Starting in Denver
Most thru-hikers and bikers begin their trips from The Colorado Trail’s northern terminus at Waterton Canyon, southwest of the Denver metro area. For most it’s not only because the elevation gain heading south is much more gradual than it is for those heading northbound from Durango, where the CT ascends to more than 12,000 feet in the first 23 miles. By contrast, southbound travelers don’t hit a similar elevation until around mile 110, giving them more time to develop their “trail legs” and better acclimatize. Most also decide to start at the Denver end after learning that the Trail gets prettier as you travel toward Durango.
From the Waterton Canyon trailhead, the first 6.7 miles of the Trail are on an unpaved road closed to public vehicles. It is administered by Denver Water, which operates the Strontia Springs Reservoir and Dam, just off the Trail at mile 6.2. The road is open to foot, bike and horse traffic (and administrative vehicles), but dogs are not allowed to protect the canyon’s wildlife habitat. Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and a variety of waterfoul are common sights in the canyon.
If you are planning to travel with a dog, see Dogs on the Trail for alternatives to passing through the canyon, including starting at Indian Creek Trailhead (see below). Fortunately for dog owners, this stretch is the only place on the CT where dogs are prohibited.
Multiday Trail users MUST arrange transportation to the trailhead (11300 Waterton Road, Littleton, CO 80125) with a family member, friend, taxi or other ride service. Overnight parking is not allowed in the trailhead parking lot administered by Denver Water.
Past CT thru-travelers have sometimes found long-term parking at a nearby RV storage lot. There are several that can be found via web search. Some operators may provide transportation to the start of the Trail if arranged in advance.
If you are arriving from out of town by plane, bus or train, the first big challenge you may face is just getting to the trailhead. From Denver International Airport it is about 50 miles; from downtown Denver about 35-40 miles. Again, if possible, arrange a ride in advance.
If that’s not an option, taking a cab or airport shuttle, or ride service such as Uber or Lyft, are the easiest, but can be pricey. Public transportation is cheaper, but because no bus or light-rail routes go to the trailhead, it requires a combination of public and private options to get there.
The Regional Transportation District (RTD) has a “Trip Planner” feature on its website, rtd-denver.com, that can help you get to within a few miles the Trail. The closest light-rail stop to the trailhead is Mineral Station in Littleton, about 10 miles distant. From there you can bike, hike or take a cab or ride service to Waterton Canyon.
Finally, The Colorado Trail Foundation maintains a contact list of shuttle drivers – both individuals and businesses – in the Denver metro area and in towns all along the Trail, who have offered to help travelers get to and from trailheads along the CT. To obtain the CT Shuttlers List, visit the Shuttlers and Angels page on this site and submit the ultra-simple request form. The list will arrive in your email inbox almost immediately. Those needing a shuttle should make arrangements well in advance.
Two really nice alternate starting points are available for the times Waterton is closed and to those who prefer to begin their journey on single-track trail rather than Waterton Canyon’s unpaved road. The CT Foundation considers either of these as legitimate toward the Completion Certificate.
- Indian Creek Trailhead. People like this alternative and consider it very pleasant. It is straightforward and the 2-page printable map (linked above) covers it fairly well. It might be the only map needed. The western leg of the Indian Creek Loop Trail (Trail No. 800) is accessible via Colorado Highway 67 west of Sedalia. From the trailhead you travel 4.4 miles on single-track, which is open to dogs, and connect to the CT at mile 7.9 (Lenny’s Rest) in the middle of Segment 1. Given this approach, your Segment 1 will total 13.3 miles in all. Here is the link to the Indian Creek Trailhead website.
- Roxborough State Park. This alternative is quite scenic but is the more challenging. It greets travelers to additional miles, elevation, and more potentially confusing intersections that necessitate additional map(s). Further, this alternative doesn’t work for everyone because there is an entrance fee to Roxborough State Park and dogs, horses, bicycles, camping and overnight parking are prohibited. Trails originating in the park include a connection to the CT at Lenny’s Rest and one to the Indian Creek Trailhead on the eastern leg of the Indian Creek Loop Trail. The more direct route begins on the Carpenter Peak Trail about 0.6 miles from the visitors center. The distance to the top of Carpenter Peak is about 2.5 miles, all uphill. Right before the summit, there is a turnoff with a sign reading “Colorado Trail and Waterton Canyon.” The distance from the sign to the CT at Lenny’s Rest is about 5 miles but is not signed particularly well. The total mileage for this alternative including Segment 1 is around 16-1/2. Here is the link to the Roxborough State Park website including trails map, etc.
Gallery of CT Travelers Starting at Waterton Canyon in Denver