This article was brought to you by Joe Tonsager maker of JPaks Adventure Gear. As a frame bag maker and mountain biker, the Colorado Trail has always held a place in my dreams to one day complete the whole thing, end to end, in one run. My wife, Kristen, shares that dream with me. She and I have ridden many of the accessible sections of the CT over the years, but never end to end, until this month. Last year as we were planning our honeymoon bikepacking trip to Europe, Kristen expressed interest in doing the CT in August of the same year. I jumped at the chance to make this dream come true. Many people think that Kristen obliges my crazy bike rides, but truth be told, she has a passion for bikepacking and biking that runs as deep as my own. We not only push each other to pursue these adventures, but push to challenge each other and our fitness. We started the initial planning late last year and then stopped to focus on Europe. After a successful 3 week bikepacking trip across 6 countries in Europe, it was time to focus on completing the Colorado Trail. Colorado’s high country has a very slim window of time to get in high altitude rides; too early and you face snow and impassable routes, too late and you face the monsoon season. There are really only 4 weeks of ‘perfect’ weather for the CT and we were determined to ride in that window. After gathering intel from friends, online forums, racer re-caps and studying the maps and guidebooks, we hashed out a 13-day trip starting the last Sunday in July. The timeframe worked for both of our work schedules, as well as giving the stores along the route time to resupply after the Colorado Trail racers had passed through the week prior. Departure week had arrived! Bikes were prepped, gear was organized, food was divided and packaged and an itinerary was finalized. Now, Kristen and I both take extreme pleasure in the randomness of resupply shopping while bikepacking. From gas stations to grocery stores and everything in between, sometimes not knowing what you want or what they have is part of the fun. Nonetheless, we decided to ship ourselves one resupply box that we would pick up in Buena Vista, which contained additional breakfast, lunch and dinner resupplies, as well as a few bike repair items. (Post-ride note: We both decided that next time this would be unnecessary as all of the bike detours put you through solid resupply towns for food and bike parts, with Silverton being the only exception for parts as they have no bike shop. If you find yourself in Silverton with a need for bike parts, get ahold of Todd at Silverton Ski and Bike. It’s a small operation run out of his house, but he’s a great guy.Jpaks Colorado Trail- We departed early Sunday morning, opting to take the Lightrail from our house to the last stop on the line, which would set us up to pedal a few miles to the start in Waterton Canyon. We pretty much knew the first three segments like the back of our hands since this was our local stomping grounds, so we decided to push through all three segments in the first day to set us up to complete the Tarryall Reservoir detour on day 2. After that, a regimen of 30-75 mile days were planned. We tried to keep the pace casual and fun with relaxed start times and things like fresh French press coffee every morning, Keen camp shoes, campfires and plans for burgers and beers. We wanted to enjoy riding the CT during daylight hours, but we also brought along riding lights for possible nighttime excursions.Jpaks Colorado Trail--8 Jpaks Colorado Trail--9 The first major Wilderness you encounter when traveling south is the Lost Creek Wilderness and the ensuing Tarryall Reservoir detour. The detour around the Wilderness via Tarryall Reservoir has only recently been accepted as the official re-route; before that, riders would ride along the (non-existent) shoulder of Hwy 285 from Bailey to Kenosha Pass. The Tarryall Reservoir detour is a 71.6 mile mix of dirt and paved roads to get you around the 24.6 miles of Wilderness…yeah. We knew this well in advance and had planned for a one-day push to knock it out. We, like everyone else, had the option to ride Hwy 285, but opted for the official detour as safety was a major concern riding along the highway. Starting around 7am we rode for a total of 10 hours, 78.5 miles and climbed 8,166 feet at a moderate pace with breaks for lunch, snacks, rest and water. This ended up being our second longest day, and our single biggest climbing day.Jpaks Colorado Trail--34 We made the obligatory stop at the Stagecoach Stop at the end of the detour, and were elated to set up camp that night, knowing the detour was over. Day 3, we enjoyed sunny skies over Kenosha Pass and Georgia Pass, and started the ascent up Ten Mile Range. Day 4, we made our assault up and over Ten Mile, Searle Pass and Kokomo Pass. Kristen planned this day and I thought she was crazy. She had a point though – to do the trail at the pace we planned, a big day like this was inevitable. Luckily, the weather was in our favor and we summited Kokomo at 6:30pm with a fast descent to our campsite for the evening. We wouldn’t see the sun again for a few days, so remember, when the weather window of opportunity smiles down on you – take it! Jpaks Colorado Trail--24 Rain is just a factor of life on a trip as long as the CT. Progress must be made each day to keep an itinerary and we rode every single day. On day 5, we rode from the base of Kokomo Pass, through Camp Hale, another bike detour through Leadville and into Twin Lakes. It rained all day long. Our soggy feet and hands had us seeking a more permanent shelter that evening, so we ended up getting a small cabin from Steve at the Twin Lakes Roadhouse Lodge. The small, no, very small cabin, allowed us to dry out and warm up as well as recharge some batteries, both literally and figuratively. It rained throughout the night and only stopped a few hours before day break. With the break in the weather, we suited up for day 6 and headed out along the beautiful section of the Collegiate East trail, another bike detour towards Buena Vista, and then a rainy, but amazing climb up and over Cottonwood Pass. We tried in vain to start a fire that evening to dry out, and only hoped the blue skies would return the next day. Jpaks Colorado Trail--32 Jpaks Colorado Trail--34 The weather proved to be fickle and fast moving over the next week and a half. Some days we rode away from storms and other days we rode right into them, but we kept moving forward and finding sunshine over the next ridge. Day 7 began with a hint of sunshine and a fast descent to Mt. Princeton Hot Springs. The General Store there is one of the best! A hot burrito and coffee made second breakfast a real treat before continuing on through the rollercoaster of Segments 14 and 15. We were successful in our campfire that night mid-Segment 15 and reached the top of Fooses Creek (don’t underestimate that last half mile) to ride Monarch Crest in the early morning hours of day 8. Segments 15 and partial 16 rounded out day 8 and they were much harder and took way longer than we anticipated. We camped on Sargent’s Mesa near Baldy Lake that evening. As we hiked down the half mile to the lake to refill our water for the night, the skies opened up and hail started coming in waves. We found refuge, bare footed in our Keens and rain jackets, under a cluster of trees and watched the water cascade down the trail we just came from. In a break between the pelts of hail, we filled our bladders and climbed up the mudslide to our camp. You have a heightened awareness of your gear when faced with continual rainy days. The tent is an extremely important piece in these conditions, so I chose to switch from a sil-nylon TarpTent brand tent to an 8’x10′ Hyperlite Mountain Gear Cuben Fiber tarp for this trip. The reason? Cuben Fiber is waterproof. The sil-nylon, while light and water-resistant, would not stand being packed up wet. The Cuben Fiber tarp, however, would allow a waterproof barrier as well as a rain shelter for those mid-afternoon showers. We also utilized a Cuben Fiber ‘bath tub’ as a ground cover for our sleeping pads/bags when we set up camp for the night. Oh, and the whole thing weighs less than 1lb.Jpaks Colorado Trail--43 Day 9 we finished off the mesa and began our second-to-last bike detour around the LaGarita Wilderness. The profile of this segment in the guide was intimidating, but, truth-be-told, was one of the best detours. Fire roads the whole way and steady climbing. A lot of elevation gain, but as you finish the 56 mile detour, you intersect Hwy 149 with the most captivating views of the San Juans. At this junction, you can choose to continue on towards the connecting trailhead, or rip down the 10-mile descent into Lake City. We chose the latter. Fresh asphalt, dwindling daylight, crisp, cool air and no traffic = 30+mph downhill = one hell of a ride! After 83 miles, 9 hours and over 7k of elevation for the day, we found ourselves with 10 minutes to spare before the kitchen closed at the Cannibal Grille (thanks, Alfred Packer) and practically inhaled our meal and downed 3 glasses of Pepsi each. We found lodging at the Pleasantview Cabins that night, and were lucky enough to secure a ride back up to the top of the hill with one of the local handymen on site. Had we not had the generosity of Tom, our ride, we would have had to wait until noon for the free shuttle that takes bikers/hikers alike back up to the trailhead. Thanks to Tom, on day 10, we were able to start at 10am back at the intersection we left the detour, with roughly no time lost and no mileage lost in completing the entirety of the trail. I quietly slipped a $20 bill into the cup holder as we exited Tom’s truck as a way of repaying the favor since he refused to charge us for the ride. The road work continued up to the top of Spring Creek Pass, so we were stopped by a flagger who let us tear up the fresh asphalt with no traffic to worry about. We approached the trailhead of Segment 22 ready to take on the day, but the rainstorm loomed and we found ourselves setting up shelter and waiting out the two-hour storm. There were regular afternoon stops to wait out a storm system before summiting another pass, but those stops would prove to be invaluable as the late afternoon/evening times would provide breaks in the weather and we regularly found ourselves summiting some of the highest peaks after 6pm with the most gorgeous sunsets our eyes could behold.Jpaks Colorado Trail--49 Jpaks Colorado Trail--50 We got anxious to move, so we broke camp and endured the rain as my tire was leaking air. A few miles into the segment, I made a decision to put a tube in the tire and we pushed up and over into Segment 23. We camped at 12,000 feet that night. The best campsite on the trail, we both agreed. Traveling East to West, as we were, you ascend gradually into the high country. Sleeping slightly higher and higher with each passing night the elevation starts to become part of you. As the days ticked by and the mileage ahead of us dwindled we were faced with a weird and very all too common feeling while bikepacking; not wanting the adventure to end. Reaching Durango meant accomplishing our goal, checking off the ride of a lifetime and having, again, put JPaks through the ringer. We woke up the morning of day 11 to overcast skies and stayed in the tent until the clouds broke and the hot sun appeared. As we emerged from our bags, we discovered we had been robbed! Those cute little Pika had chewed through Kristen’s helmet straps, stolen her gloves, glasses and one of my gloves. We used zip-ties and gorilla tape to get the helmet usable, but bare hands and no sunglasses would be the way we would finish out that journey. Expect the unexpected, I guess. We quickly found our rhythm along the Colorado Trial, and between the views and the alpine singletrack, it was hard not to smile and stare in awe at the beauty that surrounded us. Some of the most pristine sections of singletrack we’ve ever had the pleasure to ride lay hidden within segments of the CT that are only accessible through the opposing segments. With that reward, however, are some of the most heinous, chunky, washed out sections of trail I’ve ever had the pleasure of riding, or hiking, as well. Together these opposing terrains make the CT one formidable trail for a bicyclist. We were reminded of this during Segment 23 as we summited one pass, after another, after another. The first few in the blazing sun and the final in a hailstorm before reaching the top of Stony Pass and ripping down the dirt road into the last biking detour through Silverton. With one last funnel cake and pepsi, we pushed through the quaint town, which still only has one paved road, and headed back up into the hills to begin Segment 26. Day 12 proved to be one of the most fantastic. I’ll admit that the last 5 segments are a spectacular treat to finish on, and Indian Trail Ridge on our second-to-last-day was a treat in and of itself. The sights, singletrack, air and sunshine towards the end made the re-entry to society a little softer. We set up one last campsite with 360 degrees of the San Juans and closed our eyes knowing our epic journey would be finished 24 hours from that moment. Jpaks Colorado Trail--54 Day 13. We finished on a Friday afternoon and practically had the descent to ourselves. Don’t be fooled, it is NOT all downhill to Durango. That last 1,000 foot climb, which we thought we had mentally prepared for, was hard. Knowing you can taste the finish, though, gets you over that hump and you fly for the last few miles to the last sign signifying that you had accomplished a feat. As we approached that final map at the Durango trailhead, a lone pair of hikers who had also just finished the CT, graciously took our photo to seal the deal.Jpaks Colorado Trail--58 12 days and a few odd hours. We did it. Now what?? A few small notes: We packaged coffee into vacuum bags for each morning and enjoyed fresh coffee daily. The Colorado Trial Data Book and phone app are priceless! Pay the $9.99 for the biking addition on the app and enjoy clear, concise directions without using data. 650b+ tires made a hardtail enjoyable and fun on a very rocky trail. A small bottle of iso-propyl alcohol goes a long way in cleaning glasses, chamois, skin, tire sidewalls, starting fires, etc. A vulcanizing rubber glue and patch kit is priceless, as are bar-ends placed inside the grip area for hiking leverage. And lastly, don’t forget to enjoy the views – that’s what this trail is all about.Jpaks Colorado Trail--60

55 Comments

  1. Mark Steenson

    very cool

  2. Thanks for the great story. Was glad that the *robbery* wasn’t more dramatic. Pretty hilarious really.

  3. Brian Kennelly

    Great account of this epic trail. I would like to attempt it like you on my own schedule. Your notes also provide a great resource. I’m interested in the 8’x10′ Hyperlite Mountain Gear Cuben Fiber tarp and bathtub as alternate to a tent or bivy – always trying to get lighter and more compact but efficient gear. Also agree with your note on vulcanized patches. I also stumbled on the bar ends inside the grips when I decided that I liked my new slightly wider bars but bar ends way out there would not provide the rest and leverage needed. Mounting them between the grips and shifters has proven most efficient. Thanks aagain

    • Sounds like your on the right path, gear wise Brian. The tarp was indispensable for mid-day deluge(s) and at 6′ 2″ tall, we both had two feet of overhang on either end for gear and to protect from rain splash. During the afternoon storms we were able to cover the bikes along with ourselves and that was SO nice.

  4. Cody Johnson

    Fantastic write-up! My wife and I also just biked the CT, and reading your post brought back some great memories.

    We are older and slower, but we had some very similar experiences. http://pbalsamifera.blogspot.com/2016/08/colorado-trail-august-2016.html?spref=fb

    • Neil Beltchenko
      Neil Beltchenko

      Hey Cody, great summary on each day of your ride, I enjoyed reading it. Now you just need to go back and finish those last miles, because it’s not ALL downhill 🙂

      • Cody Johnson

        Thanks Neil!! We used your trail report in Singletracks from 2012 for a lot of our pre-trip information. Yeah, it’s kind of killing me that I didn’t get those last 20 miles on the trail. Maybe next year!

    • Great write-up Cody! I’m almost positive we camped in the same spot by Browns Creek. Exact same! The CT is truly a beast and it takes a strong body and mind to complete. Strong work and like us, I’m sure you can’t stop thinking about when you’ll return.

    • Cody, now you’ve got me curious as to your age…
      We may not be as young as you think at 34 🙂

      • Cody Johnson

        Ha, well in the interest of keeping Amy from getting too upset with me I won’t post our exact ages, but let’s just say we’ve got about a decade on ya 🙂

        Great write-up! We loved reading (and re-reading) it.

  5. mikeetheviking

    Great story! Excellent photos as well!

  6. Awesome story. Thanks for sharing your adventure.

  7. Inspiring and exciting!

  8. Marty Larson

    Man. What a tale. Thanks!

  9. Nice story Joe. Definitely nice to read your perspective coming from the opposite direction and see so many images line up, but looking the other way. I guess to know how it is both ways, we’re gonna have to ride this baby opposite of our first go… perhaps. 😉

    Thanks for allowing me to reminisce through your words and images!

  10. Awesome! What a great trip and story. Btw, what stove/fuel did you use?

    • Thanks Walter! We opted for the Jetboil SOL for hot water and to double as our french press in the morning. It was well worth it as the weather wasn’t always so nice around dinner time and a quick boil was precious.

  11. Katie Exner

    Thank you for sharing another one of your great adventures! Beautifully written and stunning photos!!!

  12. Audrey Crawford

    Wow!!!! Thnx fir sharing. Great read, can really see how hard this was for even the very fit, but fun fun as well

  13. Wonderful write-up! This is probably as close as I’ll ever get to the Colorado Trail. If I had the opportunity though, I’d definitely love to ride some of this trail.

  14. Dana VanVoorhees

    Fantastic write-up of your CT! I was lucky to ride it last summer with a couple of girlfriends. We had one slightly bad weather day at the start of Spring Creek, but other than that it was sunny skies. We had a friend pick us up to take us to Lake City, missing the LaGarita reroute. Makes me want to bikepack the CT again! Thanks for the great info on your Hyperlite Mountain Gear Cuben Fiber tarp/ground cloth. So glad you got to share this adventure with your wife!

  15. Great write-up and super pics! Any chance you’ll tell us about your bikepacking trip to Europe?

    • Thanks Andrew! I’ve been working on a write-up of our European adventure and I’ll hopefully have something up on the website soon. Who knows, maybe Bikepacker will publish that one too!

  16. outstanding write up Joe! I am honored to call you a friend! You two are so blessed with each other and that was truly a trip you both will never forget, on the heels of another little trip you probably won’t forget anytime soon. 😉
    Thank you for this treat of a read and a little jab in the back to make this whole bikepacking thing a little more enticing! I mean I have the best packs out there! Yours!
    Also thanks for the gear pic! That’s awesome. How did you keep the amoeba’s charged?

    See you soon Joe! And Kristen!

    • Thank you Kevin!
      Thankfully the Amoeba’s have such a long burn time that we never exhausted the initial charge!
      We only had 2 ‘night’ rides during the 2 weeks that lasted less than a couple hours.

  17. any chance you can post your gear list? thanks

  18. Joe, we crossed the CT while out keeping, it’s on my bucketride.com for sure.
    Marty

  19. Joe,
    Awesome write up! So inspiring to read and hear about your adventures with your wife!

    I’ve often thought about riding the CT and this sure gets me thinking about it more. I don’t think this would be a good trip for me and the wife, due to our particular riding style.

    So cool. I’m so happy for you two and what an amazing way to showcase JPaks too!

    Dan

  20. Andy and Kara

    Hey Joe and Kristen,
    I’d be interested in having you 2 up to our new place in Conifer sometime to have a “show and tell” of this story, out on the deck with a few good friends that would be interested.
    I’m sure we’d find enough interest to pack the place out.
    Would you be interested in doing something like that?
    (We would probably have enough people that I may have to figure out a way to setup a big screen outside or something – could make for a really fun afternoon, then evening.)
    If interested, and we want to try for this year, we’ll have to figure something out soon! We are at 8,400′!!

  21. Some fun facts:
    Total distance: 581miles
    Total elevation gain: 85,870 feet
    Carnage: 1 slashed tire sidewall, 2 pairs of brake pads, 1 Sony camera
    Most popular foods: Fritos, Coca-Cola, Skittles and Twizzlers
    Favorite items: Keen camp shoes, french press, coffee, more coffee

    One of the most beautiful adventures I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing!

  22. Hi Joe,

    Awesome trip report, thanks for posting it. My wife and I are planing to start riding the CT this Saturday morning (planing to start driving down from Vancouver, BC tomorrow). I really enjoyed reading you TR and get a glimpse of what to expect.

    Marius

  23. Awesome write up! Been thinking of working up to this trip….thanks for the insight and amazing pictures!
    Were bears ever an issue along the route?
    Any bugs?
    Just trying to do some more planning…
    Cheers!

    • Thanks Tyler!
      No issues with bears, ever. Just ground vermin.
      Normal mosquito’s and black flies, but nothing out of the ordinary.
      I made a bug net for sleeping under the tarp and we had 100% success, with zero bug bites during the night.

  24. Great recap. I was trying to figure out where each picture was taken, and even though I just rode the CT two months ago, I could not recognize where each photo was taken. The whole trip is kind of a big blur to me in some respects. Your photos in the same areas look so much different than mine. It is a dynamic trail for sure, and I can’t wait to do it again someday. Bikepacking doesn’t get much better than the CT.

  25. You guys are an inspiration! Thanks for the great report!

  26. cool!! what the drivetrain gear ratio detail you have on the 29ers? i am considering this trip deeply

    thanks!!

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