This is an introductory article, the first in a series about bikepacking the Colorado Trail. The series will cover topics ranging from logistics to food & trip length. Read this introductory article for a brief description of the trail as well as my experience, then continue on to the other posts. I’ll add links below as the articles come together. Enjoy!
- Logistics and Planning Advice for Bikepacking the Colorado Trail
- 28 Beautiful Photographs of the Colorado Trail in Fall
- Gear Recommendations and Packing List for Bikepacking the Colorado Trail
- How Much Time Does it Take to Hike the Colorado Trail?
First off, let’s define bikepacking. It’s a growing niche within the mountain biker community these days, but not everyone is familiar with it. So here goes: hikers carry all their gear on their backs, and we call them backpackers. Similarly mountain bikers carry a majority of their gear on their bikes, thus the term bikepacker. Simple, that’s it. These articles are geared toward bikepackers, but much of the information will also pertain to backpackers.
Now, one more disclaimer. This guide is by no means comprehensive, and many people have hiked or bikepacked the Colorado Trail multiple times, providing them with vast experience. I did the trail once, on a singlespeed, at the beginning of fall, which isn’t your typical trip. Regardless, when I started researching the Colorado Trail I had a lot of questions and I hope this guide can both help to point you in the right direction and get you stoked as you start planning.
This is the beginning of an adventure, enjoy!
Basics of the Colorado Trail
The Colorado Trail Foundation bills the Colorado Trail as “mile for mile, the most beautiful trail in America.” There’s truth to that, but it doesn’t come for free. As a mountain biker you’ll pedal and hike a minimum of 540 miles with roughly 82,000 feet of elevation gain to do the full trail. To put that in perspective, that's nearly the same elevation gain as climbing from sea level to the top of Mount Everest three times! That’s a challenge in itself, but the thin air at elevations ranging from 6,000 to 13,000 feet certainly doesn’t help.
Below is a quick outline of the trail on Google Maps. The route varies for mountain bikers due to the detours around wilderness areas, but this gives you an idea of the trajectory of the trail.
The nature of the trail varies significantly between Denver and Durango. Starting at the base of the Front Range you’ll likely experience warm to hot weather as you move through the foothill and montane life zones early on. The trail continues to slowly gain elevation, and roughly 130 miles in you’ll catch a brief experience of being above treeline at Georgia Pass (11,874’). The trail stays consistently high while traversing the Continental Divide, and culminates with an extended section above treeline leading into Silverton. The Southwestern part of the state also tends to have more precipitation, so be prepared to deal with rain and even snow at the higher elevations. You’re covering a huge swath of the state, so always be ready for hot and dry or cold and wet. It’s generally agreed that Denver to Durango is the preferred direction to ride the trail since this allows one more time to acclimate to the altitude.
That’s just a quick synopsis of the trail. More in depth details such as resupply points, suggested gear, and food will be covered in later posts.
My Experience on the Colorado Trail
I chose to do the Colorado Trail solo as I’m fairly introverted and enjoy doing adventures like this on my own time. The last time I did a significant solo trip was roughly 2 years prior with a 27 day kayak trip down the Grand Canyon. It was an amazing experience done at a relaxed pace so I could read and contemplate as much as I wanted. I prefer to take my time during wilderness trips so I can get in my head, take in the landscape around me, and not feel rushed. I chose to do a 20 day trip starting on September 16th, but would have gladly done a longer trip if the threat of snow in early October wasn’t a factor. So that’s my background - I’m a capable 23 year old, but like to go slow to take it all in (however, I also enjoy the occasional sufferfest!).
I rode a singlespeed since it’s the only mountain bike I have. Would I encourage it? No, but it’s certainly a viable option if you’re into that. My friend rode the trail the year before and reported that he had tons of free time and didn’t know what to do with himself. I went in with that expectation since doing roughly 27 miles per day seemed like a piece of cake. Well, I soon discovered that the trail would be more of a full-on physical effort than I imagined.
I originally budgeted 6 days to get to Leadville but neglected to factor in the first wilderness detour, where you bike over 70 miles to bypass just 25 miles of the Colorado Trail. The relaxed pace and 10 AM starts slowly began to fade as I worked to make up those miles and get to Leadville on time. It wasn’t anything crazy, but I consistently biked at a minimum from around 9 AM until just after 6 PM for the rest of the trail. The hour to mileage ratio might seem a little high to some of you, but remember I was on a singlespeed mountain bike. If the trail had even the slightest sustained incline I would hop off and start hiking the bike. That effectively turns half the trail into a hike-a-bike. The trail is an endurance challenge, and there’s no point in mashing on the pedals and going lactic if you can’t even walk up the trail after. And as a side note, to the people who do the trail in 4 or 5 days for the Colorado Trail Race - you’re not human.
It becomes apparent very quickly that the Colorado Trail is not a pure wilderness experience, and that’s okay. Having lived in the state for the past five years I got to see small communities, forest roads, lakes, and campsites that I never knew existed. I learned that crossing the Continental Divide isn’t just something you do once, rather it’s an undulating journey over multiple mountain ranges. And throughout all this I crossed under high voltage powerlines, rode on highways, and occasionally came near ATVs. This is the consequence of human development, and it’s both educational and humbling to see the effects of habitat fragmentation due to human development and roads. I didn’t come into the experience expecting a journey of pure isolation in pristine habitat, and I suggest you don’t either. I did enjoy having the trail to largely to myself (aside from the occasional day hiker), and would certainly consider that a perk of doing a thru-bike at the end of September.
Wildflowers and green meadows aren’t present during an early fall trip, but the aspens were at their prime for much of the trail. Areas around Kenosha Pass and Twin Lakes were ablaze with beautiful fall colors, and I felt privileged to follow that beauty along the trail. The price I paid for this beauty was some very cold weather near the end; as in cold enough to quickly freeze my tent while setting it up at night. The temperatures would have been perfectly comfortable with an extra layer and some thicker gloves, but I knowingly came in light to keep the weight down. If you decide to do a fall trip just be prepared for some uncomfortable morning starts where you might not feel your fingers or feet as you start riding.
Snow. Just a week before I got to Silverton there was a storm that dumped more than a foot of snow in the mountains, but luckily it melted before I arrived. I had one very cold, soggy afternoon/night involving a mix of rain and hail around the Spring Creek Pass area and a full day of snow past Molas Lake coming out of Silverton. Yes, it was chilly and slow going, but certainly doable with maybe 3” on the ground. It can snow even earlier in the year, so conditions in the fall are really a toss up. If you have the luxury it might be worth factoring an extra day or two into your trip to accommodate for weather like that.
I ended up taking two rest days in Leadville to relax while visiting my girlfriend. Prior to the trail I was at sea-level in Oregon and hadn’t touched a bike for four months. Needless to say, I was feeling a little spent. The rest time allowed me to recharge and build up my strength after those first six days on the trail. It’s an entirely personal decision, but taking a rest day may allow you to recover and operate at a higher capacity compared to continually pushing through everyday.
The experience was awesome. It wasn’t the relaxing bike tour that I imagined, but it’s always good to push yourself, get uncomfortable, and figure out what your limits are. While some of the uphills could seem like a slog, any memory of that was always wiped away as I took off on the descent, feeling euphoric. This trail is really spectacular, and it’s special to see the many different facets of Colorado. The landscapes varied from harsh alpine landscape to densely wooded forest to tumbling creeks. Even if roads or towns are nearby, there’s often a feeling of remoteness, and it’s good to keep this in mind from a safety standpoint too. Be conservative and don’t get hurt out there - it could turn into a big ordeal. In summary, be safe and have fun on the adventure!
Any questions or opinions? I'd love to hear from you, just leave a comment below.
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