When the weather warms up enough to walk around Denver without a coat, it spurs thoughts of hopping on the mountain bike and getting in some early-season riding. The question: Where to go? No self-respecting mountain biker wants to muck up the trails for the rest of the season — and sometimes forever — by riding on still-soggy singletrack, and then there's the matter of ice and snow at higher elevations. Still, there are definitely places close to Denver where you can get ready for gonzo time. Here are our eight favorites within an hour of the city, listed in alphabetical order.
8. Centennial Cone Park, Golden
North access at 4306 Camino Perdido; West access at 2234 Douglas Mountain Road
Open February to November, Centennial Cone normally features twelve sprawling, exposed miles of remote riding, but until mid-June, part of the main trail is closed for elk range. That still leaves nine miles (each way) of out-and-back with minimal elevation gain on the Travois Trail, with optional spur add-ons. On weekends in 2016, bikers have the trails to themselves (no hikers, no horseback riders) on even-numbered days, which means stopping only to check out the views of Clear Creek Canyon and wide-open meadows along the way.
7. Cherry Creek State Park, Denver
Parker Road, one mile south of Interstate 225 exit
One of the best beginner rides around, the mostly level, 3.6-mile Starvation Trail loop at Cherry Creek Reservoir is also a good choice for year-round riding whether there's snow or not. The singletrack gets packed down enough that even the most timid can pick their way along, and spurs from the main trail take you closer to the reservoir shoreline or through the surrounding grasslands — and add easy mileage.
6. Chimney Gulch to Lookout Mountain, Golden
U.S. 6 west of Denver to Golden; from the intersection at 19th Street, go 0.6 miles to trailhead
Plenty of tight switchbacks await at an otherwise smooth and sandy trail that dries early and fast at this alternative Lookout Mountain route starting near the Chimney Gulch Bridge. A favorite of mountain bikers in the know who glance sympathetically at road bikers squeezed onto the vehicle-heavy asphalt, the straight-up beginning gradually eases to allow time to check out the killer views. Apex Trail is a more technical — but barely less vertical — alternative to the screaming descent on the way back.
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5. Colorado Trail at Waterton Canyon, Douglas County
Take the Wadsworth Boulevard exit from C-470; go 4.1 miles on Colorado 121 to parking lot
Long, long (and steep but steady) climbs and a lot of mileage make the combination of gravel road and singletrack at Waterton an ideal conditioning ride, with the bonus of frequent bighorn sheep and other wildlife sightings. Mostly smooth and mostly not technical, the 25.3-mile out-and-back rewards with eye-popping views of the South Platte River along the way and sweeping views from the top. After the easygoing first segment to Strontia Springs, the Colorado Trail takes you out of the canyon and onto a rockier section. For now, this is a Sundays-only option, because the canyon is closed Monday-Saturday until May 15, while crews repair the High Line Canal diversion structure in the South Platte River.
Keep reading for four more great rides.
4. Dakota Ridge & Matthews/Winters, Morrison
Take the Morrison exit from I-70 and park in the lot a quarter-mile south
The loose and rocky climb at the very beginning — accessed by crossing Colorado 26 to the dirt road that leads up to Dakota Ridge — is often daunting to beginners, but once you navigate that half-mile, the scenic hogback itself eventually becomes relatively rock-free. The real payoff on this 6.5-mile loop, though, is the gleeful descent on the west side that drops you at the entrance to Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
3. East Boulder Trail, Boulder
One mile east of North 75th Street on Arapahoe Road; park at the Teller Farm trailhead
A gravel road leads to sweet singletrack through White Rocks Nature Preserve on this 12.3-mile, flatland out-and-back that gains only 720 feet. Easy enough for families with kids and beginners, the trail sports only one short, moderately challenging portion that is easily walked, and the southernmost section called Teller Farms Trail takes you past lovely Teller Lake, a perfect picnic stop.
2. Poorman Road, Boulder
Take Boulder Creek bike path three miles into Fourmile Canyon
A ten-mile out-and-back with about 1,250 feet of elevation gain, Poorman starts at the mouth of Fourmile Canyon and has long been considered one of the best summer rides in the state, in addition to being dry most of the year. Level along the creek bed, the trail quickly heads uphill for two-and-a-half miles until you connect with Poorman. From there, it's a slightly wavy-gravy ride along the top, and then a fast, fun descent into Sunshine Canyon.
1. White Ranch, Golden
From Boulder, head south on Colorado 93 for 17.4 miles and follow White Ranch Open Space signs
A tough first ride of the season, White Ranch sports one of the most notoriously steep and challenging starts — 2.4 miles of rocky, sandy steeps and switchbacks — of any Colorado ride. That said, the magnificent views make it a favorite and worth the trouble getting to the top. Once there, a few miles of singletrack offer relief, followed by a narrow but breezy bomber descent through large stands of conifer and aspen trees.