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Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.
Elizabeth Dengler | 06.21.2021

Colorado is known for its craggy 14,000-foot summits, remote wilderness, and epic trails. If you’re looking to get out and explore what Colorado has to offer, there is no better way to do it than by backpacking.

Colorado Backpacking Season

The best season is late spring and early summer when the weather is nicer and the wildflowers are in full bloom, but early autumn can be magical too. The weather in Colorado, and especially the mountains, can be variable year-round. Even in summer, the high alpine can get brutally cold—it can snow, and rocky surfaces can ice up, making footing difficult. The rest of the time, thunderstorms, complete with lightning and hail, are a routine afternoon threat.

How to Prepare

Remember, Colorado is high (in more ways than one). It’s worth spending a few days acclimating to the altitude before heading out on a trek, especially one that requires climbing up to 12-14,000 feet. Headaches, loss of appetite, nausea, and dizziness are a few of the symptoms of altitude sickness. If you start to feel any of these, return to a lower elevation—you can always give the trip another go once you’re feeling better. Some tips: eat well, lay off the alcohol the night before your hike, sleep (which can also be difficult if you’re not used to the altitude), and drink plenty of water.

Know Before You Go

Though you might need the occasional permit to access certain areas, most of them are free and self-issued at the trailhead. Be bear aware, camp in designated sites when available, and practice Leave No Trace (LNT) ethics.

Despite the preparedness needed for Colorado backpacking, sleeping out in the alpine is one of the most memorable experiences you can have. The stargazing can’t be beat, and if you pick the right time of year, you might even be treated to a meteor shower. Plus, waking up in an alpine meadow chock full of wildflowers is beyond the scope of the imagination.

Heading out on a multi-day trip might seem a bit daunting when you aren’t sure where to go (there’s so much to choose from!). But, with one or two of these in your pocket, you’re ready to enjoy your next Colorado backcountry adventure. 

Backpacker descend from Buckskin Pass along the Four Pass Loop. Photo by Louie Traub.

Four Pass Loop

Probably the most popular backpacking loop in Colorado, this one is a must-do. Despite its popularity, you will undoubtedly find plenty of solitude on this 27-mile loop in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. A self-issued permit (available at the trailhead) is required and must be carried while on the trail. However, there is no fee and no registration limit. 

Starting at the Maroon Lake Trailhead, you are immediately greeted with an iconic view of the Maroon Bells over Maroon Lake—a glimpse into what this loop has to offer. You’ll enjoy fantastic scenery, remote camping experiences, and mountain lakes on the main route. Abundant wildflowers paint the meadows with red, yellow, orange, purple. Though you can complete this loop in a four-day / three-night trip, it could be worth staying out for an extra night to enjoy the area. Explore some of the side trails and reach spots that other backpackers on this loop don’t do, such as Geneva Lake, Maroon Peak, or Pyramid Peak. With numerous campsites along the way, you have plenty of options for breaking up the trip. It will be difficult to pull yourself away from this one.

Long's Peak: Keyhole Route

This is a classic route in Rocky Mountain National Park; however, this is not your average walk in the park. The upper sections of this route can be hazardous, especially when the weather starts to turn. Verglas (a glaze of ice) on steep rock, strong afternoon thunderstorms, and tenuous scrambling have caused many a hiker to turn back. 

The best way to tackle this out-and-back is to head out in the afternoon and set up camp at some point along the way. The first part of the route isn’t too demanding, except for the altitude. The most popular camp is in the boulder field, a little under six miles into the hike. Not only will this spot help you acclimate to the altitude, but it gives you the shortest possible approach to the summit the next day and the best chance of being on your way down from the summit before afternoon thunderstorms pop up.

However, heading up to (and beyond) the Keyhole is no picnic—be prepared for a bit of tenuous scrambling. However, popping through the Keyhole and looking down into the valley beyond will take away whatever little breath you had left. From the Keyhole, the route gets incredibly scrambly. Be prepared for thin air, high exposure, and scrambling on all fours, all to reach the outstanding views you can only get from a 14er summit. Take your time and enjoy the summit, but make sure you’re heading down by noon at the latest. 

Devil’s Causeway

It is difficult to describe the Flat Tops Wilderness; it truly does seem to be beyond words. The views, fishing, and remoteness are the biggest draws of this area. Though a popular spot, the Flat Tops are not as busy as some other regions of Colorado, making for a quiet and relaxing trip.

From the Stillwater Trailhead, you have numerous options for camping out for a night or two in the backcountry. As you hike up the main trail, it gradually steepens until you pop up over the pass. Peer down in both directions at the forests, lakes, and cliff walls. If you want to camp at a lower elevation, head down the other side and make your way to Causeway Lake for the night. If you’d rather camp high (over 11,000 feet), abandon the Causeway Lake excursion, and continue up to the mesa top. 

Here’s where it gets interesting. Not only is the trail extremely steep, but once you reach the top, you’ll face the Devil’s Causeway, a narrow rocky spine. The knife-edge feature is only about 100 yards long, but the drops are precipitous, and it can be a little intimidating. However, the 360-degree views here are some of the best around. 

Once you cross the Causeway, the route is smooth sailing. You can find somewhere to camp somewhere along the Chinese Wall Trail. You’ll likely have your pick of dispersed camping spots, but keep in mind Leave No Trace practices for this one! Take your time packing up in the morning as the trail back is mostly downhill and easy going. 

 
A backpackers camp along Segment 23 of the Colorado Trail. Photo by Mike Windsor.

Colorado Trail

If you’re looking for a long-distance trail, the Colorado Trail is a big one. At 486 miles, this route starts in Denver and runs to Durango. A thru-hike of the CT requires some serious planning but will be the adventure of a lifetime! With huge mountain vistas, alpine lakes, diverse forests, and a wonderfully maintained and well-signed trail thanks to the Colorado Trail Foundation, you will get to experience the vast diversity of the Colorado wilderness. 

Most of the trail is above 10,000 feet, with the highest point a bit over 13,000. The average hiker can tackle the Colorado Trail in four to six weeks, but you can take as much time as you want. Make sure you plan well—you’ll need to figure out shuttles, resupplies, and navigation for tricky intersections. Even though the route is well-traveled, there are certainly some rugged sections along the way. You will be cold, tired, and hungry, and it will feel like every day you are going up and over a pass and hiding from a storm. However, the smells and views of wildflower meadows along the way make it all worth it. And don’t forget about Trail Magic! After 30 days on the trail, when someone hands you a fresh piece of fruit, it will instantly become your most prized possession.

Pawnee-Buchana Loop

If you’re on the Front Range and looking for a few nights out nearby, the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop serves up the goods. Though most people do this in two or three days, it’s worth it to take your time and explore the numerous side trails up peaks (Mt. Audubon) or to alpine lakes (Mitchell Lake and Crater Lake). Of course, if you don’t have time, the main loop offers more than enough to enjoy, including Pawnee Lake, Thunder Creek, Long Lake, Lake Isabelle, Cascade Falls, and the stunning mountainous landscape of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. A few things to know: there is a fee to use the Brainard Lake Recreation Area (the entry point for this hike), and a permit is required for overnight travel in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. It can take a couple of weeks to get your permit, so plan ahead!

Flowing Park Loop

Driving up to the Grand Mesa is a worthy experience all on its own. However, camping up top and hiking along the cliff band will leave you breathless. One of the easiest 15-mile hikes you could find at 10,000 feet, this loop is a real treat. Though the route only has a little over 500-feet of elevation gain, at that elevation you can still feel the effects of altitude sickness. 

This lollipop loop makes for a great overnight. And if you’ve never been up to the edge of the Grand, now is the chance; you’ll undoubtedly feel the call of the void looking out over the Western Slope and Dominguez Canyon. Though it would be a bit chillier, an autumn trip to Grand Mesa amidst the changing aspen leaves is something to behold. There is no potable water along the route so bring everything you need. The wind can pick up too. If the wind is howling, you may think your trip is a bust. However, standing at the edge of the mesa when it’s windy is an experience in itself. Watching waterfalls blow up the cliff face from the wind is unreal. This loop offers up a unique experience on the Western Slope.

Chicago Basin 14er Grand Slam

Are you looking for that ultimate rugged experience? This one's for you. It is difficult to get to, remote, rugged, and it summits all four 14ers in Chicago Basin. And though technically allowed, it’s best to leave the dogs at home for this one as the upper reaches are much too technical. The trailhead is hard to get to. Either hike in 10-mile (yes, that’s one way) via several trails or book a roundtrip ticket on the Durango & Silverton Railroad into the basin. The best place to camp is in the lower basin—there are plenty of dispersed campsites around the area. After acclimating to the altitude and with a good night’s sleep, you’ll be ready to take on the four 14ers. It’s best to tackle Sunlight and Windom before the Eolus Group, as it’s a bit easier to get down from the Eolus summits if the weather turns later in the day. Either way, the routes are quite technical, scrambly, and require a bit of tenacity. However, the views from the top are worth the effort. Twin Lakes makes a great stopping point on the way down for a quick dip after a long day of hiking.

While the above list is a great place to start your research, Colorado's list of notable backpacking trips doesn't end here. Discover more Colorado backpacking trips and other Outdoor Project adventures in the onX Backcountry GPS Hiking app

 

 

 

 

 

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