Colorado’s epic Colorado Trail runs 485 miles between Waterton Canyon in southwest Denver and Durango. Created in the 1970s and 1980s, the trail consists of a variety of landscapes but is mostly rugged and mountainous alpine terrain. The average elevation is over 10,000 feet and the highest elevation is over 13,000 feet.
The trail is open to hikers, bikers, and horseback riders, and includes parts of six national forests, six wilderness areas, and eight mountain ranges. Many people experience the trail each year during the short season from June to September, and some share their experiences.
Steve Hume of the Hardtail Party YouTube channel organized the trip and invited two friends to join him for the adventure, Cody and James. Cody rode a single-speed bike, so you might presume that he knows his way around a mountain bike. Yes, he did.
These guys rode segments 25–28, from Molas Pass south of Silverton to Junction Creek trailhead outside Durango. They rode for three days, making day 2 kind of a grind. Day 1 was about 24 miles, day 2 was about 28 miles, and they finished on day 3 and made it to Durango. According to the Colorado Trail Foundation, mileage for those four segments is:
25: 20.9 miles
26: 10.9 miles
27: 20.6 miles
28: 21.5 miles
Most people on the trail camp, and you can do that nearly anywhere you can lie down, but the meadows are preferred. Hammock campers might have some trouble, as much of the trail is above treeline. One great feature of the Colorado Trail is the relative abundance of water. You’ll find streams and lakes on many segments so just pack a filter rather than lug your water.
Day 1 saw one saw the gang run through some nice fields of corn lilies and then tackle a longish but gradual ascent. James had a minor OTB but he picked himself up and rode on without much trouble. No blood, no worries. That’s a good reminder to check your first-aid kit; is it ready?
Riding fully loaded bikes hugely affects the balance of the bike. “You’ve got all that weight behind you and it’s easy to go right over the bars,” he said.
Some of the steeper ascents required walking the bikes, but they got to 12,400, marking the high point of day one. “It’s always a good feeling to get here and for there to not be thunderstorms,” Steve said. “We are mentally prepared for three miles of downhill to lose 2000 feet of elevation.”
Day one also saw a hefty sidewall slice in one of James’ tires. With a tube necessary and the gang still on day one, they used an old repair trick in hopes of enhanced durability: a foil chocolate wrapper between the tube and damaged sidewall. “It’s kind of lika a hernia surgery,” Steve quipped.
After about 8.5 hours and 24 miles, they found a campsite in an open meadow and set up for the evening.
Section 25 of the Trail, where they started, runs fairly close to the Bolam Pass Hut, so if you plan ahead you may be able to arrange to take some space there in relative luxury. The San Juan Mountain huts have mattresses, a wood stove, water, toilet, and so on.
You can also arrange for food drops here and there, wherever you see the trail cross one of the mountain roads, and at each section point. If you want to travel lighter, which isn’t a bad idea, this would be handy.
Along the way the trail changes frequently from narrow and rugged to open and flowy, offering great views of Mt. Wilson and Lizard Head Peak, for example. “Every 100 feet the topography changes,” Steve said. All along the trail you’ll enjoy great views, but pull off of rough sections so you don’t wipe out while gawking!
Day 2 for these guys started with awesome views and a nice flowy downhill of three miles. That ease was soon to change, though. They completed section 26 and moved onto section 27 and endless climbing, including the joy of pushing their 50-lb bikes uphill. For the day, the group logged 28 miles and more than 3500’ of climbing in 11 hours, including an arduous and “soul destroying” stretch at Kennebec Pass right before they ended the day at dusk. Plenty of hike-a-bike, so they earned their rest that day! Cody rolled in chipper as hell, as if he’d only done a mile or so downhill. On a single-speed, no less.
Day 3 was mostly downhill to the Junction Creek trailhead in Durango. Steve was really rollin’ and said, “I’m so glad I have plus tires. I love them for bikepacking!”
In descending to about 8600’, Steve noted the elevation change. “What a difference. I feel like I can push a gear harder in most places,” he said. From there, though, more bike-pushing awaited. Cody tried to ride up but even his skills couldn’t overcome the rocky trail. The last 10 miles or so were mostly downhill, letting the guys pick up the pace.
This stretch of the trail also had the most people, unsurprisingly, but it’s manageable. From the trailhead it’s another 5 miles to downtown Durango, where you’ll find hotels, restaurants, groceries, bars, and all that. Close by the trailhead is Junction Creek Campground, which would be a convenient way to continue your camping adventure.
As I mentioned earlier, the season is short and you should also prepare for mountain conditions. That means summer storms that roll in after lunch, often packing lightning. “Colorado is famous for thunderstorms every afternoon around one or two, and sometimes they don’t stop until 6pm and it can just unleash,”
Watch the conditions at all times and get off the peaks if you see a storm coming in. You’ll need warm clothing and rain gear, even if you’re just out for the day. At elevation it could snow on any day of the year, so be prepared for that as well.
You don’t need a permit for the trail, but you do have to grab a free permit when crossing the wilderness areas. Check out the Foundation’s website for more practical info.
If you’re in reasonably good condition, you can do this. It ain’t easy, but it’s worth it!
Watch the Hardtail Party film, Bikepacking The Colorado Trail: Silverton to Durango via Segments 25, 26, 27 and 28 here: