Colorado Trail Review

Colorado Trail

Julie atop the Divide

Sitting in a coffee shop in Boulder, I feel well-removed from the trail even though it’s only been a few days since we finished. I plan on putting up a few posts that are more review-type posts of the trail, our gear, our food and the towns along the way, rather than just stories from the trail. Hopefully these posts will help others in their planning of their own hikes along the Colorado Trail or even the Colorado section of the CDT.

We hiked the CT with the hope that it would be a good test hike for the CDT, and it was definitely invaluable in that aspect. It gave us a taste of the terrain, the altitude, and the weather that Colorado has to offer, and what we should expect for next year’s hike. It was a long enough distance to really feel like we did a thru-hike, yet it was short enough that we only had 3 weeks of testing rather than 3-4 months.

I would definitely recommend this hike for people who don’t want to commit to the longer trails over 2000 miles, but would warn them that it’s pretty physically challenging because of the altitude, several long and/or steep climbs, some lack of water, and some good distances between towns. It’s a fabulous trail, but just because it’s shorter doesn’t mean it’s easier! Thank goodness we did a bit of research to be ready for the trail.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of all the aspects of the trail, but I think it’s a good summary of what we experienced and what we will have to think about in planning next year’s hike of the CDT.

Weather – Considering our nervous I was about the daily thunderstorms, we didn’t fare too badly. I couldn’t believe the consistency in the clouds rolling in each early afternoon, threatening us for hours, and then rolling out early evening. Yet, it was so volatile in where the storms would actually hit that it was hard to know whether to take cover or just keep walking. We kept our eyes on the skies more than I would have liked to, but fared well considering the daily clouds over our heads.

There was a day around Kenosha Pass where we ducked into a bathroom just in time for a downpour to pass through, another day around Salida where we sat under trees for a half-hour while heavy lightning passed over us. Around 2 days before Creede, it rained from 2pm through the entire evening, so that was quite miserable, but at least there were no storms that day.

With a start date of August 20th, I was a little nervous about it getting cold, and while every night was quite chilly, the temperatures were great for hiking. Each day reached the 70s or 80s, and each night reached the 30s and 40s. We slept at 12,300 and 12,900 feet later in the hike, around Creede, and that was about as cold as I could take it. I wore all my clothing in my 15 degree down sleeping bag, and was comfortable once I warmed up. Otherwise, temps were fine anywhere under 12,000 feet.

Terrain – The trail was smooth for the majority of the hike, and the rest was manageably rocky/rooty. I could have seen running the entire trail had we had a crew to drive to each trailhead, which speaks for how smooth the trail was. Some sections were especially steep or technical, but they were short-lived and small in quantity of miles compared to the rest of the trail. I could have used a few more switchbacks on a few climbs, like the one out of Breckenridge and the ones before Salida, but I’m also so terribly slow at uphills that I take all I can get to make them easier.

Take in mind that we hiked the Appalachian Trail last year, which is notoriously rocky, and incredibly slow hiking because of the technical terrain, so the CT was smooth walking compared to the AT. We hiked 3 miles per hour on moderate terrain with some climbing, 2.5 miles an hour on tougher climbs, 2 miles an hour on the toughest stuff, which was really rare, and could easily do nearly 4 miles an hour on the smooth, flat sections. Much of the trail was much more exposed than I expected, which made for the necessity of sunscreen and a constant awareness of the storms. But, this made for amazing scenery, so it was a give and take for those fantastic photos. That being said, I was ready to bolt for shelter most afternoons and constantly evaluated the terrain around me in case we needed to take cover. I’m glad that stressful part of the hike is over!

Some hikers might say otherwise about the technicality of the CT, but I think it says something that both Matt and I wore trail running shoes and barely saw much wear and tear on them after 500 miles of the CT.

Scenery – Part of my beef with the AT is that you work hard, but aren’t always rewarded at the top of the climb with any kind of scenery. Well, the CT is all over this piece of hiking. The scenery is just amazing, each and every day, and incredibly diverse throughout each segment and from one to another. I’ll admit that I’m not always grateful for the scenery, but it was impossible to ignore the amazing views on the CT. The only downside was how hard it was to get up to the scenery at a pass or such, and how quickly we often descended back down into the trees, but that just comes with the territory of hiking. Marshall Pass was probably my favorite scenery because we got up high and stayed high for several miles before dipping back down.

Altitude – Holy crap, the altitude was hard. I really noticed a difference once we passed around 11,500 feet, and anything above 12,000 just crushed me. My pace slowed considerably on uphills, my arms and legs burned with any incline, and I breathed so hard that you’d think I was trying to sprint on the trail. While I felt the effects of the altitude, it never hindered our progress, and we just made sure to plan for slower miles, especially in the high stuff after Creede. Thank goodness it was near the end and we were slightly more accustomed to the altitude.

Timing – If I were to hike it again, I would start about a week earlier. Overall, the weather was good, the temperatures were great in the day and at night, and rain was pretty minimal compared to what we were expecting. But, near the end of the hike, the chill in the air felt like fall was pushing us to finish, the leaves on the trees were changing, and most importantly, it was hunting season.

In our last few days on the trail, we saw tons of hunters, many of which hunted right from the trail (not sure if that’s technically allowed). They were all nice to us, but I was uncomfortable hiking at dawn or dusk (when more animals seem to be out, and therefore more hunters), which we like to do, and hated that many of them both camped and hunted within 30 feet of the trail. I would definitely have liked to have finished before hunting season.

Lastly, on our drive back from Durango to Denver, it was snowing in the mountains, just a day after we had finished. I think that was our sign that we finished just in time (September 10th).

Books – Before hiking, I read the guidebook and marked in the Databook any discrepancies between the two books. Oftentimes, the guidebook cited more water sources and campsites than the databook, and I was forever grateful that I’d made those extra notes in the book. Overall, I’d give both books about 4 out of 5 stars. There were a few inaccuracies where there seemed to be re-routes, but it was pretty minimal. The water sources and campsites cited were very accurate for the most part, and there were even more water sources and campsites than the book mentioned. We rarely camped where the book showed camping, just to cut down on possible animal encounters that also knew those were common campsites, and the addition of water sources definitely made for better hiking.

I would say the only thing I’d add to the databook would be a page for each town, with a basic map and list of services. I ended up writing in all the post office info, where to get showers, and stuff like that, but it got pretty crowded in a few margins. I think it would add minimal weight to the data book to do so, considering how few of towns there are to begin with, but would add a lot of valuable information.

Animals/Bugs – We saw a total of one bear (on the 3rd to last day), one snake, one moose, lots of elk, lots of sheep, big-horned sheep, and too many deer and (vocal) squirrels to count, not to mention all the picas and marmots. I think I saw a total of 3 mosquitoes, which is how I like it, and I’m sure the later hike date had something to do with that.
I’m not a big wildlife person, so this was just about perfect for me to see very few animals. We did have a crazy night near Elk Creek where two moose were munching on bushes right outside our tent in the middle of the night, while packs of coyotes howled in the background against the echoing canyon, but that’s about it. We slept with our food in our tent, in odor-proof sacks, which I can’t really say if they worked or not, yet we never had an attempt on our food by any animals or rodents.

Signage – After I read the guidebook, I was pretty confident we would get lost at a few trailheads or other turnoffs from the CDT, but we never once went off course. A few sections could have used a few more CT logos nailed into the trees, and the miles above treeline after Creede and before Elk Creek could have been signed better, but it was pretty easy to tell the well-worn CT/CDT path from the lesser-used side trails. I was really pleased with the ease we had in staying on the trail, yet we did make it a point to pay attention to this aspect.

Other Users – We saw lots of other users on the trail, including mountain bikes, ATVs, dirt-bikes, and horseback riders. Overall, everyone was considerate of each other, and sharing the trail was not an issue. We had one day around Marshall Pass where there were 50, yes 50, mountain bikes on the trail. It was a Saturday morning, and a seemingly organized ride. It was a bit too much. We were continuously jumping up off the side of the trail for the riders coming up from behind, and there was a vast difference in talent, so it was a few hours worth of bikers.

The one aspect of the trail that we found frustrating, and this isn’t just the CT, but it seems that other users are completely clueless about the existence of the trail and that there will be other users on the trail. This was prevalent around trailheads where people were allowed to camp. At several trailheads, we experienced people’s unleashed dogs running up to us and threatening to bite us, along with dirty-looks from those campers. It was as if they had no idea they were camped within 30 feet of a long-distance trail. Again, we liked to hike at dawn and dusk, so this proved to be an issue around trailheads and forest roads where people camped literally right next to the trail. There also didn’t seem to be any sort of regulation around the trailheads or the forest roads, so people seemed to be using the trail area however they liked. I’m sure the budget’s pretty small to regulate users near the trail, but it made for seemingly unsafe hiking for us because other users so freely took over the areas around the trail and had unleashed dogs that saw us as a threat within 10 feet of their campsite.

Perhaps my favorite sign on the trail was at the Breckenridge trailhead that said, “Expect and Respect other Trail Users.” I wouldn’t say this concept was applied well to the majority of the trail, or other long-distance trails for that matter, and am not sure how it could be remedied, but wish it would somehow. Whether it’s through better signage at trailheads or on forest roads, I don’t know, but I think it would make for a better, safer experience for everyone if we all knew about the trail we are near and what that means for what to expect in terms of other users.

The other users on the trail that we expected, yet I hate walking though, were livestock. We had several points where cows were all over the trail, and while I wasn’t scared of them, I still don’t like walking up to huge animals that might see me as a threat. We simply took it slow through the cows and tried to be as non-threatening as possible, but I can’t stand sharing the trail with livestock, not only for their presence, but their poop. I imagine the trail wouldn’t be possible without sharing their land, but that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable to pass through herds of them.

Lastly, later in the hike we passed through several herds of sheep. At the first herd, a sheep dog was at the beginning of the pack. We waited for it to sort of move the sheep over, but it just laid down behind us, so we kept walking through the sheep. Big mistake! The sheep dog jumped up and bit my pack behind me, so we stopped and just stood there, not sure what to do. Eventually the shepherd showed up and rounded all the sheep up so we could pass through, but it was an incredibly unnerving experience. The next herd we walked through showed no signs of sheep dogs or a shepherd, so we just walked slowly through the sheep, constantly looking around for a dog to show up and see us as a threat. There was a sign at the trailhead near Molas Lake, but that was after we’d already been through the sheep pack where the dog bit my pack, so not very useful for our purposes.

Again, I’m sure the trail wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t share the land with the livestock, but it was when I felt in most danger, and made for the least enjoyable hiking. This is just me griping without too many solutions, but others should be aware of what to expect when hiking.

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