“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir, naturalist
Now that we’re into the dog days of summer, it’s hard to resist the call of the Rockies.
We’re fortunate in the Denver area to be so close to the mountains and their wonderland of trails. As Muir knew well, those trails lead to cooler climes, breathtaking vistas and, perhaps, a dose of existential enlightenment.
We published our first “Best Hikes” compilation a year ago, and it was a big hit among readers. We’re back with another installment of 10 can’t-miss day hikes in the foothills, all just a short drive from the Mile High City.
Once again, we consulted Colorado trail guru and CU Denver alumnus Bernard Wolf (geology, ’85) for a sampling of his favorite – and convenient – hikes in the foothills. Many of these trails are multi-use (meaning you may encounter mountain bikers, etc.), so be sure to check the web links for more information.
So, what are you waiting for? Get out and explore!
Note: All directions to trails are written with a Denver starting point.
Hike: Caribou Ranch, Boulder County Open Space
Distance: 4.7-mile lollipop loop
Location: Two miles north of Nederland on County Road 126
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Summary: The out-and-back DeLonde Trail, 1.2 miles, leads to a 1.8-mile loop, the Blue Bird Loop. At the loop’s northernmost section (halfway in), a short spur branches to the northwest. The spur passes a historic mine and ends at a picnic table and a view of the cascading North Boulder Creek. You’ll hike past the old DeLonde homestead on the trail, which is in the shadow of the Continental Divide and runs near the historic Caribou Ranch recording studio, used by musicians in the 1970s including Elton John, Supertramp, Chicago and Dan Fogelberg.
Wolf’s take: “There’s a fair amount of aspen, so in the fall it’s a beautiful hike. It gives you real nice views of the Continental Divide. Another plus is that you can stop, coming or going, in Nederland, a great – and quirky – Colorado mountain town.”
Hike: Corwina Park, Denver Mountain Park
Distance: 3.3 miles roundtrip on an out-and-back trail
Location: About 1.5 miles east of the town of Kittredge on Colorado Highway 74. Parking is available on the north and south side of Highway 74 at the Lower (East) Corwina parking area, serving as an access point for the Bear Creek Trail. You can also take Highway 74 west out of Morrison and go up Bear Creek Canyon to the Corwina Park parking areas.
Summary: Take the multi-use Bear Creek Trail up the ridge for 1.5 miles. As the trail begins to descend, you should see a trail marker. Look to your left for the unmarked hiker-only trail to Panorama Point. This 0.2-mile trail is pretty steep.
Wolf’s take: “Panorama Point is a great place to watch the sunset. When you’re up there, you can look down at Kittredge and the Evergreen valley as well as see Mount Evans and some of the higher peaks along the Continental Divide.”
Hike: Dakota Ridge Trail in Matthews/Winters Park, Jefferson County Open Space
Distance: Out-and-back trail, 4.4 to 5.5 miles, depending on your preference
Location: Trailhead is served by the Stegosaurus parking lot, on the southeast corner of where Interstate 70 and County Highway 93 intersect.
Difficulty: Difficult, with the last half-mile section being moderate
Summary: Starting from the Stegosaurus lot, follow the Dakota Ridge Trail on the Dakota sandstone of the hogback. Just for fun, look for distinctive ripple marks in the sandstone. Follow the trail south until it intersects with the old Alameda Parkway. This intersection affords a nice overlook to the east. You can continue south on Dakota Ridge Trail for another half mile, or you can turn back
Wolf’s take: “It starts with a short, steep ascent until you’re on the ridge. Up there you get the best of both worlds: great views of the metro area to the east and the mountains to the west. You also get nice views of Green Mountain and Red Rocks Park. It’s a bit of a rock dance on the trail – it varies from stepping rock to rock to parts that are very smooth.”
Deer Creek Canyon
Hike: Deer Creek Canyon State Park, Jefferson County Open Space.
Distance: 7.1-mile loop
Location: From C-470, take the Kipling exit. Turn west (right) on West Ute Avenue, then west (right) on Deer Creek Canyon Road. Turn left on Grizzly Drive, then right into the park.
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Summary: From the parking lot, take either the hiker-only Meadowlark Trail (connects to Plymouth Creek Trail after 1.5 miles) or Plymouth Creek Trail (open to mountain bikes). Follow the Plymouth Creek Trail as it meanders through Gambel Oak and finishes with a loop. Within the loop section is an out-and-back 0.8-mile spur that leads to the summit of Plymouth Mountain.
Wolf’s take: “On the summit of Plymouth Mountain you get rewarded with views of some of the higher peaks along the Continental Divide as well as the Denver metro area and the plains. I prefer to do the loop section in a counter-clockwise direction.”
Elk Meadow Park
Hike: Elk Meadow Park, Jefferson County Open Space
Distance: 3.5- to 4-mile loop, depending on preference
Location: Take I-70 west to Colorado Highway 74 (Evergreen Parkway) and follow about three miles to Lewis Ridge Road. Turn left on Lewis Ridge and park at the trailhead on the west side of Highway 74.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Summary: Take the loop in a counter-clockwise direction, from Sleepy S Trail to Elk Ridge Trail to Meadow View Trail. Continue on to Founders Trail and finish with a short leg on Painter’s Pause Trail. To extend the hike about a half-mile, stay on Meadow View to Painter’s Pause Trail. The hike takes you through a grassy mountain meadow. There’s a good chance to see elk, especially in the fall.
Wolf’s take: “A nice hike that goes from wide-open meadows to ponderosa forest. Great opportunities to see wildlife and wildflowers. If you’re looking for a challenge, take Elk Ridge Trail to Bergen Peak Trail and follow it to the top of Bergen Peak. You can make it a long loop by coming down Too Long Trail until it meets Meadow View Trail.”
Mount Galbraith Park
Hike: Mount Galbraith Park, Jefferson County Open Space
Distance: 4.2-mile loop
Location: From Golden, take Colorado State Highway 93 north to Golden Gate Canyon Road. Turn left and follow about 1.5 miles to the Mount Galbraith Park trailhead.
Summary: Follow the Cedar Gulch Trail from the trailhead to the Mount Galbraith Loop. The trail circles the 7,260-foot peak. This hiker-only trail affords views of Golden, the plains and mountains on the Continental Divide.
Wolf’s take: “Summer and early fall is a great time of year to hike this trail in the evening to see the full moon rise. There’s a high point along the loop where a rock formation looks like bleachers. It’s a great place to watch the moon rise. It’s also a great place for a sunset hike.”
Hike: O’Fallon Park, Denver Mountain Park
Distance: 3.3-mile loop
Location: Take Colorado Highway 74 west out of Morrison and go up Bear Creek Canyon to the O’Fallon Park trailhead, just west of Corwina Park.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Summary: Taking the loop in counter-clockwise fashion, start on the hiker-only West Ridge Trail and complete the loop on Bear Creek Trail (multi-use trail). You can shorten the hike to 2.8 miles by taking the Meadow View Trail off of either West Ridge or Bear Creek, depending on the direction of your hike.
Wolf’s take: “This is the classic Denver Mountain Park: people hike, families picnic and people fly fish along Bear Creek. Don’t miss the historic fireplace – a beautiful natural stone structure – on a spur off Bear Creek Trail and near Highway 74. Overall, the trail is a nice walk in the woods that offers great views.”
Hike: Pence Park, Denver Mountain Park
Distance: 2-mile loop with an out-and-back section
Location: Take Colorado Highway 74 west out of Morrison and go up Bear Creek Canyon to Meyers Gulch Road, just east of Kittredge. Follow Meyers Gulch to about two miles to the Pence Park trailhead.
Summary: Start on the lower (north) side of the Independence Peak Trail and follow to the summit. Take the upper portion of the loop on the final section of trail.
Wolf’s take: “It’s a short and steep trail, but the view at the top is quite rewarding. You can see Mount Evans, higher peaks along the Divide and Evergreen. The summit of Independence Peak is another great place to see the sunset. If you’re looking for a short hike to get the blood pumping, this is a good one.”
Roxborough State Park
Hike: Roxborough State Park, Colorado State Park
Distance: It’s a 4,000-acre park with many loops, but a suggested starter hike is a 3.5-mile loop.
Location: Take Wadsworth south past Chatfield State Park. Turn left on Waterton Road and continue until it ends at North Rampart Range Road. Turn right (south) on North Rampart Range Road and continue south past Roxborough Village and the Foothills Water Treatment Plant (2.3 miles). At the intersection of North Rampart Range Road and Roxborough Park Road, turn left onto Roxborough Park Road. Take the next right on East Roxborough Drive to enter the park. For the South Rim Loop turn in at Willow Creek.
Summary: Roxborough’s stunning geological formations are the star of the show here. For a nice taste of the park’s offerings, take the South Rim Trail to Willow Creek Trail. You’ll start and finish at the park’s visitor center.
Wolf’s take: “It’s a gentle loop and you get some great views. There are some interesting red rock formations and the trail offers views of both the mountains and plains. More often than not I’ve seen deer, wildflowers, and lots of scrub oak. It’s a very family-friendly hike.”
South Valley Park
Hike: South Valley Park, Jefferson County Open Space
Distance: Depending on loops taken, hikes along the Coyote Song Trail can be 2 to 5.2 miles.
Location: From C-470, exit westbound on Ken Caryl Avenue. Turn left onto South Valley Road to the park’s north parking area.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Summary: There are several trail options in the park, but a suggested starter hike takes you past dramatic rock formations. Park in the north lot and access Coyote Song Trail and return via Swallow Trail. For a longer hike, take Valley View Trail off Coyote Song and follow to Grazing Elk Trail.
Wolf’s take: “Some of the people I hike with call this their midweek reset because the trail is easy, accessible and offers beautiful scenery. I especially enjoy hiking here in September and October as well as January through March. It’s a nice evening hike and convenient to Denver, a quick getaway.”