Karen Elder and her mother endured blisters, aching muscles, and many lung-searing mountainous crossings. But they figured these discomforts were the price of admission for the kaleidoscopic wildflower shows, unfettered starry nights, and sense of self-reliance the duo experienced backpacking the 480-mile Colorado Trail.
“In some ways, every day was the same: Get up, get dressed, boil water for breakfast, pack up, walk miles, set up camp, boil water for dinner, go to sleep,” Elder recalls in her journal of the rugged six-week outdoor odyssey in 1998.
“In other ways, every day was different: the terrain, the weather, the animals we would see and hear, the people we would meet, the view, the elevation. But the greatest changes were in us: our physical condition, our knowledge and experience. We’re steadier, calmer, more confident,” she relates.
Few wild places in the lower 48 states resonate as much admiration and inspiration as the daunting Colorado Trail (CT), which joins the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails to form America’s Triple Crown of long-distance, non-motorized backcountry trails.
The CT begins on the westernmost flanks of the Great Plains, about 25 miles southwest of Denver, and stretches almost 500 miles to Durango in southwest Colorado. The journey provides plenty of backcountry solitude, but the CT also links Colorado’s past and present. Old mining districts, homesteads, touristy mountain towns, and ski areas are sprinkled along the CT landscape. Jeep paths, even paved roads, are occasional reminders that civilization isn’t far away.
Each summer, the CT sees about 100 “through hikers” such as the Elders—people walking the entire route in one effort. Their journeys usually begin in July and require about six weeks to complete.
For these ambitious hikers, the CT’s statistics are extraordinary. Its altitude reaches 13,334 feet, and the trail regularly hovers above 10,000 feet. The CT traverses the Continental Divide eight times, passing through seven national forests, six wilderness areas, and five river systems. It also skirts several of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, including Mount Elbert, the second highest in the continental United States.
Yet day and weekend hikers make up most CT users, says Gudy Gaskill, a founding member of the Colorado Trail Foundation, who spearheaded the funding, public support, and volunteer efforts that made the trail’s 1987 christening possible.
“There are many hikers from around the world who’ve heard about the Colorado Trail,” she says. “Lots of people do 40-mile sections each summer and eventually complete the entire route.”
Gaskill shepherds volunteer trail maintenance efforts and has made countless trail acquaintances along the way. In effect, she is the CT’s matriarch and continues to receive letters from elated hikers.
“The letters I get from CT hikers are so gratifying—it’s so thrilling to see how you’ve changed people’s lives,” she says. “The Colorado Trail will do that. People who explore Colorado’s mountains get a different perspective about life.”