Hiking all or part of THE Colorado Trail has been on my agenda for several years and became a knee rehab goal. This 485-mile trail runs between Denver and Durango, passing through six National Forests, six Wilderness areas, traverses five major river systems and penetrates eight of the states mountain ranges.
Much like other long trails, if you are thru hiking, you can’t pick best time for each section, but as a self-proclaimed cherry picker and section hiker, I’m happy to jump around when opportunities present. The first five segments (or sections) are lowest elevation and tend to heat up early, and with each passing week after snowmelt, water availability lessens. When the window opened and logistics came together easily, I found myself at this iconic sign.
Was I ready to traverse 70+ miles with significant elevation gain while traveling between 5,000 and 11,000 feet? hadn’t carried more than 2+ days of food since my knee surgery. I wanted to budget food based on 15-mile days but that would certainly set me up for failure. That far exceeded my training and fitness. Begrudgingly I packed 6+ days of food for 10-mile days. With thunderstorms forecast, possible frigid temperatures at higher elevation and exposure through a few burn sections, I added my rain gear and umbrella. I about cried when I saw the scale register 27 pounds. The night before I tossed and turned considering what I should remove. In the end I didn’t remove anything, and kept thinking of the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I was super excited to finally turn this concept into reality!
Segment 1 – 16.5 miles (2,380′ gain, 2,239′ loss)
The challenges of this segment include road walking on compacted surface in the heat, limiting miles to 8.7 if you don’t want to carry water for dry camping or if you aren’t able to hike 16.5 miles to the next water source.
The walk through Waterton Canyon was an easy stroll with restrooms, shaded picnic tables, and garbage bins every couple miles, plus nearby river access.
This canyon is known for Bighorn Sheep sightings. I thought it was going to be a bust but at the last rest area these youngsters came down the hill. They were headbutting and humping. It was an entertaining sight.
I was happy to be on single track with shade after the long road walk.
Another benefit of being a section hiker is that I didn’t need to share cramped campsites. I saw 5-25 hikers, runners and bikers daily, most out for the day or a section, as it was still early for the thru hiker crowd. I only shared a camping area one night out of five.
I finally earned some views and even saw some snowy mountains.
In this segment I found a few blooms including prickly poppy, grass widow, skullcaps, penstemon, larkspur, milkweed, columbine, and I believe euphorbia, plus lots of butterflies.
Segment 2 – 11.7 miles (2,482′ gain, 753′ loss)
Water is again a big challenge as there are only two sources. The first at the beginning and the second 10 miles later. There are two large burn areas devoid of shade.
The South Platte River is a bit of an oasis. I took a nice break in the shade before loading up with 4.5 liters of water for the climb and dry camping.
I used cooling strategies to get me through the exposed burn scar of wetting my shirt, head, hat and buff at the river, then adding my umbrella to keep me shaded.
I was happy to find some shade at the 2.5 mile mark. I couldn’t carry those 10 pounds of water any further in the heat. It made for an early day but better for my wellness and success.
I was left wondering if I needed a helmet but thankfully no UFO’s bonked me upon the head.
It was a relief to reach the fire station and find the spigot on with water available. Such a humanitarian gift and one worthy of a donation (NorthForkFire.org) with no natural water sources in this segment after the South Platte River. The 4.5 liters I carried was just right.
Blooms I found on this segment in additional to those I saw in the previous segment.
Segment 3 – 12.5 miles (1,975′ gain, 1,549′ loss)
This segment has far fewer challenges with more plentiful water, shade, views, and gentle terrain. The trade-off is bike activity especially on weekends.
The sculpted rock formations dotted the landscape through this segment.
The highlight for me was finding this Abert’s Squirrel.
This chipmunk in camp loved his salad. He ate so many greens.
Buffalo Creek was the best source thus far. I’d been surprised by the minimalist streams called creeks.
I heard some big ammunition fire but thankfully no stray bullets.
Segment 4 – 16.4 miles (3,271′ gain, 1,373′ loss)
The challenge in this segment is elevation as the high point is nearly 11,000 feet. I also found the 5 miles of steep, rocky old logging road at uncomfortable grade. There is also a lack of shade during the long 6-mile meadow section.
I was surprised this old road was considered trail once I entered wilderness. I was happy for shade but not for the unrelenting grade on very rocky surface. My initial impressions didn’t match my previous experience in this wilderness (blog link).
I was super happy to leave the road and find wonderful hiker grade single track trail.
I didn’t even mind when the trail got rocky as I made my way toward the pass. However I was very disappointed to find no view.
I’m guessing this 6-mile meadow is colorful with blooms if your timing is just right.
There were several side creeks sporting marsh marigolds.
After exiting the meadow and climbing to another saddle, I was once again disappointed to find no views.
Segment 5 – 14.6 miles (1,858′ gain, 2,055 loss)
The altitude challenge is the primary concern; however there are also some long exposed sections without shade, as well as expected bovine companions and poo water.
This segment is considered the first of the best sections. I was thrilled to find views and long traverses.
My timing couldn’t have better as a trail crew cut 49 logs off the trail the previous day. I met them in the morning and shared my many thanks for this gift.
I was super excited to find this solo Fairy Slipper Orchid.
I suspect the meadows will be filled with blue iris soon.
Kenosha Pass marks the end of Segment 5, and for me the end of this 5 segment section. What a great reminder of my first steps back in 2017 (blog link).
This was a fab test of my fitness following my knee surgery and rehab. I’m super proud of myself for hiking this 70+ miles with about 10,000′ elevation gain.
I was thankful I finished a day earlier than planned as smoke blew in from the fires in New Mexico and Arizona. I would not have wanted to hike in those conditions (but would have had to).
- Consider earplugs if you are noise sensitive at night. There is a lot of plane traffic. You might also have noisy neighbors.
- Have strategies for dealing with the heat, such as salt/electrolyte capsules and drinks, umbrella, and buff to keep wet. Sunscreen especially for lips.
- Bring a water scoop and prefilter for minimalist streams.
- The Guthook/Far Out App and Colorado Trail Association Data Book are helpful. I also used Gaia with the Colorado Trail Nat Geo layer.