Planning a trip on the Colorado Trail can be daunting, particularly if you are new to backpacking like I was. I spent weeks learning about the Colorado Trail; figuring out how much of the trail to tackle at once; and testing options for food and gear. Now that I’ve done part of the trail, and backpacked for the first time, I’ve learned a ton! Here’s a step-by-step Colorado Trail planning guide for your own trip.
About the Colorado Trail
The Colorado Trail is nearly 500 miles of awe-inspiring terrain through the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Traveling through 6 wilderness areas and 8 mountain ranges, the trail offers the full spectrum of Colorado lakes, peaks, creeks, and ecosystem diversity. Divided into 28 segments, the trail end points are Denver and Durango. With an average elevation of over 10,300 feet, the highest elevation of the trail is at 13,271 feet.
Be prepared for a challenging hike on the Colorado Trail. In addition to steep climbs and descents, and demanding terrain, the weather can change in a matter of minutes. You’ll encounter rain and even snow storms on the Rocky Mountains in mid-summer. The keys to enjoying a thru-hike on the Colorado Trail are:
- Training, both physically and mentally
- Getting the right Colorado Trail backpacking gear (lightweight, supports different weather conditions)
- Testing your gear and full backpack weight before hitting the trail
- And then train and test some more!
Bottom line is, you can definitely tackle the Colorado Trail with the right training and preparation. Then you can relax and thoroughly enjoy your time on the trail! Also know that you don’t have to complete all 486 miles of the Colorado Trail at once. You can split up your consumption of the trail as you like, for example, doing day hikes or hiking one segment at a time. It’s your hike!
Step 1: Get Colorado Trail References and Maps
Volunteers from the Colorado Trail Foundation (CTF), a non-profit organization, maintain the Colorado Trail. The CTF has several excellent resources about the trail:
- The Colorado Trail Foundation website is a great place to learn about the Colorado Trail and dig in for the details. Check out the Frequently Asked Questions page as a starting place.
- The Colorado Trail: The Official Guidebook has a narrative description of each mile for all 28 segments with maps and much more. I borrowed this book from a friend and it is a great resource for planning. But if you plan to buy only one book for the Colorado Trail, buy the Databook.
- Colorado Trail Databook is pocket-sized, lightweight, and a must-have for planning and as an on-trail reference. The Databook includes critical information for each segment such as water sources, camp spots, road access to trailheads, elevation, and resupply points, all cross-referenced with easy-to-read maps. I carried the Databook in my backpack.
I used the Colorado Trail Hiker app as another on-trail reference. This app includes all of the information in the Colorado Trail Databook, and uses your phone’s GPS and offline maps to pinpoint your exact location on the trail. No cell service required.
Step 2: Join Colorado Trail Facebook Groups
Search for “colorado trail” on Facebook and you’ll find a Colorado Trail Thru-Hike group for the upcoming year. Group members share real-time trail information that you can’t find anywhere else including current trail and weather, wildlife encounters, planning tips, ride sharing, and much more. In addition to posting pictures and sharing stories from the trail, people are more than glad to answer any questions you have. I also joined the Women of the Colorado Trail and The Colorado Trail Foundation groups.
Step 3: Decide If You’re Going Solo or With a Friend
I originally planned on backpacking the Colorado Trail with my friend, Bonnie, two days and going solo the rest of the time. If you do plan on backpacking with someone, make sure it’s someone you’ll be comfortable with on the trail for days at a time. Bonnie and I have hiked together before and we’ve been friends for years, so I knew we’d do well on the trail. She is an experienced backpacker and gave me (a newbie) a lot of tips. Even though I’ve been on lots of solo day hikes and really love hiking by myself (stop when you want, set your own pace), I was nervous about backpacking solo. If you don’t have someone to backpack with and don’t want to go solo, post a message in one of the Colorado Trail Facebook groups to sync up with other hikers.
Step 4: Pick Your Dates and Build Your Itinerary
The Colorado Trail Foundation reports that completing the trail as a thru-hike takes 4-6 weeks. A 6-week hike of the Colorado Trail means averaging around 11.5 mile per day. That’s not counting travel time to and from Colorado and your start and end points, stopping at resupply towns, taking zero days, and, say, meandering while taking pictures of butterflies. Not everyone has the time (and the budget) to hike the entire Colorado Trail at once. If you do have that much time and can be flexible with your day-to-day hiking plan, that’s awesome. It allows you to relax and take off any pressure for crunching a specific number of miles per day. Otherwise, here are other things to think about when building your itinerary:
- When to start the hike? The ideal time to hike the Colorado Trail is July to August. To avoid snowpack, the Colorado Trail Foundation recommends starting the trail no earlier than late June, and finishing by late September.
- Thru-hiking or “segment travel?” Typically when people talk about hiking the Colorado Trail, they think of thru-hiking all 28 segments in one trip. If you don’t have that much time or you are new to backpacking, you can also complete the trail over several seasons (“segment travel”). Or, you could even just day hike trail segments. Since I was a backpacking newbie, I decided to complete just some of the segments for my first outing instead of the entire trail.
- Starting from the east (Denver) or west (Durango)? The classic start of the Colorado Trail is the eastern terminus in Denver at Waterton Canyon. The benefit of starting in Denver is that snow melts earlier in the year on the eastern part of the trail. Starting in Denver also allows you to gradually acclimate to the higher altitude in the western part of the trail.
- Number of miles per day you want to hike? Trust me, having tons of hiking experience doesn’t mean an easy transition to backpacking. Even training with a backpack before you start a thru-hike doesn’t prepare you for everything that can happen on the trail. Acclimating to the altitude, physical strain from carrying a backpack for days at a time, and unpredictable weather are just some of the things that can surprise even experienced backpackers. Start on the conservative side when planning how many miles you want to hike each day, and then increase (or decrease) your mileage as you go.
- Water sources? Use the Colorado Trail Databook to plan your water refill stops. This will help you decide how many miles you plan to hike each day. For example, segment 1 from Waterton Canyon to South Platte River is 16.8 miles. I decided that was too many miles for my first day of hiking. After mile 8.7 at Bear Creek, there are no reliable water sources until the end of segment 1 at South Platte River. So, I hiked segment 1 over 2 days, camping the first night at Bear Creek.
- Access points? Do you need to plan your stops near trail access points? When I planned my trip, I wanted to make it easy for friends and family to come and go for part of the hike. For example, Bonnie wanted to hike and camp with me for 2 days and nights. We stopped at South Platte River the end of day 2 so Bonnie’s boyfriend could easily pick her up the morning of day 3.
As an example, here’s my original itinerary for the Colorado Trail. I originally planned to hike 70 miles in 7 days, based on my hiking experience. I ended up hiking 40 miles in 4 days, and then stopping in Bailey, Colorado, due to a wonky ankle.
|July 1||1||Waterton Canyon to Bear Creek||None||8.7|
|July 2||1||Bear Creek to South Platte Canyon||South Platte River Trailhead||8|
|July 3||2||South Platte Canyon to Little Scraggy Trailhead||Little Scraggy Trailhead||11.5|
|July 4||3||Little Scraggy Trailhead to Rolling Creek Trailhead||Rolling Creek Trailhead||12.2|
|July 5||4||Rolling Creek Trailhead to Brookside McCurdy Trail||Lost Park Campground||8.9|
|July 6||4||Brookside McCurdy Tail to around Mile 3 of Segment 5||None||10|
|July 7||5||Mile 3 of Segment 5 to Kenosha Pass||Kenosha Pass East Campground||11|
Step 5: Pick Your Gear and Train
In the weeks before I hit the trail, I bought and tested (and sometimes returned) backpacking gear, particularly backpacks and tents. My number one priority was to go as light as possible. There are a gazillion gear choices on the market. My best advice is to test all of your gear, and your full backpack weight, multiple times before starting a thru-hike. Check out my Colorado Trail Backpacking Gear post for a complete list of all the gear I took plus details about my selection process.
Go on a bunch of training hikes before you tackle the Colorado Trail, gradually building to your full backpack weight and target miles per day. Once at your full weight and miles, I recommend testing all of your gear in the field by backpacking and camping overnight on short trips. Augment your training plan with other activities like yoga, cardio, and strength training.
Make sure you bring clothes for different weather conditions. Even in mid-summer, you can encounter snow storms and definitely rain storms in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
If you are planning to backpack solo, train your mind as well as your body. Practice being completely alone for long stretches of time, with no cell service, no television, no computer. Camp solo on your training hikes. Practice solo even if you are planning to backpack with other people. Plans change and people might end up backing out.
Step 6: Buy Food and Create a Resupply Plan
Probably the most time-consuming and complicated step before starting a thru-hike is creating your food strategy. If you are planning a short thru-hike (several days to a week), you can carry all of the food you need for that timeframe. But if you are doing a longer thru-hike, you’ll need to resupply. You have several options with resupplying:
- Buy all of your food for the entire thru-hike ahead of time, box it up, and ship the boxes to towns along the trail.
- Plan to resupply at towns along the way.
- Ask friends and family to meet up with you along the way and bring your resupply boxes.
- A combination of all of these options.
Even despite all of your planning, know that you’ll likely change your plan along the way, or from one thru-hike to the next. For my Colorado Trail trip, I carefully planned the food I’d need for each day of my 7-day trip. After a couple of days, I ditched some of my food with a friend because I discovered I didn’t need as much as I’d originally thought. I now have ideas for what to do different for my next backpacking trip. Check out my Colorado Trail Backpacking Food List post for more details.
Step 7: Share Your Plan With Family and Friends
Plan on having little or no cell service while on the trail. For safety, share your hiking itinerary with family and friends before you go. That way, they’ll know roughly where you’ll be stopping along the way and when you’ll check in with them. For additional safety, consider buying a backcountry communication device, like a satellite GPS messenger, so you can send texts while on the trail or even send SOS messages to emergency responders. The Colorado Trail: The Official Guidebook and the Colorado Trail Databook include phone numbers for county sheriffs in each segment.
Step 8: Check Water Availability
Both the Colorado Trail Databook and The Colorado Trail: The Official Guidebook indicate water sources along the trail, including whether the water source is reliable or intermittent. For the latest information about water sources and how much to carry, call the ranger station and ask. The Colorado Trail Guidebook includes phone number for ranger stations.
Step 9: Check the Weather
Even if you are hiking the Colorado Trail in optimal months (July and August), it’s still best to check the weather forecast before you start out. You don’t want to get to the trail head only to find out there’s a storm brewing and the trail is closed. Make sure you carry the right gear for weather you might encounter on the trail! You can also check The Colorado Trail Foundation and Colorado Trail Thru-Hike Facebook pages for the latest conditions.
- Plan to hike earlier in the day to avoid heat and afternoon weather that typically hits the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
- You don’t need a permit to hike the Colorado Trail.
- Is mountain biking or horseback riding more your jam? You can do that on the Colorado Trail, too. There are mandatory bicycle detours around wilderness areas. Check the Colorado Trail Guidebook for details.
- If you complete the entire Colorado Trail, contact the Colorado Trail Foundation for a completion certificate.
And Now, Hit the Trail!
Bottom line, make it your trip and have fun, whatever that looks like for you! It might not go exactly as planned, but it’s all worth it when you wake up to a clear blue sky in the mountains. Let go, connect with nature, and enjoy.
Here are my other posts about backpacking and the Colorado Trail:
Have you hiked the Colorado Trail or another thru-hike? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments!