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 waterfowl 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 Waterton Canyon 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.
Long-term PARKING takes advanced planning and we suggest that thru-travelers consider leaving your vehicle at the end point. This strategy has worked well for many; they begin their southbound thru-trip by driving to Durango and leaving their vehicle there. Having your vehicle at the end destination can help a lot given that one is seldom sure what on what day they’ll finish and it can also add peace of mind during you trip. This strategy also enables booking transportation between Durango and Denver on a ‘date certain,’ at the start of ones trip when scheduling is predictable. One long-term parking option in Durango is at the Durango Transportation Center near the center of downtown; phone them Monday-Friday between 8:00 and 5:00 at (970) 375-4960. Another option is to make arrangements with Buckhorn Limousine, (970) 769-0933, as they often have space, understand thru-hikers, and are able to transport you to your destination.
Past CT thru-travelers wanting to park in the Denver area 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.