Outdoors

Best Colorado Backpacking Routes for Beginner and Seasoned Hikers

Lost Lake via Hessie Trail.
Lost Lake via Hessie Trail. Abigail Bliss
As the snow melts and summer wildflowers bloom, Colorado hikers are ready for this season’s outdoor adventures. While the options range from easy to moderate to hard, the scenery alone provides motivation to push your boundaries and try new skill levels.

Here are eight scenic routes that are perfect for beginners as well as seasoned hikers:

Lost Lake via Hessie Trail
Nederland
Moderate, 4 miles out and back

With its short duration and water access, the trek to Lost Lake via Hessie Trail is a great introduction to Colorado backpacking. Major draws to this route include its year-round access, stunning scenery and the ability to swim in Lost Lake — but be prepared for a very cold dip!

Because of its popularity and limited parking, a free shuttle to the trailhead runs Friday-Sunday during peak season; leashed dogs are welcome on the shuttle as well as the trail. After a moderate ascent, you’ll find eight designated campsites around the Lake. Overnight permits are not required, and use is first come, first served. Arrive early or visit during less crowded times to snag a spot.

Ouzel Lake Trail
Allenspark
Moderate, 10 miles out and back

Located in Rocky Mountain National Park, Ouzel Lake Trail is a hidden gem that takes hikers through the remote Wild Basin. There are several trails in this area, each suitable for backpacking. But the journey to Ouzel Lake is especially ideal for beginners, having a moderate elevation gain of 1,680 feet.

With an Entrance Pass and Wilderness Permit, camping is available at Ouzel Lake, but those new to backpacking may prefer to pitch a tent at Pine Ridge, a campground found on the trail’s 1.4-mile marker. With your lighter pack, you can then make the push to Ouzel Lake, admiring lush wildflowers and the breathtaking Ouzel Falls along the way.

Cascade Creek Trail to Crater Lake and Lone Eagle Peak
Tabernash
Hard, 16 miles out and back

Though not the easiest route on our list, beginners may be inspired to put in a little extra effort to witness the iconic views of Lone Eagle Peak. Although it's tucked away in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, backpacking to this location is highly popular. Reserve one of the twelve available campsites by obtaining an overnight permit, which is required from June through September.

On your hike, you’ll experience dramatic scenery, including several waterfalls, creek crossings and a large wildflower meadow. Moose and other woodland creatures are abundant in the area, so be on the lookout for wildlife, and be sure to keep your distance!

Mount Margaret Trail
Red Feather Lakes
Easy, 7.2 miles out and back

Unlike on most Colorado trails, hikers summit Mount Margaret by descent. However, that does make the second leg of the trip the more challenging portion. But when it comes to backpacking, that’s actually a good thing, as your pack contains less food and water weight on your return. Plus, Mount Margaret Trail is rated as easy, gaining just 540 feet in elevation.

With gradual ascents, several established campsites and plenty of shade, it’s a great pick for the whole family, young children included. Dogs are also permitted and may even be off-leash, but keep a close eye on them. Bears and other wildlife are often spotted in the area, so remember to store food appropriately.

Mountain Lion Trail
Pinecliffe
Moderate, 6.9-mile loop

One of many great hikes near Denver, Mountain Lion Trail takes backpackers on an epic loop through Golden Gate Canyon State Park. A $10 fee is required to enter the park, and an $18 Backcountry Campsite permit is required. But undoubtedly, the nominal costs are worth the views.

On this scenic loop, you’ll experience several creek crossings, climb switchbacks to Windy Peak, and trek through beautiful groves of aspen. Backpackers can choose between primitive campsites at Deer Creek and Forgotten Valley; both still have plenty of availability this summer season.
click to enlarge Sand Ramp Trail - ABIGAIL BLISS
Sand Ramp Trail
Abigail Bliss
Sand Ramp Trail
Gardner
Moderate, 6.7 miles out and back

Though sand isn’t the easiest of terrains to navigate, Sand Ramp Trail is a great choice for backpacking beginners, having just 500 feet of elevation gain. The trail rises and swells, and on this journey, the Great Sand Dunes are in full view, contrasted by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

With an Entrance Pass and Backcountry Permit, you can pitch a tent at one of the seven designated sites along the trail. Beginners may prefer Escape Dunes, found near the 3-mile marker and shaded by ponderosa pines. Not far from reliable water sources, Indian Grove and Little Medano are also good options.

Buffalo Peaks Loop
Fairplay
Hard, 11.6-mile loop

Beginners seeking solitude should look to Buffalo Peaks Loop, found in central Colorado’s 41,000-acre Buffalo Peaks Wilderness. Hike counterclockwise for a more gradual elevation gain, and enjoy the wide variety of sights, including evergreen forests, mountain meadows, waterfalls and several crossings over Tumble Creek.

Dispersed camping is found all along the route. The Buffalo Creek campsites are a popular choice, found near the middle of the loop, as are established sites with direct water access, such as those near waterfalls and the shaded Tumble Creek fork. Wilderness regulations apply here; as always, leave no trace.

Upper Cataract Lake Trail
Silverthorne
Moderate, 10.2 miles out and back

Another lesser-known trail, Upper Cataract Lake is best known for its summer wildflowers, fall colors and high alpine lakes. The trail enters the Eagles Nest Wilderness, and to protect local resources, special regulations apply. Be sure to grab a registration form at the trailhead.

The first two miles’ ascent is the toughest portion, but it eases up through the aspen groves. Near the 3-mile marker, the beautiful Surprise Lake is a great stop for lunch, and campsites are found here. But the push to Upper Cataract Lake, where you’ll find more designated sites and breathtaking views, is recommended.
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