The Ten Best Close-In Hikes for Summer

White Ranch Park
White Ranch Park Barry Dale Gilfry, Flickr
Denverites have known all along that getting out there is good for you, and it helps that we have an abundance of options for doing so — many of them a quick hop-skip from downtown. Whether you’re a noob hiker or so well-seasoned that you keep the ten essentials in a go-bag, there’s a scenic trek within easy striking distance offering everything from a short meandering stroll to a kickass (or kick your ass) all-day odyssey.

Here are ten close-in hikes that will help you put more nature in your life, in alphabetical order:

Belcher Hill Trail
White Ranch Park near Golden; take Pine Ridge Road a mile from Colorado 93

Famous for its anticlines — aka “folds” or bulges in the earth — the hogback-rippled White Ranch Park also boasts 20 miles’ worth of hikes, including the 9-mile out-and-back Belcher Hill Trail. The strenuous trek runs straight through the heart of those pointy bumps, as well as wide-open stretches of grassland and tightly packed ponderosas, with views of the surrounding peaks along the way. Seriously steep climbing after an easy first couple of miles and lots of scree are what makes this a difficult hike, but a bench near the top offers a break and a chance to spy the deer, elk, turkeys and porcupines that call this home. To create a loop that will round this up to 11 miles total, hop on the Mustang Trail.

Castle and Parmalee Trail Loop
Mount Falcon Open Space Park near Morrison; take Forest Avenue 1.6 miles from Colorado 8

Some of the best views of Red Rocks and downtown Denver can be had on this balloon-shaped 9.5-mile trail; there are several false summits along the way on an extremely steep uphill, so pace yourself (you’ll know you’ve made it when you get to the picnic shelter). You can also see DIA off in the distance as you pass by meadows blanketed with seasonal wildflowers, including huge swaths of columbines and Indian paintbrush. Either trail can be linked with one of the many others here, but Castle is particularly cool because its narrow roadway once carried Stanley Steamer vehicles.

click to enlarge Expect to see columbines galore on Colorado's trails. - CAROLINE JEWEL, FLICKR
Expect to see columbines galore on Colorado's trails.
Caroline Jewel, Flickr
Green Mountain Loop
Gregory Canyon Trailhead at Baird Park, Boulder

One of the many areas known as Green Mountain in the state, this one is a 4.7-mile, moderately difficult combination of four trails in a loop: Gregory Canyon, Ranger, E.M. Greenman and Saddle Rock. Once used as a wagon service road for miners looking to strike gold in Central City and Black Hawk, the trail offers creek crossings and plenty of pine forest for shade, along with the Green Mountain Lodge, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 and restored in 2011 for use as a community rental space. A marker at the summit lists the peaks that can be seen, including those in the Indian Peaks Wilderness and Rocky Mountain National Park.

Heart Lake
Trailhead at the East Portal of Moffat Tunnel on County Road 16 (Forest Road 149) in the James Peak Wilderness, near Rollinsville

South Boulder Creek flows from the two lakes (Rogers Pass and Heart) on this 8-mile hike, and the trail wends alongside it most of the way; in fact, the hike begins on the South Boulder Creek #900 Trail itself. The water is a welcome respite on a hot day, as are the miles of trail running through thick stands of spruce and fir. Less popular than the Indian Peaks Wilderness, this trail in the James Peak Wilderness is thus less crowded, though it’s popular with horseback riders. Be ready for wet feet most of the way: The trail crosses South Boulder and Arapaho creeks many times, and while some spots offer a bridge, many don’t. Keep your eyes peeled for the waterfall at one of the wooden bridges early in the hike; once you’re above treeline at about 11,000 feet, the views at the lake include Haystack Mountain and James Peak.

Little Scraggy Trail
Colorado Trail trailhead at Colorado 126 at Forest Service Road 550, near Pine Junction

An 11.5-mile (out-and-back) chunk of the 475-mile Colorado Trail that runs from Denver to Durango, Little Scraggy is a medium-difficult, relatively smooth, hard-packed dirt path that’s mostly level and winds through woods packed with ponderosa and lodgepole pines opening up periodically to huge rock formations. Little Scraggy Peak looms nearby but is never quite visible; you’ll get solid views of Pikes Peak, though, and lush wildflower-covered meadows mark the turnaround point.

Mountain Lion Trail
Trailhead at Nott Creek in Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Barely half an hour from downtown Denver, Golden Gate Canyon State Park feels backcountry-deep in parts, and this hike is one of the best ways to feel even more immersed in a remote alpine setting. The trail is narrow and rocky, but it opens up for multiple stream crossings, a dense section of willows, evergreen-dotted forested areas and small stands of ponderosa pine. Views from the ridge include a clear shot of Denver. There’s an $8 fee to get into the park, and if you can’t bear to leave all of this beauty, camping is available for a fee, including a primitive site and a sleeping shelter right along this trail.
click to enlarge Take in the views at North Table Mountain Park. - JEFFERSON COUNTY OPEN SPACE
Take in the views at North Table Mountain Park.
Jefferson County Open Space
North Table Mountain Park
Two trailheads on Colorado 93, north of Golden

Our pick in 2019 for Best Hike in Metro Denver, any of the well-marked hikes at Golden’s North Table Mountain Park make for a quick break at lunch or before or after work — but especially during sunset, when the Hogback lights up. Our favorite shorty is the 3.2-mile North Table Loop, which connects with the Tilted Mesa and Mesa Top trails, but you can keep going for another 3 to 5 miles beyond that, too. From most of the trail summits, which require a steep, switchback-packed climb to the top of the mesa, you get panoramic views of Golden, White Ranch Park and the Front Range. Keep an eye out for golden eagles and red-tailed hawks, and also rattlesnakes.

Ponderosa Sisters Loop
Alderfer Three Sisters Open Space Park
Trailhead at Buffalo Park Road, 2.3 miles from Colorado 73, near Evergreen

More than 10 miles of trails are available at Alderfer Three Sisters Open Space Park, but the woodland forest that is the Ponderosa Sisters Loop is our favorite, because it’s short and sweet, with just 1.3 of its 3 total miles devoted to a hearty uphill slog between the second and third sisters in the Three Sisters and Brother rock formation. The rest is a lovely wander through the trees, with intermittent meadows and a peek down into the Bear Creek Basin; Mount Evans is also in sight most of the way. Near the top are rocky outcroppings that make for a perfect picnic stop.

Sleepy Lion Trail
Trailhead sits 2.8 miles from Colorado 36 on County Road 80 in the Button Rock Preserve, near Lyons

The North St. Vrain River and Longmont Reservoir welcome hikers onto this scenic, 5.5-mile balloon trail that also sees a fair amount of traffic from climbers and anglers. Most of the pine- and juniper-lined hike follows along the river, too, but if that’s not enough water for you, it also passes Button Rock Dam and eventually opens up to Ralph Price Reservoir — which famously saved Longmont from a flood in the 1950s — with expansive views of Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak, Mount Meeker and Twin Sisters. Wear your best waterproof boots, because the creek crossings can be high and fast.
click to enlarge Roxborough State Park - STEVE HARBULA, FLICKR
Roxborough State Park
Steve Harbula, Flickr
South Rim Trail
Trailhead at the South Rim Trail parking lot, Roxborough State Park

Roxborough State Park is popular and often packed, but more hikers tend to head to the Fountain Valley side than this one, a not-too-tough 2.3-mile balloon with little to no shade. The Fountain Formation gives this state gem its unique red-rock look, which in the summer is strikingly juxtaposed with lush greenery, and from parts of the trail, the Dakota Hogback Ridge is visible in the distance. The plants are also a bit different from what you see on other Colorado trails, with cacti, yucca and sagebrush peeking out between bushy scrub oak. A daily pass here is $8.
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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner