"Piney Lake" by Brent Flanders via Flickr Creative Commons

There are a lot of long distance trails out there, each with their own personality. The Appalachian Trail is known for its spectacular fall colors and hiker camaraderie. John Muir, good for trekking newbies. The Pacific Crest trail has a reputation for being extremely hot and crowded, made famous by the movie Wild. But the Colorado Trail is on a level all its own. It not only wends through America’s largest and most ancient mountain range, the Rocky Mountains, but it also passes by the country's tallest and most incredible peaks and takes hikers through some of the most beautiful alpine country in the world.

At 485 miles long, the Colorado Trail is surely no day hike. Most hikers spend 4-6 weeks en route, with five weeks about average. It begins just south of Denver near Chatfield Reservoir and snakes through the mountains on a southwest trajectory that ends in the quaint town of Durango. That is to say: this trail traverses most of the state, and all of the Colorado Rockies. So come prepared, and keep your wits about you. Hiking the Colorado Trail is not an easy endeavor, but it is the kind of adventure that will likely change your life.

"Colorado Trail" by Joe Flood via Flickr Creative Commons

Breck Bound

The Colorado Trail departs from Denver moving west. Climbing from the Mile High City into the mountains is the first big ascent, and it is sure to get anyone’s blood pumping. The first town the trail drops into is Breckenridge. A gorgeous ski area, allow yourself a few days to explore. You may also want to stock up on food, water, snacks and first aid supplies if you don't plan on having friends and family mail you packages en route. While you’re in Breck, relax and enjoy one of the many stellar restaurants in town and whet your whistle at Breckenridge Distillery if you have the time and resources.

Photo Credit: Brian

Soldier On

From Breck, the trail turns southward and passes by Camp Hale, a legendary military base not far from Leadville, Colorado. This is where the historic 10th Mountain Division trained their soldiers to be badass-nazi-killing-skiers/mountaineers. A very cool place, but one that can be extremely harsh in the wintertime.

"Bull Creek Looking West into the Highwood Range" by Calypso Orchid

Challenge Yourself to a 14er

If you want to remain in the area for a few days, there is plenty to see and do. You can hang out by the many rivers and creeks you’ll cross or by the lakes you will undoubtedly find. Or, you can take day hikes to better explore each region. One of the coolest aspects of the Colorado Trail is the option to hike 14ers (peaks rising over 14,000 feet sea level). Colorado has 54 of these massive mountains and ascending them is a badge of honor. Once you are standing on the summit with the entire state laid out before you like a map, you will understand that every arduous step up that mountain’s face was worth the struggle. Those views can change you.

After you leave Breck, you'll start passing 14er trails left and right. Mountain of the Holy Cross, Mount Massive and Mount Elbert (by Leadville), before you come to Mount Princeton, Mount Yale, Mount Antero, and Mount Shavano near the Arkansas River Valley of Salida and Buena Vista. Both of these towns are friendly, and full of good food and outdoor stores if you need somewhere to send a supply package, recharge, or restock your gear.

"Rocky Mountain National Park" by Jasperdo via Flickr Creative Commons

Fossil Ridge

After the Arkansas River Valley, the Colorado Trail shifts westward, passing through the incredible Fossil Ridge Wilderness area. The mountains in this part of Colorado are steep and grand, inspiring imagination and spirit with their rocky slopes and gnarly cliffs. After cresting North Pass, the trail passes by one last 14er, San Luis Peak. Now well into southern Colorado, the route climbs and curls through some of the state’s most jagged mountain ranges looking like needles, daggers and teeth piercing into the sky. Despite their unfriendly demeanor, rock climbers, extreme hikers, and mountaineers brave these jagged crags no matter the season, no matter the weather. Don’t try anything you aren’t prepared for, though, these beautiful mountains claim lives every year.

Photo Credit: Felix's Endless Journey

The End is Near

Finally, after passing the Molas Pass (the last one!), which traverses the Million Dollar Highway, you can breathe a sigh of relief that your journey is almost over. You'll have the San Juans as a backdrop (you'll recognize them as the mountains on the Coors can), and descend through pine forests and along melt-off creeks towards the town of Durango. It will no doubt be a welcome sight to thru hikers and segment hikers alike. Finishing a trek as long and intense as the Colorado Trail is as much an emotional and mental triumph as it is a physical one.