s finest wilderness have started heading en-masse to long distance paths like the Pacific Crest or Appalachian trails. While not quite as long or as famous, the Colorado Trail follows a continuous 485-mile footpath from Denver to Durango, taking in some of the Rocky Mountain state’s most breathtaking scenery, and is probably mile for mile the most beautiful trail in America.
My wife and I set out in July to walk the length of the CT, as it is called by hikers, and the first thing we learned is that you actually don’t have to thru-hike the entire thing to enjoy some of its best parts. The trail is divided into 33 segments including a choice of two segments in the middle (Collegiate East or Collegiate West), each segment pretty much doable in 1-2 days, and each having a trailhead at either end accessible by some sort of road, meaning weekend warriors and those who can’t commit to taking five weeks off in one go can also get out and enjoy the CT.
The Colorado Trail crosses through six wilderness areas, climbs through eight mountain ranges and climbs almost 90,000 vertical feet, with much of the trail staying above 10,000 feet in elevation. It’s all wildly spectacular, but if you want to put your boots or trail running shoes on and sample some of its best parts, here are a few stops along the way that you absolutely don’t want to miss.
Georgia Pass and Breckenridge: Heading out from Denver and leaving Kenosha Pass, this is most hikers’ first crossing of the Continental Divide. You’ll get your first dose of altitude here (11,598 feet) on Segment 6, see your first marmots and get great views of the Front Range. Even better yet, the alpine resort of Breckenridge awaits below if you are walking north-south. A former Gold Rush base camp, this charming mountain hamlet is now one of the U.S.’ top ski resorts and is an excellent place to take a zero, as thru-hiking off days are called. There’s even a free bus that runs from town right to the trailhead.
Mount Elbert: Segment 11 of the Colorado Trail passes through Twin Lakes, a tiny mountain hamlet noted for its lakeside campground, well-stocked General Store and phenomenal hamburgers for hungry hikers. But most folks coming here to walk are wanting to add a 14er to their trekking resume. Mount Elbert is the highest peak in the Rockies and second highest peak in the contiguous U.S. to Mount Whitney, and the good news is that its 14,440-foot summit is accessible to almost anyone in decent physical condition. The trail to the top, which branches off the CT, is well graded and takes around 5-6 hours roundtrip. The views from up top, needless to say, are staggering.
Collegiate West: After Twin Lakes, you have to make a choice of trails. The normal route goes via Collegiate East (the area here named after the Collegiate Peaks, eight 14ers named after prominent universities like Yale, Princeton and Harvard) and offers a stop in the welcoming hot spring resort at Mount Princeton. However, the alternative Collegiate West route goes through some of the highest and wildest terrain on the trail, crossing several of Colorado’s most dramatic passes (Lake Ann and Hope Pass), which hold snow through mid-July. Some of the best views along the trail are found in this section, especially in the remote Apostle Basin, named after its sentinel-like peaks which tower above the valley.
The Snow Mesa: Aptly named, this is a section of high alpine tundra that traverses Segment 21 just before dropping down to Spring Creek Pass and Lake City. The flat and expansive Snow Mesa plateau travels for nine miles above 12,000 feet, is home to bighorn sheep, plenty of colorful columbine (the state flower), and offers a real “top of the world” feeling, as you can see the grassy terrain rolling on forever.
The San Juans and Durango-Silverton Railway: Near the southern terminus of the trail, Silverton is a historic old mining town easily accessed from the CT, where hikers resupply, eat and rest before finishing the trail. It’s also home to a unique narrow-gauge railway which runs up the Animas River, ferrying hikers to and from the Weminuche Wilderness, where the CT crosses some of its most majestic scenery in the high San Juan mountains, home to jagged summits, 12,000-foot plateaus and an abundance of summer wildflowers. If you had to choose just one spot for a weekend backpack in the Rockies, this would be it.
For more information on hiking the Colorado Trail, visit the Colorado Trail Foundation’s informative website: coloradotrail.org.