At this point, it’s almost like a well-known fact in the thru-hiking community. Everyone is on the Colorado Trail (CT) this year. Thanks to a combination of other thru-hikes in the US being cancelled, the lack of required permits, the relatively simple resupply and logistics, and the seasonal convenience, the Colorado Trail has seen a massive boom in thru-hikers for the 2020 season.
I came down to Colorado with a film crew as they shot remote footage of Jeff ‘Legend’ Garmire on his unsupported FKT record attempt. One of the first things I noticed as the crew shot footage on different trail segments was the sheer number of regular-pace hikers coming through.
It comes down to the fact that hikers wanted to thru-hike this year. Thousands of people — myself included — had 2020 PCT permits deemed illegitimate, per request from the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Long-distance trail organizations across the country asked hikers to stay away from the trails this year, citing potential infection spread from isolated town to town along their trails.
This left thousands of heartbroken hikers with a short season slipping away. By the time the dust settled and it became clear which trails were acceptable to hike and which were not, it was already mid-summer and the options for longer-distance hikes were slim, with little time to plan.
The Colorado Trail has it all: the 485-mile distance is a satisfying length for thru-hikers without the planning of a 2,000-mile hike. It has no tricky permit requirements, resupply options are frequent in friendly trail towns, and even the water sources are spaced well apart.
Aside from all of this, the Colorado Trail is absolutely stunning. The majority of the trail is above 10,000 feet. It has mile after mile of sweeping views, touches eight mountain ranges, and traverses remote wilderness areas. It would be a bucket-list hike for any year, and with the challenges of 2020, it became The Trail.
The Colorado Trail Foundation has acknowledged this, mentioning an increase in guidebook sales, calls requesting trail information, and an influx of hikers flooding hostels and small trail towns. Whether or not this aligns with current moral and social obligations regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is another story, but first impressions show towns along the trail posting highly visible “mask required” signs, and hikers respecting capacity policies, social distancing, and other health-related recommendations.
We ran into multiple groups of hikers at different points along the trail, and the majority of them mentioned the fallout from COVID-19 as the reason they were thru-hiking the CT. Most of the hikers hadn’t initially planned a 2020 Colorado Trail thru-hike. Some of them lost jobs and wound up with a lot of time on their hands; others had PCT and AT hikes cancelled.
“Everyone got screwed over with their plans, and different states having different rules,” said Silver Bullet, who was supposed to hike the Arizona Trail this spring. “The Colorado Trail was one of the only trails that made sense. The window came around when we had flexibility and regulations were easing up.”
Silver Bullet also mentioned the logistical ease and well-mapped terrain of the Colorado Trail, citing this as one of the reasons she was able to hike it with short-term planning.
“This was an easy trail to do spur-of-the-moment,” said Stardust, a SOBO hiker who had about 40 miles of her thru-hike remaining when we ran into her. “There are mask requirements in towns, but resupply hasn’t been hard.”
Most hikers mentioned that hitching has been harder than normal, but other than that, they haven’t noticed major impacts from the pandemic aside from more crowding in hostels and a higher number of hikers on the trail.
The morality of the situation is still in question. When COVID-19 swept through the country in early spring, cancelling thru-hikes became the right thing to do. A grassroots movement followed quickly by trail organizations asking hikers to stay away. We all know the pandemic is still here, whether or not people in the country are tired of it and are looking for a way to redeem their 2020 hiking season.
Are there ways to do this responsibly and safely? Will the sheer number of CT thru-hikers impact COVID numbers in Colorado towns? Those facts and figures aren’t out there, but for now, if you do hike the entire Colorado Trail, or travel to the trail to hike a section, do your best to follow all protocols, limit contact in towns, and be the best hiker you can be to respect the trail and communities around it.