My wife and I just moved to Buena Vista, CO and want to know how necessary it is to have an SUV with AWD to get to trailheads. We’d prefer a sedan or hatchback for better fuel efficiency, but don’t want to miss out on lots of hiking opportunities — or spend a lot of time hiking up roads to get to trails.
AWD (All Wheel Drive) is available in many small cars and 'cross over' vehicles. You don't need to choose an SUV to have it.
Note that Four Wheel Drive (4WD or 4X4) is different then AWD. If you don't know which you need, than choose AWD. (Why would be a separate question and answer) Think of it like the difference between manual and automatic transmissions. It takes special training and experience to correctly operate a manual transmission and/or 4WD.
Once you have a couple of vehicles picked that might work for you, a consideration for off road use is ground clearance. Big vehicle usually = more ground clearance. For the most part in real life with AWD, more ground clearance = higher speeds across obstacles, like potholes.
If you go slow and drive around big holes or obstacles you can take your small 'cross over' most places a full size SUV will go. Exceptions are deep mud, and anything higher (or deeper) than you ground clearance.
The big help that AWD gives is power to more of the tires on the ground. There are lots of options and differences, but in general a two wheel drive car, might really only have power going to one (front or back) tire which has the least traction. This can mean while turning around at the trail head, if you get a drive tire on a slightly slopped wet grassy area, you could get stuck. With AWD you have power going to at least one front and one back tire. Drastically lower the chances of getting stuck.
Even a two wheel drive car can go most places where it has traction and ground clearance.
There are no absolutes, and many, many different options. AWD is like insurance, a great option that provides peace of mind. With care and caution you don't need it, most of the time. But those times that you do are well worth the upgrade.
How necessary it is to have an SUV with AWD for trailheads in Collegiate Peaks, Upper Ark River Valley?
It is not necessary at all. If you can't get there with 2 wheel drive, don't try to get there with AWD. When in doubt stop and go back. AWD (used conservatively) drastically reduces the chances you will have to get towed or walk home. Keep in mind most tow insurance (i.e. Auto Club) will not cover "off road" recovery.
In over 40 years of getting to trailheads across the US, I've used a variety of vehicles.
(1) Classic 1970's era rear wheel drive US-made station wagons. These sufficed to get a load of people and gear up forest roads in good road conditions (no major ruts, some washboarding) and good weather conditions (mainly summers, no thick layers of mud). Examples include up to Mt. Khatadin, up into many ranges in the Rockies (Wind Rivers, Sawtooths, etc.). Generally reasonably trafficked forest roads, low chances of being stuck out there for any length of time.
(2) 1988 VW Golf, front wheel drive hatchback, manual transmission. By virtue of a stiffer suspension, shorter wheelbase, and the front wheel drive, this vehicle went up steeper/rockier/more rutted roads than I would ever have taken a classic station wagon. I happily took it into much-less traveled areas with a reasonable expectation that I could get back. Some roads were bad enough that I actually searched (with no luck) for a vendor of a skid plate, but I never scraped anything off the bottom. Limited ground clearance, but better than the old wagons.
(3) 2003 Honda CR-V with on-demand all-wheel-drive, manual transmission. Several inches more ground clearance than the Golf. All wheel drive helped on mud and snow/slush. (Note on AWD: on-demand means that a front wheel has to slip before any power gets transferred to the rear - you can feel it kick in. Full-time AWD, such as Subaru, means power to all the wheels all the time, so you don't have to start to slip to get power to all wheels.) I never got the CR-V stuck, even in multiple inches of mud/standing water that managed to snag a 4x4 F-350 here and there (may have just been luck and the line picked through the water/mud). Not quite enough ground clearance on several trips, each time taking out the evap filter - not a major issue but did cost some $$ to get it reattached. Definitely a step up from the Golf though, and it got me even more places, including some that I probably should not have taken it.
(4) 2018 Toyota TRD Off Road 4x4, automatic transmission. 3+ more inches of ground clearance (stock) than the CR-V. Full 4x4 including low range and locking rear differential. Other off-road goodies like crawl control for difficult terrain. No concerns at all yet taking it places the CR-V would really not have liked. Manual shift mode for the transmission means I don't miss a full manual and still have the control I want. Much higher payload rating, available volume, and towing capacity. Seating room is larger, cab is much quieter than the CR-V at highway speeds. Lots of nice safety features. So far it hasn't gone anywhere it should not have, since I haven't found a forest road that it should not go on yet, even in a variety of weather conditions. Gas mileage is not as good as the CR-V though. Considered worthwhile tradeoffs as interest has shifted more towards longer trips through remote areas, not so much just getting to trailheads.
So, you can get to the trailheads in any number of vehicles, depending on conditions and your risk appetite. With snow/ice/mud/rocks as anticipated common driving conditions, these days I would recommend at least an AWD vehicle, with many to choose from (remember to check on clearances!). Full 4x4 is not necessarily needed, but does offer more peace of mind (whether that leads you further astray or not is either a feature or a bug). Further, either 4x4 or AWD will make life in the Rockies a bit nicer just getting to the store or to work in the winter.
I have been an obsessive eastern peakbagger for almost a decade. That means a lot of the summits my partners and I now visit are lost extremely deep in the woods of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Quebec. Most of the summits I now climb are bushwhacks the entire way from the trailhead, and those trailheads are often along logging roads and trails that can vary in quality depending on how recent the logging has been in that particular area. Here's my experience with different types of vehicles in the backroads.
First case: KIA Forte Hatchback
I had been content with my daily driver for a few years, having been blocked by a washout only once (having to add 20km to the hike) and that was just because of the specific configuration of that washout. The main advantage to driving a FWD car with low clearance is that it will make you a proficient backroads driver. I had no other options other than finesse and wheel placement and this is more important than clearance only. That KIA has gone farther than some people with SUVs are willing to go. You can push a car pretty far without damage but where FWD cars will fail is when the road gets muddy and slippery or so rough that the rear wheels getting stuck in potholes will actually hinder the front wheels' grip. This summer I went through a really worn trail and at some point there was about 4 feet of air under the car in between the wheels on a badly eroded hill. You will certainly build confidence the more you drive.
Second case: Modded Nissan XTerra
Last year I bought a used Nissan XTerra with skid plate, 3” lift kit, and 31” tires. This is a really good offroad SUV with full 4X4 capabilities. It goes through anything. It turns out though that I never use the X. It costs too much gas money so I usually carpool with someone else if we’re going really deep. We usually convoy to the trailheads and if the road gets too rough for the least capable vehicles, we then pool up.
Third case: Crossovers
I have ridden in 3 different vehicles owned by other people. One of my friends has a Jeep Wrangler and while we can go pretty much anywhere with that, it’s as costly as my X to run. Another two of my friends each have last generation Subaru Outbacks, and this is the model that has impressed me the most. We have driven uphill (10%+ inclines) on completely washed out roads where nothing but watermelon-sized river rocks remain with minimal rubbing. Those vehicles are stock, no mods.
Then there is one of my other friends who has a Subaru Crosstrek. That small crossover SUV is probably the most capable in its class. It has such good ground clearance straight out of the factory you can go really deep on disused roads without worry. If you get the version with the CVT and X-mode, it will go through horrible stuff easily. You can even get lift kits (https://lpaventure.com/collections/crosstrek-2018/products/lp-aventure-lift-kit-subaru-crosstrek-2018). It has roughly the same gas mileage as other hatchbacks.
So most definitely you don’t need to buy a full-on SUV. Some decent crossovers exist that can do the job and for the majority of trailheads, a regular car would do just fine.