Best Challenging Trails to Discover on New Colorado Trail Explorer App

A look at Ice Lake.
A look at Ice Lake.

The folks at the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Parks and Wildlife want you to venture into the great outdoors and experience the incredibly abundant wonders of our fair state — and COTREX, their brand-new app, makes it simpler than ever to do so.

Where to start? That's the question we put to CDNR trails and recreation project manager Alex Dean. Below, Dean offers the basics on COTREX, which provides detailed maps, descriptions, photos and more on an astonishing 39,829 miles of public trails in Colorado and 2,350 trailheads. In addition, he created a curated list of recommended trails with a variety of uses in mind specifically for Westword readers.

In part one of our series, Dean focused on easy trails that everyone can enjoy. For part two, he highlights moderate and difficult trails.

"It's built from the ground up," Dean says of COTREX, a project launched under former governor John Hickenlooper's 2016 Colorado the Beautiful initiative. "We spent three years doing outreach to 236 land managers in cities and counties across the state. It's the most comprehensive data we could find, and it's very active and dynamic. If you click on hiking trails, the app will show you ones you can legally hike on. If, the next day, you want to go mountain biking, you click on that and the whole map changes."

What makes the application unique, he continues, "is that it focuses on the most official or authoritative trails we could come across. It's not just user-generated data. These are the ones approved by land managers, so you know that you can legally recreate on them — and other states are watching this closely. Some of them have mapped their own lands, but we've mapped all the trails on federal, state, local and private lands with public access. So Colorado is the first state in the nation to do anything on this scale."

That's not all. According to Dean, COTREX also gives users "the ability to download maps, so you can look at them offline if you don't have cell coverage. And there's also a measurement tool that allows you to make a custom route. There's a compass symbol on the mobile and web version, where you can click on a trailhead and put your finger or cursor on there and it will give you accurate distances for the hike. You can make it any shape you want, and the new functionality allows you to share these custom maps with friends and family."

Over time, Dean says, the app will continue to evolve and improve: "It's an ongoing process, and there's a feedback mechanism that will help alert us to things that might need to be altered. But it's an awesome start."

Continue for seven moderate and two difficult trails to get you going, complete with links and descriptions by Dean.

A map of the main Duck Lake route.
A map of the main Duck Lake route.

Duck Lake
Along Elk Creek in the Rio Grande National Forest
Total length: 7.3 miles
Ascent: 1,607 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

"I picked this one because it goes into the South San Juan Wilderness Area, not far from Durango. It offers scenic vistas of the Conejos Valley and also gives you access to several small fishing lakes. It's rated moderate, probably because it's pretty long. But it's got a fairly gentle grade. This is a horseback-riding trail where mountain bikers aren't allowed — not that they can't play well together, but some people are looking for more of an exclusive experience. And this is a beautiful one."

Aberdeen Loop from Bambi trailhead
Near Gold Basin Creek outside Gunnison
Total length: 14 miles
Ascent: 2,023 feet
Difficulty: Difficult

"This is one for folks who are looking for something a little harder. But while this ride is challenging and quite long, it rewards you with a less crowded experience. The loop is named for the Aberdeen quarry, where granite that was extracted for the State Capitol back in the 1800s. It's fourteen miles, and the long approach may deter some folks. But this is one of the less common trails, and some people will love to discover and explore it."

Fountain Valley Loop in Roxborough State Park
Total length: 2.5 miles
Ascent: 365 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

"This one is quite close to the Denver area, and it has quite a few features along the trail. It winds through some of the most magnificent land in Roxborough, past historic buildings and multiple habitats. You might be able to see mule deer, foxes, birds and other animals along your walk. Most wheelchairs can ride the trail with little or no difficulty in good weather conditions, but there are some places, like the Lyons Overlook, that won't be accessible. Even though it's rated moderate and the trail isn't paved, it's still considered to be kid-friendly overall. And it's definitely gorgeous."

The sort of spectacular views you can find on Chief Mountain.
The sort of spectacular views you can find on Chief Mountain.

Chief Mountain in Arapahoe National Forest
Total length: 2.8 miles
Ascent: 1,015 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

"This is a mountain bike trail that goes up to the summit of Chief Mountain in Clear Creek County. Even though it's pretty short — 1.4 miles to the summit, so the 2.8 miles is an out-and-back — it's fairly steep and mostly in trees. But if you get to the summit, you're rewarded with magnificent 360-degree views. And your dog will love it. Imagine how much fun this would be during the heat of the summer."

Picket Wire Canyon Dinosaur Track Site
Comanche National Grassland
Total length: 11 miles
Ascent: 610 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

"Comanche National Grassland is south of La Junta, and this route lets you check out the largest dinosaur track site in North America. Literally, there are giant footprints of dinosaurs — over 1,500 of them. There are also over 100 tracks that have been uncovered in a quarter-mile stretch of bedrock. Hiking, biking and horseback riding are all allowed, but there's no motorized vehicle usage. I think this would be a great hike to go in on a weekend. If thinking about I-70 traffic west from Denver makes you shudder, turn the car east and see some dinosaur tracks — especially before the word gets out about sites like this one and they get more popular. Because the tracks are really striking."

Pawnee Buttes
Pawnee National Grassland
Length: 4.4 miles
Ascent: 321 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

"This is a spectacular hike, because you'll get to see twin 300-feet buttes that tower above the grasslands. The second butte is on private land, but you can still access it unless it's posted otherwise — and if you have to go through a gate, just leave it the same way you found it. If you go before June 30, there's a closure area for falcons nesting in the rocky cliffs, but you can still visit. You just have to stay on the main trail. It's relatively flat, but it's also out in the open, so we suggest that if you go during the summer, you bring a hat, sunscreen and water."

Along the Sand Canyon trail.
Along the Sand Canyon trail.

Sand Canyon — East Rock Creek Loop
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Length: 6.4 miles
Ascent: 870 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

"For our easy hikes, I chose another hike at Canyons of the Ancients, the Horseshoe and Hackberry ruins, which is really kid-friendly. This one is quite a bit longer, but it's another beautiful hike in the southwest. There are a lot of historical ruins along the hike, so the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the land, prohibits off-trail usage. You're encouraged to stay on the trail and not to touch or approach any of the ruins. But you'll cross by the Saddlehorn pueblo, which is one of the most picturesque rooms in the entire canyon, and there are a lot of other fascinating points of interest. There's a lot to see."

Rutherford Trail to Silver Dale
Near South Clear Creek in Clear Creek County
Total length: 2.1 miles
Ascent: 734 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

"This trail leaves from the south end of Georgetown, and it really shows off what the app can do. The bottom part of all the featured pages are structured like a timeline or field guide. It'll say something like, 'Start at the Rutherford trailhead and you'll see this display or note. Then hike for another 400 feet and you'll see this.' And this one has a really robust timeline section, where it talks about the first town water plant and a lot of history related to Georgetown, including a big fire they had, and different routes that people used to take to get to  Guanella Pass. You can see historically what the road and the trail looked like, and there's even an old-time photo of a horse-drawn carriage that shows what it looked like back in the 1800s. And it shows you how you can navigate all of this offline, so you'll have it ready to go before your travels."

Ice Lake Basin
Near South Fork Mineral Creek and Clear Creek in the San Juan National Forest
Total length: 7.3 miles
Ascent: 2,590
Difficulty: Difficult

"This one's pretty steep — you climb more than 2,500 feet — and it's a pretty good distance, too. So this is for folks who want to get a little more of a cardiovascular workout. The trail meanders up a basin and you'll pass a few lakes on the way. But as you keep hiking, the views get better and better. But Clear Creek Falls is just 0.9 miles from the trailhead — so if you just wanted to hike to the falls, you wouldn't have to go the whole way. But you'll want to keep going to see the Ice Lake, which is incredibly striking. The water is almost bluish-green, and it's near the top of the hike. Seeing it will be your reward for getting there."

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