One of the longest bikepacking trails in the United States, the Colorado Trail offers an extreme bikepacking experience that you will not soon forget. From buffed singletrack to head scratching hike-a-bike sections. Well maintained trail to very primitive track. 13,000 feet all the way down to river basins. The Colorado Trail is a must do if you consider yourself a bikepacker.
(Photos/Joey Schusler / Neil Beltchenko / Mike Behrendt)
What to Know
This point to point route has two main start locations, Denver and Durango. Both have about the same elevation difference, and both are equally difficult. There are plenty of other easy to access trailhead locations if you are not up for the whole trail.
Waterton Canyon Trailhead is located Southwest of downtown Denver. Overnight camping or parking is not permitted in the Waterton Canyon parking lot. There is a bathroom facility and picnic tables. The start travels up Waterton Canyon road and past the Strontia Springs Dam, before splitting off onto your first bit of singletrack.
Junction Creek Trail head is just short of 4 miles northwest of Durango. There is a parking lot at the Trailhead, and further up the road, you will run into a campsite.
The Colorado Trail goes through 6 wilderness areas. Bicycles are not allowed in wilderness areas thus you must detour around those 6 sections. Don’t write it off as a bad thing as these detours allow for resupply. Even better, each detour is included in the Colorado Trail Foundation’s data and guide.
On top of those 6 wilderness areas the Colorado Trail passes through six National Forests, traverses five major river systems and penetrates eight of the states mountain ranges. (source:CTF)
Diversity is abundant as you will traverse grassland, high dessert, alpine tundra, and into some really bicycle friendly communities.
Denver to Breckenridge: The first 3 segments are very popular for day users, including mountain bikers. Once you hit FS Rd 560 (40mi) you will turn left to join the first detour of the route around the Lost Creek Wilderness. While many still bypass Lost Creek Wilderness via Bailey and Hwy 285, the suggested route is to take the longer Taryall detour. The detour brings you through the Hayman Fire burn zone, the 2nd largest burn zone in Colorado, so be prepared for the heat and exposure. Eventually pavement and the Stagestop Saloon (100mi) will split up the detour. You will eventually get back on the Colorado Trail just before Hwy 285. Kenosha Pass and Georgia Pass are two fun but difficult sections, especially when wet. Once you summit Georgia Pass, the first real pass on route, you will weave your way to Hwy 9, just south of Breckenridge.
Breckenridge to Buena Vista: After crossing Hwy 9 your sights will be glued to the true destruction of the pine beetle, where almost every tree was effected in the lower elevations. You will make your way to the difficult Gold Hill climb to the top of the 10 mile range. The hike-a-bike will be worth it as the views are breathtaking. Once you finally make it over the top you will start to descend a very steep and difficult trail down to Hwy 91. Once you hit Hwy 91 the trail heads through Copper Mountain Resort. The trail steadily starts to climb up to Searle and Kokomo passes. This section can be tricky during monsoon season so be sure to do it during the morning if you can. Once you hit Kokomo Pass you will then start a long and painful descent into Camp Hale. The trail will then climb back up towards Tennessee Pass and eventually detour around Holy Cross and Mt. Massive Wilderness areas into Leadville. Leadville is a full service town that is open 22 hours a day (The Safeway is open daily from 12:00 AM-10:00 PM). After you leave Leadville you will continue the wilderness detour up Halfmoon Road. Once you get to the Mt Elbert trailhead you will ride singletrack past Twin Lakes and eventually detour around Collegiate Peaks wilderness and into Buena Vista, your last large town for a while.
Buena Vista to HWY 114: Make sure you resupply on essentials such as batteries, food and repairs in Buena Vista as it is your last large town until Silverton. Once you leave Buena Vista, you will climb up Cottonwood Pass Rd for 9 miles to the Avalanche TH, where you will rejoin the Colorado Trail. This section all the way to Hwy 50 is a mix of rough to buffed out singletrack. In between is Princeton Hot Springs, a small convenience store and a nice treat if you can hit it at the right time. Once you cross Hwy 50 you will climb the difficult Fooses Trail to the top of the continental divide. You then will join the popular Monarch Crest Trail to Marshall Pass. This particular section from Marshall Pass to the Saguach Park is pretty sparse on water. Consider filling up before this point. Tank 7 Creek located just before Sergeants Mesa is always filled with cow crap, but you just may need to filter water from it, it has been done. From Marshall Pass you will make your way to Sargents Mesa, one of the most desolate and difficult parts of the CT. Many people come away with some very interesting stories here, eventually the headache will be over and you will descend to Hwy 114.
Hwy 114 to Silverton: The Colorado Trail will cross Hwy 114 and head up, and back down into Saguache Park. This section is relatively easy going and will lead you to the 4th wilderness detour around the La Garita Wilderness. Here the CT and GDMBR travel together for a short while past Dome Lakes before the Colorado Trail turns west towards Los Pinos Pass. From here the detour continues on dirt roads through small ranching communities of Cathedral and Mineral Creek, Colorado. Forest road 50 is host to some good established camping before it climbs up to Hwy 149. You will descend and climb the highway for 8 miles until you reach Spring Creek Pass. Here you will join back up to the CT and head up toward Coneys ridge and Carsons Saddle which happens to be the High Point of the Colorado Trail. From Coneys to the Cataract/Stony Pass you will be completely exposed while above tree line. Smart decisions should be made up here, but don’t forget to reel in the beauty. Once you make it to Stony Pass you will again take part in a brutal descent while you dream of burgers and milkshakes in Silverton.
Silverton to Durango: The last stretch is no easy task, once you leave Silverton with a full stomach you will take on one of the scariest sections of the trail, HWY 550 up to Molas Pass with little to no shoulder. In general this section will greet you with big views, lush forest, and some ridiculous climbs. From Molas Pass you will get on the well traveled track and start climbing up to the saddle of Rolling Peak (13,000ft), and then Bolam Pass. From Bolam Pass Road, you will negotiate roots and some tight switchbacks to Blackhawk Pass. Blackhawk Pass will descend to Hotel Draw. From here you will steadly start to climb up to Indian Trail Ridge. Plenty of hiking will commence, while you look over at the shear cliff to your side. Once you reach the high point you will see Taylor Lake, and hike your bike down to it and eventually Kennebec Trailhead. From here you can almost smell Durango, but dont fool yourself. 20 miles still remain and not all of it is downhill. After the big descent you will reach some river crossings, and again start climbing, at this point cursing yourself. Eventually it will turn to downhill, and before you know it Junction Creek TH will be waiting for you and hopefully a beer too!
Camping and Lodging:
There are plenty of designated campsites along the way and most of them are maintained by the Colorado Trail Foundation. The data/guide book has each individual campground marked, but there are plenty of flat spots if you just can’t make it to your intended destination.
Towns along the way such as Breckenridge, Copper, Leadville, Buena Vista, Princeton Hot Springs and Silverton all have lodging.
Although trail conditions vary from year to year, you usually can’t pass the entire CT until early July. That being said, higher terrain may be accompanied by snow in the early and late parts of the summer.
Usually by the time the trail is dried out from end to end, monsoon season starts. It is hit or miss, but you can bet on getting rained on during your ride on the Colorado Trail from July to September.
Come September, sections of the trail get very cold at night, and the days grow shorter. Having finished the trail by September would be a good call, however some seasons hold onto the warmth a bit longer.
Another bonus is the lack of bugs. There are some, but overall it is rather pleasant without them.
There are a good number of resupply points along the way, however the longest stretch between Buena Vista and Silverton can prove to be logistically challenging.
If you follow the Colorado Trail Foundation route you will pass through these town/areas to resupply on food and water. Teryall (100mi), Breckenridge (146mi), Copper (160mi), Leadville (195mi), Buena Vista (246mi), Princeton Hot Springs (268mi) and Silverton (450mi). Make sure to do your research as many of these towns shut down early.
Water is abundant upon the trail, but do not be fooled, there are longer stretches on the route, including Sergeants Mesa to La Garita Wilderness. Much of the land is permitted to ranchers and their cattle. make sure you have proper filtration system if you taking water from streams, creeks or rivers.