Trekking across Colorado’s fragmented wildernesses

Thru-hiking the Colorado Trail exposes a “wilderness” that is anything but.


“You have to stop in Twin Lakes for beer,” a young thru-hiker told us on the Colorado Trail, several days after we’d already passed through Twin Lakes. “I had two before heading up the pass.” It didn’t sound like a winning strategy to us, but to each their own. 

My wife, Julia, and I are longtime backpackers, but we had never attempted a long-distance point-to-point hike. Julia was about to turn 40, and she suggested we do something more than, say, a party, to mark the occasion.

We picked the Colorado Trail in part because I grew up in Colorado, and the trail is one of the most beautiful thru-hikes in the United States. As important, though, is that it is short enough to be done without taking a sabbatical or retiring. Other popular thru-hikes, including the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, take about six months to complete.

A gravel road bifurcates a section of the Colorado Trail.
Ben, Flickr user.

It didn’t take long to figure out that thru-hiking would be very different from our typical backpacking trips, and not just because of the trail’s 486-mile length. (We completed the trail in 29 days, which is about four “standard” weeklong backpacking trips back to back.) What really stood out was the trail itself. 

Our typical backpacking adventures have taken place in wilderness — either official wilderness areas or at least lands that have a wilderness quality. These trips often involve loops, which allow us to stay within the wilderness even if it’s not a huge area, geographically speaking. In contrast, the Colorado Trail, like all thru-hikes, is about getting from one place to the next. That means it often leaves the wilderness.

The Colorado Trail Foundation boasts that it’s the state’s “premier long-distance trail. Stretching from Denver to Durango … it travels through the spectacular Colorado Rocky Mountains among peaks with lakes, creeks and diverse ecosystems. Trail users experience six wilderness areas and eight mountain ranges topping out at 13,271 feet, just below Coney Summit at 13,334 feet. The average elevation is over 10,000 feet and it rises and falls dramatically. Hikers traveling from Denver to Durango will climb 89,354 feet.”

This is not exactly inaccurate, but it leaves a lot out. Julia and I typically don’t backpack on, beside, under, or near: dams, power lines, houses, roads, ATVs, motorcycles, highways, ski lifts, bus stops, fire stations, parking lots, gondolas or golf courses. On the Colorado Trail, we passed all of these things, some of them multiple times in the course of the month. 

The Colorado Trail is broken up into 28 segments and almost every segment ends at a road of some kind. The longest segments are about 30 miles long, though most are closer to 15 miles. That means a typical thru-hiker crosses a road at least once per day. And there are opportunities for beer down many of those roads! All of that (except, maybe, the beer), sounds to me like a good list of reasons to skip thru-hiking.

Leave it to those who want backpacking to be more like a moveable party than a search for solitude. But here’s what I learned: Backpacking solely in wilderness areas can trick you into thinking that a lot of land has been protected, especially if you are hiking big loops. If you fly to Colorado from the East Coast and head straight to a wilderness area for a backpacking trip, you may be forgiven for thinking that Colorado is just one big conservation success story.

In contrast, thru-hiking demonstrates just how fragmented our wild lands are. There are few places in Colorado where one can walk 15 or more miles in one direction without coming across a road of some kind. Houses line most of the mountain valleys. Rivers have been dammed. Roads cut across the high country. Sprawl is everywhere.

Walking from Denver to Durango made me more enamored with Colorado’s beauty — and more concerned about its future. Julia and I were blessed to see elk, moose, deer and even a couple of foxes on our trip. But where will all those animals go to winter once all the valleys are full of people? 

I’m not giving up wilderness adventures. Having the time and space to appreciate the world where, as the Wilderness Act puts it, “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man” is a special gift, one that has the power to renew and restore. I’m reminding myself of all the development that surrounds our wilderness areas, and asking: “What can I do to protect more land?”

Kyle Boelte is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the author of The Beautiful Unseen.   

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