Table of contents

A Complete Guide to Hiking the Colorado Trail

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The Colorado Trail (CT) stretches across the Rocky Mountain Range from Denver to Durango. It takes you through some of the country’s highest elevations, most stunning scenery, and most temperamental weather. From the flower-filled alpine meadows of the Sawatch Mountains to the dramatic craggy peaks of the San Juans, a hike on the CT is sure to be a journey full of challenges and rewarding experiences.

The Colorado Trail has epic views throughout the entire length

Quick Facts

Distance: 486 miles (give or take a few depending on whether you choose the Collegiate West or Collegiate East route)

Time Needed: 4-6 weeks

Highest Elevation: 13,334 ft. – Coney Summit

Lowest Elevation: 5,520 ft. – Waterton Canyon

Elevation Gain (approx.): 89,000 ft.

Best Time to Hike: According to the Colorado Trail Foundation, July 1 to September 30 is the ideal window for hiking. Snow is typically still present along much of the trail before July. After September you run the risk of dealing with early-season snow storms.

Permits: None

Difficulty: Strenuous

Highlights

  • Nearly unending views since much of the trail is above treeline
  • Lots of great resupply towns
  • Tons of wildlife & wildflowers
  • Social & friendly trail community
  • Feeling amazingly capable & confident at the end of the journey
  • You can peak bag some awesome 14ers on short side trails
  • Well marked & maintained
The wildflower-filled meadows are a definite highlight of an early summer hike

Lowlights

  • High elevations may take some getting used to
  • Weather is unpredictable – afternoon thunderstorms/torrential rain, some really hot/cold days & lingering/early season snow
  • Finding water can be a challenge in dry years
  • Mosquitos & biting flies
  • You share the trail with horses & cyclists
Finding water can be a challenge on some stretches of trail – especially in dry years

Best Time to Hike

The Colorado Trail Foundation (CTF), which maintains the Colorado Trail, recommends hiking the CT between July 1 and September 30th to avoid the mud and snow seasons. We started in early July. Temperatures were nice and the wildflowers were beautiful, but we would choose a start date in mid August if we were to do it again. Monsoon season runs from July to early August and can produce some scary lightning and hail situations at high elevation. Weather in the Colorado Rockies can be generally unpredictable, but hazardous weather events are typical during this window of time..

Weather can be unpredictable on the CT & afternoon storms crop up pretty much daily in monsoon season

How Long Does It Take?

It takes an average of about 4-6 weeks to complete a hike on the CT. Some very experienced backpackers may be able to hike the trail in less time, but the terrain, elevation gain, and afternoon storms can make big-mile days difficult. Most people take the trail at an enjoyable pace and calculate in a few “nero” and “zero” days (rest days) to allow the body to recoup.

The CT is very well-marked throughout

Difficulty

The CT is well-maintained, well-marked, and easy to follow, so navigation is rarely an issue. The main difficulties on this trail are the challenging climbs at high elevation, the weather, and the length of the trail. ELEVATION – There are long stretches of the CT that stay above 10,000 feet, which means you’ll have plenty of panoramic views. Unfortunately, the sustained high altitude also means altitude sickness can be an issue. It’s common to feel more tired than usual, have a mild headache, or to feel like you need to breathe deeper to fill your lungs at these heights. See our How to Train for Hiking & Backpacking Trips Guide for more tips on high altitude hiking success.

You’ll spend a lot of time at high elevation on the CT

WEATHER – The weather changes quickly in the Rockies, and CT hikers should expect frequent storms. While lightning and foul weather can occur at elevation all year, monsoon season (July to early August) can have some particularly bad torrential rain, hail, and lightning can happen anytime. Check out our video on Lightning Safety and Hiking at Elevation for our tips on what to do if you’re caught in a storm. Temperatures can also swing dramatically at elevation, so you should be ready for anything – even if the forecast calls for good weather.

Weather changes quickly on the CT & storms can be dangerous if you’re caught in them at high elevation

TRIP LENGTH – Hiking the CT is a huge physical challenge, but it’s also a big commitment of time and money. We typically like to budget $2-$3 per mile for a thru-hike, and we recommend letting your family and workplace know about your plans as far in advance as possible to arrange for time away. Not everyone has the freedom to step away for so long, so many hikers choose to complete the trail in smaller sections.

Long distance hikers commit a lot to the trail – time & money are two big factors to think about

Northbound VS Southbound

Southbound (SOBO) is the more common direction to go on the CT, but a northbound (NOBO) hike also has benefits. Below we’ll list the main pros and cons of going either direction to help you decide which is best for you.

SOBO

PROS

  • The southern terminus is located just south of Denver, so getting there is pretty easy
  • The trail starts at lower elevation and doesn’t get over 10,000 ft. until nearly 50 miles in, which gives you time to acclimate
  • There are more people on trail to interact with if you’re looking for a social experience
  • In our opinion, the trail increases in beauty as you travel south

CONS

  • Getting transportation back home from the southern terminus can be a hassle – flights out of Durango are expensive and bus rides back to the Denver airport are time consuming

NOBO

PROS

  • There are more transportation options to get back home from the northern terminus
  • You get the challenging parts out of the way first, so the last half may feel more relaxing

CONS

  • Less people to interact with if you’re looking for a social experience
  • Transportation to the southern terminus can be a bit of a hassle
  • You start with a huge, grueling climb & have less time to acclimate to elevation on trail
  • Ending at Waterton Canyon is less spectacular than finishing with the San Juan Mountains
We think SOBO is the way to go, as the views get more & more spectacular as you head south

Collegiate East Vs. Collegiate West

About halfway through the route, you get to choose your own adventure through the Collegiate Peaks. This is one of the most well-loved parts of the CT, and both sides are full of challenging climbs, epic views, and beautiful alpine lakes. We’ve hiked the whole Collegiate Peaks Loop, so you can check out an in-depth look at both directions here. But we’ll outline some of the major deciding factors for either side below.

WEST

  • This is the side we recommend, as we think it was quite a bit more scenic than the east side
  • A little more wild and has fewer road crossings, so resupplying can be a bit more challenging
  • Higher elevation, so it can feel a little more strenuous
Lake Ann on the Collegiate West route was one of our favorite spots on the whole trail

EAST

  • Probably the most compelling argument for taking the east side is that you can easily stop by Mt. Princeton Hot Springs for a soak
  • There are more road crossings and options for resupply
  • The climbs are a bit easier with well-graded switchbacks
No matter which direction you choose, the Collegiate peaks will not disappoint

Transportation to Trailheads

SOUTHBOUND – If you’re hiking SOBO on the CT, transportation options to the northern terminus are pretty abundant. We found that the most convenient way to get to the starting point was to fly into Denver then take an Uber/Lyft to the trailhead (the ride cost us about $65 from the airport to Waterton Canyon – about 49 miles). You can also take public transportation to Littleton and then take a much cheaper rideshare or shuttle from there if you don’t mind taking more time to get to the trailhead.Some hikers opt to spend a night in Denver before heading out to get acclimated to the elevation.

Waterton Canyon – the CT Northern Terminus – is just outside of Denver & is easy to get to

NORTHBOUND – If you’re hiking NOBO, the easiest option is to fly into Durango and take a shuttle or rideshare to the trailhead. Flights there can be expensive, though, so it may be worth it to spend some extra time on public transit if you want to save money. We recommend also checking flights to Denver, and then looking at Bustang schedules to Durango from there to see if you can save a good chunk of change.

A hiker at the southern terminus of the Colorado Trail
The southern terminus is about five miles outside of Durango

Planning Your Itinerary

Planning a loose daily itinerary isn’t necessary, but we’ve learned from past thru-hikes that it’s very helpful. Most people take 4-6 weeks to complete the CT, with an average of around 10-14 miles a day. That said, very fit and experienced hikers may cover 20+ miles per day. In general, we always recommend overestimating how long it will take to complete a trail. You can always get off early, but it’s not as easy to extend beyond your planned finish date if you have obligations to return to. Your itinerary should take into consideration your ability, hiking style, zero days, and a little leeway for unexpected hiccups. The FarOut app is an excellent resource to use when planning your hike, because you can see how many miles there are between each water source and potential campsite, what services nearby towns offer, and you can even read comments other users left about places they enjoyed camping.

Resupply

Because you’ll be on trail for a few weeks, you won’t be able to carry all your food at once – you’ll need to stop and resupply periodically. Most people resupply 4-6 times, but there are a decent amount of road crossings and opportunities to get into town along the trail. So resupplying often can be easy if you want to cut down on food weight in your pack. Just be aware that town stops can be expensive and tend to take a lot of time. You’ll need to balance the convenience of carrying less food against the time it takes to make stops. You can resupply by mailing boxes ahead of time to a post office or a place in town that offers to hold boxes for hikers (like a hostel), having a friend or family member meet you at road crossings with fresh supplies (hikers who travel with a dogs often choose this option), or getting a ride into a nearby town for the grocery store. If your resupply plan involves mailing packages, you’ll want to ship them well in advance to make sure they arrive in time for you to pick them up. If you’re mailing your resupply boxes to a post office (make sure the PO in your target town accepts general delivery), this is how you’ll want to address your box: Your Name c/o General Delivery Town Name, VT 01234 Arriving By: ETA It’s also a good idea to write your name or put a special marker (like colorful doodles or stickers) on all sides of the box to make it easier for postal workers to find it amongst the hoards of other boxes.

resupplying more often can be a good idea in challenging sections of trail

Our Favorite Resupply Towns

Fairplay (CT mile 71.7)

Stay here: Hand Hotel – this cute little B&B was all booked up when we got to Fairplay, so we didn’t get to stay here unfortunately. But we heard from several other hikers that it was very charming and cozy.

Eat here: Otto’s 

Resupply here: Prather’s Market, High Alpine Sports (limited selection of backpacking gear items)

Fairplay is one of the first stops you can make on a SOBO CT hike

Leadville (CT mile 142.8)

Stay here: Inn the Clouds – this hostel is conveniently located about a half mile from the main strip in Leadville. It had well-thought out common areas, friendly staff, and one of the most comfortable hostel beds we’ve ever slept in!

Eat here: High Mountain Pies & Zero Day Coffee in the morning

Resupply here: Safeway, Leadville Outdoors & Mountain Market (for gear and snacks)

Inn the Clouds in Leadville, CO was one of our favorite hostels

Twin Lakes (CT mile 177.5)

You’ll pretty much pass right through this town on the trail, so we recommend just stopping in to grab lunch then heading back to the CT.

Eat here: Punkys Mobile Food Trailer (burgers & such) or Perkolated Peaks (burritos)

Resupply here: Twin Lakes General Store

You’ll pass right by Twin Lakes, so it’s worth stopping in for a meal

Salida (CT mile 253.2)

We consider this town a must stop! Salida was one of our all-time favorite trail towns. It’s a cute, artsy community with a huge park, and a river you can float right in town. Stay here:Simple Lodge – simply put, this hostel felt like home. The staff was amazing, the rates were affordable, the location was perfect, the space was clean and comfortable, and sometimes they cook up a delicious family style dinner for the guests! Eat here:Boathouse, Moonlight Pizza & Bunny & Clyde’s (for breakfast) Resupply here: Safeway, Natural Grocers & Salida Mountain Sports


Silverton (CT mile 412.1)

Stay here: The Avon – this quirky hotel/hostel has some really nice single rooms if you want to treat yourself before the final push into Durango. It’s located just off the main drag in town and has a bar on the ground level. Eat here: Kendall Mountain CafeResupply here: Silverton Grocery

Water

Water availability on the CT fluctuates drastically based on your start date, snow pack, and the weather. Sources are far apart and unreliable in some sections; we had to “camel up” and carry more water than usual in areas where the trail stayed above treeline for long stretches. Lightweight foldable bladders, like Platy Bottles, come in handy for big water carries. The best advice is to stock up wherever you can, never leave a source thirsty, and carry more than you think you need. The FarOut app is great for planning your water carries, because you can see other hikers’ reports about which water sources are flowing ahead. Still, there’s no guarantee you’ll find water in a source when you get there. Though many of the water sources you’ll find along the CT run clear, you’ll still want to filter your water. We used a bandana and Katadyn Micropur Tablets to filter and purify on the trail because it’s a lightweight, reliable, and easy way to ensure your water is safe. Another very popular and affordable option that many hikers use on the CT is the Sawyer Squeeze.

It’s a good a idea to fill up on water whenever you get a chance on the CT

Bears & Food Storage

Black bears live in the forests along the entire Colorado Trail, so it’s important to take steps to keep yourself and these animals safe. While bear encounters are somewhat rare on the CT, we recommend storing your food away from camp in a bear-safe container, like an Ursack. Other critters, like marmots, squirrels, and raccoons can also be a concern when it comes to keeping your food safe, so stay aware and be cautious when taking breaks or camping above treeline.

We like using an Ursack to keep our food safe on trail

Bugs

Ticks are less common on the CT, but mosquitoes and biting flies can be a nuisance. June and July can be buggy months but most swarms have dissipated by September, making the late summer a nice time to hike. We recommend using a combination of Permethrin on your clothing and bringing a small bottle of Picaridin Lotion for exposed skin if you’re hiking during the peak of summer.

Leave No Trace

Preventing and minimizing human impact is crucial to the health of our wilderness. Individually, you may think your fire, shallow cathole, or food scraps in the river aren’t going to harm an ecosystem, but there’s a large cumulative impact. We share this space with thousands of people hiking along the CT every year, and we all need to do our part to protect it. It only takes a few minutes to brush up on Leave No Trace guidelines before you head out.

Become a Member of the Colorado Trail Foundation

The Colorado Trail Foundation (CTF) protects and maintains the CT. Without the hard work of their staff and volunteers, there would be no trail. We highly recommend becoming a donating member of this amazing organization to help ensure the CT stays around for future generations to enjoy. The CTF also commemorates successful end-to-end hikes with a certificate and a mention on their website.

The CT is very well-maintained thanks to the Colorado Trail Foundation

Backpacking Gear

It’s really important to keep your backpacking weight to a minimum when setting out to complete a thru hike. Dialing in your gear can be expensive and feel overwhelming. But we promise that taking the time to plan and improve your gear setup will make your trek a far more enjoyable and successful experience. Below is the list of what we carried and some other items we recommend.

Spending extra time to dial in your gear will make your CT hike much more enjoyable

TENT: I used the ultralight Zpacks 7×9 Flat Tarp on this trip. I thought it was perfect for the mild temperatures of July, and it was convenient to use as a quick shelter when sudden storms cropped up. For solo hikers who prefer a tent, we highly recommend the Zpacks Plex Solo for its pyramid shape. It holds up well in inclement weather and has an excellent weight-to-space ratio. Ifyou’ll be hiking with a partner, we recommend the Zpacks Duplex or Triplex (if you prefer more room). These tents are spacious and super light, and they’re all on our list of the Best Ultralight Tents.

I enjoyed the versatility of the Zpacks 7×9 Flat Tarp on this trip

BACKPACK: I used the ultralight, frameless Pa’lante V2 for this trip to keep my pack weight as low as possible, but many hikers chose to carry the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 2400. We consider this pack a great choice because it’s lightweight and about as close to fully waterproof as backpacks get. Check out our list of the Best Backpacking Packs for our other top backpack recommendations.

My goal was to keep my kit as small & light as possible in the Pa’lante V2

SLEEPING BAG: I took the ZPacks Classic 20 quilt/sleeping bag hybrid on this trip, and I thought it was perfect for the mild nighttime temperatures of July. Check out our full review of the Classic here to see what we love about it. If you’re a warm sleeper and you want to go a little lighter, a 30 degree sleeping bag or quilt from our lists of the Best Backpacking Sleeping Bags and Best Backpacking Quilts would probably suffice.

The ZPacks Classic 20 was plenty cozy for me on the CT

SLEEPING PAD: I packed the Therm-a-Rest Uberlite because it’s ultralight, compact, and comfortable. However, I found that the terrain was maybe a bit rugged for this pad and ended up having to patch it a couple times along the way. I noticed many hikers using the more durable Therm-a-Rest XLite, and I’d probably take that one if I did this trail again. For more of our favorite options, head over to our list of the Best Backpacking Sleeping Pads. WATER FILTER: I used a bandana (to prefilter in particularly livestock-heavy areas) and Katadyn Micropur Water Purification Tabs for this trip because it’s a quick and convenient system that allowed me to maximize the amount of time I could spend hiking each day. Check out our full review of this method here. If you prefer something a bit more traditional, most hikers we saw were using a Sawyer Squeeze and a Smartwater bottle. We often use this same water filter/bottle setup because it’s ultralight and easy to use. These items rank highly on our Best Backpacking Water Filters and Best Water Bottles lists.

Katadyn Micropur Water Purification Tabs are a lightweight & easy way to purify water

SHOES OR BOOTS: I wore Bedrock Cairn Adventure Sandals (men’s / women’s) for this hike. Controversial, I know, but I like hiking in sandals for a variety of reasons. I would, however, choose a more burly sandal, like the Chaco Z/1 Classic (men’s / women’s) if I was to do this trail again. Bedrocks are pretty minimal, and I found it a little uncomfortable to hike long days in them on the rocky terrain. Learn more about both models on our Best Hiking Sandals (men / women) lists. If, like the rest of the CleverHiker team, you prefer closed-toe shoes, a ton of hikers on the CT were happy using Altra Lone Peaks (men’s / women’s). We love these shoes for their low weight, excellent traction, and roomy toe box. The Lone Peaks rank highly on our Best Hiking Shoes (men / women) list.

I love Bedrock Cairn Adventure Sandals (men’s / women’s), but I found them a bit too minimal for this trip

HEADLAMP: I took the Black Diamond Spot Lite from our list of the Best Headlamps. We love that it’s affordable, compact, and lockable.

COOKING SYSTEM: I cold-soaked my food for this trip because my goal was to go light and fast. I used a Ziploc Twist n Loc container to soak my food in (and for a second liter of water capacity while I was hiking) and an MSR Folding Spoon. Most folks like a hot meal at the end of the day, though. So one of our favorite backpacking kitchen setups would consist of an MSR Pocket Rocket 2 Stove, TOAKS Titanium 750 mL Pot, and Sea to Summit Alpha Light Long Spoon. All these items can be found on our Best Backpacking Stoves and Best Backpacking Cookware lists.

FOOD: Check out our Best Lightweight Backpacking Food Guide, Best Freeze Dried Backpacking Meals list, Best Energy Bars list, and our other Food Guides for recommendations.

I cold-soaked my food for this trip – my beans maybe don’t look very good, but they taste great!

FOOD STORAGE: I stored my food in an Ursack Major to protect it from bears, rodents, and other small critters.

CLOTHING: Below is the list of clothing we recommend for this trail. Use it as a guideline to build a clothing system, but ultimately your clothing choices will depend on what makes you feel most comfortable. Head over to our Backpacking & Hiking Clothing 101 post and our best clothing lists on our Gear Guide to put together your ideal layering system.

The Outdoor Research Echo Sun Hoodie (men’s / women’s) was a popular choice for hikers on the CT

NAVIGATION: I used the FarOut Colorado Trail Guide which I loved because it kept me up-to-date on current water conditions and helped me plan resupplies. Some hikers also choose to use the Colorado Trail Databook published by the Colorado Trail Foundation, which is an awesome option if you don’t like having to rely on your phone for trail info. FIRST AID KIT: Always bring a small personalized first aid kit; I used a custom kit that I pieced together using the .3 Ultralight Kit, some meds, and cut up strips of RockTape. Check out our Best First Aid Kits list for more info. SUN PROTECTION: You’ll be exposed for a large portion of the CT, and UV rays are intense at high elevation. Polarized sunglasses, sunscreen, and SPF lip balm are all essential. We also highly recommend wearing a UPF hiking shirt.

A lot of CT miles are above treeline, so sun protection is a must

POCKET KNIFE: I brought a small pair of ultralight scissors because my travel plans included a flight. If you don’t have to worry about airline travel, we recommend the Benchmade Mini Bugout from our Best Pocket Knives list because it’s lightweight and compact. The Swiss Army Classic SD is also a great option if you prefer a multitool. OTHER ITEMS:

For more recommendations on our favorite lightweight backpacking equipment, check out the CleverHiker Gear Guide and our Top Picks page.

More Information

We hope this guide helps you plan your unforgettable journey along the Colorado Trail. As always, leave a comment below if you have any recommendations, questions, or suggestions. For more popular CleverHiker content, check out the following links:

A view of a lake with a mountain in the background on the Colorado Trail