Denver: Six of the Best Hikes, from a Local

Hiking on the Pawnee Pass Trail.
Hiking on the Pawnee Pass Trail.

Six Sensational Day Hikes Near Denver, Colorado

By Rich Grant (“Mr. Denver”)

Sure, Colorado has 53 peaks that soar to 14,000 feet elevation, and another 637 that climb to 13,000 feet.  There are four National Parks, eight National Monuments, 11 National Forests and 39,000 miles of trails.

Brainard Lake, Colorado. Rich Grant photos.
Brainard Lake, Colorado. Rich Grant photos.

But what if you only have one day? With so many trails near Denver, it can be mind-boggling trying to choose a place for just a nice, short, relatively easy day hike in the Rocky Mountains – a hike that will also punch over its weight and knock your socks off.

So here are six-day hikes that deliver incredible scenery and adventure for the relatively little workout that are all within a 90-minute drive (or much less) from downtown Denver hotel rooms.

All of these hikes are popular, so arrive early, and of course, obey all the common sense hiking rules:bring water, some snacks, rain protection, sun protection, good boots, and head back to the car if a thunderstorm approaches.

Lake Isabelle

Ounce for ounce, this is probably the most scenic hike on the Front Range.Since the hike is in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area, there is a day use fee of $11.(National Park annual and senior passes are accepted).

The limited parking spots at the Pawnee Pass trailhead fill up early, but there’s overflow parking about a half mile away, which adds a pleasant flat stroll around Brainard Lake to the hike.

Once on the Pawnee Pass Trail, follow the trail signs to Isabelle Glacier.The first mile of the trail is nearly level as it skirts around scenic Long Lake, before entering a series of switchbacks that climb for a mile, crossing South Saint Vrain Creek a couple of times, and passing through meadows.

There’s another short, steep climb by a waterfall before you find yourself at the lake, with a drop-dead panorama of the Indian Peaks as a backdrop.The trail continues to climb for another scenic, but steep, 2.3 miles to Isabelle Glacier, but many hikers are satisfied stopping by the lake.

Make sure to hop across stones over South Saint Vrain Creek to check out the far shores of Lake Isabelle, which are less crowded and offer better photo opportunities.On your trip down, back at the trailhead, circle the paved road around Brainard Lake.This adds about a mile of flat hiking, but it cuts through prime moose viewing terrain.It is a rare day where you don’t see some moose in this area.

Sprague Lake

Rocky Mountain National Park is only 71 miles from Denver, so of course, it gets literally millions of visitors each year.The most popular hike is to punch up from Bear Lake on a trail climbing to three high alpine lakes, Nymph, Dream, and Emerald.

The trail is gorgeous but very crowded.Often overlooked is Sprague Lake, which offers only a half-mile flat trail around the manmade pond, but for views and pictures?Unbeatable.

The lake is shallow, has its own parking lot, is filled with picturesque anglers in gaiters and often acts as a reflecting pool.

For a real hike, try the less crowded 5-mile roundtrip to Mills Lake.It begins at Glacier Gorge.The trail is packed until pretty Alberta Falls, after which the traffic reduces and trail offers simply spectacular views up the valley.

The hike ends at a large lake where people can spread out.

It is particularly beautiful in fall since it passes through stands of aspens.The lake was named after Enos Mills, one of the leading conservationists who helped create the national park in 1915; they couldn’t have picked a nicer spot to honor him.

Eldorado Canyon State Park

Eldorado Canyon State Park has trails for hikers all year long!
Eldorado Canyon State Park has trails for hikers all year long!

The park is known worldwide as one of the great technical rock climbing areas in North America with many sheer 500-foot-high walls.

But you can leave the ropes at home and still have an amazing short hike on the 2-mile-long Fowler Trail, which follows an old abandoned narrow-gauge railroad path, cutting through rock walls instead of going up them.

With a cheap pair of strap-on ice cleats, you can do this trail year-round, and it’s especially magnificent after a snowfall when the trees in the canyon are frosted with white.

From the trail, you can watch climbers defy gravity as they scale the cliffs on the other side of the canyon.Ike and Mamie Eisenhower spent their honeymoon here, and the old Eldorado Springs Hot Springs pool at the entrance to the park is still open in summer.

Roxborough State Park

Everyone knows Red Rocks Amphitheatre, but a larger and perhaps more spectacular section of the same type of red sandstone outcroppings is preserved at this state park, just a short drive southwest of Denver.

The 2.3- mile loop Fountain Valley Trail winds around, though, and to viewpoints in this amazing geological wonder. There’s only mild elevation gain, as you get lost in this quiet, other world, surrounded by 300- and 400-foot-high red rocks.

Dogs are not allowed because in this natural area there are regular sightings of deer, elk, red fox, rattlesnakes, and even bears.

It’s something of a shock as you leave the park to drive through surrounding housing developments on the way back to Denver, but fortunately, you can’t see them from the trail.

Another nearly level trail starts nearby at Waterton Canyon and strolls 6 miles along the South Platte River on a dirt road that is closed to cars.

You’ll see anglers, bighorn sheep (they live here and are a daily presence), bike riders and joggers, but no dogs.Because of wildlife, dogs are not allowed in the canyon.

Mount Evans, M. Walter Pesman Trail

This 3-mile-roundtrip trail was created by a partnership of the Denver Botanic Gardens and the National Forest Service and is different because it starts at an elevation of 11,540 feet in a forest of twisted Bristlecone Pines, many of which are 1,000 to 2,000 years old.Gnarled and broken, Bristlecone pines are among the oldest living things on earth and thrive in harsh conditions at the edge of timberline.

Bristlecone Pine trees in Colorado.
Bristlecone Pine trees in Colorado.

The trail (only open in summer) winds through the Bristlecones and past colorful wildflowers that can be found only above timberline or in the upper tundra of Alaska.

Access to the trail is from the Mount Evans Highway, the highest paved road in North America that climbs to the 14,260-foot summit.Bring plenty of water and expect to be winded easily while hiking at this altitude.But that’s okay.

Slow down and appreciate the tiny flowers all around you, listen for the shrill whistle of marmots signaling a warning to their friends that you are approaching, and enjoy the views.

It is especially important to wear sunscreen at this altitude since the atmosphere provides much less protection from the sun.

Common sense says to start at the lower elevation and hike up so that when you’re tired, it’s all downhill getting back to the car.

Golden, Colorado

Golden is the closest mountain town to Denver, located just 12 miles from the current State Capitol, but the historic village (it was the first capital of Colorado Territory) is surrounded by hiking opportunities.

To the east are rugged 70-million-year-old volcanic buttes; to the west, the foothills of the Rockies rise up sharply; and through the center of the town flows Clear Creek, a gorgeous stream with more than 20 miles of paved walking and biking trails along its banks.Choices are everywhere.

Hike up the short, but very steep, South Table Mountain to the butte featured in the Coors Beer logo.The world’s largest brewery is located at the base of the cliffs surrounding this mesa, where the bones of the first T-Rex dinosaur were discovered.

Alternatively, North Table Mountain is looped by a five-mile trail that offers herds of deer on the flat top mesa and stunning views of Denver in the distance.

To the west, a trail leads from the edge of downtown up Mount Zion (recognized by the big white “M” for the Colorado School of Mines) and on past Windy Saddle up Lookout Mountain, the final resting place of Buffalo Bill Cody.

You can climb to his gravesite or visit the museum honoring the West’s most famous frontier scout and showman.

This is not an easy climb and might be better done by car where you can snake up the Lariat Loop Trail, a road that curls and switchbacks climbing 1,351 feet in just 5.2 miles.

Easier and more fun is to hike along Clear Creek, which in summer is packed with hundreds of tubers floating down the idyllic stream over manmade river chutes.

You can rent tubes in town, or visit the Golden Bike Library, which checks out free bikes for two hours.Either way, you can have a daytime adventure in the mountains, and save your energy for the nightlife in Denver.

Links

Brainard Lake Recreation 

Rocky Mountain National Park

Eldorado Canyon

Roxborough State Park

Mount Goliath Natural Area

City of Golden

WANT MORE?

The State of Colorado recently created an online map that shows all 39,000 miles of trails in the state. Access it here:https://trails.colorado.gov/

Rich Grant. Mr DenverRich Grant is a freelance travel writer in Denver, Colorado and a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and the North American Travel Journalists Association. He has a blog, www.WalkingAndDrinkingBeer.com, and is, along with Irene Rawlings, co-author of “100 Things to Do in Denver Before You Die,” published by Reedy Press, second edition coming out in August 2018.

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