UPDATED AUGUST 7, 2021
The Colorado Trail (CT) has its own set of characteristics. Some of these will be of particular interest to travelers who’ve already experienced one or more of the other long trails. Because it is common for Appalachian Trail (AT) users to become interested in the CT, let’s focus on these two. Travelers experienced with trails other than the AT will likely find the comparisons helpful as well.
- CT Users vs. AT Users – The Colorado Trail is open to a variety of travelers whereas the Appalachian Trail is primarily open to hikers. The entire CT is open to both hikers and horse riders, and bicyclists are allowed on roughly 75 percent of the Trail. Federal regulations exclude bicycles from wilderness areas. Motorized users, including motorcycles and ATVs, are allowed on about 100 miles of the 567 miles of the CT. Dogs are allowed on almost 99% of The Colorado Trail.
- Altitude – Elevations on the CT are much higher than on the AT, ranging from about 5,500 feet to 13,300 feet and averaging 10,300 feet. The high point on the AT is just 6,643 feet. The CT’s higher elevations have a big impact on travelers and taking time to acclimatize is advised. It is best to plan a SOBO trip and start in Denver where the elevation ramp is gentler than on the other end. If you reside at low elevation, plan to limit your first days’ hiking miles to something like 8 or 10 miles and resist increasing your distances until your body feels like it. For more on altitude and acclimatizing, see coloradotrail.org/traveling-the-ct/altitude/.
- Shelters – There are no shelters on the CT, nor are there many formal campgrounds. Travelers can camp almost anywhere they choose, usually in one of the many dispersed sites along the way.
- Towns – Towns and resupply places are generally farther apart on the CT than they are on the AT. CT travelers should plan to pack food for more days between resupply points. Another difference is that resupply towns are more distant from the Trail, necessitating hitching, making advanced arrangements with shuttlers, or adding miles of hiking or bicycling to itineraries.
- Services – The mountain towns along the CT are not large and many offer fewer hiker-focused services. They may be more expensive than the AT traveler is used to. There are some shuttlers along the CT, but they may not always be as available. We think this is due to the CT being relatively newer with fewer travelers.
- Climate – Colorado has an arid climate, receiving less than 20 inches of precipitation per year. It is much dryer than most of the AT. The dry air can quickly cause dehydration and catch the traveler off guard; it even sends some to the hospital. CT users need to drink more water than in wetter climates.
- Fire – Fire danger is often very high in the Colorado mountains and fire bans are common. Few CT travelers make campfires. Those who do need to be diligent in putting them out, dousing them with loads of water until they’re cold to the touch. Extra precaution with all flame is required.
- Stoves – While alcohol stoves are common on the AT, they are not a good choice for the CT. Fire bans nearly every summer prohibit the use of alcohol, twig and esbit stoves. Authorities have deemed these stove types as too risky. Most travelers use isobutane canister stoves that are seldom banned.
- Precipitation – Afternoon thunderstorms are common, especially during the Mexican monsoon that brings moisture from the Gulf in July and August. The rain is colder than AT folks are used to and often accompanied by chilling wind. It is worth adjusting your rain gear in case you hit these conditions.
- Snow – A fleeting snowstorm can happen on the CT in July and August and should be expected more than once in September. Typically, these don’t drop too much snow, which usually melts within a day or two.
- Sun – The sun in Colorado’s high elevations is more intense than many visitors are used to. Suncreen and sunglasses are important, and a brimmed hat and long sleeves are recommended for protection.
- Temperature – We’ve been told that the CT and AT are quite different in temperature, partly due to the different levels of humidity, but require only minor adjustments to one’s kit. CT travelers prefer a little more insulation. Adjustments include a 10-degree or 20-degree bag instead of one rated at 30-degrees, a slightly puffier puffy, and maybe a warmer upper body layer, etc. Nighttime temps drop more at high altitudes and usually mean cold nights and frosty mornings.
- Lightning – Almost every CT traveler experiences lightning, far more than on the AT. Watch the sky and plan ahead. If it looks ominous and a higher stretch is ahead, consider staying put for a while and letting the storm blow over. The best plan is to spend stormy times at lower elevations if possible.
- Trees – Conifers, not deciduous trees, are native to Colorado’s high country, making it harder to hang a food bag. Many opt instead to carry an Ursack and Opsak. Also, in recent years beetle activity has nearly killed whole forests and the dead trees present a safety hazard that travelers will want to be aware of.
- Wildlife – We’ve been told there are bigger, less timid bears on the CT. Still, they should not be a big concern, but, definitely, store your food carefully so bears and other critters can’t get to it. Expect moose, too, which are more dangerous than bears. Give them lots of space.