Mountain Mettle: Life Lessons from The Colorado Trail

John McKinney and Samantha Mills take a break at the high point of the trail. Photo: John McKinney

John McKinney and Samantha Mills take a break at the high point of the trail. Photo: John McKinney

By Preston Morse

The Colorado Trail is a 567-mile backcountry behemoth, spanning from the outskirts of Denver to the northern tip of Durango. It winds through some of the most beautiful country in North America, crossing six wilderness areas, eight mountain ranges, five river systems and topping out at over 13,000 feet. It’s home to elk, moose, bear, marmots, weasels, waterfalls and acre upon acre of stunning wildflowers. Thru-hiking this beast isn’t for the meek, but if you’ve got the guts and grit, and a month of free time, you can hang your hat with those who’ve gone the distance.

One hat you’ll find hanging on that wall belongs to John McKinney. By day he’s the sales and operations planning manager for Tivoli Brewing Co., but his passion is in wilderness. McKinney has thru-hiked the trail twice and is just 100 miles short of completing it again by section. He’s also conquered The Pacific Crest, The Appalachian and a big ol’ chunk of The Continental Divide.

Through his teen years McKinney became an avid backpacker and when adulthood handed him lemons he made lemonade. “When I was laid-off from my job in 2011 my thoughts immediately turned to The Colorado Trail,” he said. “I decided I may not have a chance to hike it all if I didn’t seize this moment when I didn’t have any true responsibilities.” 

He hit the trail solo, admittedly unsure and a bit scared, but gained confidence as he covered ground. “By the time I got to Breckenridge I knew I could finish the whole thing. By the time I finished I felt like I could do anything, knew I could do anything, and wanted to do more.”

The next summer he tackled The Pacific Crest Trail, covering more than 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not reminded of what The Colorado Trail taught me about myself. I’m a better person because of it and I’m still learning its lessons.”

McKinney’s biggest take-away is the outlook he’s adopted in everyday life. “One of the most rewarding things about the trail is this sense of stillness that you get. It really changes your perspective on a lot of things,” McKinney said. “You see someone stressed out about something and you’re just like ‘Hey, it’s okay, man. This isn’t a matter of survival. You’ll get through this just fine.”

A view of Taylor Lake in the La Plata Mountains on Colorado Trail Segment 27 is shown. Photo courtesy of The Colorado Trail Foundation

A view of Taylor Lake in the La Plata Mountains on Colorado Trail Segment 27 is shown. Photo courtesy of The Colorado Trail Foundation

Like McKinney, many people on the trail are soul searching. He’s met everyone from the perpetually homeless to NASA astronauts. “Socioeconomics don’t apply in the wilderness. You could have thousands of dollars worth of gear or you could have a used sleeping bag with a tarp and you’d probably have an equal chance of success.” McKinney said. “It’s a diverse group of people but they all have one thing in common, they’re either searching for something or running away from something.” 

Another thing they all have in common is food. “After a couple days on the trail people start fantasizing about food, a lot,” he said. “There’s two kinds of people you’ll realize when you’re out there. There’s cheeseburger people and there’s pizza people.”  

McKinney completed the trail again in 2016, this time with his girlfriend, Samantha Mills. In the five-year span between his excursions there was a dramatic increase in traffic. The Colorado Trail Foundation tracks the number of hikers through its completer certificate program. In 2015, the CTF issued 280 certificates, just one year later that number spiked to 350.

Neither McKinney or Bill Manning, the executive director of the CTF, are upset about the increase.

“People enjoy a very large benefit from these adventures,” Manning said. “There’s hardship along the way, no doubt, and they have to meet and succeed with that to finish the trail. When they get done they are changed for the better.”

Manning, along with office manager Amy Nelson, run the foundation from a one-room headquarters within the Colorado Mountaineering Center in Golden. The CTF works in cooperation with the National Forest Service and is solely responsible for the upkeep of the trail, relying on volunteers each year to provide the manpower. In 2016, 618 volunteers put in a combined 21,527 hours building and maintaining the Colorado Trail. 

It’s been over four decades since crews first broke ground on The Colorado Trail and Manning has nothing but promise for the future. “Just like with any other non-profit, our effort is hard to sustain, but we’re doing very, very well. We’re experiencing good times, right now.”

Those with the gusto for a thru-hike or who are considering volunteering should remember to pack light, wear sunscreen and keep an open mind. “The Colorado Trail changed my life and changed the way I look at a lot of things,” McKinney said. “Some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life are on The Colorado Trail.”

Preston Morse is a recovering flatlander whose appreciation for good beer and everything outdoors lit his path to Colorado.