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Best Thru Hikes in Colorado

April 20, 2020

In the next installment of this series, we’ll look at some of the best thru-hikes in Colorado. Rightfully so, the Colorado Trail is the first that comes to mind. Although the other trails covered in this article aren’t as long, they may be just as beautiful.

While nowhere near as large as California, Colorado has no shortage of wilderness areas. It contains 53 peaks surpassing the 14,000 foot elevation mark, 41 more than all of California. Rocky Mountain National Park lies in north-central Colorado, and is one of the most visited parks each year. It’s notable for its towering peaks and alpine lakes that cover both sides of the Continental Divide.

Colorado Trail

Thru-Hikes: Colorado Trail
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The Colorado Trail is the most popular long distance trail in the state, and for good reason. Wildlife is abundant throughout the trail and seasonal wildflowers add dazzling color to your day. Most hikers head southwest from Waterton Canyon to Durango for a more gradual approach to the elevation gain.

All 486 miles of this trail offer some of the most beautiful scenery Colorado has to offer. Much of the trail winds through alpine forests and mountain towns, but views are magnificent when it does climb above the timberline. Highlights of the trail include the Sawatch Range and the gorgeous San Juans, both of which feature multiple fourteeners.

The popular Colorado Trail shares over 200 miles of footpath with the Continental Divide Trail. This segment of the two trails pass through the beautiful La Garita and Collegiate Peaks Wilderness areas. It takes most hikers between four to six weeks to complete the Colorado Trail. However, it is broken up into 28 segments if you can’t manage get away for quite that long.

Capitol Creek Circuit Trail

Thru-Hikes: Capitol Creek Circuit  Trail
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From the Capitol Creek trailhead, this 48.5 mile trail passes through the Elk Mountains near the small mountain town of Marble, Colorado. It’s characterized by drastic elevation changes and solitude above the timberline past Snowmass Lake.

While technically a loop, it’s still impressive enough to be included in this list of the best thru-hikes in Colorado. This hike takes you through some of the most beautiful scenery of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness within the White River National Forest. It shares about five miles with the Maroon Bells Snowmass Loop near Snowmass Lake, but otherwise offers more opportunity for seclusion.

High Line Canal Trail

Thru-Hikes: High Line Canal Trail
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This unique trail, spanning 71 miles from Aurora Colorado to Roxborough State Park, is one of the longest urban trails in the country. The High Line Canal Trail heads southwest through the most populated areas of Colorado before approaching the Rocky Mountains.

It passes through various communities and parks with water fountains, restrooms, and picnic tables. With varying degrees of paved and natural surfaces, it is open to hiking, biking, and horseback riding.

If you’re looking for a thru-hike to experience the contrast between urban influences and natural beauty, try combining the High Line Canal Trail with the Colorado Trail. They don’t overlap perfectly, but the difference between Roxborough State Park and Waterton Canyon is not much.

Maroon Bells-Snowmass Loop

Thru-Hikes: Maroon Bells-Snowmass Loop
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The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Loop is one of the more heavily trafficked trails in the region for both day hikes and overnight trips. From the Maroon Lake trailhead, the loop begins an immediate climb into the mountains. Whether you head northwest over Buckskin Pass, or southwest to West Maroon Pass, you are looking at an initial incline up to 12,500 feet.

It’s a challenging hike, but, like many other high elevation trails, the views your earn are absolutely worth the work. This loop typically takes a few days to complete, and is easiest after mid-summer when the river crossings are less dangerous.

Overall, Colorado is a beautiful state. While the Rockies are much more vast than the Sierra Nevada, their ruggedness can be an obstacle for thru-hiking trails. But even with a lack of long-distance hikes, there is more than enough scenic hiking to get by.