View north from Hope Pass in Colorado
Rocky Mountain Journal
COMPARISON OF THE
three kinds of men: The ones who learn by reading.
The few who learn by observation.
of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves."
- Will Rogers
There are those who would put me in the latter
category! As much as I love to read or hear about other folks' adventures
vicariously, some of them I just have to do myself. My passion for ultra and
journey running certainly qualifies me for occasionally "learning the hard way."
Perhaps reading about Jim's and my adventures and
misadventures in our 2005 and 2006 journals - and learning something from them - will lessen the "shock treatment"
for others who aspire to explore the great outdoors on foot.
COMPARING APPLES TO
I have run and walked the entire 2,175 miles of the
Appalachian Trail (AT) in the eastern part of the United States. I have
completed only 60 miles so far on the 483-mile Colorado Trail (CT). [Note:
despite the date above, I'm actually finalizing this entry on July 3.]
From the extensive reading I've done about the CT,
talking with a friend (Betsy Kalmeyer) who has run all of it, and my own experience on the CT and
other trails in Colorado, I think I can make a fairly comprehensive comparison
of these two trails. I'll modify it after seeing all of the CT, if needed.
Hopefully this exercise will help me remember to enjoy the
CT on its own merits as I'm traveling along its paths and to NOT compare it with
the AT in any negative way, and perhaps it will help readers understand what Jim
and I are experiencing.
I also hope it will encourage readers to venture forth on
both of these marvelous trails and to appreciate each for its unique qualities. Every trail is
special, and we're fortunate in this country to have so many from which to
Here are my comparisons:
The Colorado Trail (CT) is only 22% of the distance of the
Appalachian Trail (AT), 483 miles vs. 2,175 miles in length.
Both are linear trails that run through public lands (state
and national forests, national parks). About 1% of the AT still goes through
some private land.
The AT ranges in elevation from 135 feet at the Bear Mountain Inn in New York to
6,642 feet at Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The CT is all above 5,520 feet in elevation. The low point
is the northern terminus in Waterton Canyon near Denver. The highest point is
13,270 feet near Coney Summit in the San Juan Mountains. Most of the trail
is above 9,000 feet, requiring much more altitude acclimation than the AT.
Many more miles of the CT are above tree line than the AT,
posing more risks for danger from the almost-daily afternoon thunderstorms,
hypothermia from sudden weather changes, and problems with ice and snow (photo
below on the north side of Rolling
Mountain, Segment 25). On the
AT, hikers usually encounter these challenges only in the Smokies and the
mountains in New Hampshire and Maine.
Because of the snow at higher elevations even into July,
the "season" for hiking the CT is much shorter than on the AT, especially on the
southern half of the trail. Much of the AT can be hiked year-round.
Both trails are maintained primarily by volunteers. Most of
the CT was also built by volunteers. Some of the AT was built by the CCC in the
The Appalachian Trail Club is much larger than the Colorado
Trail Foundation. The ATC has some paid staff and it oversees at least 30
maintaining clubs and has several regional offices. The CTF is all-volunteer but
has a nearly-identical mission as the ATC.
The AT is a much older trail than the CT. The AT was
completed in the 1930s, the CT in the 1980s.
Both trails are popular with day, weekend, section, and
Most of the AT is designed only for foot travel. Exceptions
are a few miles in the Smokies that allow equestrian use, and a couple miles on
the Virginia Creeper Trail and C & O Towpath in Maryland where both bikes and
horses are allowed. The AT also shares some dirt or paved roads through some
towns and other areas with motorized vehicles.
The CT is a multi-use trail which allows foot travel,
horses, and pack animals the entire 483 miles. Cyclists may use all of the trail
except through six wilderness areas where they must detour on dirt or paved
roads or connecting trails. (Photo below shows two cyclists on Segment 25.) In a few places, the CT shares jeep roads that
allow motorized vehicles. It does cross some paved roads.
Both trails can be thru-hiked in either direction. However,
most thru-hikers go north on the AT and south on the CT. The weather,
particularly the avoidance of deep snow, is the reason in both cases (more snow
on tbe AT at higher latitudes, more snow on the CT at higher elevations).
The CT is already conveniently divided up into 28 segments
based on road access. Some of the "roads" require serious high-clearance 4WD
vehicles, however. They are steep, narrow, rocky, have tight switchbacks, and
sometimes require fording of streams.
There is much more flexibility on the AT in determining how far to go
each day if runners/hikers are using a vehicle like we are, or are being crewed.
The downside is the complexity of planning the length of each trail section you
want to do on the AT. More planning is required there.
Back-packers don't have this problem on either trail,
although there are more places on the CT that are off-limits to camping because
of fragile tundra. They can pretty much plop down where they want and not worry
about getting to the next trail head that afternoon.
The AT has many more re-supply points in towns than does
the CT. Although the CT starts and ends near cities,
other towns and post offices are not anyway near as convenient to the trail as
they are on the AT.
To my knowledge, there are no shelters on the CT. There are
shelters an average of about every ten miles on the AT.
There are many fewer hikers per mile on the CT than the AT
because it is not as close to major population centers and many of the trail heads are
much harder to access. It's no fluke that the most heavily-used sections of the
CT are near Denver and Durango. The photo below shows two back-packers on
Segment 25 of the CT:
The CT has few trail registers. They are quite frequent on
the AT and are a great way to learn about upcoming sections of the trail and to
keep up with people you meet on the trail.
The AT has more thru-hiker tradition than the CT, things like trail names and
popular hostels along the way. I'm thinking of Miss Janet and other people that
hikers have heard about and arrange to meet. The CT has no traditional half-way
point where hikers try to eat a half-gallon of ice cream, no cabins that you row
a boat to reach, no huts to work for room and board, and some hikers don't even
know what trail names are!
- The AT also has a more rigid thru-hiker "culture" emphasizing
solitude, self-reliance, and slower pace. Fast-packers, runners, and
people who are crewed are anathema to some traditional back-packers.
Anything goes on the CT, which doesn't have long-standing traditions.
I sometimes felt apologetic about my mode of travel on the AT;
I feel much more comfortable and accepted running on the CT.
TERRAIN AND TRAIL SURFACE
The CT goes through deeper wilderness areas than the AT.
Trail users are in much closer contact with civilization along the majority of
the AT. This has both positive and negative consequences - easier access to
services and emergency assistance, but more visual blight and noise on the AT
than the CT.
The CT has more views-per-mile than the AT, at least in the
summer when much of the AT is a "long green tunnel, " even on ridgetops. More of
the CT travels through large, high open meadows or above the trees, such as the
meadow below in Segment 25 south of the pass over Rolling Mountain:
It's much easier to find your way on the AT than the CT.
The AT usually has frequent white paint blazes on trees and excellent signage in
It's much easier to get lost on the CT! Trail markers and
signs are few and far between. Trail users need good maps, directions, and/or a
GPS to navigate it successfully. The Colorado Trail Foundation's guidebook and
mapping software give waypoints to assist with navigation. Souvenir hunters
sometimes take down the attractive white plastic markers (shown on each of these
journal pages, upper left) and wooden signs are problematic (hauling them in to
remote locations and maintaining them in the harsh mountain weather).
There is a lot more road access to trail heads on the AT
than the CT, with the exception of Maine.
Even though the CT travels through more rugged
terrain (in general) than the AT, the trails on the CT are less strenuous to run
or hike than the AT - if you disregard the elevation factor. This is because
cyclists and equestrians also use the trail.
There are more steep climbs and descents up and over
mountains on the AT than those on the CT. CT designers have incorporated many more switchbacks
than AT designers did (photo below from Segment 26 near Blackhawk Pass). They haven't felt the need to
summit every peak along the trail, which often skirts around the sides of
mountains. I doubt there will be any "PUDs" on the CT (the "pointless ups and downs"
that AT hikers complain about).
The CT has a greater proportion of smooth trail than the
AT, although it has some spots with rocky, rooty terrain (see photo below from
Segment 25). We should be able to run a lot more miles, proportionately, on the CT than we were
able to run on the AT.
There is less rock scrambling and fewer
vertical walls to climb on the CT because of the bikes and horses. Even strong,
agile Cody couldn't have gotten up some of those rock walls in New Hampshire and
Maine! He should be able to run all the segments on the CT with me except #1
(dogs aren't allowed in Waterton Canyon).
I think there are fewer large streams to ford
on the CT than on the AT. The two largest ones to ford are in Segment 24, which
I'll be doing soon. The streams are running lower now than usual for this time
of year, so I don't have the fear of crossing creeks and rivers on the CT that I
developed on the AT.
So far, the only things I miss on the CT are frequent
markers and trail registers. Otherwise, it's a marvelous trail and I'm looking
forward to doing all the other segments. Stay tuned for lots more photos of
awesome scenery and gorgeous flowers!