Colorado

5 Spectacular Backpacking Destinations in Colorado

by Arthur McMahon

colorado backpacking destinations
Photo: John Fowler

Backpacking in Colorado is the dream of every outdoor enthusiast under the sun. Maybe that’s because in Colorado you can get closer to the sun in elevation than just about everywhere else in the United States.

Rocky Mountain highs are in great abundance throughout Colorado. Even it’s lowest point at 3,315 feet on the Arikaree River holds the record for being the highest low-point of any state in America.

Though peak bagging numerous 14,000 footers is a true highlight of backpacking in Colorado, there’s more to the state than the snow-capped behemoths. Under the ever-looming Rockies, there are lush forests of fir and pine concealing rushing river canyons, outstanding granite oddities, and meadows full of moose!

We’ve put together a list of five spectacular backpacking destinations to help you get out there and explore all that Colorado has to offer. Whether you’re a homegrown resident looking for a new trail or a visitor hoping to hit a couple of the best outdoor destinations while you’re in town, we’ve got you covered.

Each destination is worthy of weeks of exploration. Below, we’ve given you the information to research and find your own backpacking paths through Colorado’s vast backcountry, but we’ve also provided a few example backpacking journeys we think you’ll love. Happy hiking!

Colorado Trail

colorado trail
Hiking along the Colorado Trail. Photo: Jason Reibold

Traversing 486 miles of Rocky Mountain terrain, the Colorado Trail is a primary artery in Colorado’s outdoor scene, directing adventurers like lifeblood across the mountainous state from Denver to Durango. If you find yourself in either one of those cities, take some time to see what the Colorado Trail fuss is all about.

Dozens of trailheads provide access points to the 28 segments of the trail. Day hikers and multi-day backpackers can pick and choose from any of the trail’s amazing highlights, such as the scenic Alphabetizer Loop or a direct route through the San Juan Mountains to Coney Summit, which peaks at 13,334 feet in elevation.

Thru-hikers looking to complete the entire Colorado Trail should plan for a four to six week journey between June and September. Attempting a thru-hike earlier in the year means you’ll be navigating over some serious snowpack, and in the fall you’ll get overwhelmed by dangerous, earth-shaking thunderstorms.

At an average elevation of 10,300 feet, there will still be plenty of snow on high peaks in the summertime, and afternoon storms remain a threat. Read up on a guidebook like The Official Guidebook of the Colorado Trail Foundation before attempting to conquer any portion of this amazing trail. There are plenty of other resources around the Colorado Trail including Facebook groups, smartphone app guides, and countless personal blogs to explore.

The Colorado Trail Foundation recognizes “Completers” by recording their name on the foundation’s website database and delivering a personalized completion certificate. Will your name be the next to be immortalized on the wall of fame?

Rocky Mountain National Park

rocky mountain national park
Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo: Kelsey Wiedel

Extreme elevation differences shape the various climates and wilderness zones throughout the 265,000 acres of Rocky Mountain National Park. Here, the full glory of the Rocky Mountains is on display with numerous 14,000+ foot peaks straddling glacial valleys that were carved through the mountains during the last Ice Age.

Backpackers have a wealth of routes to choose from in this popular park. Much of the wilderness within its borders is completely inaccessible by anything but your own two feet.

The park is broken into five regions that showcase the vast diversity of wildlife, plant life, and epic scenery that can be experienced within the Rocky Mountains.

Region 1 is where the best lakes and meadows can be found. Grazing elk and moose are not an uncommon site beheld by unobtrusive hikers who quietly stalk the area. Region 2 is where tundra-laden trails take hikers to spectacular alpine vistas.

Region 3 is known as the deep wilderness escape, where lightly-trafficked trails loop around lonely mountains and down forgotten canyons. Region 4 is the heart of the park where the most popular trails are accessible by paved roads. Region 5 is another backcountry escape dotted with lakes, hidden campsites, and mesmerizing waterfalls.

Choose from plenty of trails to create your own personalized loop. A popular option for first-time visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park is the park’s Continental Divide Loop which gives hikers a taste of the cross-country Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.

This 28-mile hike is ideal for a weekend backpacking trip, passing through lowland meadows and climbing to panoramic views atop Flattop Mountain. If you’re scoffing at a 28-mile trek, there’s an extended 54-mile variant for those looking for a more challenging adventure.

Lost Creek Wilderness

lost creek wilderness
Lost Creek Wilderness. Photo: Ryan Fonkert

A 136-mile trail network slices through the Lost Creek Wilderness, taking hikers through thick coniferous forests and past out-of-this-world granite formations. Sky-high domes made of solid rock, broken boulders, and stretching granite arches are just a few of the spectacles to be seen here.

That’s what separates Lost Creek Wilderness from much of Colorado. Scaling mountains in order to nab sweeping vistas from the summits of 14,000-foot peaks is a Colorado tradition, but that’s not all that Lost Creek has to offer.

Instead, you can enjoy a more intimate experience meandering through the forests, exploring the wacky rock formations, and searching for the missing waters of disappearing creeks.

The Lost Creek Wilderness Loop is an excellent way to experience what this less-crowded section of the Rockies has to offer. The 30-mile loop will surely work your ankles and glutes, but the path doesn’t demand that you struggle on endless switchbacks over extreme elevation changes like many other Rocky Mountain routes require. The high and low points of this trek are only 2,000 feet different in elevation.

Lose yourself (figuratively speaking) in this hidden gem of wilderness where you have a decent chance of seeing more animals than people. Black bear, mule deer, bighorn sheep, bobcat, and mountain lions all dwell within these hills.

Maroon Bells Scenic Area

Maroon Bells Scenic Area
Maroon Bells Scenic Area. Photo: Alex Butterfield

Located near Aspen, the Maroon Bells Scenic Area resides in the heart of White River National Forest. The area is renown for its snowy slopes and excellent alpine fishing lakes. Though there are a number of trails to explore in the region, many ambitious backpackers opt to take on the difficult Four Pass Loop.

This is a mid-to-late summer excursion for daring backpackers — there’s too much snow otherwise. It’s a tough trail that includes an excessive amount of elevation gain coupled with fording high-flowing creeks. For some, the challenge of the Rockies is why they travel to such physically demanding places. If that sounds like you, this is a route you will love.

Though only 27 miles long, the Four Pass Loop takes most people three to four days to complete. There are optional in-and-out trails to different lakes if you want to make it a longer trek, but the standard circuit is a brutal enough experience over rugged terrain that most find it adequately satiates their high-altitude hunger.

Starting in 2020, backpackers will have to register for designated camping sites along the trail before they tackle the journey. This area is touted as the most photographed area in all of Colorado, and for good reason. The sites you will see are spectacular, but, unlike the crowds at the nearby Aspen resorts, backpackers will discover sights few will ever see.

Weminuche National Wilderness and Backpacking Train

Weminuche National Wilderness
Weminuche National Wilderness. Photo: @Scrubhiker

Yeah, you read that right. Hop aboard the Durango Train (AKA the Backpacking Train) and take a ride through gorgeous landscapes on your way into the Chicago Basin of the Weminuche National Wilderness.

From the towns of Durango or Silverton, you can ride like a rockstar with a drink in your hand and your pack at your side while taking in the outstanding beauty of the great outdoors.

Backpackers can disembark at Chicago Basin smack dab in the middle of the Weminuche National Wilderness. Ample backcountry camping and numerous trails make this a backpacker’s paradise. A very long hike or the train are the only ways in.

durango silverton train
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Train. Photo: Mike McBey

Just shy of 500,000 acres, Weminuche National Wilderness is the largest wilderness in Colorado. The Chicago Basin is in close proximity to three different 14,000+ foot peaks: Eolus, Wisdom, and Sunlight, which can be tackled all at once on the Grand Slam Trail.

From here, the ball is in your court if you decide to make base camp in Chicago Basin or set out on a long journey far into the wild beyond.

Here is one group’s record of their time riding the Backpacking Train and hiking around the Chicago Basin.

The fun can continue when the hiking is done. Flag down the next train leaving the basin and have the conductor direct you to one of the other unforgettable outdoor experiences in the area.

The train can take you to where adventurous opportunities await around the towns of Silverton and Telluride. Extend your vacation with guided Jeep rides, river rafting along the mighty Animas River, and a vintage steam train ride to Cascade Canyon.

However you get your thrills, Weminuche National Forest is a top-tier outdoor destination that will leave you with experiences you’ll fondly remember for the rest of your life. Hit the backcountry and explore to your heart’s content. You’ll have your fill before you can ever see it all.

Explore more of Colorado

For more outdoor exploring, check out our favorite hikes near Breckenridge, hikes near Telluride, or the best cabin rentals near Estes and Rocky Mountain National Park.

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Colorado