Backpacking Colorado: Top 10 Hiking Trails

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Colorado Mountains - Backpacking Colorado
Image by Bureau of Land Management Follow on Flickr

Colorado has some of the most beautiful trails in just about every part of the state stretching through the Rocky Mountains. From hikes spanning several weeks to just overnight hikes, you can find them while backpacking Colorado. The state is unique for having the highest average elevation in the nation. Mount Albert is Colorado’s highest point at 14,400 feet. With thousands of trails to choose from, they all offer gorgeous views not to be missed. Hiking or trekking through the trails, you’ll come across wonderful views of snow-capped peaks, turquoise alpine lakes, and flourishing green meadows. Here are 10 remarkable trails to consider for your next backpacking trip in Colorado.

Colorado Mountains - Backpacking Colorado
Image by Bureau of Land Management Follow on Flickr

Conundrum Hot Springs

If you’re an outdoor enthusiast who enjoys soaking in hot springs after hours of hiking, you will not be disappointed with Conundrum Hot Springs. This is a challenging hike stretching 16 miles there and back. The hike takes the average person about five or six hours to hike in, and four hours to hike out. The trail starts at about 8,800 feet and climbs the entire way to about 11,200 feet.

Because of the high elevation, it is recommended to take altitude sickness precautions by staying well hydrated. Also, some may want to take medication if necessary. There is a variety of campsites at the top near the hot springs. However, in order to stay overnight, a permit must be obtained in advance. Also, along the trail, you’ll find many spots along Conundrum Creek to take a break and enjoy fishing. The best time of year to visit the hot springs is between July and September, during the hottest months. All other times of the year have the potential for snowfall on the trail. This then makes the trailhead inaccessible.

Blue Lakes Trail

Not far from the town of telluride is the less strenuous Blue Lakes Trail. This trail makes for a great adventure when backpacking Colorado. Also, this trail includes sprawling meadows that lead into deep alpine lakes. These lakes give a bowl shape view of two of Colorado’s stunning peaks. Located in the Lincoln National Forest, the hike ascends through a forest of spruce-fir trees, taking you to Mount Sneffels wilderness. Along the way, you’ll pass three lakes which offer a view of the three summits; Mount Sneffels, Dallas Peak, and Gilpin Peak. At about three miles in, you’ll reach Lower Blue Lakes. Here, you can stop and fish for Cutthroat Trout.

Another few miles ahead, you’ll reach Upper Blue Lakes. These lakes offer another place to camp if needed. Finally, you will reach Blue Lakes Pass where you get the best view of sloping peaks. In total, the elevation gained is around 3,600 feet, peaking at 13,000 feet as it reaches Blue Lakes Pass. Also, the hike is of moderate difficulty as it contains some areas with steep switchbacks. However, this is also one of the more popular trails during summer months.

People in a Lake
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Lost Creek Wilderness Trail

Located in central Colorado, you’ll find the gorgeous and challenging trail of Lost Creek Wilderness. This trail is a 37-mile loop within the Pine Creek National Forrest. The loop begins at Goose Creek Trailhead which allows you to choose between two directions. Through the trail, you will pass by several offshoot trails that take you through dense forest and meadows. Unique to these trails, you can find stacked rounded boulders great for people who want to practice rock climbing. Lost Creek Wilderness Trail is best hiked from March through December. This is because it is that time of year where there is limited snowfall. Also, for all pet lovers, dogs are allowed in this area if they are on a leash.

Continental Divide

One of the nation’s greatest trails connecting five different states sprawling from Mexico to Canada is the Continental Divide. The attempt to hike the entire trail takes nearly six months. It covers over 3100 miles in total. Colorado contains about 740 of these miles, all within Rocky Mountain National Park. One of the better portions of the trail is the Continental Divide Loop; a 28-mile trail passing by several waterfalls, lakes, glaciers, and meadows. This 28 miles is about a 5-day backpacking trip in itself. However, it can be broken down to fewer nights.

The trail starts a few miles north of Grand Lake, taking you through a dense forest for the first few nights. The second half of the trip is above tree lines, opening up to greater views of mountains, meadows, and glaciers. Spending at least one night on the loop is a must, though doing so does require a camping permit. Traveling the entire loop allows you to reach both Flattop Mountain and Ptarmigan Point, both of which offer panoramic views of the area. Also, this is one of the more advanced hikes in the area recommended for more experienced hikers. Similar to other trails in Colorado, the summertime is the most recommended period to go.

Lake - Backpacking Colorado
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High Lonesome Trail

While backpacking Colorado, you don’t want to miss King Lake and Devils Thumb Lake.  These amazing lakes are connected by a scenic hike. Here, you can hike the High Lonesome Trail while enjoying views of Winter Park and Grand County. This hike is a segment of the Continental Divide, giving exceptional views for miles. It is rated as one of the most strenuous Colorado hiking trails as it is very rocky and steep in many parts. Also, like most Colorado backpacking trails, permits are required for overnight camping.

Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

Interestingly, one of the most picturesque mountains which have gained recognition for being the most photographed area in North America is Aspen’s Maroon Bells. The name is derived from the distinctive wine-colored, bell-shaped peaks near the reflective mirror lakes. The hiking trail is a 27-mile loop starting at Maroon Lake in Aspen highlands. Permits are required for overnight camping and can be found at the ranger station on Maroon Creek Road just before the parking area. The loop generally takes four days, giving it the name Four Pass Loop. This is rated as a difficult hike; peaking at 12,500 feet in elevation after a 3,000 feet gain. You have options to hike either direction on the loop. However, it is said that clockwise is the easiest way.

Lake and Mountains
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Willow Lakes

For beautiful hikes through forests offering views of wildlife, you’ll be satisfied with Willow Lakes. Located west of Silverthorne, Colorado, in the Eagles Nest Wilderness, there are many amazing views to admire. Also, there are several hikes from the Rock Creek Trailhead leading to the lake system, all varying in length and level of difficulty. For example, the North Willow trail has 6.6 miles of hiking inwards until you reach Willow Lake. Along the hike, you will pass several river crossings as it follows North Willow Creek.

This is rated as an intermediate to difficult hike. Also, like the Lost Creek Wilderness Trail, this hike allows dogs as long as they’re kept on a leash. Another noteworthy trail is the Salmon Lake Trail which is about 7 miles. It takes you to the Salmon Lake, offering some of the best fishing spots while backpacking Colorado. Also, the furthest trail to consider is the Upper Willow Lake, which would make for a 17-mile round trip hike.

Bubble Lake Via Knee Knocker Pass

Just north of Vail, you’ll find deep in the Gore Range a pleasant pass called the Knee Knocker Pass. The trailhead is located beyond Piney Lake and Piney Lake Pass. Reaching the trailhead, you should get off I-70 freeway at the Vail exit and take Red Sandstone Road for about 8 miles to Piney Lake Ranch. The trailhead is just beyond the ranch and is easy to find as there is heavy foot traffic. The hike is roughly 13 miles round trip to Bubble Lake and usually requires spacing across three days.

Also, along the hike, you will likely see mountain goats and other wildlife near the basin. The trail is a steady climb up the basin reaching Knee Knocker Pass at about 12,000 feet. From here, you will get views of Mount Powel and Peak C on both sides as you climb. Reaching the summit, you will get panoramic views reaching back to Piney Lake at the origin. Continuing for a mile on the trail becomes scrambled as you’ll eventually reach Bubble Lake, which will likely still have snow in parts.

Colorado Boulders - Backpacking Colorado
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Notch Mountain Trail

A common trail for people on pilgrimages to endure is Notch Mountain Trail. Anyone interested in Colorado backpacking can take this hike to view the Mount of the Holy Cross perched at the top at about 14,000 feet. The trail is 9.6 miles out and back, featuring beautiful wildflowers on the way. Also, the summit overlooks the Bowl of Tears, East Cross Creek, and an alpine lake. The trail is a historical landmark followed by thousands of pilgrims over the last century to bless the holy cross.

Note: This hiking trail is recommended for advanced hikers only.

Conejos River Headwaters Backpacking Loop

One of Colorado’s finest backpacking loops is the Conejos River Headwaters Loop located near Pagosa Springs. This is a multi-day loop stretching 31 miles starting from Blue Lake. Along the trail, you’ll reach scenic areas like Timberlake, Gunsight Pass, and Conejos Falls.  The hike is more remote and less traveled compared to others. The trail offers several activities from fishing, birdwatching, and horseback riding. Also pet-friendly, dogs on a leash are allowed on the trail. The most popular time of year is the summer months June through September.

Garden of the Gods
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