This is the second article in a series about bikepacking the Colorado Trail, and it covers basic planning and logistical aspects of the trip. If you haven’t already you should read the introductory article which gives a brief overview of the trail as well as my experience bikepacking the trail in the fall of 2016. This guide is geared towards bikepackers, but much of the information could also be beneficial to backpackers. Below is a list of articles in the series. Enjoy!
- A Basic Guide to 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?
This is a long post, so grab something to drink and relax! I’ve also broken the post into topics using headings, so feel free to jump around to the topics that most interest you.
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Official Print Resources
While this guide covers many aspects of the Colorado Trail it is by no means comprehensive. The Colorado Trail Foundation (CTF) has published some great resources on the trail and I’d highly recommend getting The Colorado Trail, 9th Edition. It’s a fully comprehensive guidebook by the CTF, and includes detailed descriptions, maps, and mile by mile directions for each segment on the Colorado Trail. There’s also a thorough description of services in nearby towns as well as elevation profiles for each section. The photographs are beautiful too, so it's a fun book to look through and reference while planning your trip. In addition to the official guidebook I’d also suggest picking up the Colorado Trail Databook. It contains just basic navigational information, and does a great job keeping you oriented and on the trail. It’s designed to be portable, and as the CTF says, it’s: “the only book you’ll need on the Colorado Trail.” I’d agree to that.
When to do the Colorado Trail
The season for the Colorado Trail is really dictated by snow. You don’t want to begin in the summer until the snow melts at higher elevations, and you should aim to wrap up in the early fall to stay ahead of incoming snowstorms. Obviously weather conditions change yearly, so if you’re planning an early summer trip you should keep an eye on snowpack conditions in late spring. I ran an informal survey assessing trip length and start times on the Colorado Trail, and the earliest start dates were in the last week of June. The majority of respondents in the survey were hikers, so just to be safe a start date in the first week of July should be a safe early bet for a bikepacker. On the other side of things, my thru-bike started September 16th and ended October 5th with two rest days built in. It was pretty chilly by the end, and the threat of significant snow was certainly looming. If you have extra time and flexibility with your trip you may be able to aim for a later end date, but just know that weather might hold you back some. You could also buy yourself some time by doing the trail from Durango to Denver since the threat of snowstorms is reduced in the lower elevations of the Front Range.
In summary, a slightly generous season for the trail would be early July to very early October.
Transportation Options and Parking in Durango
Having lived in Colorado for the past five years it was a little ironic that one of the bigger logistical challenges was figuring out transportation for the end of the trail. Yes, I just bicycled across the state - now I need a car to get back! Maybe one day if I have an entire summer free I could bike the trail from Denver to Durango then reverse directions back or even just ride back on paved roads to speed things up a bit. Anyway, transport is a huge factor in trip planning and I’ll go through a couple viable options:
Option 1. Here’s what I did. If you have a car and a nice friend in the Colorado area then you can both drive to Durango, drop your car there and drive back to your homebase. Have your friend drop you off at the Denver trailhead (Waterton or Indian Creek), and once you finish the trail your car will be waiting for you! As an added plus, you can drop off food at resupply points on the way down and know for sure that your food and gear is in the right place.
It’ll take some extra time and cost a few beers to set that up, but it’s pretty foolproof and easy. If you don’t know anyone in the Durango area throw a post up on Trail Forums or WhiteBlaze, and it’s likely someone might be willing to lend a parking space.
Estimated cost: ~ $80 in gas, plus something nice for your friend.
Option 2. Greyhound does have a bus route from Durango to Denver. It looks like the route takes roughly 11 hours, and as perk the buses have free Wi-Fi on board! I have no experience taking mountain bikes on a Greyhound but presume it wouldn’t be a big deal. It would be best to call to confirm that they won’t have an issue with a dirt bike and gear. If that all checks out, then this is a very economical way to make it back to Denver.
Estimated cost: $60-$80
Option 3. You could also do a one-way rental car from Durango to Denver and cram your bike and gear in the back seat. Seems like a convenient option.
Estimated cost: ~ $100
Option 4. There are also quite a few private shuttle services that could work, but are likely pretty pricey. Here are some ideas, and there are likely cheaper options without nice websites. If you’re looking into cheaper options it might be worth posting online at Trail Forums or WhiteBlaze to see if others have suggestions from the past.
Estimated cost: Pricey
Finally, Denver has lots of good public transportation options from the airport and you can easily fill in urban gaps with Uber or Lyft.
Shortly after finishing the Colorado Trail I created a short survey to look at average trip lengths for bikepackers and hikers. I received about 70 responses which was awesome, however, all but five respondents were hikers! This is likely due to the fact that there are many more hikers on the Colorado Trail compared to bikepackers. Of the five responses, the average trip length was 15 days, which seems fairly standard. Three respondents said that in a perfect world they would take an extra two days on the trail if they did it again. I took 18 days on the trail (excluding two rest days), and finished it up comfortably on a singlespeed mountain bike. That being said, I gladly would have done a longer trip if I wasn’t trying to beat the snow in Durango. So maybe 17-18 days is optimal for someone looking to keep a consistent pace while also taking in the landscape. You know your style best, so use your judgement here. Here are some quotes by the bikepacker respondents:
For me, 2.5 weeks was perfect. I didn't have a deadline or schedule, so the trip unfolded very organically. - completed the CT in 18 days
If I were to "tour" the CT again on a mountain bike, I would slow down my pace in a few sections and make the total trip time about 12 days. Although, I could totally see myself saying that and just keep biking into the evening. One of my many habits: not wanting to set up camp just yet haha! - completed the CT in 10 days
There’s a great, concise list of resupply options in the Colorado Trail Databook. The comprehensive Colorado Trail Guide has similar information for services, supplies, and accommodations, but this information is in each segment chapter so it’s hard to scan all the options at once.
For my proposed trip of 20 days I created resupply packages containing food and fuel, and left them in Leadville, Salida, and Silverton. This enabled me to do the trail never carrying more than 6 days of food and supplies at any one time. Accessing Leadville and Silverton is easy on mountain bike since the Wilderness detours go directly through town, but Salida was 30 miles out of the way roundtrip. Even though 30 miles isn’t a huge detour on a bike, it’s hard to justify the elevation loss and subsequent climb just to get some extra food. If I did it again I’d consider a combination of the following places to resupply since the bikepacking route literally travels right through them:
- Frisco (just a few miles from the trail, and there’s a free bus to take!)
- Buena Vista
- Mt. Princeton Hot Springs
I pre-packed all my resupply boxes and didn’t have to rely on local grocery stores, but I would guess that all the towns listed with the exception of Mt. Princeton Hot Springs should have a fairly good selection of food. The Colorado Trail Databook is a good resource to quickly find the type of services present in towns along the way as well as hostels that will hold resupply packages.
Trail Navigation & Wilderness Detours
The Colorado Trail is incredibly well marked. You’ll soon become accustomed to frequently spotting confidence markers on trees, and intersections are well indicated. I brought the Colorado Trail Databook with me to keep track of mileage and points of interest, but could have stayed on the trail without it.
That being said, the Databook is essential for the Wilderness detours. The Colorado Trail passes through six Wilderness areas where bikes aren’t permitted, thus resulting in five mountain bike detours around these segments. These detours add up to 195 miles of the total 540 miles that a thru-biker will cover. I came to see detours as a welcome respite from the trail since you can cover a lot of miles quickly on road, a stark contrast to the sometimes sluggish pace on the trail. There are also some very pretty areas you’ll go through for the detours, and the La Garita Wilderness detour along Cebolla Creek was one of my favorite sections.
Since the Wilderness detours follow public roads, there isn’t any Colorado Trail signage. Following the route is easy using road signs and the turn by turn directions in the Databook, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a simple bike computer to keep track of miles. I mention it in another article discussing gear for the Colorado Trail, but the CatEye Enduro was economical and worked flawlessly on the trail.
There’s also an awesome iPhone navigation application for the Colorado Trail by Guthooks Hikes called Colorado Trail Hiker. For $9.99 you can download the whole Colorado Trail map for hikers and mountain bikers, and this includes alternate routes like the Wilderness detours. It functions like a basic GPS where you can use your smartphone to pinpoint your location and get details like your nearest milepoint and elevation. It works even if you don’t have service and gives information on nearby campsites or water sources. In short, it’s a pretty awesome full-featured app and I highly recommend getting it and using it in conjunction with the Colorado Databook.
Water Purification and Food
I have a whole post devoted to food, so I won’t bombard you with the details here. Basically, bring things you like to eat that have a high caloric density. Food is highly personal, so bring what works for you. And if you don’t know what works for you, experiment beforehand!
Not everyone treats all their water, but I’m always cautious and treat any water that I’m drinking in the backcountry. Yes, it’s probably overkill seeing that contracting giardia from drinking water is rare, but I like to play it safe. I brought along Aqua Mira this time since I had a bottle set that I was looking to use up, and my GI system is still healthy a month out. I mention it in the gear article, but if I did the trail again I’d bring along a Steri-Pen and enjoy the alpine water without any added chemicals.
As a side note, I wasn’t aware of it previously, but have you ever noticed how Aqua Mira drops are advertised to just improve the taste and smell of water? Well, there’s actually a significant difference in the concentration of chlorine dioxide in the liquid and tablet forms of Aqua Mira. The tablets have a higher concentration of chlorine dioxide which is necessary to kill protozoa like giardia. You can do that with the liquid drops, but it takes a much higher dose and treatment time. Here’s some good reading on the topic:
- Backpacking Light: Aqua Mira Liquid Drops vs Aqua Mira Tablets
- WhiteBlaze: Does Aqua Mira do anything?
- WhiteBlaze: Aqua Mira liquid vs tablets vs Katadyn tablets
In summary, if you choose to go down the chemical purification route Aqua Mira or Katadyn tablets are a little more expensive, but seem to be a safer bet. Steri-Pens are awesome and I highly recommend them. I have limited experience with water filters, but know a lot of people that love them.
Alright, that’s all for now on the logistics and planning side of things. If you have questions or feel that there should be another topic in here, please leave a comment in the form below! There are a few more posts in the series covering things like gear, food, and beautiful pictures from the Colorado Trail. Also check out the introductory article if you want to read about my thoughts on the trail and what the singlespeed experience was like.
Thanks for reading!
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