Best backpacking trips in Colorado: 8 epic overnights in the high country
The best backpacking trips in Colorado serve up unforgettable overnight adventure through untouched alpine landscape
Backpacking is one of the most immersive ways to commune with nature, offering you the gratifying experience of setting off from civilization and venturing into the wilderness for a night or longer. With overnight trips you can take in more than you might on a day hike and you’ll often have swaths of nature all to yourself. The best backpacking trips in Colorado range in length from a few miles to epic treks that guide you through untouched alpine landscapes.
The trails in Colorado are certainly some of the best, but they can also be busy. However, you usually find that only the first couple of miles of any trail are clogged up before the crowds thin out. It’s worth venturing a little further to lose the crowds and to see some of the gems that aren’t easily reachable on a day hike, and one of the best ways to do this is to turn your hike into an overnight trip. In this article, we take a look at some of the best backpacking trips in Colorado to whet your whistle for some overnight adventure in the backcountry.
You’ll want to take a look at our articles on different types of backpacking and how to plan a backpacking trip before you set off. Colorado is blessed with lots of dry weather so it’s a great place to dip your toe into backpacking, though be prepared with a good 3-season sleeping bag because overnights in the high country are always cold. For all Colorado hiking you’ll of course want to have a good pair of boots – though the trails in this state are well-maintained, they get rocky up above the treeline which is where many of these trips take you.
Best backpacking trip near Denver: Crater Lakes
Distance: 6.8 miles
It might be Colorado’s urban center, but you don’t have to travel far from Denver to reach some impressive heights. Crater Lakes are three high alpine lakes in the James Peak Wilderness that feature waterfalls and wildflowers along the way. Crater Lakes is definitely short enough to be done as a day hike, but add a heavy pack and it will make for a satisfying overnight trip.
The trailhead is near Black Hawk, about an hour’s drive from Denver. From Black Hawk, travel north Highway 119 to Rollinsville. Turn west onto Gilpin County Road 16 and continue eight miles to the Moffat Tunnel, and park at the East Portal Trailhead.
Follow the South Boulder Creek trail for 1.2 miles before turning right at the junction onto the Crater Lakes Trail. This takes you through a wide forested valley then onto a narrow strip of land between the two beautiful main lakes. The third lake is found via the steep climb to the west of the lakes.
Best backpacking trip near Boulder: Caribou Lake
Distance: 9.3 miles
You’re certainly spoilt for choice in the Boulder area, which boasts access to a variety of wilderness areas from Chautaqua Park in the city limits to nearby Rocky Mountain National Park. Our favorite is beautiful Caribou Lake via the Arapahoe Trail, which boasts a high alpine climb to the Continental Divide followed by a descent for your overnight stay in the attractive bowl forming Caribou Lake.
This trail is accessed from the Fourth of July Trailhead in the Indian Peaks Wilderness near Nederland, about an hour from Boulder. From Nederland, go south on Highway 72 for 0.5 miles to County Road 130 and make a right. Go through the town of Eldora, just past which it becomes a dirt road. Continue on the dirt road another 4.8 miles and take the right fork at the Buckingham Campground to park.
Begin on the North Fork of Middle Boulder Creek trail which takes you up above treeline to the Continental Divide via expanses of wildflowers, steep waterfalls, glacier-fed streams and the historic Fourth of July Mine. After you reach the Divide, there’s a steep switchback descent down to the lake. Be aware that in the morning, you’ll have another steep climb to get back out.
Best backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park: Tonahutu Creek Loop Trail
Distance: 25 miles
Within Rocky Mountain National Park’s 355 miles of hiking trails, the Tonahutu Creek Loop Trail takes in most of the fabulous North Inlet Trail as well as the Continental Divide and takes you across the rugged alpine tundra of the high country.
Park at the North Inlet trailhead and head north on the Tonahutu Trail. This trail takes you across tundra topped flats, up to Ptarmigan Point on the Continental Divide and back down to Hallett Creek. There’s even a side option to detour up Flattop Mountain and enjoy the view down to sparkling Emerald Lake. This route is dotted with campsites along the way so you can take several nights to enjoy the journey.
Best backpacking trip near Vail: Gore Lake
Distance: 12.1 miles
If you’re in Vail, there’s nothing quite like hanging your hat in the dramatic bowl of Gore Lake for the night and waking up to see the sun rise over the Gore Range. The hike to Gore Lake makes for a pretty serious day hike, but it’s a good challenge for an overnight trip.
Take the free bus from town or park at the trailhead on Vail Pass - 10 Mile road. Gore Lake shares a trailhead with Deluge Lake, but both trails are well signposted.
The trail begins with almost a mile of strenuous climbing and has many more steep sections as you wind your way up the valley. You’ll be treated to all the high alpine features of cool forests and alpine meadows, but one unusual feature of this hike is a set of two graves about four miles in. The graves are of the Recen brothers, two Swedish immigrants who came to the area to mine for precious metals in the late 1800s and had a cabin nearby. Keep going to finally arrive at this idyllic alpine lake nestled in a granite bowl, a gorgeous spot to camp.
Best backpacking trip near Leadville: The Colorado Trail Section 10
Distance: 12.4 miles
The Colorado Trail is a 567 mile trail stretching from Denver to Durango and section 10 takes you through the Leadville area from the Timberline Pass trailhead to the Mount Massive trailhead over 12 miles with views of some of the highest peaks in the state.
From Leadville, follow the signs for Turquoise Lake and park at the Timberline Lake trailhead at the western end of the lake.
This wooded trail takes you along the base of Mount Massive, the state’s second highest peak. The trail begins where The Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail overlap and takes you into the Mount Massive Wilderness via a moderate climb then levels out along the contours of Bald Eagle Mountain. There is good camping about five miles in at Twin Mounds saddle and again a little over six miles in at Rock Creek. The trail then climbs steadily to the intersection with Highline Trail before descending down to the Mount Massive trailhead. For a longer trip you could camp here and tackle Mount Massive the next day.
Best backpacking trip near Breckenridge: Spruce Creek Trail to Mohawk Lakes
Distance: 8.4 miles
Spruce Creek Trail to Mohawk Lakes offers some of the best views of Colorado’s high country with lots of great backcountry camping spots along the way.
The Spruce Creek trailhead is less than five miles from Breckenridge. Just follow Highway 9 south then take a right onto Spruce Creek Road.
Follow the creek for about a mile and a half then join the Mohawk Lakes trail at the junction. After a couple more miles you’ll reach lovely Mayflower Lakes. Camp here or continue on up the steep climb to Lower Mohawk Lake passing Continental Falls on the way. There are several more stunning alpine lakes past Lower Mohawk so pitch your tent and go and explore them if there’s time before sunset.
Best backpacking trip near Aspen: Aspen to Crested Butte
Distance: 11 miles
The drive from Aspen to Crested Butte is 100 miles, but go on foot and it’s 11 glorious miles over West Maroon Pass. This unforgettable trip takes you through aspen groves and wildflower meadows and treats you to some of the country’s most photographed mountain vistas.
To begin this hike from Aspen, park at Maroon Lake about ten miles south of town.
From spectacular Maroon Lake, hike through the forest to Crater Lake and pass the base of the iconic Maroon Bells. There’s a steep and strenuous climb up Maroon Creek to West Maroon Pass at 12,490ft of elevation – rest here for incredible views – then a steep descent down into more wildflower fields and old mining cabins as you follow Crystal River through the forest to Crested Butte. You can camp here and return on foot the way you came, or book a shuttle to take you back to Aspen. Needless to say, you can do this trip in either direction.
Best backpacking trip near Telluride: Blue Lakes Trail
Distance: 8.6 miles
The San Juan and San Miguel Mountain ranges surrounding Telluride are quite possibly the most picturesque in the state. The Blue Lakes trail takes you to a turquoise lake via Mount Sneffels wilderness, cascades and wildflowers galore.
Blue Creek trailhead is very close to town as the crow flies, but since it’s on the other side of Mount Sneffels it requires a little over an hour of driving. Take Highway 62 towards Ridgewary and turn onto Dallas Creek Road then drive 9 miles south to the trailhead.
The hike takes you up the Dallas Creek drainage with spectacular mountain views all the way. You will pass an incredible waterfall before spending the night next to the turquoise waters of Blue Lake.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.