Horseback Riding

Three horseback riders with flowers, mountains, and snowfields
See gallery of horseback photos below.

From its inception, The Colorado Trail has always welcomed horses and riders. One of its largest donors over the years has been the Roundup Riders of the Rockies. Many say there’s no better way to enjoy the CT than from the back of a horse.

But tackling the Trail on horseback comes with its own set of challenges, including access, feeding both riders and their animals, packing and more. For general information about the Trail, we recommend The Official Guidebook to The Colorado Trail, The Colorado Trail Databook, and The Colorado Trail Map BooksAvailable in the CTF store

For more specific information for equestrians, we turned to Rich Johnson, who has ridden thousands of miles on The Colorado Trail. Here are his very useful suggestions, Rich’s Tips and Checklists for Riding the CT.

We also turned to Pam Doverspike who has ridden many weeklong sections of The Colorado Trail with the Front Range Back Country Horsemen and completed the CT multiple times. Her information appears below and you may also download Pam’s information as a PDF.

Preparation

  • Consult the official guidebooks and maps for your planned route to find out trail specifics, access road conditions, resupply points, water availability, etc.
  • Check The Colorado Trail website (ColoradoTrail.org) for updates on Trail conditions, such as detours, fire restrictions, etc.
  • Train both horse and rider at altitude
  • Organize your equipment a week in advance to make sure everything is in good repair and to avoid last-minute scrambling.
  • Determine how much feed you will need to carry and get your stock used to any new feed you plan to use on the Trail
  • Plan food drops along the way to lighten loads
  • Shoe your animals one week before your trip
  • Organize a support crew if needed
  • Choose horses that don’t spook when encountering others

horseback rider and mountain landscape

On the Trail

  • Expect to ride only 2 1/2 to 3 miles an hour fully packed and no more than 10 to 20 miles a day, depending on the grade
  • Start early in the day with the aim of getting over mountain passes before afternoon thunderstorms form
  • Be prepared to readjust your plans due to changing weather conditions, equipment problems, accidents and other unforeseen problems
  • Keep important items easily accessible while on the Trail, including saws (for fallen trees), first aid kit, easy boots (in case a horse throws a shoe), rain gear, and water filter
  • Should tragedy strike and a horse die, it is the owner’s responsibility to remove it from the Trail

Day Rides

  • Front Range residents have a number of easily accessible options in the first five segments of the Trail that can be done in a day (consult the guidebooks)
  • Prepare as you would for any backcountry outing and carry important items such as maps, rain gear, food, warm clothing, first aid equipment, and water when crossing dry sections
  • Plan for the unexpected including spending the night if some mishap should occur

Multi-Day Rides

  • Make sure your starting and stopping points have trailer access; this may require some advance scouting
  • If you have no support crew, allow additional time to shuttle vehicles
  • Smaller groups – 10 animals or less – are much easier to organize and manage
  • Plan campsites carefully and allow enough time to get there; avoid exposed sites at high elevations
  • Campsites should be large enough to accommodate both horses and humans, without disturbing the land more than necessary
  • If you arrive at your day’s destination early avoid the temptation to push on because it could put undue stress on the horses
  • Have contingency plans in order in case you have to pull off the trail early

two women sitting with horse lying downThru-Rides

  • Be aware that riding the CT end to end is extremely demanding, with about 90,000 feet of vertical gain over 485 miles from north to south
  • Once the Trail has climbed from Waterton Canyon (Segment 1) to Georgia Pass (in Segment 6), a distance of about 80 miles, it rarely descends below 8,000 feet until its terminus near Junction Creek outside Durango

Trail Etiquette

  • Stay on the trails and avoid shortcuts
  • Be courteous and yield to others when you can
  • Travel in small groups
  • When encountering others on the Trail, encourage them to talk gently to the horses, explaining that horses have poor eyesight and a human voice has a calming effect, lowering the risk of them getting spooked
  • What you pack into the backcountry must be packed out – no exceptions
  • When you leave a campsite, scatter rocks, logs, unused wood, and horse manure so it looks undisturbed

Stock Containment

  • Use highlines and tree saver straps
  • Learn about various temporary corrals and fences
  • Put dog tags on halters to aid in identifying horses that may get loose
  • Graze only a few horses at a time, even with hobbles

Special Concerns

  • There are about 100 miles of the CT where motorized vehicles are still allowed, primarily motorcycles and other off-road vehicles; be prepared for encounters with these
  • Segment 21- Steep ridge and rock slides
  • Segment 22 – Highest point on the CT (13,271) is just below Coney Summit (13,334) at mile 15.6
  • Segment 24 – Steep switchbacks, narrow trail, rock walls, possible encounter with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
  • Segment 27 – Steep, narrow trail with drop-offs on both sides of Indian Trail Ridge and above Taylor Lake
  • Segment 28 – Drop-offs are precipitous in places; steep, narrow trail through Sliderock Canyon

Good Places to Camp

  • Segment 6 – Georgia Pass
  • Segment 12 – Rainbow Lake
  • Segment 16 – Marshall Pass (cabin)
  • Segment 16 – Cameron Park
  • Segment 17 – Baldy Lake (0.5 miles off the Trail)
  • Segment 22 – Town of Carson (cabins)
  • Segment 23 – Pole Creek
  • Segment 25 – Molas Lake and Hidden Lake
  • Segment 27 – Taylor Lake

Possible Places to Stay with Your Horses

  • Segment 13/14 – Mount Princeton Stables and Hot Springs Lodge
  • Segment 18 – Quarter-Circle Circle Ranch
  • Segment 22 – Ryan’s Roost, Lake City
  • Segment 25 – Molas Lake
  • Segment 28 – Horseman’s Lodge, Bayfield

young man with helmet and horseGood Access for Horse Trailers

  • The trailheads from Segment 1 (Waterton Canyon) to Segment 19 (Eddiesville Trailhead) have good trailer access, with the exception of Sargents Mesa at the beginning of Segment 17
  • Segment 22 – Spring Creek
  • Segment 24 – Rio Grande
  • Segment 25 – Molas Pass
  • Segment 26 – Bolam Pass

Difficult Trailer Access

  • Segment 17 – Sargents Mesa (Cameron Park is a better alternative)
  • Segment 23 – Carson Saddle

No Trailer Access

  • Segment 20 – San Luis Pass
  • Segment 26 – Hotel Draw
  • Segment 28 – Cumberland Basin

For More Information on Horse Packing in the Backcountry

Gallery of Horseback Photos