One of the most difficult, yet rewarding, bikepacking routes in the world is the Colorado Trail. Connecting Denver and Durango via a 500+ mile route of singletrack, gravel roads, and high-alpine passes, the CT is the pinnacle of bikepacking in the US. Undertaking a ride on the Colorado Trail requires significant preparation to create an itinerary, train, and properly pack your bike.
We created this guide to serve as the perfect starting place for planning your Colorado Trail bikepacking adventure by providing, maps, itineraries, logistics, packing advice, and more to help you get the most out of your ride.
Let’s get started.
In This Guide
- Colorado Trail Bikepacking Overview
- Colorado Trail Bikepacking Itinerary
- Trail Logistics
- Setting up your bike for the Colorado Trail
Colorado Trail Bikepacking Overview
The Colorado Trail was officially established in 1984 after countless hours of volunteer trail building, advocacy, and determination from a dedicated group of volunteers working with the US Forest Service. Today, the trail is maintained by the non-profit Colorado Trail Foundation, and remains the classic thru hike in the Centennial State.
Of course, in addition to hiking, mountain bikers are welcome to traverse the rugged terrain of the Colorado Trail, which is the focus of this guide.
The trail starts south of Denver at Waterton Canyon and winds its way to the Junction Creek Trailhead just north of Durango. Along the way the route crosses through several National Forests while also visiting several small mountain towns. For bikepackers, there are a few specific considerations to keep in mind, mostly related to required wilderness detours which we touch on in the following section.
Colorado Trail Bikepacking Maps & Wilderness Detours
For the most part the bikepacking route on the Colorado Trail follows the same trail as the hiking route, with the exception of six Wilderness Areas that must be detoured around. As a reminder, no mechanized travel is permitted in Wilderness Areas, so that means no bikes.
Check out the map below to get a sense of the route along with the required detours:
As you can see on the map, there are five detours required for those biking the Colorado Trail:
- Lost Creek Wilderness Detour: ~ 70 miles
- Holy Cross & Mount Massive Wilderness Detour: ~ 21 miles
- Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Detour: ~ 27 miles
- La Garita Wilderness Detour: ~ 56 miles
- Weminuche Wilderness Detour: ~18 miles
When you total up the added distance the wilderness detours add, the bikepacking route of the Colorado Trail ends up being approximately 532 miles long, or about 46 miles longer than the hiking route. Over the course of those 500 + miles from Denver to Durango you can also expect to gain over 70,000 feet of elevation!
Which direction should I bike in?
You can bike the Colorado Trail in either direction, starting from Durango or from Denver. Both have their pros/cons, although starting in Denver is most common.
Starting in Denver
Starting in Denver means you’ll begin with some of the easier sections of trail and give yourself more time to acclimate to the riding conditions and the altitude. However, some of the best sections of the trail are near Durango and you’ll ride them when your likely the most exhausted!
Starting in Durango
If you opt to start in Durango you’ll enjoy some of the most spectacular sections of trail on fresh legs. You’ll also find fewer people on the trails at this end, letting you get your rhythm a bit easier. However, it can be difficult to time a ride in this direction earlier in the season given you’ll encounter snow more frequently due to the higher altitude.
How difficult is bikepacking the Colorado Trail? Really really difficult.
In fact, many consider the route to be the most difficult off-road cycling trail in the country. Much of this difficulty comes from the fact that the Colorado Trail is first and foremost a hiking route that you happen to be able to ride your mountain bike on. That means that many segments are incredibly steep and rocky, necessitating a significant amount of hike-a-bike.
As such you’ll want to be prepared for plenty of pushing your bike uphill and doing so at significant altitude. In addition to the physical demands of the trail it is also very technical in nature. There are lots of super rocky sections that will challenge the best riders, especially on a loaded down bike.
All that being said, if you come prepared and with the right mindset, you will have an incredible time riding the Colorado Trail – even if it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done!
When to Bikepack the Colorado Trail
The season for biking the Colorado Trail is heavily dependent on the prior winters snowfall. Although the weather may be warm enough in June to comfortably bike the trail, many of the high mountain passes and north facing slopes will still be snowed in. While some hikers attempt the trail even with some snow still lingering, doing so with a loaded mountain bike is not recommended.
As such, the most reliable season for bikepacking the Colorado Trail runs from early/mid-July through the middle of September. Much later and you’ll be contending with snow and colder weather, although this of course varies from year to year.
Colorado Trail Bikepacking Itinerary
Generally speaking most cyclists take between 10 – 21 days to bike the entire Colorado Trail. This is of course dependent on your fitness, time window, weather, and intentions. Giving yourself a two week window generally allows for enough time to complete the entire route factoring in the possibility of bad weather and the need for a day off somewhere in the middle.
If you’ve got more time we highly recommend extending your trip to last in the 15-20 day range as you’ll have a much more enjoyable experience and also be able to spend some time in the wonderful mountain towns you’ll encounter on the trail.
If you’re committed to a faster time be prepared for 10-12 hour days on the trail along with the need to push through inclement weather when safe.
Below is a sample itinerary on the faster side of the spectrum to give you a sense of what is possible for a rider with good skills and fitness. Use this as a starting place for your planning process and be sure to consider if you’ll want to build in a rest day or not.
|1||Waterton Canyon TH||Rolling Creek TH||39 miles|
|2||Rolling Creek TH||Kenosha Pass||76 miles|
|3||Kenosha Pass||Gold Hill TH (Breck or Frisco)||32 miles|
|4||Gold Hill TH||Leadville||50 miles|
|5||Camp Hale||Buena Vista||50 miles|
|6||Buena Vista||Marshall Pass||59 miles|
|7||Marshall Pass||Upper Dome Reservoir||53 miles|
|8||Upper Dome Reservoir||Spring Creek Pass||50 miles|
|9||Spring Creek Pass||Silverton||43 miles|
|10||Silverton||Hotel Draw Road||38 miles|
|11||Hotel Draw Road||Junction Creek TH||42 miles|
In addition to the standard itinerary shown above, there are a few key sections of the route you’ll want to be aware of or consider taking alternatives:
- Start at Union Station: If you want the full Denver to Durango experience, consider starting from Union Station in downtown Denver. It’ll add about 24 miles to your trip, but starting in the heart of Denver is the perfect way to pedal off.
- Lost Creek Wilderness Detour: You’ll encounter this long detour early on in the route. The standard detour takes you on back roads for just over 70 miles before rejoining the main trail before Kenosha Pass. For the brave cyclists out there you can shorten this by taking Highway 285 and connecting back at Kenosha Pass. Just be warned that this is a heavily trafficked highway with little to no shoulder in places.
- Breckenridge – Frisco – Copper Bike Path: If you arrive at the Gold Hill Trailhead a little worse for wear there is a bike path connecting Breckenridge/Frisco to Copper Mountain that will cut out a decent segment that takes you over the Continental Divide. This saves you some mileage as well as lots of hiking your bike.
- Monarch Crest Trail: If you want to ride some of the best singletrack in the state, consider riding up US Highway 50 from where it intersects with the CT to Monarch Pass. You can grab a bite to eat at the restaurant at the top and then enjoy some incredible riding and rejoin the Colorado Trail at Marshall Pass.
- Sargents Mesa: Mile for mile, this is typically the most hated section of the Colorado Trail for cyclists. Lots of hike-a-bike, loose rocks, tons of dirt bikes, and limited water make for some difficult miles. Come prepared or consider taking an alternative around this section.
All in all the Colorado Trail is a remarkably simple trip to plan from a logistics standpoint. There are no permits required to bikepack the Colorado Trail, camping is allowed on essentially the entire route, and the start/finish points are well connected regionally.
Maps & Guides for Bikepacking the Colorado Trail
The Colorado Trail is exceptionally well-marked along its entire route. This deserves a major kudos to the Colorado Trail Foundation, which has done an amazing job at making it as easy as possible to navigate. However, you will of course want to have some sort of navigational tool and maps.
For this, we recommend a couple of resources, outlined below:
Colorado Trail Guidebook, Map Book, and Databook
There are three essential books you’ll want to pick up prior to biking the Colorado Trail, all outlined below:
- Colorado Trail Guidebook: This is the official guidebook for the trail and an essential resource. It is heavy, so you won’t want to bring it with you, but it is great for planning your ride.
- Colorado Trail Map Book: The associated map book is a companion to the official guidebook. It includes full topographic maps for every section of the Colorado Trail, including bicycle detours. We recommend bringing this with you on the trail.
- Colorado Trail Databook: The final book you’ll want to consider bringing along with you in the official databook. This is basically a shortened version of the guidebook and contains essential info on water sources, resupply points, and more. We think this is an essential resource to bring with you.
Offline Navigation Tool (GPS)
Finally, bringing some sort of GPS loaded with the full GPX file of the route is highly recommended. This can be your phone with an app like Ride With GPS, or a purpose built cycling GPS such as the Wahoo Element Roam. These allow you to preload the Colorado Trail onto either your phone or GPS device, and then track your exact location on the trail while you’re riding.
Resupply, Food & Water
Despite the fact that the Colorado Trail bike route covers over 500 miles on mountainous terrain, it is actually fairly simple to resupply. The wilderness detours are a big help here as they tend to route cyclists through towns with good resupply options. Your best bets for resupply on the bikepacking route are highlighted below:
- Copper Mountain
- Buena Vista
- Monarch Pass
- Cathedral Ranch Cabins
- Lake City
Water is generally pretty accessible on the Colorado Trail, although there are a few areas you’ll need to plan ahead for. This includes Sargents Mesa south of US Highway 50 and a few other areas that tend to try up as the summer winds on. The best source of information on water supplies is the Colorado Trail Databook or using an app like Far Out Guides which has user generated intel on current water sources.
In terms of food on the trail, you should never have to carry more than a few days at a time given the ample opportunities for resupply. That being said, it is always a good idea to have a bit more food than you think you’ll need just in case you encounter bad weather and need to delay a planned arrival at a nearby town.
Setting up your Bike + Gear for the Colorado Trail
Once you’ve planned your itinerary it’s time to start thinking about how you’ll set up your bike for the CT. This includes everything from which tires to run, how you’ll carry gear, and making sure your brakes are bled and ready for the trail. Check out some of our top tips below, and be sure to read our Colorado Trail Bikepacking Gear Guide for more in-depth information.
Bike considerations + setup
As the saying going, the best bike to go bikepacking with is the bike you already own. That generally rings true for the Colorado Trail, although there are a few key considerations you’ll want to keep in mind when selecting and setting up your bike for the trip:
- Full Suspension vs Hardtail: Hardtails are typically incredibly capable bikepacking rigs and they will do just fine on the Colorado Trail. However, if there was ever a route where it made sense to bikepack on a full-suspension, the Colorado Trail is it. If you have both options available, you should strongly consider bringing your full squish.
- Dropper Post: Given the technical nature of the trail the ability to ride with a fully functioning dropper post is a game changer. This is often limited by seat packs, so we highly recommend considering a minimalist rack or other solution (see more on that in the next section) that allows for full dropper actuation.
- Chainring/Gearing: Basically, you want the lowest gears you can possibly get. That means you should consider swapping out your chainring for a 28T option and making sure you’ve got a dinner plate for the largest cog on your cassette.
- Pedals/Shoes: You’ll be getting on and off your bike A LOT on the Colorado Trail so be sure you have a shoe/pedal combo that facilitates that. For this reason we prefer flats, but there are some good SPD shoes for hiking these days that you should definitely consider if riding clipless.
- Weight: Let us be clear: make your bike as light as you possibly can!
Colorado Trail Bikepacking Gear Essentials
We’ve picked out a few key pieces of gear you should think about when preparing to bikepack the Colorado Trail. If you want a more in-depth kit list, check out our Colorado Trail Bikepacking Gear List here.
Seat Pack Alternative
As we mentioned in an earlier section of this guide, having a fully functioning dropper post is real benefit on a technical ride like the Colorado Trail. Typically, seat packs limit your dropper at least somewhat, although newer models combined with a Wolf Tooth Valais do a good job at maximizing dropper travel.
However, there are a few newer solutions that we highly recommend you consider for carrying gear on the back of your bike on the CT. This includes the well-reviewed but very pricy Tailfin AeroRack and our recommended solution, the Aeroe Spider Rear Rack.
The Aeroe Rack clamps onto your bike’s seat stays and works with both hardtail and full-suspension bikes. It can hold a dry bag both on the top of the rack and can also accommodate dry bags on the sides via the rack cradle attachment. We think this is a great solution to allow you to ride a full-suspension bike with full use of your dropper on the Colorado Trail
Our Top Pick
The Aeroe Spider Rear Rack lets you carry gear on the back of your bike without interfering with your dropper post. Compatible with full-suspension bikes, it is the ideal solution for a technical bikepacking trip.
Pedal selection is a personal decision with the mountain biking community seemingly split 50/50 on whether flats or clipless pedals are better. Obviously, whatever you are most comfortable with makes a good choice for the Colorado Trail, but we’re here to give you a slight nod towards a flat pedal set-up.
The significant amount of hike-a-bike on the Colorado Trail as well as the technical nature of the route means that you’ll be getting on and off your bike a lot. Flat pedals make that much easier, and flat shoes also are far superior for hiking compared to clipless. Our favorite are the classic Race Face Chester Pedals and we really like the Specialized Rime Flat shoe, which is designed for bikepacking expeditions like the Colorado Trail.
Lightweight Sleep System
Saving weight on your kit for the CT is essential and we always recommend starting with your sleep system. Most bikepackers on the Colorado Trail end up riding in the range of 8 – 12 hours per day, so both comfort and function are key here. We like a simple bivvy or ultralight one-person tent combined with a down sleeping bag and functional sleeping pad.
This includes both the bags on your bike as well as your personal clothing. When selecting a dry bag, seat pack, frame bag, etc you’ll want to put an emphasis on a waterproof design. Although you’re unlikely to encounter days on end of rain, the storms that you will experience are intense with heavy, heavy rain very likely.
For your own kit, a good rain jacket and possibly rain pants are advisable.
Have a great adventure!
We hope this post has given you all the information you need to get a basic overview of bikepacking the Colorado Trail. It’s an amazing ride and one we’re thrilled that you interested in exploring. Be sure to check out our other Colorado Trail resources below: