It Takes a Village

How Hikers and Mountain Towns Help Each Other on the Colorado Trail

The treads of my trail runners had worn down to the nub after only a few weeks of backpacking. It was the summer of 2016, and I was thru-hiking the 500-mile Colorado Trail, a remote path through the Rockies between Denver and Durango.

Touted as “mile for mile, the most beautiful trail in America,” the CT traverses five major river systems, six national forests, six wilderness areas, and eight mountain ranges, climbing roughly 90,000 feet in total elevation.

By the time I reached mile 175, I was wiped out mentally and physically. It had been a long day of strenuous hiking. I flipped through The Colorado Trail Databook — the definitive pocket guide for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders — to find a fabled shortcut to Twin Lakes, a mountain village of less than 30 residents. My hiker hunger had turned into an obsessive craving for bananas and chocolate. A cold beer sounded amazing, too. Word on the trail was you could find these goodies and more at the Twin Lakes General Store.

I lost my footing on the steep shortcut trail and took a digger. Dust coated every inch of my body, sticking to sweat, sunscreen, and my newly scraped elbow. The spur trail eventually spit me out at Highway 82. Hugging the road’s shoulder, I walked down fence rows and past a string of log cabins when a thing of beauty appeared — Twin Lakes General Store, its front doors propped open, wide and welcoming.

Dirty and stinking, I stepped into the mercantile. With a filthy hand, I reached for one perfectly yellow banana, placed it on the counter, and paid the friendly cashier. Like an animal, I ripped through the peel and devoured the fruit in a few bites. I nearly cried it tasted so good.

The old store was an oasis. I pulled a favorite beer from the cooler and pressed the ice-cold can against my temple. The shelves were stocked with everything a hiker could need — stove fuel, wet wipes, dehydrated meals, essential gear. I bought potato chips and a Hershey’s chocolate bar, and took my loot to the outdoor seating area where I joined fellow hikers. Unshouldering our heavy packs, we sat at an actual table, on sturdy chairs with back support. Hallelujah. We shared stories and sipped beers, blissed out and deeply grateful for trail town fare and community.

Why Hikers Go

A thru-hike can be a time of introspection, a quest for purpose, a test of endurance, a celebration of nature. For some, it marks a rite of passage. Back in 1981, David Fanning and his wife, Carol, had recently graduated from Colorado State University. “Let’s put all our stuff in storage for the summer and go for a hike,” David had said to his young bride, suggesting an epic outdoor adventure before they headed east to graduate school. “Let’s do the length of Colorado.”

Years before the Colorado Trail existed, David had pieced together his own route that followed the Continental Divide from the Wyoming border to New Mexico. He admitted they were lost most of the time. David’s backpack weighed a staggering 75 pounds, Carol’s weighed 55, and it rained 34 of the 40 days it took the couple to hike across Colorado. “We decided that if we could survive that hike, we could make our marriage work,” David said, and they were right. The experience not only deepened their commitment to each other, it cemented their love of the mountains, and they returned after grad school to make Colorado their home.

Twin Lakes General Store

Twin Lakes General Store. Photo by Bob Mathes.

Then 10 years ago, Carol faced a potentially life-threatening illness.

“We talked about what we had left undone, what we wanted to do still,” David remembered, eyes welling with emotion. His list included backpacking again through Colorado’s high country. “I always felt like we had more time.”

Fortunately, they did. Carol’s condition was treatable. And today, David has successfully thru-hiked the Colorado Trail seven times since his wife’s health scare. “I’ve been walking in gratitude ever since.”

Compared to his 1981 trek, David now carries a substantially lighter pack on a well-marked and maintained route, and it takes him about 33 days to hike the CT’s 500 miles.

“Taking one month out of my life to have a spiritual experience in the San Juans is worth doing every year,” David said. He feels that hiking the CT not only benefits his own mental health, it improves his relationships with others. “I come back a better husband, a better father, a better person because I’ve had that time alone to think about how grateful I am for my life.”

David described his first CT thru-hike in 2014 as a remarkable experience where he forged deep connections with unlikely friends. To answer the question, “What draws people to hike the CT?” he wrote the book Voices of the Colorado Trail.

“I’ve interviewed about 200 people, and I don’t think I’ve heard the same story twice,” David said.

“I keep going because I can go,” he added. “There will be a time when that’s not possible. So, I’ll keep hiking the Colorado Trail until I can’t anymore.”

The Value of Trail Towns to Thru-Hikers

In order for David and other thru-hikers to complete the CT, they rely on mountain towns to resupply them along the way. Some of the most popular support towns on the Colorado Trail include Bailey, Breckenridge, Leadville, Twin Lakes, Buena Vista, Salida, Creede, Lake City, Silverton, and Durango at the official trail’s end. These small towns allow thruhikers to do more than restock their packs and replace broken or lost gear. Trail towns let them shower. Do laundry. Buy a slice of pizza. Check the weather forecast. Sleep in a bed at a hotel or hostel.

I appreciate those people and I want to support local business whereI can. The [Twin Lakes] general store is just terrific.” — David Fanning

Dan Fanning by the Colorado Trail

David Fanning takes a break on the Colorado Trail. Photo by David Fanning.

David tries to spend money when he gets to a trail town. “I appreciate those people,” he said, “and I want to support local business where I can.” Every year, he eats an ice cream sandwich in Lake City, and stops in Salida to enjoy a few relaxing days with Carol on the town’s riverwalk. A pit stop in Twin Lakes is always a must. “The general store is just terrific.”

Bob Likes Backpackers Best

Twin Lakes General Store — a staple of Lake County for more than 145 years — is open Memorial Day through the first week of November. Last summer, a record 80,000 tourists descended on the tiny historic village. Most were not thru-hikers.

Yet the store’s website proclaims, “Welcome Backpackers! You are our favorite customers … and we hope you feel at home when you arrive in Twin Lakes along your journey.”

“Hikers aren’t my favorite because they spend the most,” owner Bob Mathes clarified. “Hikers are my favorite because I relate to them. I respect them. I get why they’re on the trail.”

In his younger days, Bob hiked segments of the Colorado Trail, Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail. He also bicycled across the U.S. from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He eventually settled down, started a family, and spent decades building his career as an international marketing consultant for the tourism industry.

Longing for a simpler life in the mountains, Bob built a cabin in Twin Lakes as a second home in the 1990s. After a divorce and personal health crisis, he quit his job, sold everything, and moved to Twin Lakes full time, buying the general store in 2018. Today, Bob is an official trail adopter who maintains local sections of the CT, and his employees have hiked all or parts of the Colorado Trail.

Zero Day Coffee and Gear is a Leadville business that honors and supports thru-hiker culture. Photo by Zero Day Coffee & Gear. Follow @zerodayleadville on Instagram.

When a hiker walks into Twin Lakes General Store, “we know who you are,” Bob said. He and his staff admire all thru-hikers, smelly or not. The 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail joins the Colorado Trail for 300 miles near Twin Lakes, and Bob and his team pride themselves on providing the best trail intel possible. “Twin Lakes is a junction where thru-hikers have to make a choice about which route to take next,” he said. “We stock the latest guidebooks and spend a lot of time helping hikers make informed decisions.”

In the six years Bob has owned the general store, he said the number of visitors to Twin Lakes has easily doubled. He feels protective of thru-hikers and trail towns alike.

“Thru-hikers are walking through history on the Colorado Trail,” he added. “They’re walking through mining towns from the Wild West. And hopefully, when they walk into a trail town like ours, they still feel that inspiration. The exploration. The adventure. Because that’s really what it’s all about — you want them to feel the Old West. Mountain towns are trying to preserve that character despite tremendous pressure to grow.”

The Value of Thru-Hikers in Leadville

Adam Ducharme, tourism director for Lake County, which includes Twin Lakes and Leadville, agreed with Bob.

“We’re a mining community, not a resort community. We have rough edges, yet a deep appreciation for the outdoors,” he said. “Protecting that identity is a big focus of my job.”

Adam, who completed the Colorado Trail in 2016, described thru-hikers as critically important to Leadville’s culture and summer economy. One thru-hiker, he said, will spend an average of $200 a night in Leadville on things like meals, laundry, lodging, and resupply. According to his office, 70% of Leadville’s sales tax revenue comes from commercial business, and many of these local companies — such as Melanzana outdoor apparel, Nunatak ultralight gear, Inn the Clouds Hostel, Leadville Outdoors and Mountain Market, Mountain Laundry, and Zero Day Coffee and Gear (founded by thru-hikers) — were built to support trail culture.

Columbines at Kenosha Pass on the Colorado Trail. Photo by Becky Jensen.

But it’s not about the money. Lake County residents, including Adam, often gift thru-hikers free food and coffee at Zero Day and shuttle them to and from nearby Tennessee Pass trailhead with no strings attached.

“More than dollars and cents, Leadville’s gritty history informs our deep respect for thru-hikers,” Adam explained. “Because we push ourselves to do hard things every day at an elevation above 10,000 feet, our community has a massive amount of respect for thru-hikers who do the same.”

Many Happy Returns

Although the number of David’s repeat thru-hikes is exceptional, his desire to revisit the Colorado Trail is not unique. According to Bob, thru-hikers often return to his village with friends and families in tow. Bob also sees more and more thru-hikers come back to get engaged or married on the Colorado Trail. “It’s happened in Twin Lakes more than a dozen times in the last few years.”

Thru-hikers are walking through history on the Colorado Trail. They’re walking through mining towns from the Wild West. And hopefully, when they walk into a trail town like ours, they still feel that inspiration.” — Bob Mathes, owner of Twin Lakes General Store

The phenomenon makes sense to Bob. “If you’re a business or community that caters to hikers and tries to help them, you become a small part of this huge life adventure, and they remember you. You’re part of an important chapter in their Colorado Trail story.”

David, as an author, relishes those chapters. Every year, he continues to forge new relationships and document his experiences on the Colorado Trail. “Sometimes I think I should get a life,” David said about hiking the CT for the eighth time at age 72. “But this is the life,” he reflected. “I can’t imagine not being on the Colorado Trail this summer.”

Becky Jensen is a writer and podcast contributor who lives and works in a little cabin on a big river in Northern Colorado. She’s finishing her memoir about thru-hiking the Colorado Trail and plans to hike it again this summer with her son, Jake. You can find her at

Find more information about the Colorado Trail, including official guidebooks and Voices of the Colorado Trail by David Fanning at