Five Ways to Take On the Continental Divide Trail

The Continental Divide Trail stretches 3,100 miles down the backbone of North America from Canada to Mexico, but you don’t have to do it all. Hike one of these sections through Colorado—based on your vacation time and motivation. 

1. The Day Hike

Wolf Creek Pass

Weminuche Wilderness

Five- to 16-mile out-and-back

This fun hike allows you walk the spine of the Rocky Mountains with minimal effort. From the Lobo Overlook at Wolf Creek Pass, the CDT meanders through high altitude forest and traverses rocky slopes in subalpine and alpine environs of the Weminuche Wilderness. You don’t have to hike far to reach big vistas that stretch to New Mexico, meadows bursting with showy wildflowers and a good chance to spy wildlife like elk and raptors. And, because there is no end goal or destination, you choose how far you walk, which means there’s ample time to enjoy the scenery and the vibrant colors at your feet. Stroll for about 2.5 miles to reach a verdant meadow, continue another eight miles to Archuleta Lake, or make it a multiday walk by pushing through for 60 miles to Silverton.

2. The Overnighter

Tonahutu-North Inlet Loop

Rocky Mountain National Park

25 miles

Tucked away on Rocky Mountain National Park’s mellow west side, this challenging loop on the Tonahutu and North Inlet Trails delivers a RMNP sampler, including fields full of wildflowers, moose, elk and bighorn sheep, and sweeping views of both sides of the Divide. It’s possible to crank the whole thing out in one monster day, but far better to savor the trek with an overnight camp (or two). The route follows a rushing stream through lush forest, visits multiple impressive cascades, explores the blossom-adorned tundra of the Continental Divide, and tops out at 12,324 on the wide expanse of Flattop Mountain. Must-stop highlights along the way include a visit to Big Meadows and multiple worthwhile side trips and extensions, such as a six-mile round-trip journey to Nokoni and Nanita lakes (be sure pack your fly rod and get a park license).

3. The Long Weekend

Weminuche Pass

Weminuche Wilderness

22.2-mile out-and-back

Escape the masses on this rugged and remote excursion that climbs gently through conifer forest, moves up a wooded canyon and then follows Weminuche Creek to top out on 10,650-foot Weminuche Pass, 5.1 miles and 1,200 vertical feel from the trailhead. You can set up camp here or push further if you feel frisky. The next day, delve deeper into the wilderness by following the CDT up the Rincon La Vaca. Breaking through treeline, you’ll revel in your first glimpses of the Rio Grande Pyramid—a sharp, towering 13,821-foot peak that stands out alone from the surrounding summits—and the Window, a large notch in the ridge that runs south from the Pyramid. There’s plenty of time to soak in the alpine meadows teeming with flowers and riparian corridors rife with wildlife-viewing prospects. Climb steadily  from here to the pass itself. Then enjoy panoramas of the Pyramid, the East Ute Creek drainage and the Needle Mountains. The 22.2 mile out-and-back journey climbs a total of 4,045 vertical feet and culminates with a short off-trail detour to visit the Window. Bold explorers can add more oomph and elevation with a scramble up the Pyramid.

4. The Big Trip

Buffalo Pass to North Lake

Mount Zirkel Wilderness

42 miles round trip

The home of 12,061-foot Big Agnes Mountain (the namesake of Steamboat’s famed gear brand) and 14 other peaks topping 12,000 feet, the Mount Zirkel Wilderness is one of Colorado’s five original wilderness areas, designated in 1964. This gem is often overlooked, though, since its peaks happen to fall short of Colorado’s much-sought-after fourteeners. Don’t let the numbers fool you: It’s just as stunning as spots with those technically higher peaks. Located just north of Steamboat Springs and starting at Buffalo Pass, this 21-mile segment of the CDT climbs through the Zirkels’ wild valleys, stopping by striking glaciated lakes filled with trout, enroute to the Continental Divide, where it skirts along the top of the range. (Note: It’s a 42-mile out-and-back from Buffalo Pass, or there are optional cut-off trails that can make it shorter one-way with a shuttle.)

The trail runs just a few hundred feet from the gentle summit of 11,932-foot Lost Ranger Peak—which makes for a short, sweet side trip since it’s the highest peak along the CDT in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. Just be cognizant of the weather: The ridge is exposed and storms form here in a hurry. Once you do get up high, this perfect backpacking route cruises along the Divide amid wildflower blooms and gnarled, stunted trees before descending to North Lake, an ideal basecamp destination for relaxing a bit and exploring the area off-trail. Those looking for a shorter overnight or weekend option in the Zirkels can follow the CDT for three miles from Buffalo Pass before taking the Newcomb Trail for one mile to reach Round Mountain Lake.

5. Unplug

Cumbres Pass to Wolf Creek Pass

South San Juan Wilderness

70 miles (with shuttle)

Need to get away from all the electronics for an extended period of time? Delve deep into the South San Juan Wilderness via this approximately 70-mile one-way car-shuttle section of the CDT. It delivers a thru-hike-like experience without making you commit to the months required to attempt the entire trail. It’s a full-on wilderness experience that gives you every aspect of the San Juans: You’ll hike into forested valleys, through flower-filled meadows and quiet alpine lakes, up steep traverses of mountains (like 13,150-foot Montezuma Peaks and 13,300-foot Summit Peak, the highest mountain in the eastern San Juans), and ascents up and over a number of high passes that often hold snow into summer.

This big trip is worth every ounce of the effort it takes to tackle its daunting up and down, and it passes through unique terrain, even for the CDT, as it ambles over glorious tundra and broad open stretches dappled with alpine lakes with excellent fishing. Highlights include accessing the trailhead via the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad (rather than the Durango and Silverton train that’s popular for accessing Chicago Basin on the west side of the range), plenty of solitude, a plethora of big-mountain panoramas, and a visit to Blue Lake, perched at 11,400 feet. From here, the trail drops sharply into pine forest and open meadows before winding through the Wolf Creek Ski Area to finally bring you to your shuttle vehicle.


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