The Colorado Trail Foundation is the obvious and basic starting point for any prospect CT traveler. They take care of anything trail related and their website is full of all that information one needs one one knows nothing. Plus the e-shop gives access to the paperwork, plain or e-
Maps and Guidebooks
The guidebook issue is quite clear regarding what to buy; not so clear regarding what to take on the trail. The map issue seems straightforward now… unfortunately, it wasn’t at the time of my trip.
There are two publications, both coming from the Colorado Trail Foundation so look no further, this is it:
The Colorado Trail – The Official Guidebook is the usual in-depth book describing the trail. The background information chapters are interesting reading at home, not strictly needed for the trail; taking books apart has some kind of weird appeal. The trail is divided into segments which are grouped in sections. Trail description is thorough. Each segment comes with a sketch map.
Glossy paper, full colour with some pics thrown in, the book is nice but seems a bit heavier than strictly needed and makes one think if it’s a good idea to carry it on. I did (I’d send home the used sections) but didn’t use it much. This is actually quite a common thing with guidebooks: I usually take them on the trail but I almost have to force myself to read them. Usually, a map is enough and if it can be supplemented with some compact mini-guide it’s very functional and all I usually need. The good news is that such guide exists for the CT.
The Trailside Databook is so small and compact I even didn’t take the time to take it apart into sections. It’s basically a trail-long list of hot spots like trailheads, junctions, water sources, campsites… with basic data like elevation, mileage or services available, where applicable; a sketch map and elevation profile help get a first glance at what’s ahead. It’s cross referenced with the main guidebook.
On the trail, I’d use the Databook along with the topo maps. I’ve heard about hikers leaving the topos behind and using the Guidebook sketch maps instead. It’s certainly possible as the CT is so well marked and maintained but I don’t like to be in the mountains without a topo map. If I’d leave something behind, it’d be the main Guidebook which I hardly used.
Maps are again available through the CT Foundation with a new release for the 08 season that I unfortunately knew about too late: The Colorado Trail Map Book centers the map sheets around the trail and it’s very compact and detailed. I don’t know the scale for these but I had a quick glance at them while on the trail and they looked good. The best option in my opinion.
The Map Book came to take the place of the All Topo Maps: The Colorado Trail CD-Rom, apparently no longer available from the CTF. These CDs are what I initially got: they’re CT specific so they looked better than buying a wealth of expensive, heavy paper maps where 70% of the area covered was useless and that I’d use only once (unless I like Colorado so much that I move there).
The other option at the time was a set of up to 14 Trails Illustrated maps. These are good quality, the scale (most are 1:50.000) is very adequate for on-trail trips and the CT is highlighted but they’re expensive at $10 each if you have to buy all of them and they’re not centered around the CT so lots of paper weight is wasted. Cutting them is not always an option because they’re printed on both sides (which is a good thing) and the CT sometimes falls into different areas on the sheet on each side.
The CDs have two different sets: a CT specific one and a series of the original quads. Printing out either set leaves you with some paper load: 58 quads or more than a hundred sheets for the CT centered maps. Fitting a quad in a A4 sheet renders the map extremely difficult to read
The problem with all the maps in the CDs was the scale (1:24.000) is too detailed. You don’t need such detail for the CT and you pay with a ton of paper. Midway through my printing daze, I decided to spare the cash and go for the Trails Illustrated maps.
So eventually I used the National Geographic Trails Illustrated series. They’re nice, well rendered, easy to read and not too choked full of information. The scale is just right, they have a UTM grid and they’re printed in waterproof paper which makes them very tough but heavy. Trail depiction, on the minus side, is not as precise as it could be.
The list of TI maps needed varies depending on the source, maybe due to new numbering or different sheet arrangement. As of 2008, the complete list as I used it was like this (in order of appearance, north to south):
- 1. 135: Deckers, Rampart Range
- 2. 105: Tarryall Mts., Kenosha Pass
- 3. 104: Idaho Springs, Georgetown, Loveland Pass
- 4. 109: Breckenridge, Tennessee Pass
- 5. 108: Vail
- 6. 126: Holy Cross, Ruedi Reservoir
- 7. 127: Aspen, Independence Pass
- 8. 110: Leadville, Fairplay
- 9. 129: Buena Vista, Collegiate Peaks
- 10. 130: Salida, St. Elmo, Mount Shavano
- 11. 139: La Garita, Cochetopa Hills
- 12. 140: Weminuche Wilderness
- 13. 141: Telluride, Siverton, Ouray, Lake City
- 14. 144: Durango, Cortez
Expensive and heavy option but I love my maps and I liked using these. As stated, if starting from scratch, I’d nowadays use the CT specific CT Map Book.
I take ressuply as a chance to take a break from the trail… if I have the time (tight schedules may happen in these summer holiday trips). At the same time, I like staying on the trail for extended periods with no town visits where “extended” means several days. Beyond a week, food weight starts to be a burden for my lightweight system so I try to keep within that limit. In a 4 week trip, this means I’ll mean to ressupply 3 times and try to space them as evenly as possible. With this criteria, my CT breakdown lead me to Leadville, Salida and Creede.
I reached Leadville from Tennessee Pass, in the afternoon of day 6. I liked Leaville: a small town in the upper section of the Arkansas river valley, some crazy 10.000 feet high with the backdrop of the highest peaks in Colorado.
My ideal plan was to arrive here in the morning of day 7 and stay 24 h., enough for some break and town chill out but day 7 was a saturday and I preferred to stress the hiking a bit so I’d be sure find an open post office on friday afternoon. I didn’t have anything to get but I wanted to send some used maps home; I was carrying quite some paper load. The PO was open also on saturday morning but I wasn’t sure before I got there.
Leadville has everything I could hope for and in a compact size. The Leadville Hostel is the place to stay, no question: Bill & Cathy are very nice hosts and they’re used to hikers. I happened to get there on the weekend of the Leadville Ultramarathon and the hostel was kind of full but they made sure I they had room for another dirty hiker.
Leadville has an outfitter, a few restaurants, a nice pub and a good sized supermarket which is the only thing a certain distance from downtown but I could borrow the hostel bicycle.
I should have left Leadville sometime after lunch on saturday but the weather was looking like winter with cold, rain, hail and snow in the mountains so I eventually stayed a second night. The weather was rather my excuse to stay a bit longer in such a nice place.
Leadville was an easy hitch (around 20 m. wait) from Tennesse Pass. For the return trip, I spared the hitching and took a ride with the hostel owners for some reasonble price.
Salida was the biggest town I visited between Denver and Durango. Most services though are at or around First St. so it turned out compact and convenient. As in Leadville, a good part of the whole impression from my stay came from the lodging option and in Salida this couldn’t be better: The Simple Hostel is run by hikers and it was the friendliest, cosiest place I could hope for.
In Salida, I met my ideal plan: arrive in the morning, have a huge breakfast, find loging, do my duties, relax. I spent there 24 h. As mentioned, the character of my Salida stay was greatly affected by the place I stayed at which turned out to be the nicest hostel possible: The Simple Hostel is run by hikers so they know what we’re talking about. It’s right downtown so you don’t have to spend your rest day walking the sideways. Everybody there from owners to friends of owners to other guests was super nice and the place offered much more than lodging. If you go to Salida, don’t miss the Simple Hostel.
Everything of interest is within short walking distance: hostel, laundry, post office, supermarket, several food options including a pub and a local mini-brewery and also a public library with i-net. There are also a couple of outfitters.
In strong contrast with Leadville, it was hot and sunny in Salida.
Hitching is a bit tricky: 11 miles from the trail crossing which is not on a road saddle but somewhere along a long straight section where cars speed downhill. Fortunately, there’s a small pull-out area right at the trail crossing. Bad news is there’s a main junction 4 miles from town so two hitches may be needed. First hitch took the almost standard 20 min. Second hitch was less than 5 seconds. Hitching out was much trickier: kind of long walk to the outskirts to hitch on a busy, dual lane road where nobody would stop for a good while. It took more than an hour.
I got to Creede from Highway 149. It’s a hell of a long 33 m. hitch and I approached Spring Creek Pass thinking about hitching both ways and taking the first one that would stop… but some positive comments about fellow hikers a few hours before made me try the east side first. It took a few minutes for a car to pull out on the pass bringing another hiker from town and ready to take me down. Creede is much closer from the trail at San Luis Pass but this didn’t meet my ressupply schedule.
Creede was the smallest town I visited. It’s basically three paralell streets (only one of them is paved) just off the mouth of a narrow canyon. Similarly to Leadville, it’s an old mining town.
Creede is very compact and friendly and the only thing I’d miss was some hostel-like accomodation which is always more fun than a motel, no matter how nice the Snowshoe lodge motel owners are.
Even though Creede is a full ressuply town, the supermarket is small and there are not as many choices as in those in Leadville or Salida. There’s a surprisingly high concentration (two) of very nice pubs and a couple more food places, one of them (Kips’) is said to be the local hangout for hikers where those on a budget could expect locals to come up and offer their lawn and shower.
Hitching back was spared, same as in Leadville, for a price: the same person who took me down offers to bring hikers back up for basically gas money.
It seems post offices are open on Saturday mornings in Colorado Trail towns. Knowing this in advance (and trusting the source) would have taken some stress off my first stage. I used post offices to mail back used paperwork: maps and guidebook pages. This was a relief, particularly in my first two stops, as the whole bunch of Trails Illustrated maps I was using was bulky and heavy. It’s expensive to send all that stuff to Europe but at that moment it was a good thing to spend money on.
There’s always different class mailing options but in true commercial vein there’s nothing as a “second” class denomination. Nobody wants to buy anything with a “second” in its name. But not only for the price, I needed second class for the delivery time so my maps wouldn’t be there too much ahead of me.
Express or Priority? which one sounds as the “second” class? I really couldn’t tell from the names alone. And I was surely glad my second class shipments were named Priority; it made them look so much better.
Denver International Airport has connections with many European cities but none in my vicinity. Better to connect flights in Europe and enter the US on the last leg of the trip so the immigration queue doesn’t affect connection time buffer.
Denver – Durango
Getting back to Denver from Durango has two traditional options: hiring a car or taking the Greyhound.
After a month of taking responsibility of everything I was doing, it felt nice to leave the driving to someone else so I got ready for the almost 12 hour trip on the Dirty Dog. It may look like a long trip but considering I was basically retracing the steps that took me 4 weeks to cover, it didn’t feel so long. I love how hiking puts things into the right perspective.
I actually enjoyed the ride: crossing the San Juan mountains in Molas Pass, a well remembered spot, visiting Silverton, riding the endless, dry, almost barren western plains, following the Colorado River, meeting the CT again in Copper Mountain… and that aura of decadence in the Dog that feels like part of the american thing. I kind of like the Greyhound.
There’s a daily service leaving Durango at 6.40 am to arrive in Denver at 5.05 pm after 10.5 hours and 369 miles (or so they say) with a change of bus in Grand Junction. Ticket price in 2008 was $81.50.
There’s a small airport in Durango with no flights to Denver or so the story goes. At the DIA terminal building and while waiting for my flight back home, I saw this:
The only thing I was missing was a caption saying something like “you don’t have to ride the Greyhound for 12 hours anymore after your CT hike…”.
Don’t know about the price or wether it will still be available in the future. Anyway, I think I still prefered the bus ride.
The Colorado Trail
The Denver side trailhead is still a bit far from the closest spot serviced by public transport. I was planning on hiking those extra miles but eventually went for trail angel help and got a ride from downtown Denver. Thank you, my trail angels.
(CT angels should be easy to find on the typical i-net resources)
The Durango trailhead is just a stone throw (3 miles) from town. There’s no public transport but it shouldn’t be difficult to find a ride into town as most traffic will be from hikers. It may be trickier the other way. Anyway, I just walked my last miles into town.
On the net
The obvious reference starting point is the Colorado Trail Foundation. The website has lots of useful information and it’s the source for guidebooks and maps.
The information overload on the CTF can be a bit overwhelming. Paul Magnanti has a great summary that’s very useful for a first approach and as a planning tool.
trailforums has a moderately active CT forum where trail veterans and locals are always happy to answer questions. Local Trail Angels roam this forum too.