Hiking the Colorado Trail: Segment 1 (part 1) Waterton Canyon

DENVER - Editor's Note: This is a blog about segment hiking the Colorado Trail. I am planning to hike the 485.8-mile trail over the next 10 years (that's 50 miles a year!) Because I prefer not to backpack, I am attempting to split the longer segments into shorter segments.

Colorado has lots of great trails to lakes, waterfalls, peaks and even one trail that stretches from Denver to Durango -- The Colorado Trail. First conceived in 1973, the trail is still a work in progress, as roads are replaced with trail. The trek has been divided into 28 segments stretching 485.8 miles.

I've decided to try hiking the Colorado Trail. At 50 miles a year, it'll take me about 10 years. However, some of the segments are longer than 20 miles. Because I'm not a strong backpacker and because I prefer hikes under 10 miles, I've decided to split the trail up as much as possible, starting with segment 1.

Segment 1 starts at Waterton Canyon and ends 16.8 miles later in South Platte Canyon. Because the segment is 16.8 miles, I decided to break it up into two days.

Segment 1 is unique in that it starts with a 6.2-mile trek on a dirt service road owned by Denver Water. The road is mostly flat and very popular with cyclists. I decided to bike the first 6.2 miles, then hike about 5.8 miles to a spot near the top of the ridge. Because I'm doing an out-and-back hike, that meant a total hike of about 11.6 miles and bike of about 12.4 miles. Crazy? Yes.

The trail starts at a big parking lot off Wadsworth Boulevard, south of C-470, near Lockheed Martin (directions below). There is a bathroom here and a sign that says Waterton Canyon and Colorado Trail Trailhead. Follow the crushed rock path a short distance to a large, dirt road and turn left. You're now heading into Waterton Canyon.

Waterton Canyon is a pleasant place. The road can be bumpy and rutted, but is mostly flat making for easy walking or cycling.

The road follows the South Platte River and is surrounded by high canyon walls.

While you enjoy the sound of the water crashing over the rocks and enjoy the scenery, keep your eyes pealed for bighorn sheep.

The sheep not only climb the canyons walls, they also come right down to the road and the river. Give them plenty of space though, you don't want to mess with a wild animal, especially one with horns that knows how to head butt and fight.

Just a quarter mile from the parking lot, you'll pass a bathroom on your left and a group of picnic tables on your right, this is the first of many picnic areas along the trail. There are at least four more picnic areas with bathrooms and other small picnic spots with just a table off the road.

About 3.4 miles from the parking lot, you'll come to a dam. This is a nice picnic spot and great place for a break.

After this, the road gets a bit steeper. Don't worry, there's only about 175 feet of elevation gain between the parking lot and the bike racks.

About 6.2 miles from the parking lot, you'll come to Strontia Springs Dam. The dam towers 243 feet above the streambed. It was put here to form a lake for Denver Water storage.

While you can't see the reservoir, the lake is 1.7-miles long with 98 surface acres. You can see the dam from the road, but a gate keeps you from getting closer.

At the dam there are more bathrooms, covered picnic tables and a bike rack. This is where I decided to lock my bike. You can bike the road a but further, and mountain bikers can bike the Colorado Trail, but it was too steep and tough for me to consider. That's why I used the bike rack here.

Now it was time to exchange my bike helmet for a hiking hat and hit the trail. The trail is still the access road for another 0.4 miles or so. Follow the road as it climbs and bends around a hill to a split. Here the Colorado Trail goes left and the road goes right.

This next section of trail is rockier, steeper and definitely doesn't get vehicle traffic. It's another 0.15 miles to a large sign telling hikers they have arrived at the Colorado Trail #1776. The sign says you're about 10 miles from the South Platte Townsite at the other end of segment 1.

The trail now becomes a single-track trail in the woods. You'll be hiking above the river and soon the switchbacks begin again. You'll be climbing about 500 feet in the next 1.1 miles to Lenny's Rest.

Lenny's Rest is a little clearing in the trees where the Colorado Trail meets the Indian Creek Trail and the Roxborough Park Trail. A bench here tells hikers that "Lenny" was Leonard John Southwell, an Eagle Scout who died at age 18 in a hiking accident. His brother installed the bench as his Eagle Scout project in 1996. This spot is a "rest" thanks to the bench, but there is no view.

After that climb, things are about to change. The Colorado Trail now drops in elevation 350 feet over the next 0.85 miles to Bear Creek.

Come in early spring and Bear Creek may be flowing and difficult to cross. You may end up getting your feet wet here. We actually had three interesting stream crossings in the next 0.2 miles.

After the third stream crossing, it's time to climb again. The low point here is at about 6,185 in elevation. The high point on the top of the ridge is 7,517, so you've got some climbing ahead.

For now, congratulate yourself on the stream crossings and start the switchbacks. This is a nice place where the trail just winds through the forest. Occasionally the trees open up and you'll get a view of the surrounding valley.

At 9.6 miles, just past the halfway point, we found ourselves in a bit of canyon with the Bear Creek next to the trail. This is a peaceful area where the trail mellows out a bit. However, it was too long before the trail started crisscrossing the creek again. There were another three water crossings in 0.2 miles. We got our feet wet at least once, some of us twice. Just a good reminder that if you come in spring, you may have a lot of water at these crossings. Come in fall and they'll likely be dry.

After the last creek crossing, about 10.3 miles in, we came to a sign that said trail "closed to motor vehicles." My Colorado Trail book explains that this was an old motorcycle trail in this area, but it's been closed for years and is now overgrown and had to find.

At this point, if you're doing a day hike, you should start thinking about turning around. Turning around here means you'll have a hike of about 13 miles roundtrip from the other side. We decided to keep going.

Another 0.7 miles we came to a small clearing in the trees on a ridge with remnants of a camp site. Once again, there were signs here that warned the Colorado Trail was "closed to motor vehicles." This is an ideal spot to turn around if you'd like a future hike of about 11.6 miles. We decided to go one more mile and turn around at a rocky outcropping at about 7,366 in elevation. This spot was 0.75 miles from the top of the ridge. That worked for me. That meant a 9-mile hike when I did "part 2."

When you've decided to turn around, head back the way you came.

Details: The bike portion is 6.2 miles to the bike rack, then the hike is as much as you want to do. I recommend hiking to a good turnaround spot -- the ridge with the campsite and motor vehicle signs (4.8 miles in), the rocky outcropping (5.8 miles in) or the top of the ridge (6.5 miles in).  I chose the rocky outcropping. My mileage for the ride and hike was 24.2 miles with 2,600 feet of elevation gain with all the ups and downs.

Of course, you can do a one-way hike or backpack of the entire 16.8-mile segment. Note, my GPS recorded it as 16.6 miles.

Directions: Google 11300 Waterton Road, Littleton, CO 80125. Or take the Wadsworth exit on C-470 and drive south 4.5 miles to where Wadsworrth ends and turn left on Waterton Road. Pass the Audubon Nature Center parking lot and turn left into the Waterton Canyon parking lot.

Read about hiking Segment 2 here. Find more Colorado adventures in our Discover Colorado section.

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