Backpacking in Colorado is a bucket-list activity for locals and visitors alike. There’s something magical about backpacking in the Rocky Mountains. Green valleys butt against beautiful rocky peaks streaked with snow. Backpacking in the alpine offers stunning beauty and plenty of challenging terrain. I’ve lived in Colorado for over a decade and I’ve had the privilege of going on some amazing backpacking trips in Colorado. Here’s some local insight into the best backpacking in Colorado.
The Best Time to Backpack in Colorado
Backpacking in Colorado is possible year-round depending on where you go and how much you’re willing to deal with the snow and cold. However, if you are planning to head to the mountains, the best season for backpacking is from July through September. June is still pretty snowy in the high alpine, although trails at lower elevations are typically snow-free. Temperatures start to drop in October, although you can still sneak in a warm-weather weekend, just be prepared for the cold once the sun goes down. July is considered a monsoon season in the mountains. This means you should be prepared to encounter quick and violent thunderstorms in the afternoon. Stay below tree line to avoid getting hit by lightning.
Tips for Backpacking in Colorado
Backpacking in the Rocky Mountains is certainly a rewarding experience. However, if you’re new to mountain environments, take these tips into consideration before backpacking in Colorado.
- Always follow Leave No Trace principals, fire bans, and bear protection regulations. Every year backpackers encounter wildlife, start wildfires, and leave pristine wilderness areas a mess. Don’t be that person.
- Be sure to check recent trail conditions by either calling a local ranger station or checking AllTrails.com. Snow can linger late into summer on some trails, so be prepared.
- Protect your food against unwanted wildlife. This goes for tiny critters too! Always hang your food and keep it stored in odor proof bags. Some areas require the use of bear cans, so know the rules before you go.
- Plan to start early if you are going above tree line. You want to be below the trees by noon. Storms roll in quickly in the mountains and hikers die each year from being struck by lightning.
- Follow all drone regulations. Drones are banned from most wilderness areas in Colorado, so please respect the area you are traveling in.
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Backpacking Gore Lake The Best Alpine Lake in Colorado
If you’re looking for a dramatic alpine lake with unbelievable mountains, take a weekend to backpack to Gore Lake. The Gores have a special appeal for the adventurous backpacker looking to tackle tougher terrain. Even a moderate hike in the Gores will feel like a total butt buster. Trails are often not well maintained, and this area is a pristine wilderness. This means that you should take extra care to follow Leave No Trace principals when venturing out here.
Distance: 12.5 miles out and back
Elevation: 2,890 feet, with a large majority of that gain in the last two miles.
Average time to complete: Overnight
Best Beginner Backpacking Route in Colorado
Buffalo Peaks Loop, located just south of Fairplay is an excellent high-alpine beginner backpacking loop. Loop trails in Colorado are a rarity, so enjoy the fact that you’ll never see the same thing twice along this route. The trail spends most of its time in the aspen and pine forests before popping up into a high alpine valley with gorgeous views. There’s plenty of spots to camp and excellent water sources throughout the trail. Beginners can opt to break the trail into two nights, or more avid backpackers can choose to make this a quick overnight jaunt. Distance: 11.4 miles Elevation: 2,024 feet, mostly done in two steep sections Average time to complete: one night
Looking to up your backpacking game? Check out these resources:
- The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking and Wilderness Camping
- DIY Backpacking Meals and More
- How to Plan a Backpacking Trip
- The Complete Guide to Backpacking with a Dog
- Your Guide to Kick-ass Backpacking Gear You’ll Love
The Colorado Trail: The Highest Thru-Hike in America
The Colorado Trail winds its way from Denver to Durango over 486 of mountainous terrain. This is the United State’s highest thru-hike, with a majority of the trail above 10,000 feet. If thru-hiking isn’t your thing, it’s certainly possible to section hike this incredible trail (I’ve done over 120 miles of section hiking with my dog). Segment 6, segments in the San Juans, and the Sawatch Range are a few of the most beautiful parts of the trail. I’d highly recommend picking up the Colorado Trail Guide book and Field Guide.
Distance: 486 miles. Each segment is between 12 and 20 miles on average
Elevation: 89,000 feet!
Average time to complete: One month as a thru-hike. Most segments can be completed in a day or a weekend.
Aspen’s Four Passes Loop
You can’t talk about the best backpacking in Colorado without mentioning the 4 Passes Loop. This iconic trail winds its way over four distinct passes all while delivering breath-taking views of the Elk Range. This is certainly a more strenuous backpacking loop, but it’s worth it. Keep in mind that parking fills up early, and you’ll have to plan your entry and exits with a bus service that runs daily. Bear cans are required on this popular loop. be sure to check with the Forest Service for the most up-to-date information.
Distance: 26.8 miles
Elevation: 8,115 feet
Average time to complete: 2 nights or a long weekend
The Most Beautiful Peak in Colorado: Backpacking to Lone Eagle Peak
The drama of seeing Lone Eagle Peak reflected perfectly on Mirror Lake is well worth the nearly 15-mile journey deep into the Indian Peaks Wilderness. This pointy peak is an absolute icon and the surrounding dramatic cirque will take your breath away. Hike from Cascade Creek to Mirror and Crater Lakes. It is possible to day hike this trail, however, you should spend the night here. Climbers and mountaineers will love the opportunities for nearby alpine trad routes, a rugged class 4 route to the top of Lone Eagle, and plenty of couloirs.
Overnight trips require a permit, so be sure to reserve yours in advance, since you are only allowed to camp in designated sites. Keep in mind, this area is moose territory (we saw 5 when we hiked here), so if you bring your pup, keep them leashed.
Distance: 14.6 miles
Elevation: 2,375 feet
Average time to complete: overnight
Wildflowers Galore from Crested Butte to Aspen
In the July months, the high alpine of Colorado comes to life. The Maroon Snowmass Trailhead that goes from Crested Butte to Aspen is a wildflower lover’s dream. This moderately-strenuous trail blooms with color in the summer months. This is the best backpacking trip in Colorado for those seeking dramatic alpine views without tons of ass-kicking el-gain. Most people hike one way and bus their way back (or swap rides with friends headed in the opposite direction). But it’s just as nice as an out-and-back.
Distance: 10.45 miles one way, 20.9 round-trip
Elevation: 3,322 feet of gain
Average time to complete: An overnight or weekend.
Best Backpacking Route in Rocky Mountain National Park
Hop on the iconic Continental Divide Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park to hit all the highlights of Colorado’s most famed National Park. The CDT makes its way from Mexico to Canada, crossing through the state of Colorado. The trail tops out on Hallet Peak, Flattop Mountain, and Ptarmigan Peak. This 30-mile stretch of trail can be looped from the Bear Lake trailhead or you can hitch a ride back to your car on the opposite end of the park. Keep in mind that no dogs are allowed on the trails in Rocky Mountain, you’ll need to book your permits in advance, and the entire loop takes around 5 days to complete.
Distance: 30 miles of Continental Divide Trail, 45 miles as a loop
Elevation: around 11,600 feet of gain
Average time to complete: 5 days
Looking for more amazing things to do in Colorado? Get your advice from a local
- Amazing Day Hikes Near Denver for Any Ability
- Your Guide to the Best Free Camping Near Denver
- The Best 14ers for Beginners
- 6 Amazing, Crowd-Free 13ers to Add to Your Bucket List
- Fantastic Fall Hikes in Colorado You’ve Never Heard of
Backpack Colorado 14ers in the Chicago Basin
One of the best ways to backpack in Colorado is to combine your backpacking trip with a couple of peaks. The Chicago Basin in the San Juan Mountains is an excellent place to backpack and climb some of Colorado’s famed 14,000-foot peaks. The journey starts with a scenic train ride to the Needleton trailhead. Next, walk a 1/2 mile from the train stop (you’ll purchase a backpacker’s ticket, it’ll be obvious when to jump off) and then continue 6 more miles to the Chicago Basin. From here, you can set up a base camp and climb Elous, Windom, and Sunlight Peak.
Although you can hike in, a round-trip train ticket will run you about $70 and is certainly worth the extra few days of hiking. Due to the heavy use of this area, you are required to carry out your human waste, camp only in designated sites, and use bear protection for your food. Be sure to check in for the most up-to-date info.
Distance: 15 miles to the basin and back to the train stop. Peak mileage varies. Elevation: 4,393 feet to the basin from Needleton Average time to complete: A long weekend or 3 nights recommended
Fall Backpacking in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
If you can stomach 6 miles of road walking, the Rito Alto Four Pass Loop is an amazing, crowd-free affair in the mighty Sangre de Cristos. Furthermore, this (rare) loop trail is the perfect fall backpacking foray. Challenge your alpine skills with four distinct passes complete with stellar mountain scenery.
Distance: 23-mile loop
Elevation: 5,843 feet of gain
Average time to complete: 2 nights or one burly overnight
Early Season Backpacking in the Lost Creek Wilderness
The Lost Creek Wilderness, located near Denver, off of highway 285, used to be one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets. Unfortunately, the cat is out of the bag, but with a wide variety of trails, it’s easy to find solitude here in the early season. Since it’s lower in elevation, the snow melts here first. So if you’re itching to get out in April, May or even early June, check out the Ben Tyler Trail. This 11.8 mile, difficult trail winds its way through the Lost Creek Wilderness, terminating with some spectacular views. Be sure to check up on water sources before heading out.
Distance: 11.8 miles round trip
Elevation: 3,402 feet of gain
Average time to complete: A perfect, pre-season overnight.
Colorado is home to some of the most beautiful backpacking trips in the US. Backpacking in Colorado can be a bit tougher with the altitude, but the views and mountain scenery make the extra effort worth it!