If you pay attention to the Colorado Trail Thru-Hikers Facebook page starting in late December or early January of the hiking year, you will see a number of triumphant posts proclaiming “I’m starting the trail June 5th. Can’t wait!” This is a sure sign the person bought his plane ticket before he completed even the most rudimentary amount of trail research. Starting a full month before the Colorado mountains open up for high altitude hiking is almost certain to cause painfully slow, demoralizing hiking on large snow-covered sections of the trail. In a word, starting in June in almost any reasonably normal year will mean postholing through deep, soft snow.
There are several dangers to postholing. One is that it is simply impossible to tell where the trail is much of the time. People before you, who have blundered off in the wrong direction, will tend to lead you astray. You need to pay careful attention to maps and GPS devices if you want to stay on course. (Assumes you know how to use such resources!) Two, it’s exhausting and extremely slow going. You will need more food and water than you would be carrying otherwise, which will make your pack heavier, which will make you sink deeper into the snow, etc. Three, the danger in sinking knee deep or hip deep into the snow is not that it is hard to move. It is that you won’t see the tree branches, rocks, and other obstacles under the snow until you have barked your shin, or sprained your ankle, or slashed open a wound in your thigh. Carry some extra first-aid equipment, too. And don’t forget your personal locator device. It is possible you might want to use it when you are laying on your back, exhausted, hoping to die.
How can you tell if it is a normal year? You can’t. At least you can’t in late December or early January. It is doubtful you will know anything useful about snow conditions on the trail until late April or early May of the hiking season. April and May are generally when the Colorado mountains get hit with the monster snow-dropping storms, originating in the Gulf of Mexico and carrying enormous amounts of moisture content, which result in many feet of snow in the foothills and on the higher mountains. If for some reason these storms don’t appear in any particular year, then there is a chance the trail will be clear enough for reasonable passage in early to mid June. Buying your plane ticket and scheduling your vacation in January is a big risk. It has not turned out well for many an intrepid Colorado Trail traveller.
The rule-of-thumb for any trail over 11,000 feet in the Colorado mountains is that it “should” be open by July 4th for “reasonable” travel. This doesn’t mean you won’t encounter snow above this elevation after this date, but passage shouldn’t be entirely onerous for long periods of time. If you wish to be certain of not having to do massive amounts of postholing, schedule your trip to start in the middle of July, at the earliest. No guarantees, but your chances are pretty good.
The Colorado Trail Foundation webpage contains excellent information on snow and weather conditions on the trail, including SNOTEL sites where you can determine the current conditions. I encourage you to use this information for trip planning purposes.
I prefer to hike the trail in August. There are several reasons for this. In addition to avoiding almost all snow problems, I avoid the heavy mosquito season from late June to the end of July. In three trips on The Colorado Trail, from mid-July to mid-September, I have never actually used mosquito repellant more than one or two times. Your mileage may vary, of course, but hiking later in the year almost insures mosquitoes won’t be a problem. (Biting flies can be a problem at all times during the hiking season, but some years they are non-existent and some years they are a major annoyance. You should choose your hiking year wisely!)
The major advantage of an August hike is that you still get to participate in the height of the wildflower season, which runs from about mid-July to about mid-August. The season is later at higher elevations. For southbound hikers (SOBO), starting on or about August 1st is perfect. You catch the lower wildflower peak at lower elevations and follow it to the higher elevations in the San Juan mountains as you hike. It is the best of all possible worlds.
July and August is also the height of the thunderstorm season in the Colorado mountains. You can expect an afternoon thunderstorm each afternoon, although they don’t always appear that frequently and they will often be in the distance and miss you. Still, you have to be aware of them and plan your hike accordingly. You don’t want to find yourself at the top of the pass or in some other vulnerable place when the lightning starts flashing. Almost everyone who hikes The Colorado Trail has a story of being threatened by lightning. You should definitely know what to do when it threatens you.
September can be a fantastic time to hike The Colorado Trail. September weather in Colorado is my favorite. We generally have warm, Indian summer days and clear, crisp nights. This means you can expect more frequent nights with the temperatures at or below freezing. (August hikes always include one or two nights with the temperature near freezing.) You will have fewer thunderstorms in September, generally, but you will have a better chance of a snow storm. This means you have to pay extra attention to the weather and have a Plan B in case you get hit with a big storm. The aspen are turning colors in September in the high country, and you can get spectacular pictures of the trail during this time of year.
What about the 2017 hiking year? Well, predicting Colorado weather is a fool’s errand, but it is certainly shaping up early to be a BIG snow year. At the beginning of February, when I am writing this post, snow cover across the state is over 150% of average. This is even higher in the San Juan mountains in the southern part of the state, in the area in which the trail traverses. Should we continue to get this kind of snow throughout the snow season, I think it is not unreasonable to predict we will see significant snow on the trail well into July.
Just to give you some idea, here is the June 14th, 2016 snow report from the Colorado Trail Foundation. This was a “normal” snow year in Colorado.
• Seg 1-3 passable • Seg 4 now passable • Seg 5 passable • Segs 6-9 impassable • Seg 10 now passable • Seg 11 passable • Seg 12-13 now passable • Seg 14 passable • Seg 15 impassable • Seg 16-17 likely still impassable (we lack reports) • Seg 18-19 passable (Cochetopa CREEK FORD fast & deep) • Seg 20-27 impassable • Seg 28 mi 0-2.4 impassable • Seg 28 mi 2.4-end passable • Seg CW01 to mi 7.3 impassable • Seg CW01 mi 7.3-9.8 passable (good O&B training hike) • Seg CW02 mi 0-7.4 passable (extend above training hike) • Seg CW02 mi 7.4-end impassable • Seg CW03-CW05 impassable High passes still maybe 2-3 weeks from being passable. Collegiate West will likely be the last to melt and become passable, say around July 10. But the melt-off is happening quickly now and it won't be too long...