This July I thru-hiked the Colorado Trail.
My cousin Bradley joined me for the thru, and @friendOfThundergod
joined us from Denver to Breckenridge. We spent a total of 26 days on trail, with 4 zero days (days where you do zero miles on the Colorado Trail) in town. Our highest mileage day on the trail was 30 miles, lowest was around 6 miles.
Since doing a day-by-day write up of the trip would be very unwieldy for me and the reader, I'm adopting the same format I did for my final AZT section trip report, with the addition of a "Info for future hikers" segment.
I couldn't of asked for better weather on this trip. It was a strange July in Colorado, and that was often the small talk along the trail. "Can you believe how lucky we've been with this weather?" Last year, after hitting segment 4 I got rained on consistently every day. This year, we had about 2 weeks of no precipitation which is almost unheard of for Colorado in July. This made the mental game of the thru much easier this time around.
We had a single week of daily thunderstorms between US-50 and Lake City, but most of those segments are low and in the trees so it was never a serious issue. There was only one day where we were being chased off or blocked from ascending the passes/ridges by storms, which was just after the saddle at San Luis Peak.
After you reach Twin Lakes, you are given the choice of taking either the Collegiate East or West route (both form the Collegiate Loop). East is the lower, "traditional" side of the loop which skirts the Collegiate Peaks along the Arkansas Valley. West is higher, generally considered to be more scenic, and it coincides with the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.
This was a hard stretch of trail. It's consistently high, and encountering climbing grades of 1000 ft per mile is not uncommon. It was my second favorite stretch of trail in terms of scenery.
After climbing over Hope Pass and Lake Ann Pass, you follow along the Continental Divide, rewarded with stunning views of the Collegiate Peaks, the Elks, Taylor Park, and the San Juans (in the far distance).
Our intention when we started the trail was to actually complete the loop and hitch back to Salida in order to continue the trail, but we decided to save the eastern side of the loop for a future Collegiate Loop + 14ers trip when we have more time.
Eddiesville to Silverton (Segment 20 - Segment 25)
This is the "cream of the crop" on the CT. It's rediculously scenic, consistently high, and feels much more remote and wild compared to the rest of the trail. Along this stretch you closely follow the Continental Divide, and any direction you look is rugged mountains for days.
Most of this stretch is above treeline, and 30 miles of it (between Lake City and Silverton) stays above 12,000 ft! We went an entire day without seeing any trees. Not a place you want to be stuck when a thunderstorm rolls in. We had very cloudy skies with occasional rain along this stretch, but no lightning or thunder. Still a little sketchy.
The morning after we climbed up past the CT highpoint, we woke up to a herd of 50+ Elk bugling on a mountain side. You could see a long line of Elk grazing and making their way across a contour on the mountain side, very cool!
After US-50, the number of thru-hikers we saw each day dropped dramatically. During the first 100 miles we were seeing probably 15+ people every day, in the next 150 miles that number dropped to around 5-10 people a day. After US-50, we would maybe see 2-3 people a day, and it was almost always someone we had already met. I think this is a combination of people dropping out and because the hiker bubbles were settling. This created a kind of "trail family" by the time we reached Lake City.
For the first half of the trip, it felt like most people we would see we might interact with for a day or two and then never see them again. Once we got into Lake City we had a group of people we were consistently interacting with out on the trail and in town, which meant we actually had a chance to get to know them and become friends.
I had heard of the concept of "trail families" before my trip, but never truly got to experience them on my section hikes of the AZT, or CT last year. We had all been through a lot up to this point, and we had a sense that these were the people we would be finishing with. A lot of great memories were made in Lake City, Silverton, and out on the trail with these people, and I expect we will all stay in touch.
I was initially concerned about this when starting the CT. I had only hitched once before on the AZT from Snowbowl Rd into Flagstaff. We were able to avoid hitching on the first half of the trail, because you walk into Breckenridge after the first 104 miles, and I had secured a ride into Leadville from a connection on Facebook before starting the trail.
Once we hit US-50 we had to start thumbing it. We met some interesting individuals: a "punk rock pastor" and his "honky tonky" wife, a motel owner from Leadore, Idaho who frequently hosts CDT hikers, a speeding cowboy-blacksmith who showed us his big knife just as we got out of his truck in Silverton, among others... Everyone was nice and courteous!
Over the first half of the year while I was finishing up my section hike of the AZT, I was plagued with blisters and IT Band Syndrome. None of that surfaced on this hike. I did the entire hike from Denver to Durango without a single blister! With the exception of some mild knee pain at the beginning, tweaking my left ankle a little on the descent from Snow Mesa near Lake City, and some dry toe skin, I was in perfect health for the entire trip!
On the first night, it rained and my tent fly leaked. On the second night, I got a hole in my sleeping pad.
Had to acquire a new tent in Breckenridge because apparently the BA Copper Spur rain flys are made of a special kind of material (silicon based) which standard seam sealers don't stick to it. Reluctantly I went with a Copper Spur 2... enjoyed the extra space, hated the extra weight.
I tried to fix the hole in my NeoAir (sleeping pad) but I was unsuccessful and dealt with inflating the pad a couple of times each night before replacing it in Salida.
Losing my hat.
I lost my hat on the pass between Breckenridge and Copper Mountain. It may seem like something silly to be upset about, but I got that hat for Christmas in 2014 and it has accompanied me on virtually every hike I've been on since. Just as I made the crest of the ridgeline on the pass, a large gust of wind whipped the hat straight off my head and carried it over a cliff... I went through all the stages of grief.
I picked up a new hat in Leadville, which I nearly lost on the hitch into Lake City. In this instance, I was seated in the back of a pickup after scoring a hitch into town, when the driver started going before I had time to take my hat off. Again I started to work through the stages of grief... This time however, a fellow hiker found the hat on the side of the road while thumbing for a ride and returned it to me in town.
I may be a little too sentimental about my hats...
US-50 to Eddiesville
After being dazzled by amazing views along the Collegiate West route, the trail hits a lull as you leave the Sawatch Range and transition into the San Juans. You are no longer mesmerized by grand alpine views above treeline, which carry you along.
The trail dips back down below 10,000 ft, it gets warmer, and there is less water. The landscape along this stretch isn't "ugly" by any means, but it is very average compared to what you've already been though. That coupled with the daily thunderstorms made this stretch a little less exciting compared to the beginning of the trail or Collegiate West. Once we made it to the Cochatopa Valley in Eddiesville it was back to fairy tale land.
Info For Future Hikers
We didn't go into the hike knowing where every town stop was going to be. Our motto was to be as flexible as possible. We ended up doing Breckenridge, Leadville, Salida, Lake City, and Silverton. For those going Collegiate West, this seemed to be the standard resupply options.
We decided to buy everything in town as we went. It is the more expensive option, but we almost always got into town on weekends when the post office was closed and met people who had to wait an extra day in town to get their resupply boxes. This also allowed us to be flexible with what we ate. By the time I reached Lake City I never wanted to touch another Knorr Pasta Side, and in Lake City I didn't want to see another Ramen package. I was able to change what I was eating on the fly, while others were trying to give away food they were sick of out of their resupply boxes. Buy-as-you-go seems to be the most common method for resupply on the CT.
is a full service town with a fantastic bus system that can take you around Breck-Frisco-Dillon. There is a Walmart in Frisco, and several gear stores where you can buy supplies.
is a full service town with a limited selection of groceries and outdoor supplies. Leadville is compact and it is easy to get around by walking.
is a full service town with a Walmart and an excellent selection of outdoor gear. However, the town is a little more spread out and has no public transportation system so getting around may be a little more difficult. The Super8 we stayed at (hostel was full) had bikes we were able to use to get around.
is a very small town with a very limited selection of groceries and gear supplies. It is small and compact enough to get around on foot. There is no 4G internet service in this town. Very slow 3G internet service is available but you're better off finding a Wifi connection somewhere in town.
is a very small town with a limited selection of groceries and gear supplies. The town is small and compact enough to get around on foot.
If you want cheap lodging along the trail, stay at the hostels.
From most favorite to least favorite:
The Leadville Hostel
- Very accommodating to hikers, they have bikes you can use to get around town, a pool table, 2 T.V.s, vending machines with reasonable prices, and comfortable beds. For $10 they will also shuttle you back to the trail so you don't have to hitch.
Raven's Rest (Lake City)
- Very accommodating to hikers, they have a bike you can use to get around town, a very lax thru-hiker oriented atmosphere, and they are located in a part of town where you can get most places in less than 5 minutes. My only gripe with the Raven's Rest is their beds were like stiff boards. This place is run by a triple crown hiker, Lucky, who liked Lake City so much he came back to settle with his family and start the hostel.
The Bivvy (Breckenridge)
- A cool atmosphere, free breakfast, and a hot tub. They are located far away from most services in Breck-Frisco-Dillon but the public transportation system makes up for it. They were the most expensive out of all the hostels we stayed at.
Blair Street Hostel (Silverton)
- Your standard generic hostel, not "trashy" but definitely run down. Comfortable beds and for $10 they will shuttle you back to Molas Pass.
If I had to pick half of the trail to section hike, I would do US-50 to Durango. If I had to choose a smaller section of the trail to hike (~80-100 miles), I'd either do Collegiate West, or Eddiesville to Silverton (Segment 20 - 24). Both of these sections get high, stay high, and follow the Continental Divide for astounding views.
This will without a doubt be one of the most memorable hikes of my life. It was my first thru-hike, and it has me hooked. My section hike of the AZT may have been where I gained my wings, but my CT thru-hike is where I flew. I met some incredible, determined people a long the way, struggled at times, was hootin and hollerin, and witnessed awesome beauty. I also walked... a lot!
I thought this would be enough to satisfy my craving for thru-hiking long enough that I would be able to come home and focus hard on school, but I'm already looking at what is possible next. This breed of hiking can be a lifestyle, if you're willing to sacrifice some stability. It felt long in the middle, but near the end I realized just how short the experience really was. This is definitely only the beginning.