Let’s face it: Colorado was made for hiking. From the highest peaks in North America to the lush forests of lodgepole pine and aspen, wildflower-blanketed meadows that go on for miles to river- and glacier-carved canyons, the Rocky Mountain landscape is ideal for exploring. That also means that there’s a payoff for your hiking hard work: views you won’t find anywhere else. This state offers everything from short, casual strolls to strenuous, multi-day treks, and most are easily accessed. Here are our ten favorite hikes that reward you with unparalleled vistas.
10. Bear Canyon Trail
Just a few minutes’ drive from downtown Boulder takes you to Bear Canyon, lined with its Dakota Hogback-tilted flatirons that periodically open up to peeks at the eastern high plains. The I.M. Pei-designed National Center for Atmospheric Research is a unique trailhead marker; it leads to the Walter Orr Roberts Weather Trail, which starts off the hike. You reach Bear Canyon — and its elaborate rock formations interspersed with a variety of native trees — after traversing the weather trail and Mesa Trail, for a total of 6.8 moderately strenuous miles out and back (1,430 feet in elevation gain). To get more (and tougher) mileage, add the summit of Green Mountain, which will make for an 8.8-mile out-and-back day that gains 2,374 feet. You can bring your leashed dog, too.
Get there: Head west out of Boulder on Table Mesa Drive for about 2.5 miles. Park at the NCAR lot.
9. Diamond Lake
Diamond Lake sits in the Indian Peaks Wilderness and counts creeks, small waterfalls and a good look at the Continental Divide among its many charms. Endless carpets of wildflowers add to the allure, along with old-growth conifers and the chance to spot one of the many beavers that make their dams around the lake. One of the shortest hikes on this list — it’s 2.5 miles out and back — Diamond Lake also offers some of the best camping, with primitive sites scattered around the lake. That makes it a good choice for families with younger kids — and dogs are allowed, too.
Marijuana Deals Near You
Get there: Take Colorado 72 north until you get to Nederland. Turn left onto County Road 130 and drive 4.7 miles. At Eldora, take the right fork and drive five miles to the Fourth of July trailhead at the far right end of the Buckingham Campground.
8. Fern Lake
Fern Falls is a bonus to this verdant and somewhat strenuous 7.6-mile out-and-back in Rocky Mountain National Park. En route, the Big Thompson River weaves in and out, and after the falls comes Fern Lake itself at the end of a thick section of pine and spruce forest; the lake is lined with trees as well. The packed-down dirt trail gains 1,375 feet, so it’s a bit of an uphill slog in places, but the scenery is so gorgeous that you may not even notice. Extend the hike about another mile to Odessa Lake for a 9.7-mile day. Day-use fee is $20; no dogs.
Get there: Take U.S. 36 west of Estes Park to RMNP’s Beaver Meadows entrance and drive a quarter-mile to Bear Lake Road; turn left. After 1.2 miles, take a right to Moraine Park Campground and then a left toward the Fern Lake trailhead (the route is well marked). From there you can either take the shuttle 1.25 miles away or go another .7 miles to the trailhead to see if there’s parking.
7. Flattop Mountain/Hallett Peak
Like Fern Lake, the Flattop Mountain/Hallett Peak trail sits in Rocky Mountain National Park, but with 3,238 feet of elevation gain, it’s quite a bit more challenging. The bounty of picturesque stops along the way makes this hike well worth the extra work, too. You start the hike alongside the hordes headed to Bear Lake, but quickly after you take in that view, the trail breaks away toward Flattop (follow signs to Flattop). You’ll get to see Bear Lake from way above, along with fantastic views of Longs Peak and then Bierstadt Lake. Next up: Dream Lake, tucked in the Tyndall Glacier, one of six active glaciers in the park. Keep your eyes peeled for wild blueberries on this path, which will help fortify you for the trek above timberline. And that’s where it gets crazy: The views include the summit of Longs Peak, the craggy outline of the Keyboard of the Winds attached to Pagoda Peak, and the ridgeline of Storm Peak. Emerald Lake is another perk, 1,300 feet below, and while you may be worn out before you can add the extra mileage to Hallett Peak, the short scramble to the top culminates in 360-degree views all the way out to the Gore Range. Day-use fee is $20; no dogs.
Get there: Take U.S. 36 west of Estes Park to RMNP’s Beaver Meadows entrance. Drive south for 9.2 miles along Bear Lake Road. Park and take the free shuttle to the Bear Lake trailhead.
6. Gibraltar Lake
For a multi-day Front Range journey, it’s hard to beat the Gibraltar Lake hike in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The big effort required to take on this sixteen-mile out-and-back is eased by the beautiful Middle St. Vrain Creek, which burbles by the trail most of the way, and the meadows of blue columbine and other wildflowers that crop up between bouts of forest. There are sections where sheer cliff drop-offs can be a bit much for hikers with height issues, but there are easily spotted workarounds that require some basic navigational skills. Terrific views of the Continental Divide and Elk Tooth, a prominent rock formation, are just teasers for the prize: remote and haunting Gibraltar Lake and the St. Vrain glaciers that feed it. Leashed dogs are allowed.
Get there: Take Colorado 72 north to Ward; six miles past the town, turn left toward Peaceful Valley. The trailhead is 1.5 miles from the turn.
Keep reading for five more hikes.
5. Kruger Rock Trail
Hermit Park Open Space near Estes Park is home to elk, black bears, moose and many, many mule deer, any of which you might see during a four-mile, moderate out-and-back through a dense conifer forest with Longs Peak as a near-constant backdrop. Look out over Estes Park on the way to the top of the rock outcropping — that would be Kruger Rock itself — that serves as a summit, from which you can see into Rocky Mountain National Park and the eastern plains. Leashed dogs allowed; $6 per-vehicle day-use fee.
Get there: A sign for Hermit Park Open Space sits just before mile marker 4 on U.S. 36 southeast of Estes Park. Turn left onto the access road and follow signs another three miles to the Kruger Rock trailhead.
4. Lory State Park Loop
Six trails — most of them pedestrian-only — combine to make a 6.6-mile loop at this low-elevation site near Fort Collins, though the 26 miles of trails here feature a variety of hiking options for all skill levels. Along the way, look out onto nearby Horsetooth Reservoir and the eastern plains; from Arthur’s Rock, a huge formation that juts out over the park and is a big draw for rock climbers, you can see Fort Collins as well. Leashed dogs are allowed, and there is a $7 daily fee.
Get there: Take U.S. 287 from Fort Collins; at mile marker 350, a slight right brings you onto Larimer County Road 54G. After 2.7 miles, turn left onto Rist Canyon (LCR 52E) and follow signs for another four miles into the park.
3. Lost Creek Wilderness Loop
It’s a commitment, taking on this moderately strenuous but long loop — 24 miles, with about 5,500 feet in elevation gain — that follows the Colorado Trail, and it means spending at least one and more likely two nights camping along the way. Goose Creek and then Lost Creek — which does indeed disappear and reappear throughout the hike — offer drinking water (that you’ll need to treat), and the big, blobby rock formations and stands of willow, aspen and pine trees provide plenty of places to pitch a tent. The trail is well marked and well traveled in sections, but you’ll also find yourself very much alone at times to explore the boulder caves near the creek and find a picnic spot on the granite rocks with sweeping views of South Park and the Kenosha Mountains. Dogs are allowed.
Get there: Take U.S. 285 west to Pine Junction; turn south on County Road 126. Drive 21.8 miles to Forest Road 211. Turn right and drive two miles toward Goose Creek Campground; follow those campground signs for 6.3 miles (take the left fork at 1.1 miles), and you’ll see a right turn toward Goose Creek. Take that for 4.7 miles and turn right on the Goose Creek Trailhead access road; the main parking lot is another 1.3 miles.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
2. Mount Audubon
One of the easier hikes along the Front Range that also sports spectacular sights — including Mount Evans, Longs Peak, Mount Zirkel and the Gore Range — the well-marked Mount Audubon trail is ideal for novice hikers and families with kids who are up for a bit of elevation gain (2,743 feet). Get started early, though: This alpine tundra trek quickly leaves the trees, which means it’s exposed and can be chilly in spring and fall. Watch for the white-tailed ptarmigan that calls this area home, as well as for the cairns that mark the final scramble to the summit.
Get there: Take Colorado 72 north past Ward and watch for signs to Brainard Lake. Drive 5.8 miles to the Mitchell Lake trailhead; the Audubon trail leaves from there, as well.
1. Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
Perfect for families with small kids and folks still finding their high-altitude hiking legs (there’s only forty feet of elevation gain), Rocky Mountain Arsenal is also a great year-round escape in an urban setting, less than a half-hour’s drive from downtown Denver. The mostly level trail options at this former chemical weapons facility turned wildlife haven (yes, it’s been cleaned up) run from a paved, 0.9-mile lollipop to Lake Mary and back (assistance dogs are allowed here) to a 5.3-mile loop with an optional spur; on a clear day, they offer a panorama of Denver’s skyline leading into the Front Range. Also keep your eyes out for the many birds — including the cormorants and great blue herons that hang out by the small lakes — that have made this their home, and save time for a guided bison tour, as hundreds have been relocated here.
Get there: Take I-70 east to Exit 278 and head north on Quebec Street for 2.5 miles to Prairie Parkway. Follow signs for the next 1.6 miles into the park.