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The Colorado Trail: My journey by the numbers

Updated: Dec 29, 2023


Picture of the San Juan Mountains on Colorado Trail

The Colorado Trail ("CT") was my first ever thru-hike. It was an incredible journey, full of challenges, but is something I will look back on fondly for the rest of my life.


But before I set foot on this adventure, I had some natural consternation about what I was about to do. I found myself pondering many questions. How long would it take me? Would I actually have to hitchhike? How much time would I actual spend in town? Would I see any scary animals?


So this post is about how things played out. I highlight what I found to be my most interesting data points and reflect on how those matched what I expected before heading out on the trail.


Infographic of relevant data for thru-hike of Colorado Trail

Pace and mileage

I was quite happy that I was able to get under the 30 day mark for the entire trail. Having never done a long distance hike like this, I really didn't know how long it would take me. I saw that the average time was 4-6 weeks and figured I would fall somewhere in that range. I discovered that your pace depends so much on your hiking style, if you have any time constraints, and if you happen to incur any injuries that take you off the trail for a period of time. I had no such schedule constraints, but I found myself itching to do more miles when I felt like I hadn't pushed myself enough. There's just some parts of my Type A personality that, even in a place as lovely as the CT, I just can't turn off.


My max mileage days did surprise me a little. Prior to this adventure, my longest day hike I had ever done was the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire, a single day distance of ~21 miles, so to top that by over 7 miles AND with a heavy pack sort of blew me away. It really is evidence how much the body can adapt if you push it.


Sunrise at Cottonwood Pass
Cottonwood Pass, a lovely beginning to a long, long day

Elevation

Unsurprisingly, my highest elevation gain in a single day also came during my longest mileage day. Someone mentioned to me early on that you would typically gain between 2K-4K in a typical day. And if you check out my day log below, I'd say that's relatively accurate. But every now and then you have one of those big >5K days. Let's just say that on this particular big day, I was asleep well before the sun went down.


My highest camping elevation did surprise me, but was more surprising was the fact that at this point in the San Juans, there was barely a lower option. I'd say that being forced to camp above treeline was a concern of mine prior to the trail, mainly because of the potential storms. And you WILL be forced to do it at some point (unless you are very deliberate about your campsites and willing to bust out some 24+ mile days).


In reality, it wasn't that bad. Once I got comfortable camping above treeline, I actually sought it out. There's something magical about waking up next to an alpine lake with the sun illuminating those nearby peaks and ridges. There's tradeoffs for sure. The night at 12,800 ft was the coldest and windiest of the entire trail. But hey, that's what you have to deal with to camp at these elevations.


Colorado Trail Day Log Table
Colorado Trail Day Log Table


Fourteeners

I managed to summit Mount Massive and and San Luis during my trek. I had set out with the hopes of bagging three, but because I wanted to catch a group I had met on the trail, I decided to forgo Mount Huron. From what I saw on the trail, I'd estimate maybe a third of thru-hikers summit at least one fourteener, with the largest percentage summiting Elbert (the highest peak in Colorado).


But if you're a peak bagger like me, it's an incredibly efficient way to knock out a few because you will be closer than ever AND you're well acclimated. The hardest part is all logistics, since they can potentially add a full day to your food carries. I found this article to be particularly helpful in planning which fourteeners I would attempt.


Sunrise above the clouds on Mount Massive Trail 14er
Sunrise on Mount Massive Trail. I'd say it's worth those extra miles

Weather

Thunderstorms were my number one concern heading into the trail. I was born in the lightning capital of the U.S. (Florida), so I have a real fear of being caught with my pants down (or above tree-line) in a thunderstorm. And I would learn after the trail, that we had a pretty bad August as far as weather is concerned. (In a typical year August is the best weather month on the trail).


And that one thunderstorm we got caught in was GNARLY. We weren't technically above tree-line, but we had lightning crashing all around as we scurried to descend. There was one strike that literally exploded a tree a few hundred yards in front of us (we could feel the heat and smell the burning when we passed it). I learned a lot in those few hours of thrill and fear, most importantly that getting caught in something like that is far better with others than solo.


But that storm was the worst of the entire trail. There were three other times where I saw looming dark clouds and had to make a call about whether to go go over the next pass ( I pushed on all three times). And only on one of those subsequent occasions did I get to the high point and hear thunder a bit too close for comfort. Ultimately, I concluded that do this trail, you have to be tolerant of some risk and to sometimes send it when necessary. Storms are one of the hazards that come with the CT, but they can be dealt with.


Colorado Trail looming thunderstorms
The recurring question regarding dark clouds. Should I stop, or should I send it?


Town

After realizing that I spent roughly every 5th night in town, I learned that thru-hiking is really just a bunch of mini four to five day backpacking trips. And the way the CT is laid out, you could be in town even more frequently than that if you wanted. But I found spending about 4-5 nights on the trail was just enough to make you really appreciate (more like crave) a shower and some town food.


Transportation in and out of these towns was not bad at all. I was fully prepared for rejection and to have to road walk dozens of miles or scramble to call a shuttle. It wasn't like that at all. Of my three hitches into town, one took about ten minutes, and the other two were immediate. Maybe I had good luck, but rarely did I hear of other hikers waiting for more than 20 minutes or so. (Although to be fair, none of us tried to hitch into the tough towns like Gunnison or Saguache which are notoriously more difficult).


Most of the towns also have a trail angel shuttle system, which provides a sense of comfort on the trail, but more importantly gives you someone to call to get OUT of town. I used these services in every town I left, and would again. The people were extremely nice and it made you be able to get on trail at a predictable time.



Colorado Trail thru-hike town meals
Ingoring my lactose intolerance to wolf down a dessert after my fifth town meal of the day.


Wildlife

This was honestly the biggest bummer for me (with the exception of those snakes, F*** snakes. Zero would have been the correct number of sightings). I was hoping to see some big animals on the trail. However, the only moose I saw was so far away I thought it was a cow. I did see plenty of marmots and pikas, which were cool at first, but they do lose their novelty a bit after the 200th one. Also cows... and their lovely pies, were quite frequent.


So, long story short, if you were worried about moose, bears, and mountain lions, consider yourself lucky to even get a glimpse of a few.


Cows along the Colorado Trail
Hello friend. Can I ask that you please don't defecate near the drinking water? Thank you!


Final Thoughts

Expectations and reality rarely align, and the CT was no different. But that's the beauty of a thru-hike. You can mentally and physically train, read dozens of books and blog posts, fine tune your gear, but once you're out on the trail, you never really know how things will play out. You simple have to let the chips fall where they may and embrace the fact that you've set out to do something truly special and very likely, life changing.





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