Next to St. Mary’s Glacier in May. Photo: John B. Kalla
Any experienced hiker would tell you – there’s no shortage of trails in Colorado. From relaxing for a couple of hours on the Bear Lake trail to the demanding 8 miles around the Pyramid Peak, we have a little something for any hiker’s “palate.”
Today, we’ll take some time to explore the most prominent ones and provide some reference info on preparation, depending on the difficulty level.
Tips for hiking in Colorado
Just as ski slopes have different difficulties, hiking trails vary in difficulty. Before you strike off on a hike, be honest with yourself about your physical strength and ability to handle the altitude. ALWAYS be prepared with layers of clothing and plenty of water.
Bring extra water
This one is kind of obvious but does deserve stressing for Colorado hikes, especially if you are passionate about hiking because there are many smaller trails intertwined with the “bigger” ones. So, its good practice to be prepared for the spontaneous “hey, let’s try this trail” moments that may overtake you.
Generally, a good rule of thumb is 32 oz of water for every hour. Before hitting the trail, take a moment to look at the maps and assess the chances of straying off the trail and add plan your water supplies accordingly.
Multi-day and multi-week hikes – plan for some chilly nights and steep climbs
If you’re undertaking a more serious multi-week hiking project, like the Colorado Trail, it calls for more serious planning.
In terms of temperature averages, Colorado is 42nd (looking at summer temperatures) and 39th (year-round averages), so you can definitely expect some crisp nights.
The two things we’d like to stress here is smart packing and meal planning.
Good boots and a small air mattress with a high R-rating
For long-distance hikes, two items that trump everything else are well-chosen boots and an air mattress / sleep pad. The later will ensure you have a peaceful slumber under the Colorado skies and wake up rested and the former will allow you to spend that energy wisely.
When it comes to boots, we’d say that PU (polyurethane) hiking boots paired with quick-drying socks (avoid cotton) will be sweet spot between breathability, sturdiness and element-isolation.
Whatever boot you choose, make sure that it’s well broken in before hitting the Colorado Trail. This will keep blistering at bay. New boots, moody weather and steep trails don’t mix well.
A good, versatile air mattress that won’t be much of a burden during the day but, come night, will do a good job at protecting you from the elements. We could go into the nitty-gritty of temperatures for specific trails and the R-ratings of the air mattresses, but it’s beyond the scope of this guide.
The rule of thumb would be finding the balance between weight and thickness of the air mattress and temperature properties (R-rating). Today, the better ones can weigh as little as a few ounces, pack as small and thin as a water bottle and still be rated for the kind of moody weather you can expect on the Colorado Trail. We found some specific information a choosing a small air mattress here.
Don’t let the bugs or (God-forbid) bears bite
If you’re hitting the Colorado trail in early summer, you’ll want to pack a bug-repellent. Bugs and mosquitoes are mostly gone by August.
On a more serious note, while you might see a black bear on the trail, they tend to keep to themselves and the valleys and are nowhere near as interested in hikers as their cousins in the High Sierra. Nevertheless, if you’re cooking, it’s smart not to do it in the same place where you’re setting camp for the night. Cook, eat, move a few miles and set camp.
If it’s the Colorado Trail that caught your eye, we found this well-rounded guide on PMags and the FAQ section of the official Colorado Trail website. These two cover pretty much everything you need to know about the trail.
Now that we have our basics covered, let’s move on to look at other one-day and backpacking hikes that you might want to explore.
Colorado’s top day hikes
Day hikes vary from early morning strolls to 16-mile treks with several altitude changes. The trail you choose will be based on your stamina and objective. For a day hike, you will usually pack plenty of water and a sandwich (or two). Some protein bars are also a good idea, in case your hike stretches past the noon hour into the afternoon.
Most day hikes range from 4 to 8 hours. The significance of a day hike is that you can be back in your campsite or hotel room by dark.
Easy day hikes in Colorado
Bear Lake is an easy trail that you can do in a couple of hours. The trail has some climbing up steep inclines, but is well-traveled and a maintained path. You’ll enjoy the beauty of this walk and get acclimated to the altitude at Bear Lake. It’s a little over a mile. The lake is in Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park and Grand Lake.
The Chautauqua Trail near Boulder takes you through a beautiful meadow. The round trip is a little over a mile but, if you’re feeling adventurous, take the Bluebell-Baird Trail in addition to the Chautauqua. It will add 2 miles to your round trip. Boulder is a hiker’s heaven and there are many more interesting trails in the area – you can see some of them in a guide we published a while ago here.
Moderately hard day hikes in Colorado
Lizard Head Pass ranks in the moderately hard category because it is 7 miles long. The pass leads to Lizard Head Peak, which is a nearly vertical volcanic pipe. Located outside of Telluride, you get the chance to acclimate to the higher altitude and view some impressive Coloradan scenery.
Back to Rocky Mountain National Park, where we will find the Lion Lakes day hike. This is 12 miles, round trip, but don’t let that scare you. You take the Wild Basin Trailhead and Thunder Lake Trail, then follow the lakes, waterfalls, and streams. This is a smooth and mostly flat hike.
Hard day hikes in Colorado
Longs Peak, also in the Rocky Mountain National Park, is one of the most-hiked and least-finished trails in the state. About 15,000 people a year attempt to reach the peak and only half of them make it. It’s only 15 miles, but you gain 5000 feet in elevation. Even though the trail is well-marked – be prepared for changes in the weather.
If Longs Peak was a breeze, then try Pyramid Peak. Located near Aspen, you might want to take a rope and harness with you. It’s only a little over 8 miles, round trip, but it will take you at least an hour per mile.
Colorado’s top backpacking hikes
For a more rugged experience, some prefer to pack into the wilderness. Backpacking requires more planning and better equipment. Packs weigh upwards of 150 pounds and include foul weather gear, food and food preparation tools, and bedding.
The hiker may backpack to their campsite and set up camp for several days while exploring the area, or he or she may hike to a new campsite every day. We already went over the basics of the well-known Colorado Trail, so let us look at some of the top moderate backpacking trails.
Once again, Rocky Mountain National Park tops the list with its Continental Divide Loop. This is a 25 mile hike that starts at Grand Lake. You’ll hike switchbacks up to Flattop Mountain at just over 12,300 feet, where you’ll see the Continental Divide. After following the Continental Divide Scenic Trail, you go through the Tonahutu drainage and the Tonahutu Creek Trail until it loops around to your starting point.
Surprise Lake Loop and Eaglesmere is a great hike to 10,400 feet elevation. It’s in Eagles Nest Wilderness, and you’re surrounded by aspens and spruce. If you include Upper Cataract Lake in your hike, you’ll get nearly 15 miles. This could be classified as a hard day hike, but you’ll appreciate the scenery much more if you plan on camping out at each of the beautiful lakes.
There’s much more hiking where that came from
We said at the very beginning that there’s a little something for any hiking level or taste. The trails we listed here barely scratch the surface.
It’s an impossible mission to cover all the gems hiding in the rigors of Colorado. There’s incredible hiking trails everywhere. Do share your favorites and tell us about what makes them special in the comments below. Let’s talk Colorado, hikers