Getting to the Trailhead
Since 90% of Colorado Trail thru-hikers walk the trail from Denver to Durango, one of the most frequently asked logistics questions is “What is the best way to get to the beginning of the trail and then back to Denver when I finish the trail?” Of course, “best” is a subjective term. But here are a few ideas.
From the Denver airport, the least expensive way to get to the start of The Colorado Trail at the trailhead in Waterton Canyon would be to take the Denver A-Line light rail system from the airport to the Union train station downtown, then switch to the C-Line (no additional ticket required) and follow it all the way to its end in Littleton at Mineral Avenue. A ticket will run about $10, depending on time of day. From there, call a taxi or Lyft to drive about 15-20 minutes to the Waterton Canyon trailhead.
If you need to do some last minute shopping (perhaps for fuel), note that REI is just a few blocks from Union Station in downtown Denver. You could get off the light rail there, do your shopping, then head south to the Littleton-Mineral Station. Or call Lyft from the REI store.
You can also take a taxi directly from the airport. The fare will be in the $100-$120 range.
Another option is to contact the Colorado Trail Foundation (ctf at coloradotrail dot org) and ask them for a list of volunteers who have offered to help shuttle hikers to the trailhead. This option is sometimes free and has additional benefits of being able to ask questions of people who have hiked the trail before you. Note that these people are not Lyft or a taxi and do this on their own time as a way of giving something back to the trail. Be sure you contact them ahead of time to set up and confirm arrangements. A tip is not always expected or accepted, but it is appreciated. This goes for any ride you receive on the trail itself. If you are not allowed to tip, think about how you can pay the experience forward.
Note that the Waterton Canyon trailhead is sometimes closed. (High water or bear activity are the usual culprits.) If so, you can hike from Roxborough State Park, a few miles south of Waterton Canyon, or from the Indian Creek trailhead on Highway 67 another few miles south of Roxborough State Park. If you are traveling with a dog, you will have to start from the Indian Creek trailhead, as dogs are not allowed in Waterton Canyon or in Roxborough State Park.
Also note that there is no camping allowed in Waterton Canyon or in Roxborough State Park. The first suitable camping spot is along Bear Creek, about 8.7 miles into the hike. Make sure you start early enough in the day to make it to your first camp before dark. It will be too dark to hike without a light about 8:30 or 9:00 at night during most of the hiking season.
The street address of Waterton Canyon is:
Waterton Canyon Trailhead
11300 Waterton Road
Littleton, CO 80125
You can learn more about Waterton Canyon on the Colorado Trail Foundation web page.
Returning to Denver
For someone who has just hiked the trail and is still in its thrall, the “best” way to get back to Denver might be to just turn around and walk back! Others of us might have jobs or families waiting and need another idea.
My favorite way of returning from Durango to Denver is to catch the California Zephyr Amtrak train in Grand Junction or Glenwood Springs and ride it back to Denver. This is my favorite method because it is slow. It takes about eight hours from Grand Junction and about seven from Glenwood Springs. Getting in a car or bus and speeding along at 70 mph after spending a month at 3 mph is jolting, to say the least. It’s not what you need at the end of a peaceful trip. The train meanders along the Colorado River at 30 mph or so and you are entertained by every other group on the river either mooning you or flashing their breasts at you. As you get into the mountains, wander up to the observation car where an experienced volunteer guide will fill you in on Colorado history and the significance of what you are seeing out your window. If the train is traveling on time (don’t count on it), you will arrive in Denver early evening. You can catch the Denver light rail train from the downtown train station to the airport if need be. Train tickets vary in price, but $100 is ballpark. I recommend treating yourself to the full monty and having dinner and a glass of wine in the dining car.
If you need a more certain schedule, taking a bus back from Durango to Denver may be a better option. A bus leaves Durango every morning at 7AM sharp and travels to Grand Junction, arriving just before 1:00 in the afternoon. It drops you at the Greyhound Station, where you can catch the 1:20 Greyhound bus to Denver, arriving about 5:30 or so into the Denver Bus Center. A short walk to the Denver light rail system will allow you to catch a train to the airport, if needed. The Greyhound customer service on-line is a bit, uh, strict. In person they are much more accommodating, but you will need to purchase a Greyhound ticket ahead of time. I encourage you to do this. The bus is often full. I usually call ahead when I get to Durango and make arrangements for a day or two in advance. The cost is similar to taking the train, about $100 ballpark in 2016. Note that if you want to take the train from Grand Junction to Denver, you will have to layover in Grand Junction overnight, since the train leaves Grand Junction daily at about 10:30AM. If you are the adventurous sort, the layover is not unpleasant. There is plenty to see and do in Grand Junction.
There is a small airport in Durango, and several flights a day to Denver. You will have to take a taxi to the airport and the flights cost in the neighborhood of $250-$400. Cars can also be rented at the airport for about the same amount as a flight. However, if you share the car cost with others, it can be reasonable. If you do rent a car, I recommend you kept it an extra day and take a quick trip to the Mesa Verde National Park, outside of Durango, to see the cliff dwelling of the Anasazi Indians. Walking among the ruins is a fantastic way to learn more about the history of the San Juan mountains.