With its epic mountain views and fascinating array of wildlife, Colorado stands tall as a symbol of raw natural beauty. Hikers have long reveled in the scenic views and winding trails, but they aren’t the only ones to take advantage of what the state offers. Traveling by bicycle is one of the best ways to take in Colorado’s natural riches. Many of its trails are bike-friendly, including the longest biking trail in Colorado. Read on to find out where it is and how best to navigate it!
What is the Longest Biking Trail in Colorado?
The longest biking trail in Colorado is the Colorado Trail. It runs for 540 miles from Durango to Denver including mandatory diversions for cyclists around 6 protected wilderness areas. Without these diversions, the route lasts 485 miles. Aside from the wilderness areas, it also winds through 6 National Forests, 8 mountain ranges, and 5 major river systems.
The US Forest Service and the Colorado Mountain Trails Association conceived and created the trail in the 1970s and 1980s as a means to allow trail enthusiasts to enjoy the beauty of the Colorado mountains. September 1987 saw the completion of the Colorado Trail and the beginning of decades of enjoyment by hikers, cyclists, and equestrians alike.
The Colorado Trail
The Colorado Trail is narrow, rugged, and unpaved. Parts of it are closed to motorized vehicles and cyclists, though detours allow for continuous travel. Hikers and cyclists also make use of the Colorado Trail, so common courtesy is essential. Trail users may start in either Durango or Denver, though most start in Denver due to its easier terrain.
Below is a breakdown of the different sections of the trail beginning with Denver. The trail is divided into 28 segments with a choice of 2 different routes at a fork in the middle. Both routes eventually meet each other again and continue on to Durango. For a complete list of town resupply options along the trail as well as trailheads, mileage, and elevation gains over the 28 segments, see this guide.
Segment 1 (Denver) to Segment 11
This first section of the Colorado Trail lasts approximately 191.5 miles. Cyclists will enter the trail at the Waterton Canyon Trailhead in Denver and continue on to Clear Lake Road. Trail users on bicycles must comply with any diversions along the way to avoid protected wilderness areas. This part of the route is generally less challenging that the last part leading to Durango. However, though the scenery is still breathtaking, it is also somewhat less majestic in scale.
Fork Choice 1: Segment 12 to Segment 15 (Collegiate East)
The fork in the Colorado Trail occurs midway through Segment 12. The first choice, Collegiate East, continues on through Segments 13 to 15, eventually emerging into Segment 16 at the Marshall Pass Trailhead. Cyclists who choose this route can expect approximately 76 miles of travel.
Fork Choice 2: Collegiate West 1 to 5
The second choice at the fork is Collegiate West, divided into 5 segments running for approximately 83.2 miles. It begins partway through Segment 12 and rejoins the main trail near the middle of Segment 15 at the ridge above South Fooses Creek.
Segment 16 to Segment 28 (Durango)
This last section of the Colorado Trail lasts approximately 212.7 miles. It begins at Segment 16 at the Marshall Pass Trailhead and continues to Junction Creek Trailhead in Durango. This part of the route is renowned both for its difficult terrain and elevation gains and for its stunning mountain views. Again, cyclists must observe wilderness detours.
Navigating the Route
The Colorado Trail is one of the most challenging biking trails in the state, if not the country. This is partly due to its length. The average time it takes to cycle the entire route is 10-20 days, depending on the capacity of the cyclists and the desired pace. Trail users will need to spend significant time in advance planning their route.
But its difficulty also has to do with the terrain. The trail is rugged and unpaved with steep elevation gains and losses. The lowest point on the trail is Waterton Canyon with an elevation of 5,520 feet. The highest point is Coney Summit at 13,334 feet. The trail averages about 10,000 feet above sea level, which means snow covers it for much of the year. As a result, the window for biking is small and temperatures may be cool even in summer. Mid-June to early October is the best time to take on the Colorado Trail.
The Colorado Trail isn’t just for cyclists. Hikers, equestrians, and motorized vehicles all use the trail. It’s vital to understand and respect guidelines for yielding to oncoming traffic. Generally, everybody yields to equestrians. Horses spook and bolt easily, which presents a danger to everyone in the vicinity. This is why even hikers should step off the trail to allow horses to pass. When moving off the trail for a horse, trail users should go to the lower ground, not higher, to avoid appearing to be a threat.
Cyclists should be prepared to yield to pedestrians; however, because it’s easier for hikers to leave the trail, they will often do so first out of courtesy. When approaching any kind of traffic, cyclists should slow down and signal their presence with a friendly greeting or a bell.
Wildlife on the Colorado Trail
Colorado is home to a diverse array of animals, many of which may be visible on the Colorado Trail. A cyclist’s first concern is the possibility of predators. Trail users have reported seeing bears and mountain lions while hiking or cycling, though no one has reported attacks against humans. Rarely, off-leash dogs have found themselves targeted by predators. The main issue with bears in particular is food. Bears will eat any food not secured in scent-proof bags or containers, so proper precautions are essential to avoid unwanted encounters.
Cyclists may spot other large mammals along the trail like deer, elk, moose, bison, and bighorn sheep. Foxes, wolverines, squirrels, prairie dogs, and marmots also appear from time to time. A variety of birds roam the Colorado sky, including bald eagles, kestrels, red-tailed hawks, and lark buntings.
The key to getting along with wildlife is to give it space. Cyclists should not attempt to approach or feed animals they see along the trail, both for their sake and the sake of the wildlife. Wild animals accustomed to receiving food from humans gradually become less self-reliant and lose their natural fear of people, leading to potentially dangerous encounters.
For an unparalleled cycling experience through some of America’s most stunning vistas, look no further than the longest biking trail in Colorado. Though the Colorado Trail is arduous, it’s well worth the trip for well-prepared cyclists.
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