*Note: Waterton Canyon will be closed for for two extended periods in 2010 and 2011: 8/2/2010 - 12/3/2010 and 2/28/2011 - 12/31/2011. Alternate access to the first section of the Colorado Trail will be from the west leg of the Indian Creek loop. (from comba.org)
This section of the CT is undoubtedly the most travelled section both for hikers and mountain bikers. It is about 17 miles from the Waterton parking lot to the parking lot at South Platte. The first 6 miles up Waterton Canyon is especially crowded, and is likely to be filled with children and weaving pedestrians. Once you get to the Strontia dam, the trail begins it's upward journey for the next couple of miles up to the "sitting bench." If you turn left you will be on the Roxborough Loop, and if you continue on past the bench (downhill) you will be on the Colorado Trail. Only 460 miles to Durango!
The singletrack is pretty sweet on this part of the trail, although this first descent is almost the only downhill you will do for about the next 8 miles! You will encounter some pleasant forest covered trail, as well as some very rocky and technical uphill sections that are easier to walk than to ride. On long distance rides you are better off walking some places rather than exert too much energy. You have to save something for the trip back! Remember that as you plow into these steep hills...
Once over a couple of these rocky sections, you will head into the open-to-motorcycles section of the trail, and the rocks get bigger and the trail gets even harder. You WILL be walking parts of the trail here. Again, this is mostly uphill...although it does eventually level out somewhat. Overall, the grades are pretty easy on this trail and it is mostly ridable once you pass the motorcycle area. Then begins a long steady climb with rolling hills and great views as you head west towards South Platte.
At about mile 13 you will find yourself on the top of a rocky outcropping looking down on the river to the west. This is the beginning of the last descent. This one is MAJOR. If you want an easy day, turn around here and head back to Waterton. No one will think any less of you. However, if you are up for a challenge, you can complete this section of the CO Trail by heading down what is nearly a 4 mile descent straight down. Great fun as the trail is well maintained, and the switchbacks are all pretty ridable. Your hands will burn from using the breaks and holding on for dear life as you blaze down this trail and finally emerge at the river. As you turn around, you will be shocked at how far you dropped! Congratulations, you have just completed section 1 of the Colorado Trail!
It is best to carry a water filter, as you might find yourself on the edge of your water allowance on the return trip. This is important as now you are looking at a 4 mile climb to get out of the valley and get back to Waterton! After a rest, you can begin the ascent and hopefully survive the climb without too much walking (some of the switchbacks are a bit tricky when going uphill). Note the joy on the faces of those downhillers speeding by you, and remember a happier time when that was you! Honestly, the grade is not terrible and although long, most of this ascent is not that bad. If you do OK on Mt. Falcon or Deer Creek, you will probably have no trouble here.
Now, once you knock out that climb, you are looking at a great ride back towards Waterton. For the first several miles you have rolling singletrack that is a pure joy to coast down. I would estimate that for about 5 miles the trail is rolling singletrack, until it eventually goes back into the motorcycle area. Going down is much easier, despite the large rocks in the trail. You will also be able to go down the steeper hills at the end of this stretch if you don't mind loose, steep, rocky trail. At the very end, you will have one last ascent that can be a bit of a burner after all you've been through to this point (about 25 miles of trail behind you). When done, you will be back up to the resting bench...at which point it is all downhill and dirt road back to Waterton parking lot. Total mileage should be around 34 miles to do the out and back.