Hiking in the Colorado Mountains: The Ultimate Guide

Hiking in the Colorado Mountains: The Ultimate Guide

To say that Colorado is an outdoor paradise is a massive understatement. In fact, The Colorado Trail Explorer, developed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, includes over 17,000 trails which add up to over 39,000 miles of trails. To put things into perspective, if you were to hike every named trail in the state, it would be a comparable distance to hiking the entire equator of the planet 1 and half times. That’s a lot of trails!

There are so many things to know about hiking in Colorado. When to hike which trails, things to bring, what to wear, best scenic drives, and where to go to start exploring everything the Rocky Mountains has to offer. We’ve put together all the information you need to make the most of your time in the mountains and how to enjoy the wilderness safely. 

Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness, also called acute mountain sickness, is a common but usually self-treatable condition related to high elevation. It affects everyone differently, but does seem to target the elderly, those who are overweight, and those with pre-existing heart conditions. If you fall into any of these categories, you should consult your physician before visiting the mountains. Symptoms can be similar to that of a hangover and for most people, symptoms can be self-treated with medicine like Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen and go away within 24-48 hours. Drink lots of water and eat simple carbohydrates that are easy to digest, like bread and pasta. 

What does altitude sickness have to do with hiking in the mountains? Well some of the best hikes are high in elevation and the altitude could hinder your enjoyment. It’s important to listen to your body, and if you aren’t feeling well to not hike at elevation. Before attempting any hikes, you should acclimate and hydrate. Consider doing an easy hike or walking around one of the many picturesque main streets of the Colorado mountains. Prepare for your hikes accordingly by packing layers and an appropriate amount of water for your excursion. If you don’t feel well, turn around and take care of yourself. The mountains will be there to hike another day.  

Best Time of Year to Hike in Colorado

Hiking in Colorado is definitely a year round activity – it just depends on whether you prefer snow or greenery. In the winter (December-March), hiking involves forms of snow transportation, such as snow shoes, cross country skis, or backcountry gear. In the summer (late June-September) you’ll find your traditional summer hiking. In the shoulder seasons (April-May and October-November), there’s not really enough snow to snowshoe or ski, but there’s too much snow for regular hiking. While winter exploring is fun, our favorite time to hike in the mountains is early summer until late fall, since we prefer green grass and wildflowers, followed by a spectacular show of fall colors. 

blue lakes telluride

Summer

Peak summer at high elevations is typically mid-June through August, depending on the snowpack. If winter brought heavy snow and more inches than usual, that mid-June start can get pushed back into mid-July for higher elevations. It’s important to check local information resources to see what conditions are like in the specific area you intend to visit. 

This is our favorite time of year because life is abundant in the form of wildlife, wildflowers, green aspens, alpine lakes, and roaring waterfalls. Peak wildflower season in the upper mountains (above 9,500 feet) is mid-late July while lower elevation areas may see peak flowers earlier than that. 

abyss lake trail
Drone shot of the side of Geneva Mountain (right) and the valley of aspens

Fall Colors

Things start to turn brown by mid-August, and September brings less green and more fall colors to the region. Exact timing can depend on a variety of factors, but the mountains typically have peak fall foliage late September and the first week of October. Starting late August, you’ll start seeing fall color predictions for that year. Because this is typically last minute, it can be difficult to plan perfectly timed vacations. Your best bet is to pick a time during late September and cross your fingers for some nice leaf-peeping. 

sallie barber mine trail winter

Winter

Perhaps the most important season in the mountains is winter time, but for a reason other than hiking. Colorado has 32 ski resorts within its borders, many of which see millions of visitors each ski season. No problem if you don’t ski or snowboard – there’s plenty of other ways to enjoy the winter season (read here – 11 Things to do in Breck that aren’t Skiing or Snowboarding), one of which is snowshoeing or cross country skiing. Some more highly trafficked trails can be passible with spikes, which are devices that attach to hiking boots. You can typically rent gear at many of the shops or Nordic centers in town, and this winter “hiking” allows you to explore a side of the mountains most people don’t typically get to see. 

Note: Many trails require a short drive on a dirt road, most of which aren’t plowed in the winter. This is important to keep in mind for winter activities because it can add significant mileage to your trek. Research your desired destination before going. Another thing to keep in mind is avalanche danger. Avalanches are very real and very dangerous in the mountains and should not be taken lightly. Check local reports for avalanche risk and get local advice on areas with no avalanche risk. 

Spring

Springtime in the mountains isn’t like your traditional spring. It’s a time of massive change, where the mountains go from buried under feet of snow to mud to green. Spring is a time of transition, a time we call “mud season.” There’s not enough snow to ski/snowboard, but there’s also too much snow to really hike or get outdoors. Depending on elevation, this time of year is typically May-June in the high mountains, and we would generally recommend waiting until late June or August for a visit. 

Best Time of Day to Hike in Colorado

Rain falls almost every day in the summer, and therefore you should always have some type of rain protection, such as a rain jacket and water resistant clothing. Afternoon thunderstorms are frequent as well, and are often electrical. Lightning is a real danger in the afternoon. For high elevation hikes, you should be back below tree line by noon or soon after, as this is the best way to protect yourself against getting stuck outside in an unsafe environment. For longer hikes, such as 14ers, this could mean starting in the early morning hours, sometimes even before sunlight. 

Intense sun and dehydration are also factors. Being up high means you’re closer to the sun, and it can roast your skin if you aren’t protected. Wear UPF long sleeves and pants, as well as sunscreen on any exposed body parts. A commonly forgotten sunscreen spot is the back of your hands, which easily sunburn if you’re using hiking poles. 

While it is possible to hike in the afternoon, the best time is really in the morning, and this is what we recommend to all hikers and visitors in our area. It’s imperative to check weather forecasts, and to be prepared for rain even on days that don’t have a chance of precipitation.  

Best Places to Hike in Colorado

As we’ve already made clear, Colorado is a hikers dream and the options for beautiful scenery are endless. There are hiking trails quite literally everywhere, and each trail is sure to enchant the viewer in it’s own way. The mountains are separated into location based categories, and it just comes down to personal preference when you’re looking to pick your next destination to explore. 

Northern Mountains

The mountains closest to the Continental Divide are considered the northern mountains, and this is a large area that encompasses areas such as Steamboat, Rocky Mountain National Park, Breckenridge/Keystone, Loveland, Vail, etc. This is the area we are most familiar with since we live in Breckenridge. These mountains have a really long winter season, with a short and beautiful summer season. This area is especially popular due to its proximity to Denver, where the main international airport is. It’s also known for it’s number of ski resorts, which densely populate the area. There’s tons of established trails and is a great destination with lots of family friendly things to do.

Southern Mountains

The Southern Mountains are harder to get to, but offer very unique hiking opportunities. Known as the “Switzerland of America”, this mountain range is generally steeper and more intense. Popular towns in this area are Telluride, Ouray, Silverton, Wolf Creek, and Purgatory. Most hikes in the area are difficult, which makes them that much more rewarding. This area is especially known for it’s bright blue water, which can be seen in popular hikes such as Ice Lake and Island Lake and Blue Lakes

Central Mountains

The central mountains include Aspen, Monarch, and Crested Butte and these mountains tend to have a slightly longer summer season due to being lower in elevation than the northern and southern mountains. Aspen is known for its spectacular fall colors, and Crested Butte has the largest wildflower festival in the state. Both are beautiful hiking destinations. The area between Crested Butte and Aspen is called the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and is known for Maroon Bells Scenic Area (the most photographed scene in the state), Crystal Mill, and the Four Pass Loop (best multi-day backpacking trip in the state)

Western Colorado

In the west you’ll find borderline desert climates, with more dirt and red rock than pine trees. Popular areas such as Grand Mesa, Fruita, Palisade, and Colorado National Monument offer ample hiking opportunities. Because of the desert-like climate, the summers here are hot and the winters are more mild with limited amounts of snow. The best time to visit is spring and fall, when the weather is more bearable and it’s not as busy. Not many people know that Colorado National Monument offers the world’s second largest concentration of arches outside of Utah’s Arches National Park. Their Rattlesnake Canyon is one of the state’s most spectacular wonders and best kept secret.

I-25 Corridor

The highway I-25 runs north/south through the state, and connects major towns such as Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo. These cities are smaller metropolitan areas than most other states have, but are still densely populated. Despite being in the “city,” there’s still ample hiking opportunities and tons of state parks and wildlife areas. Colorado Springs is well know for Garden of the Gods. which is a unique geologic area. There’s also Pike’s Peak, a 14er summit that you can drive up to, and the Manitou Incline, a hike that tests your fitness and endurance in the form of stairs that seem to go straight up the mountainside. 

black canyon of the gunnison national park

National Parks and Monuments of Colorado

Colorado is home to one of the top 10 most visited national parks in the U.S., Rocky Mountain National Park. This park can be extremely busy, and timed entry reservations are required. This beautiful park is a great destination and showcases some of the best aspects of the Rocky Mountains. Colorado is also home to Mesa Verde National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, which showcase extremely unique views in the form of ancient cliff dwellings, the tallest sand dunes in North America, and the tallest cliff in Colorado (3rd tallest in the lower 48). Colorado is also home to many beautiful National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, and National Forests. 

What to Wear When Hiking in Colorado

With the seasonality of the mountains, the most important consideration to take into account when looking at what to wear when hiking in Colorado is the forecast for the time you’re there. You can plan a trip in the middle of summer, and get snowed on in higher elevations. This year, we had a dusting of snow on the peaks in August. Layer up and be prepared for any weather conditions you may possibly encounter. 

Summer Hiking

Like we’ve already stated, winter weather can happen anytime during the year in the mountains, even peak summer. This is less likely to happen during the day, but if you’re backpacking overnight or hiking in the early morning, it’s very possible. Afternoon storms are also likely, so it’s important to always carry a rain jacket. Water resistant or DWR treated hiking pants can also come in handy to keep you dry.

If there’s anything to remember about what to wear in the summer, it’s layers, layers, and layers. Carry a rain jacket and a sweater. We prefer to wear hiking pants to protect our legs from the intense sun and brush. We also prefer wearing long sleeve, dry fit, UPF rated shirts. This protects our arms from the sun while keeping us cool and dry. 

For footwear, it’s important to research the trail ahead of time and to consider your personal desires for footwear. I prefer wearing high top hiking boots, as I have weak ankles and twist them easily. The boot provides extra protection and also has a solid rock plate, making it easier to hike rocky terrain without straining the muscles in your feet. Derek prefers trail running shoes, as they are lighter and allow his feet to breathe easier. There are pros and cons to each type of shoe, and each trail is different. Hiking boots are better suited for rocky terrain, and longer trips such as backpacking. Trail runners are great for more dirt or sand trails, or for shorter hikes. See your local REI to get fitted for the right shoe for you.

Winter Hiking

Winter hiking is beautiful in its own way and requires a completely different set of equipment than summer hiking. We recommend layering up like you’re going skiing or snowboarding, which includes winter under layers (such as SmartWool under layers) under a winter jacket and snow pants. Read more about what to wear for winter hiking here. All outer layers should be water proof like ski gear, since getting wet in cold temperatures can lead to hypothermia. Whatever bag you carry should be large enough to carry any of your layers, so you can adjust your clothing to match your warmth. You may be surprised that once you get going, a winter jacket can be too heavy. You should monitor your sweating closely and de-layer and layer up when needed. Sweat can be detrimental in the winter and make you too cold. 

For your feet, you’ll need something to help you stay on top of the snow. If you’re looking for something casual, we recommend snowshoes, which can be rented from most ski shops in town. Pair these with waterproof hiking boots and you’ll be golden. If you’re looking for the next level up adventure, try your hand at cross country skiing. Gear can be rented at the local nordic center, and they will have groomed trails for you. If you’re an experienced skiier or snowboarder, the next level adventure is using a backcountry set up and skinning. Gear may be harder to find to rent, but there’s typically a store somewhere that provides this gear. Backcountry skinning can put you at a real risk of avalanche, so researching before you go is perhaps the most important thing you can do. Don’t go into avalanche terrain. 

What to Pack for Hiking in Colorado

Knowing what to pack for hiking in Colorado is just as important as knowing what to wear for hiking in the mountains, and having the right gear can make or break your hike.  

There’s a very basic philosophy when it comes to how much you pack – in other words, whether you pack everything you could possibly need or pack minimally and only bring the essentials. The theory is that if you pack heavier, you’re preparing for being out there longer, and a heavier pack can contribute to that. If you pack lightly, supposedly you’re going to hike quicker with less weight and will be out there for a shorter period of time, therefore decreasing your exposure to danger and weather. We personally prefer to find a nice balance between the two, only carrying the essentials but not skimping on the extras if they bring joy or comfort. 

Summer

Clothing
  • Pack all your gear in a day backpack – we love our Osprey Daylite Plus packs.
  • Warm layers such as a sweater or lightweight jacket (e.g., Patagonia Micro Puff).
  • Nice rain jacket in case of rain or storms.
Hydration/Food
  • Carry at least 2 liters of water, more if you’re hiking all day or if it’s hot outside. The best option is having something to filter water in the backcountry
  • If your hike is strenuous, consider carrying Gatorade or some type of electrolyte replacement. 
  • Snacks that are high in calories and fat. Your body is working hard and needs the energy to keep going, so carry snacks like peanut butter, dark chocolate, and snack bars. 
  • Lunch. Depending on the time of day and duration, you may want to bring a small lunch to enjoy while you’re out. This is especially nice if you’re hiking to an alpine lake or viewpoint, where you can sit and enjoy food while taking in the view. 
Electronics
  • Some type of tracking device. All Trails Pro lets you download your route before you go, and track your progress even without cell service. This can help you stay on the proper trail. Depending on how serious the hike is, you may consider carrying a satellite GPS tracker with an SOS enabled button where you can call for help outside of cell service. We always have our Garmin InReach with us when we recreate outdoors. 
  • For afternoon/evening hikes, or long distance hikes, consider carrying a light source such as a headlamp or flash light, just in case you get delayed and have to hike in the dark. 
  • I always carry a drone (in areas where unmanned aircraft is allowed) for cool aerial shots. If drones aren’t allowed, I typically opt for packing my nice camera. 
Miscellaneous
  • Hiking poles. Whether or not you carry hiking poles is a personal preference. We tend to leave ours at home most of the time, but have loved having them on strenuous hikes with significant elevation change. 
  • First Aid Kit: we like this Day Hike Kit from REI and HART. It contains the basics, but also comes in larger sizes if you want to carry more. 
  • Sunscreen for re-applying protection like this Sun Bum 50 SPF 3oz.
  • Knife or Multitool. Talk to anyone who frequents the trail, and you’ll see they carry some type of knife or multitool just in case. We carry a pocket knife on day hikes and a multitool on backpacking trips. 
  • Medication/Braces. Bring any medication you may need during the day or support for any “bad” joints you have. I always carry a knee brace since my left knee dislikes extended downhill. 
  • A blister kit: Including some Moleskin, duct tape, and gauze. Read more about how to prevent blisters here. 

Winter

For winter hiking, bring all the essentials listed above, plus heavier warm layers. I find that I also need a large enough backpack to store my winter jacket, since it typically comes off during any ascents. I carry a REI Co-Op Trail 40 Pack for winter hikes and find that it has plenty of room for a winter jacket plus anything else I may need.  

How to Prepare for Hiking in Colorado

Hiking in the Colorado mountains is tough but the reward is worth all the effort. While you do battle elements out of your control, like rain and thunderstorms, that you must properly pack for (see section above for what to pack). There are some preparations you can do outside of this that will help improve your experience – and the number one thing you can do is improve your cardio fitness. At elevation, your body works harder and burns more calories, so being in shape and having a healthy heart is the best preparation you can do. Hike or walk at home before visiting, or even do cardio workouts at your local gym. Prepare your body for the physical challenge, and you will be able to focus more on enjoying yourself. 

Backpacking in Colorado

Just how Colorado has endless opportunities for hiking, there’s just as many options when it comes to backpacking. Most day hikes can be turned into overnight trips, and you’ll frequently see people setting up camp near alpine lakes or streams. The main two limitations are if the trailhead allows overnight parking or if the trail passes through or is on private property. These two hindrances can be easily researched before you go. In this sense, day hikes that may be a little long for a single day trip (8-15+ miles), becomes easily do-able over the course of 2-3 days. 

There’s also endless opportunities for long distances hikes or loops that fit your desired distance. The famous Continental Divide Trail (CDT) runs through Colorado and is split into segments that add up to 740 miles in this state alone. You can thru-hike them all, or segment hike portions. There’s also the famous Four Pass Loop, which is a 30-mile loop between Aspen and Crested Butte that is easily the most beautiful backpacking loop.  Other popular options include Blue Lakes (outside Ridgeway), Conundrum Hot Springs (permits required), and the Lost Creek Wilderness Loop. 

14ers

Colorado is home to 58 14ers, which is the most of any state in North America. 14ers are mountains whose summit exceeds 14,000 feet in elevation, and many visitors and locals alike are drawn to complete these difficult hikes. Good ‘beginner’ 14ers are Mount Bierstadt, Quandary Peak, and the Decalibron Loop. Though these are considered easier, it should be noted that no 14er is easy and these hikes should only be attempted with the proper training and gear.

Hiking with Pets in Colorado

While Colorado is an especially dog friendly state, not all trails allow your furry companions to tag along. The Forest Service specific to your destination is typically one of the best ways to check if pets are allowed, and if so, what leash laws are in place. While it’s fun to let your dog run around off-leash, many national forests and towns have strict leash laws, which you should adhere to at all times. No matter the leash law, if your dog can’t be recalled perfectly, they should never be off leash. Unfortunately, there’s too many stories about dogs being lost on trail because they run off or get chased by wildlife. Please be respectful of fellow hikers and other dogs you encounter on trail. As always, pick up after your pets and pack it out. 

Leave No Trace

The Center for Outdoor Ethics released the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace. Perhaps you’ve heard of leave no trace, but did you know that there are seven principles in this policy? It’s more complicated than just packing out your trash, and encompasses everything from camping 200 feet from water to protecting wildlife. 

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare: research regulations such as fire bans, or if trails allows dogs or not. Bring the right gear so you are properly prepared. 
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: concentrate foot traffic to established trails and don’t create social trails. Camp on already established campsites as much as possible.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: pack out trash and properly dispose of human waste by packing it out or burying it at least 6 inches deep 200 feet from water and camp.
  4. Leave What You Find: take only pictures and memories, leave only footprints.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts: buy wood locally and don’t chop down trees to fuel your fire.
  6. Respect Wildlife: observe wildlife from far away and properly store your food (e.g., bear canisters). 
  7. Be Consideration of Other Visitors: help others enjoy the outdoors by controlling your pets, limiting your noise and yield to uphill hikers. 

These seven principles are intended to keep nature in its original state as much as possible so people can enjoy it for generations to come. You also want to be consideration of others, so they can enjoy their time outside just like you. Treat nature and people like you would want to be treated. 

FAQ’s

What part of Colorado has the best hiking?

Colorado is home to thousands of trails, so the options are really endless. The most well known areas are within the Rocky Mountains, especially Rocky Mountain National Park. Our favorite area is the Northern Mountains near Breckenridge, but you really can’t go wrong choosing other parts of the state!

 When can I go hiking in Colorado?

Terrain varies greatly throughout the state, so the best hiking season varies. Hiking in the mountains is best June through early October, with peak summer being July and August. This is the best time for wildflowers and alpine lakes, with cool mornings and perfect sunny afternoons. If you’re visiting lower elevation areas like western Colorado, the best hiking would be in the spring and fall, when you can avoid those hot summer temperatures. 

 What should I pack for a day hike in Colorado?

Whenever recreating outdoors, always pack the survival essentials: map & compass, first aid kit, sun protection, knife or multitool, fire starter, emergency shelter, and a headlamp. You should also carry basic items like food/snacks, water or filtration devices, and clothing layers for changing weather conditions. 

 How many hiking trails are there in Colorado?

There are over 17,000 trails which adds up to over 39,000 miles within Colorado’s borders. This would be equal to walking to length of the earth’s equator 1.5 times!

 Do you have to pay to go hiking in Colorado?

For the most part, you do not have to pay to go hiking in Colorado. There are several exceptions to this, such as trails located within state or national parks, which have an entrance fee to gain access. Some popular trails may require paid parking (such as Hanging Lake and Maroon Bells) where you must pay to park and take a shuttle to the trailhead. It is essential to research individual trailheads to gain more information about cost, parking instructions, and seasonal access.

 Do you have to make reservations to hike in Colorado?

For most hikes, reservations are not required. You must research the particular trail you are hiking to find specific information on reservations and parking. There are several popular hikes in Colorado that need reservations well in advance, especially Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake. 

How many miles of hiking trails are in Colorado?

There are over 17,000 trails which adds up to over 39,000 miles within Colorado’s borders. This would be equal to walking to length of the earth’s equator 1.5 times!

Is it safe to hike alone in Colorado?

Hiking solo is not recommended, mostly for safety reasons. The buddy system is a safer option, and leaves you better prepared if an emergency does occur. If one person gets hurt, the other is able to provide first aid and get help. 
If you decide to hike solo, there are safer areas to hike than others, with better options being outside of the major cities and closer to small towns or mountain towns like Breckenridge. 

 What should you NOT wear while hiking?

You should avoid wearing casual shoes and clothing, such as regular sneakers, jeans, and cotton. Instead, you should wear UPF clothing that protects your skin from sun damage, dry fit layers to keep you dry, and you should always pack layers such as a sweater and rain jacket. Wear outdoors shoes such as hiking boots or outdoor trail running shoes that provide adequate traction and toe protection.

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