The Colorado Trail, one of the nation's premier long-distance hiking trails, spans 500 miles from Denver to Durango, and it's arguably one of Colorado's greatest outdoor recreation and education achievements. Over eight mountain ranges, along five river systems and traversing six national forests and six wilderness areas, the Colorado Trail is truly a natural wonderland. Each year, additional bridges, switchbacks and markings are added, making the trail more and more accessible to backpackers and hikers.
However, because of its length, altitude — and in many places, sheer ruggedness — the Colorado Trail can be hard to get your hands around at first It can take four to six weeks to hike the whole thing, but you can hike it in smaller segments.
The trail is comprised of 28 segments, ranging from 11.4 miles to 32 miles. Elevation gains along segments span from 1,040 to 4,520 feet. Looking at length and elevation gain is a good way to gauge each segment's difficulty. Here are some popular segments throughout the state:
Segment #1: Waterton Canyon to South Platte River
This is a moderate and very scenic route near Denver. A good warm-up, the first six miles climb gradually along a dirt road, then turn onto rolling and climbing singletrack trail. This segment is popular for mountain biking, too. Watch for bighorn sheep, elk and deer. Note: Dogs are not permitted in Waterton Canyon; the canyon is currently closed and will reopen March 1, 2012.
Stats: 16.5 miles; 2,346-foot elevation gain
Access: From Denver, go south on Wadsworth Boulevard past Chatfield State Park. Turn left on Waterton Road (just before the entrance to Lockheed Martin) and park there.
Segment #8: Copper Mountain to Tennessee Pass
Take 1-70 West from Denver to access several more Colorado Trail trailheads. With the re-route of this section, you can access the trail from the west side of Highway 9. Look for the Colorado Trail sign in the woods alongside the highway. Underneath the Eagle Lift of Copper Mountain resort, look for the white rock with the Colorado Trail logo. Head up through Copper's cross-country ski trails, past Janet's Cabin (a backcountry hut that you can reserve through the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association), and over two passes. You'll look down at Lake Dillon and settling ponds at Climax near Leadville. The free Summit Stage bus, which runs between Silverthorne, Breckenridge, Frisco, Dillon and Copper, gives you even more flexibility: you can hike farther without doubling back.
Stats: 24.33 miles; 3,823-foot elevation gain
Access: From Denver, take I-70 west past Frisco to Copper Mountain resort.
Segment #13: North Cottonwood Creek to Chalk Creek Road
Among a massive cluster of 14,000-foot peaks known as the Collegiate Parks, and near the towns of Buena Vista and Salida, are several great segments of the Colorado Trail. This branch will take you high on the flanks of Mt. Yale, where you can summit the 14er as part of your journey. Along the way, dip your feet in Chalk Creek. And for post-hike aching muscles, try the nearby Cottonwood Hot Springs or Mt. Princeton Hot Springs farther south on U.S. 24 (go west at Nathrop).
Stats: 22.28 miles; 4,085-foot elevation gain
Access: On U.S. 24 in Buena Vista, go west onto Main Street, which turns into County Road 306. Follow it 9.5 miles to the Avalanche Trailhead.
Segment #25: Molas Pass to Bolam Pass Road
The San Juan Mountains is a rugged, Alps-like range that is often considered the state's most stunning. Starting high above the town of Silverton and sandwiched between two high-alpine passes, this segment is a hiker's paradise. Make sure to take in the scenery: summer wildflowers followed by changing aspens, waterfalls and awesome views of Engineer Mountain (so high, engineers once used it on their surveys).
Stats: 20.91 miles; 2,889-foot elevation gain
Access: For the best parking, head south on US 550 about 5.5 miles past Silverton to a dirt road marked Molas Trail. Follow the road .2 miles to the Colorado Trail link up.
About the Colorado Trail
The trail is managed by The Colorado Trail Foundation. The foundation's site lists guidebooks and maps to help you navigate the trail safely. Learn about volunteer opportunities on this trail and Colorado's other long-distance trails.