Bikepacking The Colorado Trail

The Colorado Trail is one of the longest and more arduous bikepacking routes in the US. During a small window in the summer, the snow clears to unveil an epic high altitude through-ride on some of the best singletrack in the Rocky Mountains.
Share Facebook 0 Twitter Pinterest Google+

The Colorado Trail is one of the (if not, the) premier, long distance bikepacking trails in the US. It travels through the incredible Colorado Rocky Mountains amongst peaks, glacial lakes, creeks, and a spectacular array of ecosystems. The trail dramatically rises and falls with an average elevation of 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) and tops out above 13,000 feet (3,962 meters), just below Coney Summit. It is a through route, or point-to-point, stretching almost 500 miles from the dusty southern Colorado town of Durango, to Denver (Littleton to be exact). It is commonly ridden in the opposite direction, however the 2015 Colorado Trail Race used the south to north course.

The Colorado Trail flows through eight mountain ranges, six wilderness areas, five major river systems, and six National Forests. Bicycles are prohibited in each of the six Wilderness Areas; it is against federal regulations. Thru-cyclists are required to detour around each of the Wilderness areas.

It is possible to do the Trail and detours via bicycle without any vehicular support by re-supplying in Frisco, Leadville, Buena Vista, and Silverton. Allow between 7-18 days for the trip, depending on your pace and skill level.

UPDATE: New record holder Jesse Jakomait finished the 2015 Colorado Trail Race in 03:20:47 (3 days 20 hours 47 minutes).

  • Distance

    539 Mi.

    (867 KM)
  • Days

    12

  • % Unpaved

    80%

  • % Singletrack

    55%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    9

  • % Rideable (time)

    95%

  • Total Ascent

    72,500'

    (22,098 M)
  • High Point

    13,270'

    (4,045 M)
  • Highlights
  • Must Know
  • Camping
  • Food/H2O
  • Trail Notes
  • Unmatched, pristine, high-altitude singletrack.
  • Dazzling displays of wildflowers in the spring and early summer. Insane fall colors in late Sept.
  • Traversing a rich diversity of alpine scenery, high desert, grasslands, and interesting mountain towns.
  • Night stay in Hindale yurt right on route .
  • Snow is the biggest factor on deciding when to attempt the CT. Most years the snow has melted by early July making it possible to pass in its entirety from July-September. However, it is not uncommon to experience a stray snow early or late in the season.
  • Weather is another major consideration. During the prime riding season, it is also monsoon season and it’s fairly common to experience rain, hail, and severe lightening. Prepare accordingly. Plan to be off high passes in mid afternoon.
  • Temperatures can take a dramatic swing at higher elevations. Prepare for chilly temps at night, especially in late September. A 24 degree bag is not a bad idea. The less your body works to stay warm at night the better rest you will get.
  • The Colorado Trail has an average elevation of over 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), which shouldn’t be taken lightly. Plan ahead and if you are traveling from a location at a lower altitude, take a few day rides from Durango to acclimatize.
  • It’s a good idea to wear bright colors if traveled later in the season as hunting season begins.
  • There is both wild camping and designated campsites available. The Trailside Databook has each campground noted, and most are maintained by the Colorado Trail Foundation.
  • There is also lodging available in most of the towns passed along the way.
  • Hindale Yurt on segment 22, also segment of route highpoint of 13,271.
  • The main resupply points on route are Breckenridge, Leadville, Buena Vista, and Silverton.
  • Additional resupply towns are Teryall, Breckenridge, Copper, and Princeton Hot Springs. Do proper research as to what is available and when.
  • The longest stretch without resupply is between Silverton and Buena Vista. Ball buster section!!! pack smart!
  • Water is available for most of the route, but there are some legs where this may be challenging. Bring a filtration system.
    Princeton Hot Springs has a very well stocked market. Perfect when traveling Durango to Denver. First resupply since Silverton.
  • Bicycle detour la grarita wilderness doesn’t have as much water as one might hope. Long open roads, exposed, hot.

Littleton to Breck

  • Georgia Pass has some of the best views. Great riding in both directions. Avoid highway 285 at all costs if traveling east to west. Heavy vehicular traffic; no shoulder.

Breck to Leadville

  • Wheeler Pass…. amazing! Searle Pass ridden west to east is an amazing downhill. Easy to get lost/mixed up near Tennassee Pass.

Leadville to Buena Vista

  • Easy, mostly dirt road with a section of pavement. Singletrack sections are a blast!

BV to Silverton

  • Hardest section by far! Long bike detour around 50 miles of paved and dirt road. Mt. Prinston Hotsprings is a saving grace traveling west to east.

Silverton to Durango

  • Best views of the route. Amazing descent into Durango or hell climb out. Indian Ridge is the highlight of the segment.

Overall

  • For the most part, the Colorado Trail is very well marked. However, The Trailside Databook is a must-have for a breakdown of each segment with mileages and elevations. This is all we had for directions. we had a gps, but only used as reference. Note- data book gives directions for Denver to Durango, requiring extra brain power going opposite direction.
  • You can get away without using a GPS, but it is still recommended.

Related Links

Tags

  • http://www.offroute.ca Skyler

    Super gorgeous! We’ve been hoping to incorporate this route into our fall travels, so this is well timed! And damn, Devon, those are some inspiring photos.

  • http://bikepackingfuel.com/ Gunther Desmedt

    How and when is decided what direction the race will take?

  • http://www.uninspiredramblings.com/ Chris

    Heading out to Denver on 24 August to ride this with a friend, so this is timely, indeed. Those photos are beautiful.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ Logan

    Gunther, I am not sure how, but as you can see on this page, they change the course slightly most years: http://www.climbingdreams.net/ctr/

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ Logan

    Nice! I thought I saw you mention that somewhere…

  • http://www.uninspiredramblings.com/ Chris

    I alternate between being excited and scared…! We are a little late in the season I think, but hopefully won’t suffer too much with weather. I expect that we’ll be on the slower end of the timescales, and we actually have three weeks before our flight out. What I don’t feel I have a grasp of yet is how easy food resupplies will be. We’re not planning on bringing much with us from the UK, so will need to stock up for the first few days when we arrive. Thats ok, but I think I need to study the trail guide some more to understand how many miles we’re going to need to cover before we can restock… Any more advice on ease of resupply would be great!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ bikepacking.com (Logan)

    Both legitimate feelings! I’ve only rode a small chunk of it near Durango; it was amazing. There are a few resupply points noted in both the map and text above. There is a gap though; Devon may provide a few more markers, but if not the Trail Databook should have some additional insight. Shoot me some resupply waypoints when you get back! I think the more I could add to that GPX, the better.

  • http://www.uninspiredramblings.com/ Chris

    I just re-looked at the resupply section and that is all good info. I do have the Databook and main Trail guide. We will hopefully take some time to visit Salida as well. Now just need to pare down my stuff to the bare minimum…!

  • dave

    Did the eastern half last year, and thought the food resupply logistics were generally OK. I would advise getting a second to-go meal at every restaurant you eat at–simple way to get huge calories. I remember being incredibly happy after eating a couple burgers + fries + etc. at Kay’s Burgers and packing two or three more burgers to go. They didn’t last four hours. My experience on the Tarryall detour was that food and water was tough to come by, so take advantage of every chance you get. The places in the guidebook for that part were mostly closed, and we ended up begging some water and food from people car-camping. If I were a racer and moved faster, probably would’ve been a non-issue.

  • dave

    They’ve started swapping the direction back and forth every year.

  • Mike

    Beautiful looking route and fantastic photos. However, I don’t even want to know what that guy is mixing that goo packet with in his jetboil.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ bikepacking.com (Logan)

    What happens on the CT, stays on the CT. ;)

  • http://www.uninspiredramblings.com/ Chris

    Thats good to hear Dave. How many miles were you covering in a day?

  • http://www.uninspiredramblings.com/ Chris

    (Will try to record some details of resupply points for you!)

  • http://www.gypsybytrade.wordpress.com/ Nicholas

    Skyler, most of the western part of the route stands a risk of snow by mid-September, I think. I’ve been in Salida on the day of the first snowfall around Sept 15. We’d ridden the Monarch Crest the day before, and after a flurry of overnight cloudcover, awoke to a shimmering blanket of snow on the mountains.

  • Christophe Noel

    If I can chime in, after having ridden it a couple times now and having spoken with dozens of others to have ridden the whole thing, daily mileage varies wildly. If you’re really fit and motivated, 75 miles per day is doable, but requires not only tremendous fitness, but the learned skill to travel this type of terrain, which is quite challenging. You have to have a decent amount of high mountain savvy to make good use of supplies, daylight, and knowing how to judge when to push on, and when to stop. For those going at a more reasonable speed, I think 45-55 miles per day makes for a nice tempo with a day or two at that 75 number. Some sections are simply really hard and that makes it tough to have an average daily goal. The think that gets many people are the unexpected challenges that come with such extreme terrain. The endless hike-a-bike has clobbered some rider’s feet, ankles, and knees. The altitude zaps people’s ability to sleep and a host of other unusual variables come into play. It is…hard. No two ways about it.

  • http://www.uninspiredramblings.com/ Chris

    Thanks Chris – thats useful insight. I know it will be tough. If we manage any days at 75 miles, I’ll be very happy!

  • Christophe Noel

    There are some sections that bypass the wilderness areas that use roads and even sections of highway. Those are good opportunities to add in an extra 20 miles here and there. They offset the places where the hike-a-bike gets severe.

  • Steve

    Even years -> east to west; odd years -> west to east. Usually planned around a full moon, too.

  • Steve

    What kind of bikes are these dudes riding? Looks like Moonmen bars, but not sure on the frames… anybody?

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ bikepacking.com (Logan)

    Hi Steve. Devon’s bike is a Moonmen: http://www.moonmenbikes.com/m04/ not sure about Deejay’s

  • Steve

    Rad. Those guys put out some quality work – and they’re super-cool, to boot. Actually, there’s a lot of quality work here in Fort Collins.

    Keep up the good work on the website – lookin’ good around here!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ bikepacking.com (Logan)

    Thanks Steve!

  • Bill Wright

    Just finished riding the CT. I live in Denver. Let me know if I can help in any way. Christophe Noel’s comments are spot on.

  • Piet Sawvel

    Devon, good synopsis of a Colorado treasure. A friend and I savored riding the sections from Denver to BV; we aim to complete the push to Durango next summer.

    The CT bikepackers we’ve met have extended courtesy to other trail users, and respect for the environment. We understand it’s a public resource with a long history of cooperation and contributions from diverse user groups. As bikepacking gains in popularity, there’ll inevitably be some pushback from other trail users, e.g.: this recent opinion piece in High Country News http://www.hcn.org/articles/mountain-bikes-on-the-colorado-trail-leave-something-to-be-desired

    Folks, please be mindful and yield to hikers and equestrians. Breaking cadence on a long climb adds to exertion but in the long run it’ll reap dividends.

  • DBalet

    Both of us are on Moonmen M04 and M05

  • DBalet

    Our resupply stops: Durango, Silverton, Buena Vista, Leadville, Breck. The distance from Silverton to Buena Vista is a big one. Pack extra Snickers bars and top off water anywhere you can. We ran out of water on one day during a big Wilderness detour.

  • DBalet

    Thank you! Timing can be hit or miss. We started Sept. 27th and ended up getting snow near the end.

  • DBalet

    Coffee and salted caramel Gu for the WIN!!!

  • Patrick Ramsey

    Started to plan my trip, its in early stages, but any thoughts or has anyone done it around mid / late June?

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Late June should be good, depending on spring temps. I’d just check with local shops in Salida and Durango to find out how clear the higher elevation stuff is…

  • incompleteness

    Colorado had a pretty serious snow year this winter. I would doubt that snow will be clear from passes in mid to late June this year (Independence Pass still has several feet of snow). I would check the SNOTEL sites for the passes involved for real-time data, remembering that on north aspects the snow will persist longer, and on east aspects will generally be wind-loaded to a much greater depth.

  • Subhrojyoti

    I have a Trek 4500D (hardtail) fitted with Ortlieb Backroller Plus. I understand there are sections on this route with lot of bike pushing and singletracks. Would that necessitate a seatbag or I could get away with the panniers if I pack light?

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Well, with the amount of steep terrain, I would personally prefer a more manageable seat pack. But, it’s certainly doable with panniers, depending on your own tolerance and potential.

  • nathan kennedy

    I noticed you guys are riding singlespeeds. What gearing are you guys using and what feedback can you provide for singlespeed bikebacking in Colorado? Great ride btw!

  • Dave

    Agreed. I’d add, however, that for flat landers coming to the CT for the first time, that daily mileage drops even further, to maybe more like 30 miles per day for a while. The altitude and the steep climbing zaps you for days, and we also repeatedly spent hours sitting around watching the huge storms on the passes, wondering when we could safely go up there–this hugely affected some of our days. Now I know I just need to get up earlier so as to get over the passes before the storms come. Will try to keep that in mind when I do the CT again in a week!

  • Harris

    Curious, having just finished thru-riding the trail from Denver-Durango, how you came up with the “95% ridable” figure?

  • Matt M.

    Just sayin’–La Garita Wilderness detour has plenty of water and is by far the most scenic of the detours. Maybe even a worthy ride on its own? Lost Creek detour is in fact the dry and hot stretch. (opposite is stated above)

    Returned yesterday from a successful 10 day ride down the CT. My ECR and I had a blast!

  • Ben Aylsworth

    Indeed. Also just finished riding Denver-Durango. 95% from a time perspective is way off. Waaaayyyy off.

  • johnnestleroutdoors

    Just recently finished bikepacking the Colorado Trail and have been collecting some data about trips (mainly trip length). This is really geared towards all thru-riders. I came up with a super-quick survey to get some answers, and would be stoked if any of you gave your input!

    http://www.johnnestler.com/blog/2016/10/colorado-trail-hiker-bikepacker-trip-length-survey

  • Andrew Wade

    Where can we view the results? I am planning this for next summer and the more resources I have the better. Thanks.

  • johnnestleroutdoors

    Hi Andrew, I’ll post the data & some summaries on my website (http://www.johnnestler.com) in the next week. I’ll post a link to this comment when it’s all put together. Good luck starting the research!

  • http://www.thcbiketours.com THCBikeTours.com

    We are planning to ride 5 – 7 days, the last week of June 2017. I’m thinking to start at Buena Vista and ride to Durango.

  • Chad Ament

    I ride long day trips on a Single Speed on the Colorado Trail with a 34×22 on a 29er, and it’s damn hard, and that is with zero gear on my bike.

  • Newbie Biker

    Mileage wise, did you hike-a-bike more than 27 miles? Also, hike-a-biking vertical elevation is harder and longer compared to the horizontal distance you are actually traveling.

  • Newbie Biker

    Mileage wise, did you hike-a-bike more than 27 miles? Also, hike-a-biking vertical elevation is harder and longer compared to the horizontal distance you are actually traveling. So that could be where they are getting the 95% rideable from. Though, having never been on any part of the CT before, I really have no idea. I am making plans to ride it Denver to Durango this summer (July maybe?), so I guess I will soon find out for myself.