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 a matter of convenience but also 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.
The Waterton Canyon trailhead, parking lot and first 6.7 miles of the Trail are on an unpaved road 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. Deer and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep 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.
We highly recommend that multiday Trail users arrange transportation to the trailhead (11300 Waterton Road, Littleton, CO 80125) with a family member, friend, taxi or other ride service. If that’s not possible, near the trailhead is a parking lot administered by Denver Water. Multiday parking is allowed, but not encouraged due to the lack of security. (While it has been years since we’ve heard of problems, break-ins have been reported.) If you do decide to leave a car overnight, Denver Water requires that you call (303) 634-3745 in advance and provide vehicle and owner information. The agency does not assume liability for vehicle damage or theft while parked in the lot.
A more secure alternative to parking at Waterton Canyon might be 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 request a copy of the list, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Those needing a shuttle should make arrangements well in advance.
Two alternate starting points are also available to those who prefer to begin their journey on single-track trail rather than Waterton Canyon’s unpaved road:
- Indian Creek Trailhead. 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.
- Roxborough State Park. Trails originating in the park include two connections to the CT and one to the Indian Creek Trailhead on the eastern leg of the Indian Creek Loop Trail. The more direct routes begin 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 near Strontia Springs Dam is about 3 miles. You can also take an earlier fork that connects to the western leg of the Indian Creek Loop Trail near mile 7.9 of the CT (Lenny’s Rest). There is an entrance fee to Roxborough State Park and dogs, horses, bicycles, camping and overnight parking are prohibited.
Gallery of CT Travelers Starting in Denver