Trail Savvy: Riding the Colorado Trail

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When Planning Your Next Trail-Riding Adventure, Consider a Trek Along the Colorado Trail.

If you’re the kind of rider who enjoys high-country adventure, spectacular scenery, and lots of surprises, the Colorado Trail might be for you. Having ridden an 80-mile portion of the trail over four days through the Colorado Rockies with a group of 25 riders and Texas cowboy entertainer Red Steagall many years ago, I can attest to the thrill of the experience. Be prepared: Both the varying terrain that includes occasional boulder fields and steep switchbacks, plus the high altitude and the elements, can take their toll. 

About the Trail

The famed trail, hand-hewn and groomed by volunteers to keep it free from rocks and debris, runs 485 miles from Denver to Durango. It’s truly a labor of love and is rigorously maintained by the Colorado Trail Foundation, which originally sought to create a trail available to hikers, horsemen, and bicyclists. It winds through incomparable backcountry scenery and crosses eight mountain ranges, seven national forests, six wilderness areas, and the headwaters of five rivers. Ecosystems range from plains to alpine while meandering through rugged, high terrain, well above timberline. Valleys are covered with lush meadows, wetlands, and beaver ponds, and the highest point on the trail reaches 13,334 feet. 

Horseback riders can count on clear trail signs posted at eye-level, rock cairns as guide posts, and wood or stone bridges that provide access over uneven or creek-laced terrain. Along the way, it’s not unusual to see elk, deer, marmot, and pika, as well as hawks and even an occasional eagle. 

Take in expansive views at Cataract Ridge. Photo Courtesy of Colorado Trail Foundation

Know Before You Go

The Colorado Trail was completed in 1975, the result of thousands of hours of volunteer time and a conscious effort to make the wilderness accessible to the public. The result is multifold, giving folks a way into the mountains while educating them about the trail’s importance. Fortunately, service roads can be accessed from certain camp sites. Our group was shadowed by trucks carrying our camping gear, a port-o-let, a shower truck, and a chuck wagon with food supplies, plus hay and grain for the horses. In addition, horse trailers and vehicles stood by on the ready, just in case. Each night, we camped near a stream and enjoyed freshly cooked meals by a real chuck wagon chef. During the day, lunch was carried in panniers on two well-loaded packhorses.

Horses and riders must be acclimated to the altitude. (I rented a seasoned horse from an outfitter in Bailey.) Out of our large group, led by an experienced trail boss, now long retired, only 16 riders actually finished the ride. Traveling in a group nonetheless guarantees a certain amount of protection in the event of accidents. The very first morning we experienced two daunting events, one requiring emergency veterinary care for a horse and hospitalization for a rider, and that was before we even left! .

Our ride began at the base of Kenosha Pass near Jefferson, wound its way across the Continental Divide, and on down through Breckenridge to our first night’s camp on the Swan River. The next day took us over the Ten Mile Range to a campsite near the Copper Mountain ski area, a grueling 20-mile ride. Day three took us over Kokoma Pass, elevation 12,200 feet, and on to another 20 miles to Camp Hale, the training site of the famed World War II American 10th Mountain Division. The last day we rode past the Collegiate Peaks and into the San Isabel Wilderness and finally down to Leadville and waiting trailers at Emerald Lake. 

Time your ride to coincide with the wildflowers blooming west of Molas Pass. Photo Courtesy of Colorado Trail Foundation

For more information on everything you need to know about riding the Trail, go to coloradotrail.org/traveling-the-ct/horseback-riding. There you’ll find detailed information about day rides versus thru-rides, multi-day rides, trail etiquette, camping sites, trailer access, stock containment, and proper preparation. Keep in mind horses must be well-shod at least a week before. A rider should pack necessary tools like a handsaw, a knife, some kind of staking equipment, a first-aid kit, and a compass. Weather changes constantly, so pack slickers and layers of clothing. Beside the remarkable scenery, my favorite takeaway was simply being with horses 24 hours a day and bedding down at night right next to the herd. That’s what I call Rocky Mountain heaven.

Photos Courtesy of Colorado Trail Foundation

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